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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, September 23, 2013

Austenland: The Movie was Fun, but the Novel was Better [SPOILER ALERT as to both]

Part One: Austenland The Film

My wife and I went to see Austenland on Saturday, and, given that my expectations were not high, based on what I had read about it beforehand, I was not disappointed, in fact it exceeded my expectations.  In a nutshell, the movie was unpretentious fun, and I did not find myself squirming and checking my IPhone for the time, despite its being a light confection. It maintained a charming silliness much of the time, with a handful of short, serious scenes, so it did not bother me that, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, it was no Bridget Jones Diary, nor was it a Clueless.  

So, even though it is not inspired the way those two earlier modernizing Austen spinoffs both were, I would still recommend Austenland to anyone, especially a Janeite, looking for a light comedy that will not offend one’s sensibilities with mean-spirited attempts at humor, and that instead will actually generate occasional unforced laughter and still rarer speculations about what it means.

One thing which apparently eluded all mainstream film reviewers, but which would be obvious to any Janeite watching the film, is that the story line manages to pick up on important elements from each of the Austen novels. So Janeites who are paying attention to those resonances are going to see a different movie than other viewers for that very reason. While the modernized Darcy-Elizabeth-Wickham love triangle will be obvious from the getgo, there’s much more than that, showing that Shannon Hale really did read Austen’s novels, and thought about them a lot, and did not just watch P&P2 a hundred times.

One favorite sly allusion, which only occurred to me today as I was writing this review, is when the heroine Jane Hayes’s petticoats wind up ripped down to a shockingly small size while she’s riding a horse. This must remind the true Janeite of Lydia Bennet boasting about a great slit in her gown. That’s pretty clever, and nicely done, not heavy handed at all.

That sort of genuine literary resonance is what interests me most about a spinoff from Austen’s fiction--it can function as a kind of veiled commentary on the novels, and sometimes shed surprising light. For example, much is made in Austenland about the difficulty in assessing when a person is “acting” (performing, playing a role) vs. when one is being “real”—I thought that theme was fairly well handled, and of course this theme is most resonant to the Lovers Vows episode in Mansfield Park. If this film drives a Janeite back to Mansfield Park to revisit the infinitely masterful and complex way that Jane Austen addresses that same theme, then that would be a very good thing.

And a final word (as to the film) about Jennifer Coolidge, who has perhaps gotten the most attention, both negative and positive, from reviewers, for her broad but still PG-13 portrayal of the sexually charged-up “Miss Charming”. To me, Coolidge’s character, like the character of the supersexy military man who shows up at Pembrook Park looking like he wandered in from a Chippendale’s club, was a net negative for the film. Not because I am prudish, because I’m the opposite—but because she raised the sexual farce-meter too high for too little benefit, comedy-wise.

But now to turn to Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel which the film adapted.

Austenland: The Novel:

I quickly picked up a copy of the novel at my local library after watching the movie, because I was curious to see how it was altered from page to screen, and if so, was it a dumbing down—turns out that in some ways that is exactly what happened, despite Shannon Hale remaining on as a co-screenwriter.

Most significantly, in the novel, the heroine is a 32-year old woman who is successful professionally working in a man’s world, i.e., she is not living hand to mouth. In the movie, she is impecunious, such that when she pays for the Austenland experience, she is going to be broke. Plus, the novel heroine does not even pay for the trip, it’s a bequest to her from her recently deceased great aunt.

So, in a way, that makes Jane Hayes’s choice much less interesting, because in the film she really isn’t making it on her own, while in the novel she mostly is. Plus, there is no stratification of levels of pampering at Pembrook Park I could detect in my quick skim of the novel, which is heavily emphasized in the film, in order to further emphasize the heroine’s lack of financial resources.

Wikipedia tells me that both Shannon Hale, the author of the novel and the co-screenwriter, and Jerusha Hess, the film director and screen writer, are Mormons living in Utah, both married women with young children. From looking over some of Hale’s recent Tweets, I get the sense that she is catching flak from conservative viewers who think the film is too racy. How sad, this film is an innocent as grass.

And I wonder how much of that sort of conservative pressure has made the fimmakers feel they needed to underscore the patriarchal message that is conveyed pretty emphatically in the film, which is that young women ought to get married to the good men who are often right under their noses, and get over impossible fantasies of waiting for the perfect man or of living a life without a man in the house.

To encapsulate what happened from page to screen---Jane Hayes in the novel has a hundred books about Jane Austen, and has read The Mysteries of Udolpho. Whereas Jane Hayes in the movie has a Mr. Darcy lifesize cardboard figure in her bedroom—that tells you all you need to know right there.

As to the patriarchal message of the film (and to a lesser extent the novel), those who read my opinions about Jane Austen will anticipate my reaction to that “get married already!” theme in Austenland, which is that the desperate rush to get married is the furthest thing from what Jane Austen herself believed was good for young women, even in the much more sexist society she lived in, when gentlewomen like Jane Austen herself had few chances to support themselves financially.  

And so what happens in the novel, more so than in the film, is that a young woman is essentially tricked out of her independence and led to fall in love with a man who is a performer (although at the end he tells her he was not acting).  Jane’s acceptance of her suitor at the end doesn’t work for me.

I wish I could find in Hale’s novel some sign that she was troubled by this turn of events, but I can’t. And the movie is ten times more troubling in that regard than the novel, because it ducks that point entirely and goes straight to the “happy ending” of true love.  

Oh, one other interesting resonance to Jane Austen’s novels that is also worth noting by a Janeite reading the novel. The heroine’s great aunt Carolyn in the novel sounds a lot to me like the Lady Catherine of Aldous Huxley’s 1940 P&P, in that she might seem to be a kind of secret matchmaker for her great-niece, while being secretive about it.  With my love of shadows, I can’t help but wonder whether Hale intended that sly allusion, and whether we are supposed to wonder whether the great aunt told Mrs. Wattlebrook all about Jane Hayes, and also probably paid extra for Jane to have a unique experience at Pembrook Park, without telling Jane about it, of course. But that’s all gone in the movie.

And I also can’t help but wonder whether Hale intended Mrs. Wattlebrook (played by Jane Seymour in the film) to be seen as being in the same relationship to Jane Hayes as Jane Austen is to her readers—i.e., providing an immersive experience in which she repeatedly leads her reader/client down a garden path of making something seem "real" (the overt story) while actually it is all stage managed, to conceal the actual "reality" (the shadow story).  And that line of inquiry leads, in ways I will write about in my book, deep into the shadows of Jane Austen’s writing.

But what is most fascinating to me in this regard is that Shannon Hale does not appear in any way to have intended this double structure. I searched for the “bread crumbs” in the novel text, the kind that Jane Austen left everywhere in her novels, and I mostly didn’t see them. Nor did any of Hale’s interviews give any hint of such sly subversiveness on her part.  So, if it is there at all, and I really am uncertain even about it, then it appears to be totally unconscious on her part.

And I conclude by observing that if anyone was looking for insight into Austen obsession, they won’t find it in Austenland, either the novel or the film. For that I recommend you read books like Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites, which, as many of you know, includes a chapter about my own Austen obsession:

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: It only occurred to me the morning after seeing the film that there was one very sly bit of wordplay in the novel that deserves a small round of applause. The hero (played in the film by J.J. Feild, who, in my opinion, gave far and away the best performance in the film, with Keri Russell a distant second), was in the novel named Henry Jenkins, playing the role of the faux-Darcyish “William Nobley” at Pembrook Park.  So because of this duality, we might fairly refer to Fields’s character m as” Jenkins/Nobley”. So what, you ask? Well, if you abbreviate that linked pair of names down to “J. Nobley”, then, when you speak it out loud,  and if you, like the heroine of Austenland, are a fan of professional basketball, as I am, then you will hear “J NOBLEY”, which sounds exactly like “Ginobili”.

And the last name of one of the three stars of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, who just happened to win the NBA Championship in 2007, the year Hale’s novel was published, is Manu GINOBILI, pronounced Gee-noble-ee!

Think I’m reaching for that one? Well, consider that in both the novel and the film, we have a scene in which the heroine and the “gardener” (straight out of Lady Chatterley’s Lover) briefly listen to….an NBA basketball game while she is visiting him illicitly in his room!  That’s proof enough for me!  ;)

1 comment:

Cathy By said...

I found your last comment about the "shadow structure" most interesting, because while the novel doesn't lent itself to that reading, the film does. Mrs Wattlesbrook in the film clearly sees something is happening between Jane and Henry. In the book, Henry gets on the flight Jane gets onto, in the film he goes to her apartment. How does he know where it is? The most likely source for that address is Mrs W. I imagine her leaving it in his path rather than it being handed over directly.

I also think elements of both the film and the book undermine the idea Jane is tricked out of her independence. In the book, Jane is much more cautious. She falls for Henry's "fine eyes" only on the plane.

In the film, while Jane is falling in love earlier, Henry is authentic throughout. Even his name IS his actual real name (unlike the book). Even the book he reads: to my eye that gold embossed image on the front looks contemporary. If you spot the title, "Ethical Dilemmas in Elizabethan Crop Production", it looks very like Henry (the historian) is reading for work in the drawing room. (About dispossession and famine, which is a nice touch.) I would see Henry acting generally as he would (note all the little meaningful glances Mrs W throws at him), just couched in more "Regency appropriate" language. Henry in the book plainly IS acting quite often.

On the other hand, there are points at which the book Henry certainly isn't, one being the reading of Sterne's "Sentimental Journey". It is deeply appropriate that that book is referenced. Sterne publicised "sensibility" where the importance of ones own fine emotions is paramount. "Sentimental Journey" both displays "sentiment" as a kind of social pathology as well as delivering it. (Eagleton describes Sterne as a "self-conscious consumer of finer feelings".)

Austenland is a Sternean enterprise. It's false, and those involved know its false, but they go there to indulge their emotions and feel all the excitement of falling in love, without the love. As such, ironically enough, it runs counter to Austen's own thinking. It's the kind of thing Lydia (in one way) and Marianne (in another) might have enjoyed. (In fact, Jane Seymour's Mrs W is very much an older Lydia Wickham imo.)

In the film, Jane is a slave to the "feelings" evoked by constant watching of Colin Firth. When Henry asks if he has any hope at the end, she realises how empty Austenland is (as Molly, the married pregnant friend already knew she would) and goes for what she thinks is real. At the airport she rejects the Sternean "emotional consumption" and at home cleans away the sentiment she had been clinging to along with her china dolls.

Before reading the book version, the film reminded me a little of "Northanger Abbey". It's the same Sternean dilemma - it's not that novels or P&P adaptations are a problem, but indulging your emotions and your fantasies recklessly is. I've since learned that Feild was cast based on his role in the 2007 adaptation and parallels between that film and this are even more marked. "Perhaps there is much a thing as too much novel reading" could be a criticism of Austenland. But Jane is in even a worse state than Felicity Jones' Catherine - Catherine senses the truth even if in melodramatic terms, Jane misses it.

"Emma" provides another parallel: lost in romancing Emma doesn't understand the relationship between her and Knightly, just as Jane doesn't understand the relationship between her and Nobley (we see what you did there, Shannon Hale!)

This comment is overly long. If you have read this far, thank you for your indulgence.

A long-term Austen fan, who is interested in 18th century philosophy!