Deborah Yaffe

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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.


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, Mar 12 2018 01:00PM

The definitive screen adaptation of Mansfield Park has yet to be made. We’re still waiting for the first full-length movie of Sanditon, once planned for a 2017 release. And yet we are a mere three months away from the broadcast of a sequel to Unleashing Mr. Darcy, a deeply terrible Austen-themed TV movie from 2016.


Life is filled with unfathomable mysteries.


You remember Unleashing Mr. Darcy. It was a badly written, poorly acted Hallmark movie, based on a mediocre Austen fanfic updating Pride and Prejudice to the dog-show world. I watched it two years ago, in pursuit of Jane Austen video completism. Then I panned it. Then I forgot about it.


Apparently, others did not forget it. Apparently, in fact, others liked it – enough others that Hallmark has summoned the charm-free actor Ryan Paevey to reprise his role as dog-show judge Donovan Darcy, in a sequel slated to air in June. No word, at least on IMDB, about whether the talent-free Cindy Busby will return as dog-owner and romantic foil Elizabeth Scott.


Perhaps unaware that the name has already been used for a Jane Austen card game, the producers of this benighted project have christened it Marrying Mr. Darcy. I’m afraid I will have to watch, lest the Girl Scouts revoke my Jane Austen Video Completist badge. Maybe someone can suggest a drinking game to make the two hours pass more quickly.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 4 2017 01:00PM

The year advances apace, and yet there still doesn’t seem to be a release date for the supposed-to-come-out-in-2017 film adaptation of Sanditon, the novel Jane Austen died without finishing.


But another Austen-related film project is apparently now in the works: an adaptation of a 2016 young-adult novel called The Season, which updates Pride and Prejudice to the world of Texas debutantes.


The book, by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer, passed me by when it came out last summer, but a movie? Bring it on! As regular blog readers know, I’ll see virtually anything semi-Austenian, on the big or small screen. Heck, I watched Unleashing Mr. Darcy.


Still, it’s worth remembering that the journey from studio-acquires-story to movie-appears-in-multiplex can be long and fraught. Remember Jane By the Sea, the romantic comedy/biopic that was flavor of the month two years ago? Yeah. Me neither.


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