Reinventing Fanny Price: Patricia Rozema's Thoroughly Modern Mansfield Park
Monaghan, David, Mosaic (Winnipeg)
Rozema claims that, in reimagining Fanny Price, she has uncovered a contemporary "Jane Austen." An examination of the movement motif in film and novel versions of Mansfield Park reveals that Rozema's achievement is actually to make a plot based closely on the novel express a world view very different from Austen's.
Academic criticism of Jane Austen's novels has taken a radical turn during the last twenty-five years as scholars have constructed an Austen who is our contemporary in her treatment of gender (Kirkham); sexuality, including incest (Johnson, Smith) and lesbianism (Castle); ideology (Thompson); and colonialism (Said). (1) Recent film and television adaptations of Austen's novels intermittently demonstrate a similar revisionist spirit, as is evidenced by overt sexuality in Pride and Prejudice (1995), explicit ideological conflicts in Emma (1996), and feminist elements in Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Persuasion (1995). In general, though, as White argues, filmmakers have remained stubbornly traditional in their approach to Austen (1-3), with the result that her complex texts have too often been reduced to amusing and romantic stories played out within a mise en scene made up of nostalgic images of Regency England.
Apart from Clueless (1995), Amy Heckerling's postmodern appropriation of Emma, the only film to have been significantly shaped by contemporary critical thought is Mansfield Park (1999), written and directed by Patricia Rozema. The influence of recent scholarship, most notably Claudia Johnson's Jane Austen, is particularly conspicuous in Rozema's presentation of Sir Thomas Bertram as a domineering patriarch and cruel, sexually-abusive slave owner; Mary Crawford as bisexual; and Fanny Price as a committed feminist/abolitionist who suffers the incestuous attentions of both her father and her uncle. Ultimately, though, Rozema, who is, after all, an artist rather than a scholar, takes liberties with Mansfield Park that no critic would contemplate. There is, for instance, no textual evidence to support her decision to attribute Lady Bertram's "disposition," which is, like her sister's, "naturally easy and indolent" (Austen 390), to drug addiction, or, more importantly, for her transformation of Austen's "inhibited, and frail" Fanny Price into the film's "sturdy, self possessed [...], plucky, and physically energetic" heroine (Johnson 5-6).
In adapting Mansfield Park for the screen, Rozema rejected the model provided by the Fanny Price of the novel because she considered her "annoying," "not fully drawn" (Herlevi), and "too slight and retiring and internal and perhaps judgemental to shoulder a film" (Moussa 257). In her place, she creates a character intended to express the "anarchic spirit" (Herlevi) of the Jane Austen who wrote scurrilously satirical juvenilia and chose the life of an artist in preference to the safe option of marriage. The inspiration for Rozema's radical interpretation of Fanny Price is to be found not just in her dissatisfaction with the character as she appears in the novel, but also in her determination to demonstrate Austen's compatibility with modern liberal attitudes. However, there is something rather questionable about an approach that privileges a portrait of the author over her fictional creation, especially when that portrait both conflates the teenage Austen with the mature woman who wrote Mansfield Park and makes highly selective use of biographical evidence (see Wiltshire 136). It is not surprising, therefore, that if we remove the obstructing figure of Rozema's "Jane Austen" from our field of vision, a relationship between film and source text emerges that is rooted in difference rather than similarity. The fundamental nature of this difference emerges with particular clarity from a comparison of the movement motifs that play an important part in the structure of both novel and film.
Regardless of the subversive tendencies that critics have uncovered in her novels, Austen, as Butler and Duckworth have demonstrated, (2) owes a great deal ideologically to the kind of eighteenth-century Conservatism that is most effectively expressed in the works of the philosopher-politician Edmund Burke, particularly Reflections on the Revolution in France. …