Deborah Yaffe

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Remaking an icon

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 14 2017 01:00PM

Unless you’ve spent the past week entirely absorbed in stocking your fallout shelter with canned goods, you’ve probably heard that a fearless band of TV producers has announced plans for the unthinkable: a television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that doesn’t star Colin Firth.


By now, it is de rigueur for adapters of much-adapted classics to explain how their new versions will uncover Hidden Depths or Heretofore Unsuspected Resonances in some apparently familiar work.


When Andrew Davies wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s now-iconic 1995 P&P, starring Firth and Jennifer Ehle, he wanted an adaptation that was vigorous and outdoorsy. (Jane Austen can be sexy! Who knew?) When Joe Wright made his 2005 feature film, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, he wanted an adaptation that was muddy and earthbound. (Jane Austen can be messy! Who knew?)


This time around, the people involved say they want an adaptation that is edgy and grownup. (Jane Austen can be dark! Who knew?)


"Pride and Prejudice is actually a very adult book, much less bonnet-y than people assume," says the proposed screenwriter, the British playwright Nina Raine, whose most recent theatrical work centers on a murky rape case. "I hope I do justice to Austen’s dark intelligence – sparkling, yes, but sparkling like granite.”


Although AustenBlog’s indispensable Maggie Sullivan is already taking her Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness out of mothballs, in preparation for whacking any idiocy that may appear onscreen – and although I’ll cop to some skepticism over whether a British woman over forty can really never have seen an adaptation of P&P, as Raine claims -- I’m willing to reserve judgment.


Jane Austen can be dark! And also sexy and messy! (As well as the opposite of all of those, since she is a multifaceted writer whose many dimensions are seldom captured perfectly in any screen adaptation, no matter how well-done.) Unlikely as it seems that a new version will be “the definitive adaptation for the twenty-first century,” rather than another forgettable reboot, we can always hope.


No, what really concerns me is the previous work of some members of the team behind this new P&P. Mammoth Screen, the production company, is best-known for making the soapy Victoria and Poldark series – both highly entertaining, but both lacking anything like Austen’s subtlety. And the new adaptation will air on ITV, the British TV channel known for a more populist and commercial sensibility than the historically upper-crust and staid BBC, which made the six previous English-language TV adaptations of the novel.


Nothing wrong with populism and commercialism, except that ITV’s track record for Austen adaptations – it released three in 2007 -- is decidedly mixed. On the plus side, ITV made the well-cast Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones in a competent if imperfect Davies script that some criticized for injecting extra sensuality into the novel.


On the decidedly negative side, however, ITV is also responsible for two of the worst-ever Austen adaptations. How to forget that embarrassing Persuasion, featuring poor Sally Hawkins racing through the streets of Bath in an unforgivable travesty of the book’s sublime ending? Or that execrable Mansfield Park, starring the miscast Billie Piper and her all-too-ubiquitous cleavage -- Fanny Price as St. Pauli Girl?


The mind reels at the prospect of a P&P put through a similar meatgrinder. Thank God the Cluebat stands at the ready.


6 comments
Aug 14 2017 03:07PM by Maggie Sullivan

I LIVE TO SERVE, MA'AM

Listen, I'll be the first to be delighted if it turns out to be great, and will sing and dance online about it. And I promise I'm being open-minded (I always am, really). But as you pointed out, the track record of the companies involved is not great. As entertaining as Downton Abbey was, it was basically a soap opera with awesome costumes. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not Jane Austen.

Aug 14 2017 05:19PM by dyaffe

So true, on every level! Hoping for the best but dreading the worst. . .

Aug 14 2017 05:26PM by Kathleen Flynn

I was perplexed at how never having seen an earlier adaptation was somehow presented as a good thing for the person who is going to set about making one. Would we apply a similar logic to brain surgery?

Aug 14 2017 07:53PM by Lona Manning

I'm guessing they'll add some Longbourn-like social realism, with servants and poverty, so Elizabeth Bennet comes off more like Marie Antoinette.

Aug 17 2017 11:28AM by dyaffe

Ha! Exactly. What's funny is how often different adaptations put in the same not-in-JA elements: e.g., both Emma Thompson and Andrew Davies, in their S&S adaptations, have scenes of Edward being nice to little sister Margaret, and of Col. Brandon rescuing Marianne when she wanders around outside pining for Willoughby. It will be interesting to see if this new P&P also replicates some of the things added to earlier versions, such as Davies' use of Darcy's POV.

Aug 17 2017 11:31AM by dyaffe

Yes, I too was thinking that Longbourn might be the template here. Lots of references to the Napoleonic wars, militia soldiers being flogged, Lydia in London seeing the prostitutes that she's in danger of joining, etc. It might be fine, but it will be beside the point if the central relationships aren't done well.

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