As a costume drama junkie with a fondness for comparing different adaptations of the same novel, I have decided to do just this in the hope that some may enjoy the same. Jane Austen adaptations seemed a good place to start as they are amongst some of the most popular.
There are three television adaptations, of which I am aware, of Austen’s lesser-read novel, Mansfield Park. I am going to begin with the most recent. In 2007, ITV showed three new Jane Austen adaptations, each with something new to add to the stories they retold. Mansfield Park starred Billie Piper as perhaps Austen’s least popular heroine, Fanny Price, and Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram – possibly the wettest of Austen’s heroes. In compensation for Fanny’s reputation as an intensely annoying, saccharine character, Piper played her as someone much more wilful and sharp witted. Ritson’s Edmund was still wet but a little more endearing than other portrayals I have seen. Those of you who have read Mansfield Park will know that it is a long novel, which, somewhat unusually for Austen, subtly addresses several key controversial issues of the regency period in England. Of course, there is the usual satire and social commentary. Through her forthright and outspoken anti-heroine, Mary Crawford, she pokes fun at the customs and rules surrounding the idea of a young lady being ‘out’ or ‘not out’*, she makes fun of the clergy, and questions the idea that people of the upper class are really any more refined or sophisticated than anyone else. However, she also explores marital infidelity, the perils of gambling and drinking to excess and a huge amount of literature to date has explored the issues surrounding the head of the Bertram family, Sir Thomas, and his sugar plantations. This is, therefore, a big novel to adapt for screen and each version I have seen has focused on a slightly different area. In this version, Sir Thomas appears as a rather dark and unpleasant character for much of the time, though there are some interesting scenes between him and his children which show a softer, more understanding side to his nature.
The first half of this adaptation is largely true to the novel, save for the slight alterations in Fanny’s character, but I was disappointed that rather than including scenes of Fanny’s return to her family in Portsmouth (for me one of the most poignant and emotional parts of this story) it instead has the Bertram family leaving Fanny behind to be alone at Mansfield Park so that she can see what it would be like to live a life of loneliness if she does not marry Henry Crawford.
The ending of this adaptation was, again, different to the novel, but rather more romantic and not without charm. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram are shown as being very much in favour of the match between Edmund and Fanny after all the drama they have previously faced, and Fanny becomes a lot more grown up and even more carnal in this final part – something that I feel is needed in this romance between two cousins who have grown up together almost as brother and sister. I have always found it slightly difficult to understand how Edmund comes to see Fanny in this light – how does someone go from seeing someone almost as a sister to seeing them as a lover? But this drama handles the transition as well as possible, and in the end, it is easy to be happy for Fanny and Edmund and to believe that they should be together.
The second adaptation that I am going to discuss is the 1999 film, starring Frances O’Conner and Jonny Lee Miller as the lead characters. This is an unusual adaption in that it merges scenes and writing from Jane Austen’s own life with that of her heroine’s. In one early scene, when we are being introduced to the character of Fanny, we see her writing her own History of England, a work which Austen herself produced when she was fifteen. This version is the fastest paced and most dramatic of the adaptations. Fanny is, again, updated for a modern audience and is presented as feisty and self-assured. There is a strong strain of comedy running throughout this film presented through Fanny’s own interpretation of events, and this is an interesting aspect to add to what is arguably the darkest of Austen’s novels. Perhaps the writer, Patricia Rozema, felt it would be needed as this version does tend to emphasise these baser subjects – I am thinking particularly of the moment when Fanny discovers a sketch book of Tom Bertram’s filled with horrific drawings depicting the cruelty faced by the slaves on his father’s plantation. This is used as the reason behind his difficult relationship with his father. Another difference between this adaptation and the book is the slightly bizarre decision to turn Fanny’s beloved brother from the novel into a beloved sister, or rather, to elevate the relationship between Fanny and Susan and to completely omit the character of William Price. Although this allows for some more intimate conversations to take place between the two sisters, it is a shame, as this is one of more important relationships in the novel, not to mention the role it plays in teasing the readers about the integrity and morality of Henry Crawford’s character. Mary Crawford, played by Embeth Davidtz is almost completely unlikable in this film and, as in the novel, it is when she speaks her mind once too often and reveals her hopes of marriage to Edmund only when he has been elevated to Sir Edmund upon the untimely death of his older brother that Edmund begins to notice Fanny and to see her as a potential wife. What this film has going for it is a lovely soundtrack, a much more modern focus, and lead characters who feel somehow more tangible than in other versions, not to mention the odd laugh here and there.
The final version I am going to discuss is my favourite. The BBC mini-series was made in 1983 and starred Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell as Fanny and Edmund. This is by far the most faithful to the novel and due to its length, it is able to reproduce the story almost chapter for chapter. It is very much of its time in that many of its scenes are devoted to dialogue rather than action, Georgian phrases with which a modern audience may not be familiar are repeated by the actors, and the costumes are historically accurate rather than necessarily attractive or flattering. However, for all these things, I love it and find it rather comforting and engaging to watch. One feels that when Austen wrote this novel, this is what she saw in her head.
As in the novel, the mini-series glosses over much of the darker subject matter which more modern adaptations have brought to the fore, and instead the characters and their interactions with one another are what matter. Sir Thomas Bertram is played by the wonderful Bernard Hepton and although still authoritative, this is probably the gentlest portrayal of the different adaptations. The same can be said Angela Pleasance’s Lady Bertram. Mary Crawford (played by Jackie Smith-Wood) is very likable in this version but, of course, deeply floored. I find it an interesting decision of the writer’s to included so many conversations between Edmund and Fanny in which he tries to understand Mary’s character, and more importantly to explain away her faults due to the people to whom she has been exposed. Farrell’s Edmund is unavoidably feeble in some scenes but he also shows a lot of tenderness towards Fanny which helps to explain the attraction she feels towards her cousin. Le Touzel’s Fanny Price is possibly the closest to the heroine of the novel. She is always good and moral, shy and steadfast. She is also incredibly awkward at times and full to the brim of unexpressed passion and emotion. Perhaps I am alone in not actually finding Fanny Price as insipid as some others seem to, and perhaps this is why I prefer Le Touzel’s portrayal. The final declaration of love in this version is quiet and matter of fact, as it is in Austen’s novel. It could be somewhat disappointing and understated for a modern audience but it is faithful and so, for some, could be just what one wants from a Jane Austen adaptation.