thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Adapting Austen: Revisiting Mansfield Park (1999)

In adaptation, books, Film, Uncategorized on May 22, 2014 at 8:13 am

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Sarah S.

For the last several years we’ve lived in the Ladies Republic of Austentonia. (I’ve given up trying to pitch Jane Austen’s merits to dudes; if you don’t like her or won’t try her, it’s your loss.) From books and movies reinterpreting Pride and Prejudice (Bridget Jones’ DiaryPride and Prejudice and Zombies) to explorations of fandom itself (The Jane Austen Book ClubAustenland) it seems that the original narrator of middle class morality has never been so popular.

Despite Austen’s sky high stock, only a couple of her offerings get the perennial treatment: EmmaSense and Sensibility, and, in particular, Pride and Prejudice. Film adaptations reflect this ranking, with no fewer than ten versions of P&P alone. The popularity of the Big Three makes sense because they best epitomize Austen’s plot of a plucky heroine surrounded by odd relatives who thrives despite constrained circumstancesThey’re the PowerPoint, Excel, and Word that offset Austen’s versions of Bing, Surface, and Windows Vista: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.

Persuasion? Too dreary.

Northanger? Too gothic.

And Mansfield? Too preachy.

Mansfield Park is particularly irritating, with a prudish prig for a heroine whose only hobby seems to be passing silent judgment on those around her and pining for her equally self-righteous cousin. By the time we get to the inevitable “happy ending” we can at least feel relief that Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram—those intolerable, intolerant jerk faces—aren’t going to spoil anyone else’s marital bliss (and that we don’t have to spend any more time with them). Mansfield Park clunks through moral quandaries and odd personalities without the combination of humor and empathy that make Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility so successful.

But say you’re a filmmaker who rejects creating yet another iteration of the Big Three. Shall you venture into the stolid world of Persuasion‘s Ann Elliot or the weirdness of Northanger Abbey?

Or do you dare approach Mansfield Park without the reverence (or disdain) Austen currently commands and instead set out to make a lively, complicated, and entirely irreverent adaptation? Writer and director Patricia Rozema deconstructs Mansfield with a glee unmatched by any rampaging zombie in her 1999 version. This film merges the novel with the young Austen’s letters and “juvenilia” and reinvigorates a book—and an author—tainted by perceptions of slavish gentility.

In Rozema’s Mansfield Park we get updates that include sex, politics, and a complete reinvention of the heroine. Frances O’Connor brings much needed spunk to the gravitas of Fanny Price, taken in for her betterment by rich relatives. As Claudia L. Johnson asserts, “By weaving in Austen’s uproarious early writings, Rozema transforms Fanny into a version of the Austenian narrator we love.”

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The film also tackles the moral contamination of slavery, not only in Fanny’s expressed distaste for how her uncle maintains his wealth, but also in revisions to the character of Tom Bertram (played by a young James Purefoy). This Tom is not merely a dissolute young man of loose morals but, rather, an eldest son traumatized by his participation in the “family business” of enslaving human beings. There’s something rotten in the state of Mansfield, far more than daughters run amok in the absence of strong paternal oversight.

This may also be the sexiest Austen adaptation. Say nothing to me of Colin Firth’s pecs and bum. (Tangentially, check out this giant statue of Firth-Darcy in Hyde Park’s lake.) In this Mansfield, and in addition to Purefoy, Jonny Lee Miller brings cute sex appeal to Edmund Bertram while Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola make for a terrifically saucy Mary and Henry Crawford. No wonder Fanny feels conflicted and drawn to Henry’s charms. Could you say no to this face?

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The caliber of the actors lends complexity to all the characters, again rejecting the narrative that anyone is “bad” (well, accept for Aunt Norris). This vitalizes the world of Mansfield Park, adapting it into a dynamic environment full of humans instead of an ideal populated with symbols. In sum, Rozema’s Mansfield is an underappreciated delighted, and well worth a viewing, whether again or for the first time.

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