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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 14 2017 01:00PM

Unless you’ve spent the past week entirely absorbed in stocking your fallout shelter with canned goods, you’ve probably heard that a fearless band of TV producers has announced plans for the unthinkable: a television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that doesn’t star Colin Firth.


By now, it is de rigueur for adapters of much-adapted classics to explain how their new versions will uncover Hidden Depths or Heretofore Unsuspected Resonances in some apparently familiar work.


When Andrew Davies wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s now-iconic 1995 P&P, starring Firth and Jennifer Ehle, he wanted an adaptation that was vigorous and outdoorsy. (Jane Austen can be sexy! Who knew?) When Joe Wright made his 2005 feature film, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, he wanted an adaptation that was muddy and earthbound. (Jane Austen can be messy! Who knew?)


This time around, the people involved say they want an adaptation that is edgy and grownup. (Jane Austen can be dark! Who knew?)


"Pride and Prejudice is actually a very adult book, much less bonnet-y than people assume," says the proposed screenwriter, the British playwright Nina Raine, whose most recent theatrical work centers on a murky rape case. "I hope I do justice to Austen’s dark intelligence – sparkling, yes, but sparkling like granite.”


Although AustenBlog’s indispensable Maggie Sullivan is already taking her Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness out of mothballs, in preparation for whacking any idiocy that may appear onscreen – and although I’ll cop to some skepticism over whether a British woman over forty can really never have seen an adaptation of P&P, as Raine claims -- I’m willing to reserve judgment.


Jane Austen can be dark! And also sexy and messy! (As well as the opposite of all of those, since she is a multifaceted writer whose many dimensions are seldom captured perfectly in any screen adaptation, no matter how well-done.) Unlikely as it seems that a new version will be “the definitive adaptation for the twenty-first century,” rather than another forgettable reboot, we can always hope.


No, what really concerns me is the previous work of some members of the team behind this new P&P. Mammoth Screen, the production company, is best-known for making the soapy Victoria and Poldark series – both highly entertaining, but both lacking anything like Austen’s subtlety. And the new adaptation will air on ITV, the British TV channel known for a more populist and commercial sensibility than the historically upper-crust and staid BBC, which made the six previous English-language TV adaptations of the novel.


Nothing wrong with populism and commercialism, except that ITV’s track record for Austen adaptations – it released three in 2007 -- is decidedly mixed. On the plus side, ITV made the well-cast Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones in a competent if imperfect Davies script that some criticized for injecting extra sensuality into the novel.


On the decidedly negative side, however, ITV is also responsible for two of the worst-ever Austen adaptations. How to forget that embarrassing Persuasion, featuring poor Sally Hawkins racing through the streets of Bath in an unforgivable travesty of the book’s sublime ending? Or that execrable Mansfield Park, starring the miscast Billie Piper and her all-too-ubiquitous cleavage -- Fanny Price as St. Pauli Girl?


The mind reels at the prospect of a P&P put through a similar meatgrinder. Thank God the Cluebat stands at the ready.


By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 3 2017 01:00PM

I like to think that I am not a complainer, but I have to admit that I've done a lot of complaining on this blog.


Some of my moans are chronic: I never tire of pointing out that quotes from filmed adaptations of Jane Austen’s works are not, in fact, quotes by Jane Austen. And some of my moans are situational: This year, I have frequently noted the misfortune of being an American Janeite with a limited travel budget just when the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death has brought an avalanche of Austen-related events to Britain.


How exciting, then, to be able to combine my complaints into one Super-Moan, as I managed to do when I ran across this post by Sophie Andrews, who blogs at Laughing with Lizzie and is a volunteer ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation.


As you’ll recall, one of the many, many bicentenary events that we budget-conscious American Janeites can’t experience is Sitting With Jane, the art trail composed of twenty-four specially painted, Austen-inspired, book-shaped benches located in and around Basingstoke, in Austen's home county of Hampshire.


Luckily, however, Andrews has visited all twenty-four, and in her post she provides excellent photos of the front and back of each one, along with some details about its location. Judging from her photos, the artistic approaches and interpretative attitudes taken by the bench creators vary widely, from Regency restraint to comic-book sass, but many are quite lovely and all are interesting. Grr! Why can’t I go see them myself?


But really now: If you’re going to create a bench (“Jane and Her Forgotten Peers”) dedicated to Austen and some of the pioneering female writers who came before her, and if you’re going to put that bench outside Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried, shouldn’t you make sure that any quotes you attribute to Austen actually come from one of her books?


Yes, I’m afraid it’s true: On the back of the Winchester Cathedral bench,* next to a portrait of Austen, appears this quote: “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.”


***headdesk***


I have said it before, and no doubt I will have to say it again. Jane Austen did not write this line, no matter how many web sites claim she did. It is a garbled version of a line written by Andrew Davies in his screenplay for the 2008 television adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.


I hate to think of Jane Austen rolling over in her nearby grave at this misattribution. On the other hand, she might have enjoyed the irony: A bench dedicated to great female writers uses a quote from a male one.



* In fact, “Jane Talk,” another bench in the Sitting With Jane series, also uses movie quotes (though not the Davies one) in a “modern graphic art style” montage of Austen-related lines. But at least the creator of that bench seems to have realized she was using movie lines. (The “Jane Talk” bench is supposed to “inspire all to read [Austen’s] novels,” though I must grumpily point out that this goal might be better served by quoting from those novels, rather than from screenplays based on them but written by other people.)


By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 22 2016 01:00PM

Screenwriter Andrew Davies, who turned 80 this past Tuesday, is a Janeite demigod, the man who brought us not only the beloved 1995 Firth-Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice, but also highly respected TV adaptations of Northanger Abbey, Emma and Sense and Sensibility.


Davies is famous for adding S-E-X to the supposedly sexless classics -- “People say that I could sex up the Tube map,” he told a Radio Times interviewer last weekend.


At least in his Austen adaptations, the supposedly shocking material is strictly PG-13 -- a bare shoulder here, a rumpled bed there, the odd clingy wet shirt. But twenty years ago, that was enough to cause a sensation in the decorous world of period drama. (Not any more, of course: Thanks to Davies himself, we now expect our bonnet dramas to come with bedroom scenes.)

No, what’s really notable about his work is how often he manages to convey the subtle layers of character and meaning that come through on the page but are often flattened out on screen. That’s why Davies’ adaptations repay repeated viewings, while lesser adaptations – ahem! Naming no names here – pall after a time or two.


Davies manages to stay faithful to the spirit of the works he adapts while taking liberties with some of the details – often in the service of a feminist agenda. The ending of his Bleak House improves on Dickens’ creepy original, with its patronizing handling of Esther’s love life; and Davies’ Sense and Sensibility gives Edward and Elinor a satisfyingly romantic proposal scene that Austen denies them – though arguably she had her reasons.


Now there’s a dinner party I’d like to host: Andrew Davies meets Jane Austen, over a couple of glasses of excellent Cabernet. I suspect she’d care a lot less about the sex than people think.


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 7 2016 02:00PM

It’s time again for one of my favorite pastimes: Making Fun of the Internet – Jane Austen Edition. Today’s episode includes two entries:


1. Over at Blastr, the Syfy channel’s pop culture website, a writer calling herself Geek Girl Diva wrote recently about “shipping,” the common practice in fandom of rooting for a romantic relationship between two fictional characters, often while devising a cute portmanteau nickname for the would-be happy couple.


Shipping isn’t new, Geek Girl Diva argued: “Soap operas have been feeding ships since they were invented back in the '30s,” she explained. “Reach back further and look [at] Jane Austen’s books. How many readers have fallen in love with the Catherine Bennet/Mr. Darcy ship (Carcy? Darnnet? Bency?)”


How many? Zero, I’m pretty sure. True, I did for a moment enjoy myself by imagining the trainwreck that would follow a romance between Mr. Darcy and Kitty Bennet: he so proud, she so . . . vapid and whiny. But no: I kinda think Geek Girl Diva meant Elizabeth. Might want to double-check the info next time, before coming up with the cute ship name.


2. Regular blog readers know that in the past I have found one or two instances of people misquoting Jane Austen online. One or two. . . million. (See here, for example).


Usually, the misquoting takes the form of a list of, say, ten or fifteen “Jane Austen quotes” that includes one or two that actually come from Jane Austen movies. Let it now be known: the folks compiling those lists were amateurs.


For I now bring you a list recently posted by one Melinda Fox on FamilyShare, an online community that aims to “strengthen and inspire families.” Ms. Fox offers “11 Jane Austen quotes that sum up everything you need to know about love.”


The tally:

#1: “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us perfect for one another.” Not Jane Austen – Douglas McGrath’s screenplay for the 1996 movie adaptation of Emma. (And, as long as we're getting things right, the exact quote is, “Maybe it is our imperfections which make us so perfect for one another.”)


#2: “There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.” Not Jane Austen – Patricia Rozema’s screenplay for the 1999 movie adaptation of Mansfield Park.


#3: “I dream of a love that even time will lie down and be still for.” Not Jane Austen. Not even a Jane Austen movie. Robin Swicord’s screenplay for the 1998 movie adaptation of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman. (At least, that's what the Internet says; I don't have the movie handy, so I can't check. And, as we are learning here, the Internet can't always be trusted.)


#4: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” At last! Yes, this one is really from Emma!


#5: “I must learn to be content with being happier than I deserve.” Sort of Jane Austen. It’s a misquoted version of a line from Persuasion, as I have noted elsewhere.


#6: “It is such a happiness when good people get together, and they always do.” Yes! It’s Jane Austen! From Emma!


#7: “We are all fools in love.” Nope. Deborah Moggach’s screenplay for the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


#8: “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.” Good work! It’s really Austen! From Emma again!


#9: “I am determined that only the deepest love will induce me into matrimony.” Alas, no. I love Andrew Davies, but his screenplay for the iconic 1995 mini-series of Pride and Prejudice is not by Jane Austen. And as delivered by Jennifer Ehle, the line actually reads, “I am determined that nothing but the very deepest love will induce me into matrimony.”


#10: “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” But she finishes strong! Yes, that’s our Mr. Darcy!


#11: What, you thought she was doing eleven? Why? Oh, yeah – the headline. No, just ten.


Final score: Four genuine Jane Austen quotes, one misquoted Jane Austen quote, four Jane Austen movie quotes (from four different movies!), and one quote that has absolutely nothing to do with Jane Austen. Plus our list-maker can’t count. If we’re being generous, a .50 batting average. Kind of impressive, no? Especially given how easy it is to CHECK THE TEXT.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2016 02:00PM

People who were alive in November 1963 like to reminisce about the moment they learned that JFK had been shot. American Janeites who were alive in January 1996 can look back on a far more joyful, although slightly less momentous, milestone: their first viewing of the BBC’s landmark adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which began airing on the A&E network exactly twenty years ago tonight.


That adaptation, which features the famous not-in-Austen shot of Colin Firth, aka Mr. Darcy, in a clingy, translucent wet shirt, is often credited (by me, among other people) with kicking off the pop-culture Austenmania that we still live with today, albeit in the attenuated form of Bustle listicles and zombie mashups.


So where was I when I first saw the famous P&P? Well, I didn’t subscribe to cable back then, so I had to content myself with a VHS recording mailed to me by my parents some time (a week? A month? Can’t remember now) after the original broadcast.


My husband and I invited a Janeite friend over for a two-night viewing party in our tiny apartment. The second night, she and I insisted on starting out by rewatching our favorite scene. No, not that one! In those pre-Internet days, I don’t know if we’d heard about the wet-shirt frenzy spawned by the show’s initial broadcast a few months earlier in England.


Anyway, that scene is in the second half.


We wanted to see Darcy and Elizabeth, played by the great Jennifer Ehle, crossing swords after his insulting proposal -- the six-minute exchange in which she tells him he’s “the last man in the world” she would ever agree to marry. It’s one of Jane Austen’s greatest scenes, and Andrew Davies’ screenplay realizes it beautifully, skillfully turning paraphrase into speech and interweaving the result with a condensed version of Austen’s dialogue. Firth paces, Ehle seethes, and the intensity of feeling between them gives even a P&P virgin a clue that Elizabeth is going to end up eating those words, with a cherry on top.


OK, I just went and watched that scene again. It’s still fabulous. Happy twentieth anniversary, everyone.


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