BOOK REVIEWS
Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey


"Austen Power"

The Making of Jane Austen's Emma
By Sue Birtwhistle & Susie Conklin.
Penguin Books, 1996. 159 pages.
Color illustrations, Paperback, $17.

Jane Austen's Emma on Television: A Study of a BBC Classic Serial
By Monica Lauritzen.
Gothenburg Studies in English, 1981. 193 pages.
Paperback, $27.

Reviewed by Kenneth Turan.

The ads in Video Store Magazine are not exactly the kind of reading material Mr. Bennet would approve of. "Superstar Profits" are promised for stores that carry Leo: Unauthorized..,The Ultimate, Unauthorized, Inside Look at Leonardo DiCaprio, and similar monetary bonanzas are envisioned for Magenta, sold with the tagline "Beauty Made Her Irresistible, Youth Made Her Forbidden."

Prominently displayed in that same magazine, however, just pages from an ad for Extreme, Exposed, Exciting Gen-X Girls, is a full-page showcase with a simple but potent headline: 'Austen Power." "She never even saw a VCR," the breathless prose reads, "but Jane Austen has emerged as a huge force in the '9Os video market with Pride and Prejudice. The gift set has gone on to break sales records and has become A&E's best-selling video of all time."

Like it or not, Jane Austen on film has become an irresistible force, so much so that it sometimes seems as many books are coming out about the screen versions as about the original novels themselves. The Making of Jane Austen's Emma and Jane Austen's Emma on Television show how very different those volumes can be.

Though most American viewers may best remember the glib, on-the surface big- screen version of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, The Making of volume by Sue Birtwhistle and Susie Conklin deals with the more satisfying BBC version starring the letter-perfect Rate Beckinsale (more recently seen in, of all things, The Last Days of Disco) in the title role.

Concise, copiously illustrated and including the Andrew Davies screenplay for Emma, the Birtwhistle/Conklin book is an excellent piece of work, giving generous behind-the-scenes information and revealing the large amounts of thought and analysis that go into even the most simple seeming decisions.

We learn, for instance, why a bean-bag baby was used instead of the real thing for a crucial scene, the agonies food stylist Debbie Brodie went through in creating the edibles for the Box Hill picnic, and the kinds of complex negotiations that went on before the company was allowed to shoot in the National Trust village of Lacock.

Interviews with key participants play a prominent part in the book, and it's fascinating to hear Beckinsale's thoughts on turning Austen's prose into readable dialogue: "Close it may be to the way we speak, but not close enough to be able to feel comfortable with it immediately. The sentences can be very long with the sense coming right at the end. You worry that people will have switched off before you can get to the end of one! You start by feeling very stilted and can't work out why. Then you get the rhythm of it and it begins to feel normal."

Jane Austen 's Emma on Television: A Study of a BBC Classic Serial refers to an even earlier filmed version of the novel, a 1972 program filmed before Kate Beckinsale was even born, which few readers will have seen. That's just as well, because this academic monograph is one that few viewers will be able to understand. Published in a series put out by Gothenburg University in Sweden, a series that includes titles like Semantic Patterns of Noun-Noun Compounds, this pamphlet was clearly not intended to enthrall a mass audience. It's filled with numerous tables--a particularly elaborate one is entitled "Frequency of triangular and binary situations involving Emma"--and with academic language of the jargony persuasion.

After 153 pages of dense analysis, what does this book conclude? "As a work of art the Emma serial is different from the original. It is weaker in some respects but also stronger in others. Because of these differences, the watching of the serial cannot replace the experience of reading the original."

Not exactly a surprise ending.


Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times and a member of the JASNA Board of Directors.

JASNA News v.15, no. 1, Spring 1999

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