Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Janespotting: Mansfield Park (1999 film)

After the success of 1995's films of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion and miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, and 1996's Emmas (TV and film), I'm sure someone thought it would be a great idea to delve into the rest of Austen's oeuvre. But what to choose? Northanger Abbey was full of all that weird Gothic stuff, so Mansfield Park was the only complete novel left. "Fanny Price is such a dreary character, though," I imagine the producers saying. "Not suited for our modern audience at all. Can we give her a little more zazz? Maybe sex it up a little bit?" Viewing the resulting 1999 film of Mansfield Park, I don't think that imaginary conversation is too off the mark.

The first clue as to the "zazzed" nature of this version is on the outside of the DVD box, where it gives the rating of PG-13. The second occurs less than two minutes into the opening credits, where it says the film is based on the novel Mansfield Park by Jane Austen and "on her journals and letters." The film opens with the juvenile Fanny Price telling a fanciful story to her younger sister Susan on the day she is to be taken to the Bertram family at Mansfield Park. After she arrives there and Mrs. Norris argues in front of Sir Thomas that she had not intended to keep Fanny at her home, Fanny tries to interject a comment before being shushed. In the next scenes that show Fanny growing up at Mansfield Park, we see her writing letters with clever observances to her sister Susan, reading aloud her writing to her cousin Edmund (including a short history of England similar to the one Austen herself wrote in her youth), and horsing around with Edmund to the extent that Sir Thomas has to reprimand her for her high spirits. Clearly, this is not Austen's Fanny Price, but a Fanny Price who more closely resembles Austen herself.

The plot moves along very similarly to the book; the few omissions (brother William Price, the outing to Sotherton) are less obnoxious than the total inversion of Fanny's character. (That's not to say that the omissions aren't obnoxious; we see so little of Henry Bertram interacting with Maria and Julia before Maria's marriage that we don't get a sense of how wrong his flirtations with them have been, something that supposedly undermines Fanny's later distrust of him.) We don't see Fanny refusing to participate in the play (we see little of the play anyway), because how could an aspiring novelist who names her horse Shakespeare so thoroughly revile another form of literature? When Sir Thomas returns from Antigua and declares that Fanny should have a ball in her honor, she runs from the room—and not because she is shy and uncomfortable of attention, but because she will not be displayed like a horse at market. Finally, when Fanny refuses Henry Crawford's offer of marriage, it immediately angers Sir Thomas, who threatens to send her to Portsmouth unless she complies, and Fanny defiantly replies, "I will not." This is quite a change from the book, where Sir Thomas tells her to her face that "You will have nothing to fear, or to be agitated about. You cannot suppose me capable of trying to persuade you to marry against your inclinations," and plans the trip to Portsmouth as time for her to enjoy William's company and perhaps reconsider Crawford's offer.

So now we have a forthright, defiant, proto-feminist Fanny in Portsmouth, where she receives further attentions from Crawford with some confusion. She claims she will not marry him, but after receiving a letter from Edmund in which he calls Mary Crawford "the only woman in the world whom I could ever think of as a wife," she changes her mind and accepts him. Then, after a sleepless night, she once again rejects Henry, infuriating him and sending him away and setting him up for Maria's clutches. While this incident is taken from Austen's own life—she entered into an engagement, only to change her mind the next morning—it is completely contrary to the steadfastness that is the chief essence of Fanny's character.

Despite her recalcitrant refusals, Fanny is called home to Mansfield to help nurse her cousin Tom back to health after he has been in a drunken accident. Here is where we get into the very un-Austenish PG-13 territory. First, Fanny runs across a series of drawings that Tom made while Antigua that are shocking in their depictions of slavery and slave conditions. (Apparently Tom is an artist, and while I find interesting this version's intimation that Tom's wild behavior is due to his guilt over what he has seen on the family plantation in Antigua, added to all the other crazy changes it's just too much.) Second, Henry Crawford is staying at the Park at the invitation of Sir Thomas, and one morning while up early to attend to Tom, Fanny runs across Henry making love—naked breasts and everything!—to the visiting Maria.

The end is close enough to the book: Mary Crawford reveals her shallowness, Edmund sends her away, and eventually makes a lovely declaration to Fanny. Of course, this was never in doubt, for unlike the book, this film makes frequent reference to Edmund's feelings for Fanny throughout. Very nice, but not enough to make up for all the trashing of the original plot and characters.

All these complaints are not to say that the movie wasn't good; the production values were excellent, and the acting was good overall. Frances O'Connor was charming as Jane Aust—I mean, Fanny Price, and Jonny Lee Miller made a suitable Edmund.* Most interesting was Harold Pinter—yes, that Harold Pinter, the playwright and Nobel Prize winner—as a very scary and stern Sir Thomas. It wasn't a bad film, but it wasn't a true Austen adaptation. Give it a different title—Fanny Price, maybe—and say "inspired by the works" of Austen, and I wouldn't get so up in arms. As it stands, though, I can understand those fans who consider this film a travesty unworthy of the name of Austen. If you loved the book, you'd probably be too shocked to enjoy this movie at all.

*Interesting trivia: Miller played a minor role as a Price brother in the 1983 MP at age 11, and would go on to play Mr. Knightley in the 2009 TV version of Emma. Also, the actress who played Maria played Henrietta Musgrove in an earlier Persuasion and Mrs. Forster in the P&P mini, and the actor who played Mr. Rushworth would later play Mr. Bennet in Lost in Austen. Stick around British television long enough, and you'll end up in multiple Austens, I guess.


  1. I preferred it to the novel.

  2. I have my complaints about the 1999 movie, even if I enjoyed it. But I'm not that fond of Austen's original novel. Both the movie and the novel have problems . . . and most of them have to do with the Crawfords.