Objections to ‘Mansfield Park’ (1999)

8I have not watched Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park myself, so I cannot discuss it thoroughly. As an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, however, I have a few remarks to make concerning it.

In her guest post for Sarah Emsley’s blog, in honor of the bicentennial of Mansfield Park’s publication, Judith Thompson writes,

I’ve always suspected that there’s more to Fanny, and her creator, than there appears. One need not turn Austen’s mousy heroine into a cheeky ironist (a la Patricia Rozema) or a sullen rebel (a la Billie Piper), to find something appealing in her introverted independence, unshakeable integrity and undemonstrative opposition to the follies of her cousins. One need only recognize that, like her author, she takes in a lot more than she lets on.

— from “Adopting Affection” by Judith Thompson.

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“Sullen rebel” is a good description for Billie Piper’s rendition of Fanny Price (in the 2007 adaptation), and I suspect that “cheeky ironist” is as apt for Patricia Rozema’s version of Mansfield Park’s heroine (played by Frances O’Conner). In this adaptation, Fanny is portrayed as an exuberant young writer. Her stories are taken from Jane Austen’s own juvenilia. An incident from Jane Austen’s life is also used. At one point, Jane Austen accepted a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, an acceptance which she rescinded the next morning. Imitating this, Fanny is made to actually accept Henry Crawford’s proposal when he comes to visit her in Portsmouth, subsequently withdrawing her consent. Even apart from this incident, involving as it does very un-Fanny-like behaviour, Fanny’s character suffers a complete makeover in this movie. She is given a snarky, spirited personality, resembling Miss Crawford much more than she does Jane Austen’s Fanny Price. I submit that, if you especially dislike the main character of a novel, as Patricia Rozema obviously did, you should find a different book to adapt.

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Another distressing change from Jane Austen’s novel is this movie’s presentation of Sir Thomas as a hypocrite — holding his children to a strict standard while he himself is lecherous and self-indulgent. The slave trade was made into a theme in this movie, and Sir Thomas is made into a wicked slave owner — cruelly punishing and sexually abusing his slaves. In Jane Austen’s novel, whatever Sir Thomas’s dealings with the slave trade, they were nothing he was ashamed to discuss publicly, as shown by the single (for there is only one) mention of the slave trade in the book:

Edmund: “You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.”

Fanny: “But I do talk to [my uncle] more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?”

Edmund: “I did — and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

Fanny: “And I longed to do it — but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like — I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” (Ch. 21)

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Obviously, if Sir Thomas was the kind of man Patricia Rozema made him into, he would not have been pleased to be asked about this subject, or wish his daughters to be curious about it. That abolition was a respectable position among such circles is shown by its brief discussion in Emma:

Jane Fairfax: “When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something — Offices for the sale — not quite of human flesh — but of human intellect.”

Mrs. Elton: “Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on …” (Ch. 17)

A lot of quotation shuffling occurs in this adaptation. In case you were wondering, in the book it is Mary Crawford who refers to marriage as “a manoeuvring business”, not Fanny. It is Mrs. Grant who says that, “If one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another.” It is Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland who comments about history books that “the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all … and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention” (ch. 14). I believe that in this adaptation, all of these lines are given to Fanny.

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There are many other significant changes from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Fanny’s beloved brother William is expunged. Instead, Fanny writes satiric letters to her sister Susan, who tells her at one point, “Your tongue is sharper than a guillotine, Fanny.” Lady Bertram is turned into an opium addict. Instead of being a care-free pleasure-seeker, Tom Bertram is presented as a disturbed artist. At one point, Fanny comes across his drawings of his father’s abuse of his slaves. These drawings along with a scene of Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford committing adultery (at Mansfield Park itself, no less), make this movie fully deserve its PG-13 rating.

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All of these changes (and there are more) do disservice to Jane Austen’s masterful novel. The new story may not be bad, but it is not Jane Austen’s — though, no doubt her name gave it more publicity. But, whether or not this movie is good independent of its connection to Jane Austen, it does not deserve the title ‘Mansfield Park’.

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3 comments on “Objections to ‘Mansfield Park’ (1999)

  1. Sarah Emsley says:

    I agree with your criticism of the way Fanny’s character is changed radically in Rozema’s adaptation. I’m confused, though, about how you know so much about the film without having watched it! Thanks for linking to Judith’s post on “Adopting Affection.” Neither Frances O’Connor nor Billie Piper bears much resemblance to the Fanny Price Austen wrote.

  2. Miss Sneyd says:

    I’ve read a number of reviews, both favorable and negative, and discussions of the 1999 ‘Mansfield Park’. I have also read some of the script. So, I am familiar with the bare-bones of the movie, though, of course, I can’t say first-hand how good or bad the depictions of most of the characters are.

  3. […] Objections to ‘Mansfield Park’ (1999) […]

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