George Justice, Editor

The Jane Austen Show

Jane Austen on Film and Television: A Critical Study of the Adaptations

By Sue Parrill.
McFarland, 2002. 213 pages.
B/W illustrations. Paperback. $32.00.

Reviewed by Sayre Greenfield and Linda Troost.

Sue Parrill’s amply illustrated book on the 25 large- and small-screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels is more a descriptive compilation of these versions than an analytical study of them. It will serve its readers best as a reference source, for the material amassed is extensive, the presentation systematic, and the comparisons of the different productions detailed.

A brief introduction considers why Jane Austen’s novels are so frequently adapted and discusses various approaches. Some adaptations try to reproduce the novels closely and others, in varying degrees, redirect the novels to very different ends. These topics, as well as a discussion of the various elements of film—dramatic compression, background music, and dialogue—make up the first chapter, but Parrill offers little in the way of broader ideas beyond a few sensible remarks such as “I have always felt that music in films, except in musicals, is best when least obtrusive” and, on the use of heritage settings, “I think that it makes sense for the filmmaker to show the kinds of houses and landscapes Jane Austen’s characters inhabited.”

She then devotes one chapter to each novel and its adaptations, starting, in most cases, with a summary of the plot in the original and then moving through the filmed versions, sometimes one at a time, sometimes in a more comparative mode, especially when considering the portrayal of individual characters. Parrill focuses on particular scenes that allow interesting contrasts in their filmed representations, and she usually includes a few paragraphs on the soundtracks, the dances, the settings, and the costumes.

When it comes to the adaptations of individual novels, Parrill expresses stronger opinions. She often favors recent productions over earlier ones and sometimes almost prefers the films to the novels themselves. In her chapter on Sense and Sensibility, she concludes that “Ang Lee and Emma Thompson have managed to create cinematic art from one of Austen’s least successful novels,” and she seems in particular to appreciate how minor characters like Mr. Palmer and little Margaret “come to life as multi-faceted beings.” Even for Pride and Prejudice, Parrill finds ways in which the 1995 BBC/A&E production surpasses the novel or at least allows the viewers greater insight into a character, for example in the montage sequence of Darcy’s various confrontations with Wickham, shown while Darcy speaks the words of his long explanatory letter after Elizabeth has rejected his proposal of marriage.

Certainly, Parrill does not automatically favor the written word over film, and she often reflects on the virtues and weaknesses of particular adaptations, sometimes with a touch of Mary Crawfordish wit. For instance, she observes of Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park that “In the scenes following the ball, Fanny continues to wear dark loose dresses, but she now shows a great deal of bosom. (Perhaps this is what is meant by ‘coming out,’ a term much discussed in the novel).” Of an early version of Emma, Parrill opines, “If what the viewer wants is a literal translation, unencumbered by superior acting…the 1972 BBC version is the way to go.”

Parrill’s appendix provides detailed credits for each production, including extensive cast lists and dates of airing, when those are available. Austen film fans of a certain age will be amused to learn that one of Cloris Leachman’s earliest roles was Marianne Dashwood for NBC’s Philco Television Playhouse (1950) and that, before he became a man from U.N.C.L.E., David McCallum was Frank Churchill for the BBC (1960). Even Roddy McDowall has an Austen connection—he played Mr. Elton for NBC’s Kraft Television Theatre (1954). The research here seems full and accurate, much more so than the appendix to Suzanne Pucci’s and James Thompson’s Jane Austen and Co. (which mistakenly creates a 1971 production of Northanger Abbey out of the 1971 Persuasion, among other problems). The only inaccuracy we noticed in Parrill is an offhand claim that Peter Firth, the 1986 BBC/A&E Henry Tilney, is the younger brother of Colin (178). It is Jonathan Firth who is the brother. On the whole, however, the scholarship is meticulous on the past productions.

The strength of this book lies in the research behind it. Parrill covers ground that has been largely skipped in other recent books on the adaptations, such as our own Jane Austen in Hollywood (2nd ed. 2001), John Wiltshire’s Recreating Jane Austen (2001), and the aforementioned Jane Austen and Co. (2003). Parrill has delved into the BBC’s archives and the vaults of the Library of Congress to uncover original screenplays and has corresponded with actors and screenwriters who worked on these productions. We also get a description of Andrew Davies’ ill-fated screenplay of Northanger Abbey. Austen film fans will be glad to learn that, some months after Parrill’s book appeared in print, Granada TV merged with London Weekend Television, retrieved Davies’ script from Miramax, and plans to start filming.

Sayre Greenfield teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and Linda Troost teaches at Washington and Jefferson College. They edited Jane Austen in Hollywood.

JASNA News v.19, no. 2, Summer 2003, p. 19

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