Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Adapting Jane Austen: The Surprising Fidelity of Clueless

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Adapting Jane Austen: The Surprising Fidelity of Clueless

Article excerpt

The many liberties taken by the cinematic adaptors of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Persuasion--unquestionably the most serious of the feature-length adaptations of Austen's novels to have appeared recently--cannot be dismissed as indulgences or inaccuracies. Rather they are attempts to rectify problems and to smooth out inconsistencies in the novels by way of saving Austen from her less felicitous or, the adaptors seem to feel, less-than-Austenian tendencies. The treatment of Sense of Sensibility (1995) written by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee does something altogether counterintuitive, or so it seems, in foregoing the most "cinematic" moment in the entire novel: John Willoughby's tenth-hour visit in the midst of Marianne Dashwood's near-fatal illness. But this move was more likely the result of an either/or proposition posed by the novel's incoherence. After all, not only does Willoughby's visit in which he explains his otherwise bad behavior go a long way in retrieving him from the villainy with which he is otherwise saddled by the plot to which the film in turn is pegged but also his surprise visit, along with expectations it resuscitates, creates additional complications in endorsing sensibility as a mode or affect of resistance to things as they are. While the novel, like the film, is obviously aligned with something opposed to sensibility, specifically the good "sense" and propriety that Marianne's older sister Elinor continually displays in the face of disappointment or adversity, it remains, as the title suggests, just as faithful to the sisters as a unit (as opposed to a binarism) or to a sisterhood writ large, where the desire for something else or better finds a register in Marianne and an enabler in Willoughby.

All of this might not matter much if the sisters' condition--specifically the precariousness of their lives in a culture where women typically have no control over wealth or property--were secondary or ancillary to the novel. However with a material sanction that literally begins on page one, the resistance of the sisters' situation to the story, where Marianne (to quote Eve Sedgwick) is ultimately "taught a lesson" (833) never really flags. And so the liberties that the film takes with the novel are not liberties. They are efforts to keep faith with the book as a vehicle of instruction and containment that other, equally crucial, aspects of Sense and Sensibility forever oppose. In striving for coherence in a text where confusion and discontent are linked, the Lee/Thompson adaptation "saves" the novel in lieu of the its ability, apparently, to save itself.

Driving this (in)fidelity (where what film theorist Jean Mitry terms "inspiration" (4) is mobilized on Austen's behalf regardless of what her novels actually say), is a myth or conception of Austen as somehow flawless that has been a commonplace for over a century and a half. Some of this flawlessness falls under the heading of nostalgia particularly for Victorian readers who were much taken with the lost world of a largely gentrified community that Austen brings so vividly to life. But most of it resides in the special place that literary history has accorded Austen as the writer who essentially invented or helped to codify the novel as a realistic instrument. As the first writer successfully to negotiate what James Thompson (echoing Ian Watt) has described as "that most fundamental contradiction of novelistic discourse ... between subjectivity and objectivity," Austen "found the means of displaying the inside and outside of human life, how her characters think and feel, along with how they interact with others." And for this she "occupies a crucial spot in the development of the novel; not just showing more of life, but a leap to showing all of life. As F. R. Leavis puts it, Jane Austen makes possible George Eliot: 'Jane Austen, in fact, is the inaugurator of the great tradition of the English novel"' (18).

Observations along these lines are manifold, including those by Raymond Williams, who also takes particular issue with the totality of Austen's vision:

  The paradox of Jane Austen is the . … 
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