Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Recreating Jane Austen's World on Film

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Recreating Jane Austen's World on Film

Article excerpt

IN THE BEGINNING, in literature, there is the word. In the beginning, in Hollywood, there is the "pitch." Consider:

Scenario One: Lady Butterfly is pressed by her ambitious mother to wed a pedantic bureaucrat in the entourage of Lord Kurihana. She risks spinsterhood by refusing him, but she is noticed by a rich, handsome samurai whom she once overheard disparaging the quality of her kimono. He wins her by performing good works to overcome her initial resentment.

Scenario Two: Marie-Cosette, an avid reader of sentimental romances, visits the chateau of a suitor; she cannot help imagining nefarious deeds his father, the mysterious duc de Bercy, might have committed.

Scenario Three: Yentl of Chelm refuses a marriage proposal from penniless Yankel the tailor on the advice of a trusted aunt. Seven years later, now proprietor of fashionable women's emporium in Vienna, he returns to their village. He flirts with other eligible girls, but returns to Yentl, who shows her steady head in an emergency.

Scenario Four: After 1917, Communist rhetoric inspires one of two middle-class, displaced sisters to become a soldier of the Red Army. She lives dangerously and engages in wild and crazy love affairs. The other, a nurse, selflessly supports her widowed mother and younger sister. The nurse wishes later that she had taken more risks and lived a more colorful life; the soldier, suffering from venereal disease, wishes she had been more careful.

Two more make six: A foundling taken in by high caste, rich relations in Delhi wins the heart of the son of the house through her understated goodness; a spoiled young beauty in Beverly Hills learns to stop interfering in other people's love lives.

Tolstoy's art may require Russia. Dumas's may require France. But Jane Austen's world, like Shakespeare's, need not be constrained by time or place. Neither the particular circumstances nor the details of a Jane Austen novel--the exterior world--makes it a work of genius. One can love and appreciate Austen's novels without knowing what a "ha-ha" is, or how to make "white soup." Was she a woman of her time and place? Certainly. But that is not why we still read her novels, or why; during the 1990s, she was reputedly the most powerful woman in Hollywood, never mind that she died in 1817. Frankly, I doubt any of my "pitches" would have sold unless I promised--Flourish of trumpets!--that the screenwriter would be Jane Austen.

Flaubert, who would never allow his novels to be illustrated, said, "A woman drawn resembles one woman, that's all. The idea from then on is closed, complete." But is it, really? In the movie in your mind, do you see Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet? Do we create a personal image of Elizabeth? Do we "see" as we read? Some readers do translate what they read into Technicolor images. Some visualize merely the letter-symbols before them. Others, especially self-taught readers like myself, may not see much at all, but they hear a narrative voice. Some combine modes of perception. As Joy Gould Boyum concluded, we all create "individual resymbolizations" of the books we read (6). Some authors, like Austen, with a few significant details, do not so much direct our "seeing" as liberate it. They open wide-ranging possibilities for visualization by a reader and, by extension, a filmmaker.

We all bring unique personal skills, experiences and interests to our reading. I'm a literary person, not a historian, anthropologist, art historian, or sociologist. What I love is Jane Austen's writing. I have become familiar with her milieu, the historic events of her time, her family, and other elements of the external world around her; but I don't love her novels more for these details.

As a lover of her novels, I am intrigued by cinematic adaptations, particularly some films I call "wild cards" because I, along with other writers and critics, find them problematic and interesting. …

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