Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 12 2018 02:00PM

This business of Austen trend-spotting is getting to be exhausting.


Barely four months ago, I noted that the two-decade-long craze for adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels seems to have inaugurated a more recent craze for second-order Austen spinoffs: adaptations of works that are themselves Austen adaptations. Broaden the category to include films that constitute original works of fanfic -- one-and-a-half order adaptations? -- and the numbers multiply.


Before the year is out, we will have experienced (at least!) five second-ish-order spinoffs: an Off Broadway musical based on Clueless, the 1995 movie that updates the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills; a fifth-anniversary sequel to the web series Emma Approved; and no fewer than three Pride and Prejudice-inspired Hallmark movies (here, here, and -- before long -- here). And that's not even to mention the announced plans for a remake of Clueless; a movie version of Ayesha at Last, a P&P fanfic set among young Muslims in Toronto; and a filmed update of Persuasion.


Apparently, next year will bring more of the same: Lifetime, the TV channel famed for its tales about women in love, women in danger, and women in love with danger, has just promised us Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta. In this version of the story, the main characters are African-American, Mr. Bennet is a minister – call him Rev. Bennet – and his wife is in a rush to marry off her five daughters because she’s the author of a self-help marriage manual. (Shades of the 2003 P&P movie set among devout Mormons in contemporary Utah?)


I approach almost every new Austen project in a spirit of Christmas-in-July good cheer. Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta? I’m game! Good news: Tracy McMillan, a veteran TV writer whose wise and funny Huffington Post piece “Why You’re Not Married” went viral in 2011, is doing the screenplay! Hurrah! This could be awesome!


And what with the Ayesha At Last news and the September publication of Pride, billed as “a Pride and Prejudice remix” set among black and Latino teenagers in Brooklyn, that brings us to a total of three recent Austen fanfics revolving around characters of color. Don’t look now, but we may have a trend on our hands.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 8 2018 02:00PM

Back in middle and high school, I took French. In college, I took Italian. I enjoyed them both – beautiful languages, fascinating cultures and histories, great national literatures.


Alas, however, it seems I should have been studying Portuguese.


This belated realization came to me last week, when I learned that Brazilian TV had just concluded the six-month, hundred-hour run of a racy new early-evening soap opera, Orgulho e Paixão (Pride and Passion), that gleefully mingles characters and plot elements from four Jane Austen novels and the novella Lady Susan.


The adapters seem to have taken a few liberties with their source material, and not just in the title pairing. Although the story still concerns a family with five daughters to marry off, it’s set among early twentieth-century coffee barons in rural southern Brazil – “more Downton Abbey than Jane Austen,” writer Marcos Bernstein told the BBC.


In this version, two of the Benedito family’s girls hail from Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, and free-spirited Elisabeta has not only a love interest named Darcy but also a close friend named Ema.


Oh, and the proceedings also involve a pregnant Lydia-clone who abandons her groom at the altar, an Elisabeta who attends a party in male costume, a Bingley-equivalent who joins a fight club, and a Darcy who ventures down a mine -- not to mention a gay kiss and a scene in which a couple bathe together under a waterfall. All of it was shocking enough that Brazilian regulators deemed the program unsuitable for children.


OK, so it’s not a strictly faithful adaptation.


But come on – does this not sound wildly entertaining? It’s probably too late for me to learn Portuguese, but according to the BBC, the Jane Austen Society of Brazil (blog here, website here) now boasts four thousand members, making it among the largest Austen societies in the world. Surely someone in this group has a little free time on her hands and would like to spend it creating English subtitles for Orgulho e Paixão? Can you say "Janeite service project"?


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 5 2018 02:00PM

Emma really does seem to be having a moment.


Last week, I wrote about plans for both a new filmed adaptation of the novel and a remake of Amy Heckerling’s immortal Clueless, the 1995 movie that updated the story to high school in Beverly Hills. I’d already taken note of a musical version of Clueless, which is opening soon Off-Broadway.


But I’d missed the news of yet another Emma-influenced project: a five-year-anniversary sequel to the 2013-14 YouTube series Emma Approved, a modern-day update from the people who brought us The Lizzie Bennet Diaries a year earlier.


Although I was a big fan of LBD, which used a vlog format and a clever set of in-universe social media accounts to update the story of Pride and Prejudice to contemporary California, I was less enamored of Emma Approved. (And don’t even get me started on the team’s third Austen-related effort, Welcome to Sanditon.)


EA’s contemporary updating seemed less compelling to me, and Joanna Sotomura’s Emma Woodhouse – in this version, the head of a lifestyle/event planning company – really was a heroine that no one but her creators could much like.


It’s too early to tell if the sequel, whose first weekly installment was posted on October 8, will prove more successful, although I’ll admit to feeling a certain nostalgic fondness as the familiar characters made their appearances, in the old five-to-six-minute episode format.


While the LBD creators’ two follow-up series both engaged in occasional inter-novel crossovers – LBD’s Caroline Bingley character became the bride of EA’s Mr. Elton character, for example – that approach seems central to the new series. LBD’s Mr. Collins has already shown up as Emma’s newest client, and characters have darkly mentioned a professional disaster involving Anne Elliot. We could be in for a video-and-social-media version of the first-ever Jane Austen fanfic: Sybil G. Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies, the 1913 book that freely intermingles characters from different Austen novels.


The sequel is scheduled to run for two months – far shorter than the original, which comprised seventy-two biweekly episodes – but that could change: Pemberley Digital, the creator of the Auston vlog series, is seeking a thousand Patreon subscribers, for a monthly fee ranging from $5 to $100. If the crowdfunding works, the series – and Emma’s current moment -- will be extended.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 1 2018 01:00PM

Sometimes it feels as if only die-hard Janeites are still thinking about Jane Austen. And other times – like these past few weeks -- you’d think the whole world was composed of die-hard Janeites, given the sudden flurry of news about impending or recently released Austen-themed work.


Herewith a roundup:


1. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is set to star in a new adaptation of Emma, with a screenplay by New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton, the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize. There’s no shortage of Emmas – think Romola Garai in 2009, Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996, and Doran Godwin in 1972, not to mention Alicia Silverstone in 1995’s Clueless – but Janeites still disagree about whether the definitive adaptation has yet been made. I’d say there’s room for another version.


2. But is there room for another Clueless? Apparently, we’re going to find out: the writers of recent female-themed hits Girls Trip and GLOW plan to remake Amy Heckerling’s deathless film, which updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. I’m not sure why Clueless is suddenly hot again – a musical version opens Off Broadway next month – but personally I’m quite happy with the original, thank you very much.


3. Meanwhile, over in the world of books, an Italian artist named Manuela Santoni recently published Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper, a graphic novel for young adults based on Austen’s life. Judging from the online descriptions, the book sounds as if it owes more to the biopic Becoming Jane, with its highly speculative Tom-Lefroy-love-of-her-life-and-inspiration-for-Mr.-Darcy plotline, than to more sober biographical reflections. But the pictures look nice. . .


4. And speaking of highly speculative biography: In 2020, the British writer Gill Hornby will publish Miss Austen, a novel about Cassandra Austen and her relationship with her famous sister. The book by Hornby -- whose works of fiction and non-fiction include The Story of Jane Austen: The Girl with the Golden Pen, a 2005 Austen bio for kids -- will focus on Cassandra’s late-life decision to burn many of her sister’s letters, thus breaking the hearts of Janeites and biographers everywhere. I’m crossing my fingers that this won’t be yet another tale of Austen’s allegedly star-crossed love life, but – well, let’s just say I’m reserving judgment.


By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 29 2018 01:00PM

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. So perhaps the definition of Janeite insanity is repeatedly watching Austen-inspired Hallmark Channel movies and expecting them to be any good.


This rumination was occasioned by my Saturday night viewing of Christmas at Pemberley Manor, which kicked off Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas,” a dizzying series of holiday-themed entertainments scheduled to take us to the brink of the new year. Yes, October 27 seems early to launch – Halloween at Pemberley Manor would have been more like it – but the Christmas-industrial complex brooks no opposition to its saccharine imperium.


Hallmark is a recent convert to the Janeite cause. It’s less than three years since the channel aired Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a truly terrible Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world. Apparently, that offering was enough of a success that earlier this year, Hallmark felt compelled to give us an equally awful sequel, Marrying Mr. Darcy. And Pemberley Manor is only the first of the Austen-themed movies in this year’s “Countdown to Christmas”: the day after Thanksgiving, Hallmark will air Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, a gender-swapped update based on a fanfic of such execrable badness that even I may be unable to bring my usual sunny optimism to the enterprise.


But sufficient unto the day: for now, we are concerned with Pemberley Manor, which chronicles the romance between an event planner named Elizabeth Bennet and a titan of some indeterminate industry named William Darcy. They meet cute-ish over a coffee order and then bond when he agrees to let his palatial family home serve as the backdrop for the Christmas festival she is organizing in a Connecticut town whose Olde New Englande quaintness should make fans of Gilmore Girls feel right at home.


To be fair, the writing and acting on display here are an improvement over Unleashing Mr. Darcy. Alas, however, that’s a very low bar. The leads, TV actors Jessica Lowndes and Michael Rady, are professional, but it’s hard to believe that either of them hoped for roles like these when they dreamed of going into acting. (But hey – work is work. . .)


The story’s Austen connections are so tenuous that they barely deserve to be called perfunctory. Aside from the names of the protagonists, the Darcy homestead, and a few other characters – personal assistant Jane Lucas, overbearing boss Caroline Bingley, un-Wickham-like mayor George – not a shred of Austen’s story remains. (Although I give the writer props for calling the town Lambton – apparently, he did thumb through a dog-eared paperback of P&P.)


In place of Austen’s narrative, we have a bland and reassuring made-for-TV plot: Smart but pliant girl learns to stand up for herself while teaching successful but lonely workaholic guy that Love and Family are the Most Important Things. Phrases like “the magic of the holidays” and “Christmas miracle” are used repeatedly and without irony.


Even the now-classic first-they-hate-each-other-then-they-love-each-other rom-com template, itself lifted from Austen’s original, is barely gestured toward: Although Elizabeth and Darcy meet via an argument, it’s brief and good-natured, and before the movie is half over, they are decorating Christmas cookies and flirting adorably, with nary a hint of pride or prejudice in sight.


Nearly twenty-five years into Austen’s pop-culture renaissance, references to her most famous work now seem to function as a sort of all-purpose Romance Flavoring, a bit like a parsley garnish that can be sprinkled over almost any dish. Why do I keep hoping for more? Feel free to offer a diagnosis.


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