PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.25, NO.1 (Winter 2004)

 
 
Modernizing Mansfield Park: Patricia Rozema’s Spin on Jane Austen
  KATHI GROENENDYK

Kathi Groenendyk  (email: kgroenen@calvin.edu) is an assistant professor in Communication Arts and Sciences, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has analyzed the recent Austen adaptations, examining how landscape is used to tell the story, and how those images reflect cultural attitudes toward nature.  A Calvin College research grant funded this research.

In 1999, Miramax and BBC Films released Mansfield Park, a film written and directed by Patricia Rozema.  Rozema had an audience that was primed for more Austen.  That audience did not receive the typical Austen-fare, which delighted some and angered others.  Rozema rewrote the character of Fanny to resemble Austen herself, emphasized the social critique of slavery that is found in the text, and heightened the sexuality between various characters.  As with the novel, disputes over the film’s artistic choices flourished among Austen fans, moviegoers, and film critics. 

            Rozema anticipated much of the controversy, warning the public that Mansfield Park is “not a Jane Austen film. . . . It’s a Patricia Rozema film.  My job as an artist is to provide a fresh view” (qtd. in Kantrowitz, 17).  Rozema further explains, “Whenever you turn a novel into a movie, you’re changing form. . . . I felt fairly free to make changes as long as I felt I could face Austen if I met her” (Kantrowitz 17).  Rozema also believes the modifications were necessary as part of her interpretation of the novel, and she faults the idea that a movie must be faithful to the novel.  She argues, “A movie can no more be faithful to a novel than a portrait can be to an entire personality, or a photograph can be.  You can get a glimpse; you can see something.  It’s just silly to think you know someone when you see their photograph” (interview).

Yet the debate over Rozema’s film prompts important questions regarding adaptations: what does it mean to respect a text while changing the form from novel to movie?  Can a filmmaker modernize a story while maintaining the author’s vision?  How can the filmmaker use visual images to capture the novel’s essence while also grafting one’s own interpretation?  Rozema’s alterations of certain characters and incorporation of visual images often capture some of Austen’s social critique and satire, yet Rozema’s choices in the film adaptation fail to achieve Austen’s larger social commentary. 

DIFFICULTIES IN ADAPTING MANSFIELD PARK

            Mansfield Park poses various difficulties in being adapted to film, but not because the novel is a poor work of art.  In Mansfield Park, Austen advocates a certain way of life in a period of great change and turmoil.  Much of the novel’s symbolism, then, is rooted in that particular time.  Austen advocates the benefits of the Mansfield Park estate; it is a place of “elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony—and perhaps, above all, . . . peace and tranquillity” (391).  Yet Mansfield Park has its imperfections: Sir Thomas’s money is tied to slavery, three of the four Bertram children consistently act by appearance and not morals, and Lady Bertram is indolent and indifferent.  Mansfield Park needs Fanny to save it from collapse.

            The character of Fanny is the exemplar of morals and stability, and her character is contrasted against the more dashing Crawfords (Mary and Henry) who arrive from London.  Fanny’s country values, such as quietness and authenticity, appear dull against Mary and Henry’s energy and talents for amusement.  Fanny, therefore, makes an unlikely heroine.  Translating Fanny to screen, then, is difficult because of her inactivity, her quietness, and her frequent mental reflections on events and her feelings.  The character is not made for the visual.

            Rozema’s film also faced potential challenges from the audiences’ prior exposure to Austen adaptations.  Audiences may have expected a certain look to the film or type of character from Mansfield Park given their experiences with the recent Austen films.  The traditional adaptations (Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Jane Austen’s Emma) vary in their approach to Austen—the extent the plot and characters were changed and the use of cinematography, for example—but the movies have some commonalties.  Most of the films emphasize the romantic story lines, glamorize the appearance of the main characters, alter the male hero, and offer a sentimental view of the English estate and landscape. Unlike Austen’s novels, the adaptations tend to dwell on the romance of the central couple and an idyllic view of the English past.  The adaptations then find it necessary to change Austen’s heroes in order to make the romance more believable.  Many of the heroes are made more handsome than described in the novels and become more emotionally expressive.[1]  Adding to the romance of the stories is the beautiful settings for the characters.  With the exception of Persuasion, the Austen adaptations are vibrant depictions of radiant English landscapes: the films seem to celebrate the picturesque nature they use to build the stories.  Given audience experiences with Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Jane Austen’s Emma, audiences may have expected another lush, romantic Austen tale.  Rozema provided another option.[2]   

ROZEMA’S CHOICES

Rozema agreed to adapt Mansfield Park because she could contribute a social critique about the English gentry and their tainted source of income.  Rozema wanted to explore “who was paying for the party” (interview) and keep the “brutal facts [of slavery] alive” throughout the whole film.  The first indication that slavery is tied to Mansfield Park comes in a scene where Fanny, now a young woman, and Edmund ride their horses on the estate.  An extreme long shot shows them galloping across the golden hills; fields stretch into the distance with trees marking the field’s borders.  Mansfield estate is a serene pastoral setting.  As they slow the horses to a walk, Edmund and Fanny begin to talk.  Fanny fears that Sir Thomas’s harsh treatment of her indicates his regret of taking her in.  Edmund assures her that is not the problem.  Edmund hesitatingly tells Fanny, “It’s just his problems with the slaves on the plantation.  The abolitionists are making inroads and . . .”  “And that’s a good thing, isn’t it,” Fanny interjects.  “Well,” continues Edmund, “we all live off the profits, Fanny.  Including you.”  This displeasingly revelation quiets Fanny, and she and Edmund ride soberly back to the house.

While Lady Bertram, her daughters, and Mrs. Norris bask mindlessly in the estate’s luxury, Sir Thomas consciously derides the personhood of slaves, implicitly endorsing slavery.  After Sir Thomas returns from Antigua, he and the rest of the family, including Henry and Mary Crawford, sit in the drawing room.  Sir Thomas, reflecting on his recent trip, says, “ The mulattos are in general well-shaped and the women especially well-featured.  I have one—so easy and graceful in her movements and intelligent as well.  But strangely, you know, two mulattos will never have children.  They are of the mule-kind in that respect.”  Fanny and Edmund exchange looks, and Edmund tries to correct his father.  Sir Thomas brusquely replies, “ I did not say they are mules, did I?  I said they were like mules.  Edward Long’s History of Jamaica—read it before you challenge me, son.  Anyway, I have a good mind to bring back one of them next trip to work here as a domestic.”  Fanny challenges Sir Thomas on this point, saying that if he brings a slave to England, the slave should then be freed.  Fanny’s comment catches Sir Thomas’s attention, but instead of focusing on her intellect he observes her beauty.  Sir Thomas objectifies Fanny much as he objectifies the female slaves in Antigua.

Sir Thomas’s guilt is made even more undeniable in the scene where Fanny finds Tom’s drawings.  Throughout the film, Tom is in conflict with Sir Thomas, angrily protesting Sir Thomas’s actions and lifestyle.  After returning from Antigua, Tom goes on a drunken binge, eventually falling extremely ill.  As Fanny cares for Tom, she pulls an article of clothing from the top of a dresser, dropping an item on the floor.  She bends to pick it up and discovers Tom’s portfolio of drawings made in Antigua.  Fanny, horrified, flips through the scenes of white men raping black women, black men being tortured, and white men driving the slaves toward a plantation gate.  Two pictures are of Sir Thomas: in one he is whipping a slave and in another he is forcing a female slave to perform a sexual act.  The scenes of Tom’s sketchbook were crucial to Rozema—one of the reasons she agreed to make the film. The images explicitly condemn Sir Thomas and, by association, throw doubt on other gentry and their sources of income.

Sir Thomas’s guilt is prominent throughout the film, yet Rozema felt that she needed to “resolve the slavery issue” in the film.  In her commentary included in the DVD release of the film, Rozema claims she had to write a scene of personal confrontation between Sir Thomas and Tom to offer some closure.  As Sir Thomas sits by Tom’s bedside, Sir Thomas tells Fanny and Edmund, “He’ll be all right.  He survived brain fever when he was six.  He used to play Tom the Knight.  ‘Give me a mission, Father,’ he’d say.  I’d send him with a message to Mother about the tea, or to get Baddeley to get the carriage ready.  ‘No, Father, give me a noble mission.’  That’s all he ever wanted.”  Sir Thomas, genuinely moved, then apologizes to Tom.

            If this scene offers some hope for a reformed Sir Thomas, the film’s ending throws doubt on Sir Thomas’s salvation.  In her commentary on the movie, Rozema claims that she “didn’t want his redemption to be too neat and tidy.”  The last segment is from Fanny’s perspective: Fanny, ever the writer, takes control of the story’s conclusion.  As the helicopter shot shows sweeping images of the green English countryside, Fanny comments in voice-over the fates of the various characters.  Much as in Austen’s novel, the author of the story—in this case Fanny—provides closure to everyone’s lives.  The movie, then, is self-reflexive, reflecting on its own story and mirroring the novel’s ending.

            In the last of these segments, Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, Julia, Fanny’s sister Susan, and Tom gather on the lawn outside with the house’s west wing, with part of it resembling a ruin, in the background.  Fanny explains, “Sir Thomas eventually abandoned his pursuits in Antigua.  He chose instead to pursue some exciting new opportunities in–tobacco.”   As with the other segments, Sir Thomas, Tom, Susan, Julia, and Lady Bertram look up and freeze their movements as Fanny says, “It could have all turned out differently, I suppose.”  The characters return to their actions and the music resumes.  Fanny continues, “But it didn’t.”  In the final scene, Fanny and Edmund, now married we assume, walk arm in arm toward the parsonage (their new home, since Edmund was to be ordained). 

While the revelation about Sir Thomas’s new pursuit is humorous, it still condemns the gentry and the estate.  Sir Thomas cannot escape his pattern of profiting by harming others.  Reflecting on the concluding scenes, Rozema states:

I felt I needed to separate Fanny and Edmund in the final images because I had accentuated the wrongness of the empire.  The unethical investment that was supporting the place became so prominent and became almost a subplot in my adaptation I felt like I had to take her away from that and not continue to live off the avails.  So the final image has her walking toward the parsonage so they’re setting up on their own. . . . I seasoned the plot in such a way in that what was already in there, the fact that the slavery came out more strongly.  But by virtue of having done that I had to remove Fanny from the mix a little bit more, in order so not to feel I was condoning it or she was complacent and just accepting.  (interview)

Sir Thomas, then, receives the harshest critique in the film.  While other characters–such as Tom, Mrs. Norris, Lady Bertram, Maria, Henry Crawford, and Mary Crawford–are not always viewed favorably, they do not earn the same judgment the novel requires.  For example, Julia, who in the novel is equally to blame for living by poor morals and for snubbing Fanny, does not receive much critique (if any) in the film.  Sir Thomas stands out as the villain. 

            Sir Thomas is such a fallen character that the estate itself is tainted by association.  When the young Fanny and viewers first see Mansfield Park, the house looms large and looks somewhat ominous in the dark night.  As day breaks, the sunlight reveals an older, once beautiful house now fallen in disrepair.  In addition, in the final scenes Rozema wanted the shot of the estate in the background to be “wounded and crumbling” (commentary).  Despite the age and repair, the house still makes a dramatic impression on the viewer; the ruins even could be seen as fitting with picturesque principles.

The house’s interior also is beautiful while being stark.  When Fanny is first escorted inside to the entrance hall and then to the great staircase, the rooms are void of ornamentation and contain only a few furnishings.  Rozema explains that through her research she learned that there was not much furniture in the houses of that period; rather, people brought chairs into the room to sit in.  Rozema decided, then, on filming at the abandoned Kirby Hall so they would not have to pay to remove furniture.

            Using Kirby Hall fulfilled a practical objective for Rozema but also serves a symbolic purpose as well.  Rozema believes that Mansfield Park, as seen by Fanny, is a “cold, remote place, not this cuddly, glittery, warm, lush environment that you see in a lot of adaptations” (interview).  Rozema did not want her film to be a garden party or a soap opera; rather, she wanted the place to communicate the film’s political perspective.  In an article about the importance of place in her films, Rozema further explains:

I can say I searched for a majestic crumbling old beauty of a mansion instead of the expected trim and well-appointed estate because I felt that Austen intended to point to the rot at the heart of Mansfield Park, at the heart of slave-owning England.  I felt I needed to show, physically, some of that decay.  Fanny Price escapes with, yes, her true love to another place: a parsonage.  (“Place”)

In Rozema’s interpretation of the novel, the estate suffers as a response to Sir Thomas’s sins; at the same time the film attempts to condemn the estate as a whole.  As Rozema argues, she had “accentuated the wrongness of the empire” and the estate is the fruit of that sin.  Yet this interpretation misappropriates Austen and her social critique.  Austen makes Mansfield Park Fanny’s home: Fanny even comes to think of it as a place of  “elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony—and perhaps, above all, . . . peace and tranquillity” (391).  Fanny and Edmund also move from the Thornton Lacey parsonage to the Mansfield parsonage, which in the novel is a return to the estate and the family rather than an escape.  Austen writes:

 . . . and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living by the death of Dr. Grant, occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience. . . . On that event they removed to Mansfield, and the parsonage there . . . soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as every thing else, within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park, had long been.  (473)

In the novel, Fanny redeems Mansfield Park and returns there.  Yet in the film, Fanny and Edmund are removed from the specter of Mansfield Park. Alistair Duckworth argues, “Just as the film refuses to celebrate marriage as a fitting closure, so it denies the achievement of a morally restored society” (570).

            Fanny, then, is clearly the only key admirable figure in the film.  Rozema altered the character from the novel, in part, to be the cinematic equivalent for Austen’s narrative voice.  Rozema explains, “I ended up making Fanny Price a writer so that I could have some access into her mind, because in the novel she rarely speaks” (interview).  Rozema used many of Austen’s early writings for Fanny’s, giving the character of Fanny a satirical and feminist twist. 

            Fanny also often addresses the camera as she borrows from Austen’s narration from the novel.  For example, Fanny “reads” her letter to her sister Susan, updating her on life at Mansfield Park.  Fanny says, “Dear Susy: News items: Sir Thomas has dragged Tom along with him to the West Indies to ‘protect our interests there.’”  She continues in voice-over to explain Maria’s engagement and the death of Mr. Norris.  Fanny ends her letter, facing the camera again, noting sadly, “And, life seems nothing more than a quick succession of busy nothings.”  In the novel, the character of Fanny does not say this line, which is a pessimistic view of Mansfield Park.  Despite the hardships at Mansfield Park, in the novel Fanny does delight in many aspects of life there and welcomes the quiet family gatherings.  Later in the film when Maria marries Rushworth, Fanny addresses the camera and says slyly, “Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.”  In the novel, Mary Crawford—the cynical, worldly Londoner—says this line.  By attributing these lines to Fanny in the film, Rozema fundamentally changes the character of Fanny.  In addition to being more active and vocal, Fanny, in the film, is cynical.  As Susan tells Fanny when Fanny visits her family in Portsmouth, “You’re tongue is sharper than a guillotine.”  The audience may identify with this version of Fanny because of her frankness, and from this identification, the audience will rejoice with Fanny as she escapes Mansfield, finds her love, and has her writings published.

            The movie fosters identification with Fanny, emphasizing the individual rather than the community in which she is a member.  Fanny, in her struggle to be free of Sir Thomas’s tyranny and to independently foster her writing, gains her freedom and happiness at the film’s end.  Duckworth argues that the film celebrates the personal achievement and overlooks the restoration of the community (570).  Rozema chose the critique of slavery—including Fanny’s entrapment—yet this critique prevents including Austen’s emphasis of a renewed, healthy community.  Austen’s novels frequently situate the heroine in an improved social group: certain individuals are chosen to surround the heroine while others are banished.  Austen repeatedly leaves readers with an ideal neighborhood and hope for that group’s future.  Given Rozema’s goals for the film and the choices she made, she could not offer such optimism. 

IMPLICATIONS

 To have a coherent movie, filmmakers must condense and simplify the novel.  Rozema made her choices based on her conception of the novel’s intent and meanings (both textual and contextual), what would work well visually, and what would capture the audience’s attention.  In the process, Rozema displaced a common understanding of the novel to better match her goals for filmmaking.  In Mansfield Park, Rozema’s social critiques of slavery, colonialism, and women’s roles in society make it impossible to incorporate Austen’s emphasis of stability, moral guidance, and community.  In the adaptation, Rozema emboldens Fanny’s character, inviting audience members to cheer Fanny’s freedom from Sir Thomas’s and Mansfield Park’s imprisonment and their moral flaws.  This move directly opposes Austen’s communal interests.

While Rozema’s film skews the preferred reading of Austen’s novel toward a contemporary colonialism critique, Mansfield Park remains true to many aspects of Austen’s work.  The adaptation bases its interpretation and critique in the text; in other words, the interpretation is viable, although controversial.  As Rozema herself argues, viewers should not assume that they have seen and understood all of the novel by watching the film; Rozema hopes viewers will turn to Austen’s novel to discover its many meanings (interview).

Rozema’s Mansfield Park offers a modern interpretation of Fanny and the problems of the English estate.  Unlike many of the other recent Austen adaptations, Mansfield Park takes a darker look behind the scenes of the sources of the gentry’s income and the lives they lead. Rozema challenges viewers with a contemporary critique of colonialism culture.  Rozema’s film fails to capture Austen’s main emphasis on the need for a healthy community, but in the retelling and restructuring of Mansfield Park Rozema offers a new way to view Austen—a postmodern scrutiny of the novel’s cultural backdrop.



[1] See, for example, the following discussion of this trend in Nixon.

[2] Rozema says, “Before the movie was being made, people were joking and saying to me, ‘Is this going to be a clean Austen or a dirty Austen.’  And apparently the answer was, ‘No, this is going to be a punk Austen.’  And it certainly isn’t a punk Austen, but sometimes I certainly wish I had gone farther into that character” (interview).

 

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Duckworth, Alistair M.  Review of Mansfield Park, dir. Patricia Rozema.  Eighteenth Century Fiction, vol. 12.  July 2000: 565-71.

Kantrowitz, Barbara.  “Making an Austen Heroine More Like Austen.”  The New York Times  31 Oct. 1999, p. 17, 26.

Mansfield Park.  Screenplay by Patricia Rozema.  Dir. Patricia Rozema.  Perf. Embeth Davidtz, Jonny Lee Miller, Alessandro Nivola, Frances O’Connor, Harold Pinter. Miramax Films and BBC Films, 1999.

Nixon, Cheryl L.  “Balancing the Courtship Hero: Masculine Emotional Display in Film Adaptations of Austen’s Novels.”  In Jane Austen in Hollywood.  Eds. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield.  Lexington, KY: UKP, 1998.  22-43.

Rozema, Patrica.  Telephone interview.  19 June 2001.

_____.  Director’s Commentary.  Mansfield Park.  Screenplay by Patricia Rozema.  Dir.

Patricia Rozema.  1999.  DVD.  Miramax Films and BBC Films, 1999.

_____.  “A Place in the Sun.”  Patricia Rozema Web Page.  Ed. Agata Smoluch.  Dec. 2000.

30 Aug. 2001.  <http://www.patriciarozema.com/a_place_in_the_sun.htm>.

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