Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Historical Picturesque: Adapting Great Expectations and Sense and Sensibility

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Historical Picturesque: Adapting Great Expectations and Sense and Sensibility

Article excerpt

Examining the reception of two film adaptations of nineteenth-century novels in the context of critical postmodernism, this essay investigates the obsession with fidelity and authenticity among critics. Noting links between the heritage film and the aesthetic of the picturesque, the author proposes Alfonso Cuaron's counterpicturesque film as a model for heritage adaptations.


It is no longer the presence of the past that speaks to us, but its
pastness. Now a foreign country with a booming tourist trade, the past
has undergone the usual consequences of popularity. The more it is
appreciated for its own sake, the less real or relevant it becomes.
--David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country

If nostalgia, for David Lowenthal, is telling it "like it wasn't," then it is unsurprising that our welldocumented fascination with Victoriana's afterlife (see: Armstrong; Higson; Lowenthal, "Nostalgia"; Sadoff and Kucich), that fashion for the surfaces of Victorian life, seems inextricably linked to questions of historical authenticity. Indeed, our nostalgia for, and almost obsessive reproduction of, a time that was itself absorbed with both nostalgia and authenticity has placed these definitively premodernist notions at the centre of critical postmodernism, that frenzied effort "to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place" (Jameson ix). Thus, for Jean-Francois Lyotard, postmodernism's nostalgia, the nostalgia of modern bureaucratic capitalism, is typified by the "discovery of the 'lack of reality' of reality" and the concomitant "invention of other realities" (470). Yet, so far does late capitalism "derealize familiar objects, social roles, and institutions" that the only possible representations of the real are parodic or nostalgic (468). For Jean Baudrillard, such representations are simulations, destroying their own capacity for reference to become, famously, "the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal" (1). From this perspective, postmodern critics have both adduced the fetishization of authenticity and lamented the vanishing or now-illusory "real." I quarrel with neither the longing for authenticity nor efforts at its realization; instead, I examine what the longing implied by such a lament, and the realization of such yearning, might look like and mean. In this essay, I look at the discussion surrounding two film adaptations of nineteenth-century novels--the 1996 Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee, and the 1998 modern-dress Great Expectations, adapted by Mitch Glazer and directed by Alfonso Cuaron--which highlight the inadequacies of the postmodern account. While both films clearly signal their status as adaptations, Lee's fairly straight version and Cuaron's "free" adaptation provide instructively distinct responses to the problem of authentic relations with the source text.

Adaptation theory proposes varying vocabularies to classify degrees of adherence to or departure from the original (McFarlane 3-15; Giddings et al. 1-27). J. Dudley Andrew thus proposes "transformation," "borrowing," and "intersection" to foreground issues of fidelity (98-104); Michael Klein and Gillian Parker likewise chart a continuum from the faithful to the free, in which the source text provides "the occasion for an original work" (10; qtd. Giddings et al. 11). Keith Cohen recognizes only this last, which he terms "subversive adaptation" as a "truly artistic feat" (245; see also Wagner 222-27). I build on these vocabularies in investigating relationships to history in the adaptation of classic novels, and I outline the parameters of this problem: in the translation from novel to screen of nineteenth-century England to its millennial audiences, what do we mean when we talk about authenticity?

Cuaron's translation takes on this question of authenticity, presenting an endless, potentially groundless mise en abyme of the Benjaminian "work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. …

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