Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 2 2018 01:00PM

We journalists like to joke that once you have three examples of something – avocado toast! Suburban sex-toy parties! -- you can write a story declaring said phenomenon to be “a trend.” Thus it is that I feel completely justified in declaring that second-order Jane Austen spinoffs -- adaptations of Austen adaptations – officially constitute a trend.

Herewith the crucial three data points:

1. Last month, the Hallmark Channel subjected us to Marrying Mr. Darcy, the limp sequel to Unleashing Mr. Darcy, its execrable 2016 filmed version of a novel setting Pride and Prejudice in the contemporary dog-show world.

2. This fall, an off-Broadway theater plans to premier Clueless: The Musical, featuring classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics written by Amy Heckerling, the auteur behind the beloved 1995 movie that updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills.

3. Perhaps inspired by the success, if such it can be called, of dog-show Darcy, Hallmark has announced plans for a Christmas movie entitled Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, “a Yuletide-themed, gender-swapping update of the classic Jane Austen novel,” according to Entertainment Weekly.

This movie too is based on Austen fanfic – a book of the same title by Melissa de la Cruz, whose Amazon listing reveals her to be the hard-working author of dozens of novels on subjects ranging from bikini-clad au pairs to time-traveling witches to Alexander Hamilton’s love life. I haven’t read any of her stuff, but P&P&M is on my Kindle as of today. (I always prefer to read the book before seeing the movie. And you know I'll see the movie.)

Et voilà – three examples, and thus a trend.

Now that I think about it, I may even be a bit late in my trend-spotting. After all, it’s been nearly four years since the BBC brought us a filmed version of Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’ murder-mystery-themed Pride and Prejudice sequel. Yes, the book was terrible and the movie only marginally better – but that’s not enough to stop a speeding trend in its tracks.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 4 2018 01:00PM

Every now and again, along comes a Jane Austen adaptation, spinoff, or fanfic that, in its wishful thinking and reassuring punch-pulling, reminds us by contrast of how fearlessly unsentimental Austen is. Some of these remixes are pretty good (see under: Sittenfeld, Curtis). And some, like the movies with which I spent this past Saturday night, are pretty godawful.

In my continued pursuit of Jane Austen video completism – and in an effort to warn other Janeites before they commit themselves -- I curled up with a bowl of popcorn to watch the Hallmark Channel’s Marrying Mr. Darcy. But I didn’t stop there. Courtesy of Hallmark’s schedulers, I spent the preceding two hours re-watching the 2016 movie to which this one is a sequel: Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a Pride and Prejudice update set in the dog-show world.

You’re welcome.

Blog readers may recall that I was not a fan of either the first movie or the book on which it was based, and I cannot say that the movie improves with age: The acting is still wooden, the writing still execrable, the production values still bargain-basement. If I found it less offensive this time around, it was only because I was prepared.

Unleashing Mr. Darcy tells the story of the romance between perky Elizabeth Scott (Cindy Busby), unjustly fired from her teaching job at a posh D.C. high school, and rich-‘n’-handsome Donovan Darcy (Ryan Paevey), dog-show judge, successful businessman, devoted big brother, and – just for good measure – selfless philanthropist.

After several occasions of inexplicable, unmotivated hostility and rudeness on her part, the two bond over their shared love of Cavalier King Charles spaniels and patch up their differences in one of those climactic public reconciliations, complete with applause from an audience of strangers, that happen so often in the movies and so seldom in real life.

Marrying Mr. Darcy picks up the romance some indeterminate number of months later, the passage of time signified by the altered hairstyles of several of the main characters and the presence of a completely different actress playing Donovan’s younger sister, Zara. After a kissy-face proposal, we quickly find ourselves in the midst of that hoary sitcom plot staple: We Wanted a Small, Simple Wedding, But Everything Seems To Be Spinning Out of Control.

Leading the charge toward a wedding featuring a designer gown, a society church, and a guest list in the hundreds is Donovan’s Aunt Violet, our stand-in for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In the first movie, the veteran actress Frances Fisher tries valiantly to have fun with the role of an icy, manipulative villainess determined to scotch her nephew’s interest in the déclassé Elizabeth, but she is stymied by the egregious writing, which gives her little to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into.

At least, though, Unleashing Mr. Darcy allows her to be a villain. Marrying Mr. Darcy has a position to maintain: It’s the inaugural offering in Hallmark’s feel-good June Weddings series. Thus, it must follow the template of the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson Pride and Prejudice in giving Austen’s arrogant, tyrannical Lady Catherine a heart of gold. Or, to quote Zara, “Aunt Violet, I’ve always known it. You’re just a softie underneath.”

And so Marrying presents us with a Violet who apologizes for trying to sabotage the Elizabeth-Donovan romance, gives her future niece-in-law heirloom family jewelry, and helps bring the young lovers together after a temporary estrangement. She’s sorry for interfering, she explains, but she still remembers Donovan as a heartbroken, newly orphaned nineteen-year-old. (Perhaps Aunt Violet has incipient Alzheimer’s? Those of us who had tuned in for the reprise of Unleashing Mr. Darcy had just been told that Darcy was twenty-one when he lost his parents in a tragic, yet unintentionally hilarious, boating accident.)

The new movie includes flashes of the Aunt Violet we could love to hate. Informed of Elizabeth’s shocking plan to return to her teaching career post-wedding, Violet purrs, in full 1950s Good Housekeeping mode, “That’s who you were. Now you will be Mrs. Donovan Darcy. That’s a very important full-time job.”

Alas, these hints of a more entertaining movie struggling to break out of the saccharine handcuffs go nowhere. Instead, it’s typical romcom fare, Billionaire Boyfriend division (“The Louvre may approve an after-hours visit for your honeymoon!” Darcy’s helpful assistant informs him.)

But Darcy is no Christian Gray: This is a strictly TV-G enterprise, and therefore, although both Donovan and Elizabeth are over thirty and have no discernible religious convictions, they maintain chastely separate residences, and their relationship shows no signs of having progressed below the neck. Like everything else about these movies, the prevailing temperature is tepid.

While the bland safety of these films is, of course, typical of the made-for-TV romance genre, it’s precisely not typical of the ruthlessly realistic Jane Austen. She has no qualms about leaving Lady Catherine as overbearing and snobbish at the end of Pride and Prejudice as she was at the beginning, even if the pragmatic Elizabeth does eventually engineer a reconciliation. It’s too bad that so many of Austen’s adapters don’t understand the very things about her that keep us coming back.

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 28 2016 02:00PM

In Jane Austen’s novels, the quest for a suitable marriage partner is serious business. By law, Regency women surrendered most of their economic and domestic power when they married, so it was crucial to pick a decent, trustworthy husband. In Austen’s courtship stories, the stakes are lifelong happiness or perpetual misery. This is not a game, people!

Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped any number of Janeite entrepreneurs from creating Austen-inspired games. There’s the charmingly low-tech Pride and Prejudice board game, which requires players to answer P&P trivia questions while racing to get both halves of an Austen couple to the church on time. There’s the more up-to-date Ever Jane, the MMPORG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game), currently in beta testing, whose final version is scheduled to launch next year.

And there’s Marrying Mr. Darcy, an outrageously entertaining cards-and-dice game that is this month’s entry in my Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 filling holes in my Janeite education. (OK, OK: playing Austen games isn’t, strictly speaking, educational. But I refuse to apologize for having fun.)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I played Marrying Mr. Darcy twice – once with two players and once with four, including a tolerant college-age male who gamely adopted the role of Georgiana Darcy, winning the weekend’s Good Sport Award.

Marrying Mr. Darcy involves two stages of play, Courtship and Proposal. During the Courtship stage, players embodying one of eight female characters from P&P take turns following the instructions on Event cards covering everything from parties to gambling games to scandalous elopements. Along the way, everyone tries to collect adequate numbers of Character cards awarding points in five crucial areas: Beauty, Wit, Friendliness, Reputation and Cunning.

In the Proposal stage, players take turns weighing offers of marriage from six male P&P characters, with a dice roll determining whether he proposes or passes. Turn down Mr. Collins, and – as he pointed out to Elizabeth Bennet on a parallel occasion – “in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you.” And then you could end up an Old Maid, with another roll of the die determining whether “you live a short, lonely, and bitter life” (for zero points) or “become a celebrated author” (for ten).

Victory goes to the player with the most points, calculated by combining your Character score with your reward for marrying well. The highest number of marriage points is awarded to characters who marry as Jane Austen intended: Elizabeth Bennet gets fifteen points for landing Mr. Darcy, but only five if she settles for Wickham.

It’s a cheerful diversion, lasting just long enough to pass the time on a quiet evening, but not so long that it requires blocking out a whole afternoon. The cards are attractively designed, with character illustrations that seem intended to recall some of our favorite screen adaptations, and for the most part, game play is intuitive and easy to master.

What the Austen-ignorant would make of the game, I can’t say – all my fellow players had read P&P -- but for a Janeite, the game’s pleasures lie in the small details: the quotes from P&P slipped into the Event cards (one entitling you to a second shot at a proposal from a refused suitor is titled “It is usual to reject the addresses of a man when he first applies for your favor”), and the elements of play that suggest the game’s creators have read their Austen (a card titled “Call on Maria Lucas” gives a bonus to the player impersonating Kitty Bennet).

At the risk of overthinking what is, after all, Just A Game, I also found some unexpected Austenian resonance in the game’s structure.

Dowries are foundational but seldom mentioned – except when ties are resolved in favor of the character with the larger one – and heroines have almost no opportunities to increase the dowry points they’re awarded at the start (one for the Bennet sisters, four for Georgiana Darcy). Luck plays a major role in determining whether you amass enough beauty and reputation points to satisfy a high-status suitor. Cunning is deployed in the service of undermining female rivals and increasing the odds of a proposal from a desirable suitor. And the all-or-nothing dice roll that decides your marital fate – along with the concomitant risk of choosing to reject a lower-status man in hopes of landing a better prospect down the line -- is a fair analogue of the high-stakes decisions that confront Austen’s heroines.

I don’t want to overstate the parallels here: Austen surely wouldn’t consider beauty to be a matter of character, and she wouldn’t think of friendliness and wit as qualities entirely determined by chance. Her people grow and change through humbling trials and painful reflection, not on the turn of a card. Marrying Mr. Darcy is a delightful game. Pride and Prejudice is more than that.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 22 2014 02:00PM

Just in time for Christmas, I’ve become aware of the existence of not one but two new-ish (less than two years old) Jane Austen-related card games: Jane Austen’s Matchmaker, designed by Richard Wolfrik Galland; and Marrying Mr. Darcy, designed by Erika Svanoe.

I haven’t ordered either of these for myself yet – consider that a hint if you’re still looking for my holiday gift – but judging from their web sites, they seem to mine similar territory.

Both are designed to mimic the Regency marriage mart, with players helping Jane Austen’s women compete for marriage proposals from eligible suitors. Beauty, charm, wit, virtue and wealth are the currencies of choice, and spinsterhood the fate worse than death.

Marrying Mr. Darcy appears to concentrate on Pride and Prejudice (with a special Undead Expansion Pack for those who prefer their P&P with zombies), while Jane Austen’s Matchmaker mixes and matches characters from all the novels (“Imagine Mr. Darcy proposing to Emma Woodhouse or the scandalous Willoughby eloping with Fanny Price!” the home page suggests. Eek! The mind boggles.)

Austen gaming is nothing new – I’ve blogged before about Austen apps and video games, and I’ve owned a Pride and Prejudice board game for years – but for those Janeites who, unlike Anne “I am no card-player” Elliot, prefer their games old-fashioned and portable, these two may be worth a look.

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