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 At one point, Jane Austen accepted a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, an acceptance which she rescinded the next morning.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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Review of ‘Mansfield Park’ (1983)

Mansfield Park 1983 dvd cover UKThe 1983 miniseries of Mansfield Park, dramatised by Ken Taylor, is quite a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. While overacted at times, it is for the most part a very well done production. So much of the dialogue is straight from the book — Jane Austen’s own delightful, perfect dialogue with Miss Crawford’s light banter, Fanny’s rhapsodizing, and so on — as to be most gratifying.

The childhood scenes are very good, though a bit too melodramatic from time to time. Young Fanny is properly timid and grateful, and Edmund very kind. I particularly enjoyed the scene where he helps Fanny write a letter to her brother. Tom is shown teasing Fanny and giving her a present. Maria and Julia expound Fanny’s “stupidity” to their aunt, but invite her to join their games when a third would be useful. The change from childhood to adulthood is shown with scenes of Edmund reading to Fanny from William Cowper’s poem “The Task” — a poem Fanny actually quotes from in the book — showing his part in her education and in forming her tastes.

Young Edmund and Fanny - letter writing, episode 1

The actors for the adult characters were chosen well. Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas is appropriately stately, always the gentleman. Tom and Edmund are very fine young men, Maria and Julia handsome and stylish. Miss Crawford is also pretty and suitably lively, though with rather an odd hair-style. Mr. Crawford has a fashionable air. Lady Bertram and Aunt Norris are well-looking, with Lady Bertram being sufficiently indolent (she plays a comic character, unfortunately exaggerated on occasion — her voice can be rather annoying). Anna Massey plays a deliciously sharp and bulling Aunt Norris, putting in one of the best performances of the film. Fanny herself is pretty in a quiet way, with gentle manners.

Sir Thomas with daughters, episode 1 Lady Bertram Tom Bertram Edmund Bertram, episode 1 Maria Bertram Julia Bertram Fanny Price, episode 6 Aunt Norris Henry Crawford Mary Crawford, episode 2

Fanny’s letter writing to her brother William is used to transition between different parts of the story. Although voice-over narration is generally avoided in films, I believe, I thought it worked well here. Giving Fanny’s thoughts in the form of letters to William was a neat idea, showing at once how close they were and how little others cared for Fanny’s opinion. I was reminded of the passage in the book, “And Fanny, what was she doing and thinking all this while? and what was her opinion of the newcomers? Few young ladies of eighteen could be less called on to speak their opinion than Fanny.” (ch. 5). And giving the film’s ending the form of a letter to William gave it a similar “epilogue” feel to that of the book’s conclusion.

Fanny writing to William, episode 1

Although extremely faithful to the book, this adaptation does take a few liberties. The ages of various of Fanny’s siblings are changed. Henry Crawford and Maria are shown kissing while rehearsing their scene instead of “trying not to embrace” (ch. 18), probably because it was easier to depict. Added in when Edmund comes to fetch Fanny from Portsmouth is Mr. Price insulting Edmund to his face, telling him that “putting to sea” is “a true man’s life” — better than to “skulk indoors” as “a sniveling parson”. On the other hand, an important scene, that of Sir Thomas offering to release Maria from her engagement to Mr. Rushworth, was not dramatised.

Fanny helping Mr. Rushworth, episode 3

As an aside, I would like to point out that failure to dramatise a particular scene from a novel does not make an adaptation unfaithful to its source. Most novels contain way too much material to fit into a single movie — even if it is a miniseries. I mention this because I have several times come across critisisms of this particular miniseries, saying that it is not a faithful adaptation because it completely ignores any mention of the slave trade — a subject which is only mentioned very briefly in passing in the novel itself.

Fanny and Edmund, episode 4

This is not a particularly brilliant miniseries, but there were only a few things that I really disliked about it. For the most part, Sylvestra Le Touzel’s portrayal of Fanny Price is fine. She is sweet, retiring, industrious, and observant. During the scene when her uncle scolds her, however, I thought her crying much overdone — she becomes practically hysterical. I didn’t like the depiction of her brother William — he is too pouty and almost servile at times. And, although amusing, I don’t really like the hairstyles of Edmund, Mary, and Mr. Yates. Edmund’s was too messy and Miss Crawford’s was just plain odd. Mr. Yates’s topknot was an absolute riot, but I wouldn’t take him as a model in fashion.

Mansfield Park 1983 hairdos

The acting in this production was, by and large, quite solid, with a few brilliant moments. I love Sir Thomas’s look at Mrs. Norris when she declares that “dear sister Price must wait” after discovering that she would have to pay her own way back if she visited her. And the cut from Lady Bertram saying on Fanny’s return to Mansfield, “Now I shall be comfortable again” to her snoozing on the sofa was superb!

Compared to the scenes at Mansfield, the Portsmouth scenes are suitably noisy and disorderly. Alison Fiske as Mrs. Price was good — fretful and indifferent. Mr. Price was very loud, coarse, and disagreeable. There was a great deal too much of his raucous singing portrayed, I thought — a very little would suffice! (Julia’s singing as a child wasn’t so great, either. The glee was the only tolerable bit of singing in the miniseries.)

We are to sing a glee

Having Mr. Crawford quoting from ‘Lovers’ Vows’ in his (decidedly successful) attempt to overcome Mrs. Rushworth’s coldness toward him in London was a very appropriate choice, recalling as it does the damage done by the ill-judged playacting. The scene is filmed in an interestingly metaphorical way, with Henry and Maria dressed in black and their lines recalling their behaviour at the time of the Mansfield theatricals. However, the speed with which they are portrayed as becoming entangled with each other, makes Henry’s continued love for Fanny somewhat unconvincing.

Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford, episode 6

Edmund is depicted as falling in love with Fanny almost immediately after breaking with Mary and their move into the Mansfield parsonage follows very closely after the wedding. But, as the ending is little more than a postscript at the end of the novel, this presentation isn’t too bad. The less time spent on material which was not actually detailed by Jane Austen, the better. And, besides, I do believe that was Fanny’s very own Pug with them at the end!

Fanny and Edmund, The End, pug, episode 6

There are some lovely costumes designed by Ian Adley. Miss Crawford wears some especially elegant, fashionable-looking gowns and Fanny has several very pretty dresses, as do Maria and Julia. The gentlemen’s costumes suit the characters nicely. Mansfield Park is tastefully furnished and has handsome grounds. There is some pretty scenery throughout the film, but most of the outdoor scenes are unfortunately washed out in appearance and lacking definition. Fanny’s East room — her “nest of comforts” — was furnished with beautiful preciseness, including many of the little details that Jane Austen described. The theme music for the opening credits is fine, though in general the music is uninteresting and dated. It is usually unobtrusive, however, and there are a few enjoyable dance tunes along with some pretty harp music from Miss Crawford.

Fanny and Mary Crawford - ball dresses, episode 4

Objectionable content is limited to some swearing from Fanny’s father. There are some kisses between a man and someone else’s fiancée/wife and talk of a married woman running away with another man, but the affair is portrayed as wrong and hurtful.

Although very good and enjoyable, this miniseries is certainly not a definitive adaptation. I would very much like to see a new miniseries of Mansfield Park, with this one’s faithfulness to the novel, but with more brilliance — something, perhaps, in the style of the 1995 adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or the 1999 miniseries ‘Wives and Daughters’. Several of the 1980s Jane Austen adaptations are making way for newer miniseries (e.g. the 1995 ‘P&P’, the 2008 ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and the 2009 ‘Emma’), and I think it is high time for one of Mansfield Park.

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Amazing Grace 2006Trivia: The actors who play Edmund and Fanny, Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel later played together in ‘Amazing Grace’ (2006) as a married couple — the delightful Henry and Marianne Thornton, who assiduously endeavor to make a match between their indignant friends William Wilberforce and Barbara Spooner.

Sense and Sensibility: 2008 Movie Adaptation

This is one of my reviews for the ‘Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011’ hosted by Laurel Ann of Austenprose. (Here is my introductory post: ‘By a Lady’.)

To begin on a positive note, there were several aspects that I liked about the 2008 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Both Elinor and Marianne seemed pretty close to the right age for their parts. The character Anne Steele made it in and was delightfully funny. There was some very pretty scenery and the music (by Martin Phipps) was beautiful.

The acting was good in this miniseries, though not excellent. Marianne acts like the fifteen or sixteen year old girl that she is, and Charity Wakefield does a good job of portraying her vulnerability, as well as her irritability and enthusiasm. She has at times, however, an artificial quality to her voice that is annoying, and her crying when she receives Willoughby’s letter (wasn’t it nice of him to send all of those lovely flower petals with his letter?) seems fake. She lacks the refinement, the elegance, the charm that Marianne had. Hattie Morahan plays a sensible Elinor, though with a little more of a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense manner than I imagined Elinor having. I can’t think of anything in particular that she did wrong, but somehow I found her characterization of Elinor to be rather uninspiring. There were a number of good scenes with her, however.

Dan Stevens played an Edward who was at times exuberant and confident, and at other times brooding and almost morose. He was handsome and dashing, but he wasn’t from the book. Dominic Cooper, on the other hand, played a rather non-dashing Willoughby. He seemed more of a spoiled kid than a romantic hero. He portrayed Willoughby’s impetuousness and selfishness and his love for Marianne well, though. David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon was interesting, although he brooded too much. His character was given several distasteful things to do, and I had to get over seeing him as Bradley Headstone (a part he acted in 1998 ‘Our Mutual Friend’), but other than that he was fine.

None of the comic characters besides Anne Steele were as funny as they ought to have been, though at times Sir John was quite amusing. Mrs. Jennings and the Palmers were very disappointing in the comedy department. None of John and Fanny Dashwood’s doings came across as amusing.

One of the advantages to this movie is that it is a mini-series and able to include a great deal of the book that the 1995 version was obliged to leave out. Here we are treated to views of a suitably apathetic Lady Middleton and her (albeit very tame) children, young Harry Dashwood (if you can call it a treat in this version), and a properly stiff and rude Mrs. Ferrars. We get to see Willoughby offer Marianne a horse, and take her around Allenham. We get to see Anne Steele spill the beans about Edward and Lucy in a delightfully funny scene. Even the duel is included!

What I thought strangest about this version were the number of elements that it shares with the 1995 version but that are not in the novel. The conversation between John and Fanny Dashwood about what to do for his step-mother and sisters takes place in a carriage on their way to Norland, instead of after she joins him at Norland. Margaret is made into a bit of a tomboy. Elinor explains to Margaret that houses go from father to son, that men inherit, not women — an oversimplification, as I discussed in my review of the 1995 version. Marianne’s hair is curly, while Elinor’s is not, and Fanny has little curls plastered around her forehead. There is a scene in the Norland library that involves Edward, Fanny, Margaret, and Elinor. Edward hits it off with Margaret (riding his horse with her in this version, sword fighting with her in the 1995 version, &c.). Edward gives Elinor a gift (his handkerchief, a book), and later Elinor sits (or stands) brooding by herself over this item. Edward actually seeks a private interview with Elinor before she leaves Norland, instead of avoiding being alone with her as he does in the book, and in both versions it is made to sound at first as if he is going to propose to her. Margaret does not want to go on the walk with Marianne that ends with Marianne spraining her ankle in the rain. Edward does not immediately notice Lucy when he comes to visit Elinor and Marianne in London. Marianne takes a walk in the rain at Cleveland and is rescued by Colonel Brandon. When Margaret announces that Edward is coming, in a scene near the end of the movie, everyone hurries out of aprons, &c. and rushes to the parlour to meet him. Since none of these elements are in the book, it looks as if in many ways the 2008 version was just copying the 1995 adaptation.

There were quite a few other bizarre facets to this version, as well. Marianne calls her sister-in-law “Aunt Fanny”, Fanny addresses her mother-in-law as “Mary”, and John Dashwood refers to Edward as Elinor’s “cousin”. Colonel Brandon seems to know something against Willoughby right from the beginning, and later asks him what his intentions towards Marianne are (to which Willoughby very reasonably replies, “What right have you to ask me?”). The single word “Willoughby” is enough to explain why a young woman is acting distressed. Fanny refers to Marianne as possibly being “damaged goods”. Marianne has time to fall in love with and get engaged to Colonel Brandon before Lucy marries Robert, thereby releasing Edward. (One wonders where they’ve been all this time.) Willoughby and Colonel Brandon are both given to acting like medical men — with Willoughby’s “I have experience in these things” and assurances to Mrs. Dashwood that Marianne’s is only a minor sprain and giving her the number of days it will take to heal and Brandon’s advice on how to take care of Marianne at Cleveland: “I’ve seen this too many times”. Mrs. Ferrars eats what appears to be gold-plated food.

The scene at the beginning of this mini-series was unnecessary and inappropriate. (It is a scene of Willoughby seducing Eliza.) Also inappropriate was having Colonel Brandon beginning to unfasten Marianne’s clothes when she is ill at Cleveland. He stops quickly, and leaves her to her sister, but it’s still repulsive. Also unpalatable was the whole Colonel Brandon taming Marianne theme at the end, where she is compared to a wild horse that will follow him because of his kindness and to a hawk that comes when he bids.

Besides the seduction scene at the beginning, other bad content includes some low cut dresses and a bit of swearing. There is also mention of a young girl having a child out of wedlock, mention of a young woman being “damaged goods”, and that sort of thing.

All-in-all, I was disappointed in this version. Though interesting to watch a few times, for me it is not a definitive version. It doesn’t even come close, and there are some aspects of it that really detract from its enjoyableness, as far as I’m concerned.

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This is a review of Sense and Sensibility 2008 – movie version, adapted by Andrew Davies.

Screencap of Marianne’s letters from angelfish_icons. Publicity shots from Period Films.