Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

As everyone who spent any time around me in the fall of 2005 knows, I couldn't stand the most recent film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It played up the dramatic aspects of the story and played down everything else. I thought it was too short to do the story justice. The casting was all wrong. (I’m not saying Mr. Darcy wasn’t very pretty, because he totally was, but prettiness isn’t everything.) The whole thing felt like a commercial for a longer, better movie—one that would actually make sense—and I found it massively irritating.

But that was nothing compared to the way I hated Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film version of Austen’s Mansfield Park.

Mansfield Park is not my favorite Austen novel. It lacks the wry humor of Pride and Prejudice, and I find its heroine more difficult to understand than Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. It’s a serious, complicated story about a serious, complicated young woman. It’s not an easy novel to love, even for a hardcore Austen geek like me, but it deserves more respect than Rozema gave it.

Mansfield Park opens with nine-year-old Fanny Price, the eldest daughter of a large, impoverished family, being sent away to live at Mansfield Park with her uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, and her cousins: Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. Quiet and awkward, Fanny is not a charming child, and she’s far from happy in her new home. Her aunt is lazy and self-centered, her uncle is extremely anxious that she remember her “place” as a B-grade member of the family, and Tom, Maria, and Julia are largely indifferent to her. Her only friend is sweet-natured, understanding Edmund.

The novel moves briskly from Fanny’s childhood to her young adult years. At eighteen, Fanny is still shy and silent, but she has quietly carved out her own place at Mansfield Park. She serves as her aunt’s companion, and she is secretly and hopelessly in love with Edmund. Her life is boring, and seems likely to remain so—until the rich, charming, unprincipled Crawford siblings move into the neighborhood, Sir Thomas leaves for a lengthy business trip, and her cousins go wild. Maria and Julia are desperate to secure Mr. Crawford’s attentions, and Edmund develops a massive crush on Miss Crawford. Unwilling to join in the general disintegration of morality and common sense (and equally unwilling to criticize anyone else’s behavior), Fanny grows increasingly isolated.

This is the point where the movie totally loses it.

Ms. Rozema said in interviews that she thought Fanny was a holier-than-thou doormat (I'm paraphrasing), so she went ahead and completely changed the character, making her a sharp-tongued, sprightly young woman who secretly dreams of becoming a writer. Rozema also spiced things up by borrowing lines of dialogue from Austen’s personal correspondence and sticking in situations from Austen’s life—most notably by inventing a scene where Fanny accepts a marriage proposal from Mr. Crawford and then changes her mind the next day.

I am not a literary purist. Nobody who reads as much Draco/Ginny Harry Potter fanfiction as I do has the right to get worked up over a risqué literary interpretation. But I do object to adaptations that show no respect for their source material, and everything about Rozema’s Mansfield Park proved the director neither liked nor understood the novel. Fanny is timid, but she isn't holier-than-thou or a doormat—she's a master at picking her battles. Fanny will submit to anyone, as long as they don’t ask her to compromise her principles. When someone does ask her to lower her moral standards she becomes as stubborn as a pig, but she does so without Clarrisa-esque sanctimoniousness.

If somebody wants to make a movie about a spunky young woman in Regency England—swell, go for it. But don’t adapt Mansfield Park. (Adapt Emma instead! Or a Georgette Heyer novel!) But if someone truly wants to put their own stamp on Mansfield Park, then I have a suggestion: change the ending. Austen makes it pretty clear that if Edmund had just worked up the guts to propose to Miss Crawford, Fanny would have accepted Mr. Crawford’s proposal and he would have been devoted to her. Just imagine what an awesome ending that would have been! Fanny would have been happy, beloved, and rich. Maria and Julia would have been sick with jealousy. The attractive but irritatingly gormless Edmund (who was played by the attractive but irritatingly gormless actor Jonny Lee Miller, in the movie version’s one stroke of casting genius) would have eventually noticed his wife’s hit-or-miss moral sense and been deeply unhappy, which was no less than he deserved for being such a wishy-washy tool. That’s the kind of Austen fanfic I'd pay good money for.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


01 Jul, 2006 05:09 AM @ version 0

'Mansfield Park' may be a secret work of genius, but DAMN is it ever tough to love....

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