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Austen as a Hot Property

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

(But Not Available for Book Signings)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of a good book must be in want of a producer.

However little known the feelings or views of such an author may be on her first writing a best seller, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding film companies, that she is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their directors.

Although that is not exactly the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, it is what Jane Austen might have written had she been alive in the 1990s to experience what literary critic John Maurice Ford has termed the Austen phenomenon (12), which came as something of a surprise even to the movie industry itself. In 1994, an American film company was interested in investing in the new BBC Pride and Prejudice series, but the Americans did not realize that Pride and Prejudice was a novel, did not know who the author was, nor, having been told, know that Jane Austen was deceased, and had been since 1817: So she wouldn’t be available for book signings? (Birtwistle & Conklin viii). When Columbia began filming Sense and Sensibility, a studio executive suggested a ‘novelisation’ of Emma Thompson’s screenplay, paying a novelist to convert the script into book form and then marketing the new book as Sense and Sensibility, apparently not realizing that the screenplay was itself already based on a novel by that name. Emma Thompson’s reaction was “I will hang myself” (215). The American film industry was learning.

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

Emma Thompson gave her Academy Awards acceptance speech as Jane Austen, and Jennifer Ehle won a BAFTA award for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet. Entertainment Weekly chose Jane Austen “Entertainer of the Year,” and People magazine declared her “one of the most intriguing people” of 1995 (Brownstein 19). In 1996, Vanity Fair proclaimed “the hottest writer in show business is not John Grisham or Michael Crichton, but Jane Austen” (Jacobs 74). Austen’s books were on the best sellers lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Published as paperbacks by Penguin and Signet, the covers of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility featured the television publicity shot and film poster and included page insets of movie stills. The number of visitors to Austen’s Hampshire home were up 250%. A Valentine’s Day segment of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer was devoted to Austen; the panel of experts speculated on the question: Why Austen, and why now? They were not the first. The London Times, The New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, and Variety were among those who had already run similar articles. The big question seemed to be: How did an English novelist who had been dead for more than 175 years suddenly become the darling of the entertainment industry? The answer, of course, was that there was nothing surprising nor even new in adapting Jane Austen; the only difference was in the number of adaptations in a short period of time and in their popularity.

Austen was originally adapted for the stage in a 1906 version of Pride and Prejudice by Mary MacKaye. Helen Jerome adapted it again in 1935 for the New York stage where it was one of the most successful plays on Broadway. A.A. Milne, of Winnie the Pooh fame, wrote a 1936 version, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, for the London theatres. There were also two musical versions of Pride and Prejudice produced just after World War II (Lane 134). Between 1900 and 1975, there were more than sixty radio, television, and stage productions of Austen novels (Troost & Greenfield 2), but the first film adaptation was in 1940.

The Play’s the Thing: A Beginning

Harpo Marx and Jane Austen would seem to have very little in common, but the idea of adapting an Austen novel to film first occurred to Harpo on October 28, 1935. After seeing the hit stage play production of Pride and Prejudice, Harpo sent a telegram to Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg, and five years later, the 1940 MGM production of Pride and Prejudice was released on an unsuspecting world.

Pride and PrejudiceBy Hollywood standards, MGM went all out for the film, but it showed absolutely no mercy for the novel. Director Robert Leonard’s goal was “to keep it light, bright, and pleasant.” The first change the studio made was to shift the story to the Victorian era. Hollywood had a penchant for Victorian dresses after the phenomenal success of Gone With the Wind in the previous year. MGM used over five hundred Victorian gowns by Adrian in filming Pride and Prejudice, and there were plenty of men’s costumes, carriages, sets, and props already on hand. The sets, though ostensibly “OLD ENGLAND,” were pure Hollywood, what Laura Jacobs in Vanity Fair called “Austen in Oz” (76). Laurence Olivier, the first choice for Mr. Darcy, was already under contract and had just made two successful literary dramas,Wuthering Heights and RebeccaGone With the Wind star Vivien Leigh was intended to play Elizabeth, but due to their scandalous off screen relationship, the studio was reluctant to cast her and Olivier in a picture together, so they used Greer Garson instead. Fresh from a Tarzan movie, Maureen O’Sullivan traded her animal skin mini dress for a corset and crinoline to play Jane Bennet. As Natalie Tyler has noted, in spite of the bonnets and hoop skirts, the actresses maintained the look of 1940 Hollywood: “The Bennet girls all sport very thick mascara and appear to be well into their thirties”(261).

As MGM envisioned it, Pride and Prejudice fit within “the woman’s film” genre. Rachael Brownstein notes that the timing was right for a character like Elizabeth Bennet: “[T]he snappy dialogue and the smart, sassy heroine were stylish, standard in screen comedies of the time,” but Austen’s Elizabeth “was not quite what Hollywood wanted” (14). Feisty was fine, but Elizabeth was thought to be too independent, playing too hard to get. They wanted their Elizabeth Bennet to be smitten with Mr. Darcy from the beginning and flaunting her charms in order to entice him. MGM used this predatory characterization to market the film: “Five charming sisters on the gayest, merriest manhunt that ever snared a bewildered bachelor! Girls! Take a lesson from these husband hunters!” (Tyler 261). The banter between Elizabeth and Darcy had to be modernized, and the plot would have to be updated to fit the studio’s 1940 version of politically correct.

The breech between Mr. Darcy and his aunt troubled the studio who feared their antagonism would be offensively anti-family, so MGM’s Lady Catherine not only approves of her nephew’s choice of Elizabeth, she actually promotes the match. Additionally, the studio changed Mr. Collins from a priest into a librarian, to avoid potentially offending members of the clergy. Librarians and Austen purists were on their own.

MGM's AttemptBritish author Aldous Huxley collaborated with screenwriter Jane Murfin on the script, but Huxley had difficulty as he was reluctant to make changes to Austen’s plot and to rewrite or cut her lines, but the studio and director were determined and made numerous changes. Huxley was particularly distressed by the loss of Austen’s irony. Nora Nachumi has also identified this challenge in converting Austen: “[T]here is a crucial problem in translating Austen’s novels to film: what happens to the ironic, third person narrative voice when Austen’s novels are made into movies?” (130). In this case, Austen’s wit was sacrificed for Hollywood’s snappy comeback.

Another problem was the length. Rebecca Dickson reminds us that “while Austen takes some 300 to 450 pages to unfold her story, the typical screenplay is only about 100 pages long” (44). MGM’s Pride and Prejudice was to be a feature length film; the completed movie is just under two hours. Natalie Tyler has commented on the result: “Because the second half of the book is telescoped into the last ten minutes or so of this film, the outcomes do not seem to make much sense” (261). Although MGM made sure the movie was given good reviews at the time, Maggie Lane reflects the opinions of most modern critics when she calls the film “a travesty of the novel” (134), and Huxley himself considered the script “a major falsification of Miss Austen” (Tyler 259). MGM, however, remained untroubled.

The film made enough money to be considered successful, but not enough to tempt the studio to adapt another Austen novel, so it was back to the stage or the page for Jane Austen. A.A. Milne adapted Pride and Prejudice once again, this time into a 1959 stage musical, Miss Elizabeth Bennet: A PlayFirst Impressions: A Musical Comedy, starring Hermoine Gringold and Polly Bergan enjoyed a Broadway run of eighty-four performances (Tyler 250). Austen was not to be adapted by American producers for another 35 years, but the British Broadcasting Corporation was just beginning. In 1965, Dane Peggy Ashcroft read Persuasion on BBC radio, and in 1967 Derek Jacobi read the part of Mr. Darcy in the BBC radio performance of Pride and Prejudice. The next logical step was film adaptation.

Nothing But the Truth: Fidelity with the Brits

1986 Cover for Northanger AbbeyThe BBC adapted all six of Austen’s novels for television over a fifteen year period, Persuasion(1971), Emma (1972), Pride and Prejudice (1982),Mansfield Park (1983), Sense and Sensibility (1985), and Northanger Abbey (1987). The unifying thread that ties the first five films together is their zealous adherence to the novels. They tend to be long productions, averaging more than 235 minutes per novel, no doubt due to their reluctance to cut characters, scenes, or dialogue. The last novel filmed, Northanger Abbey, was the shortest, 90 minutes, and received the worst reviews. The early BBC television productions appear to be filmed stage plays with stage sets and formal acting. Most of the emphasis is on diction and getting the lines right. Gradually the actors began to speak and move more naturally, and scenes were occasionally shot outdoors or on location.

According to Simon Langton, who directed Upstairs, Downstairs before directing the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, the problems were the result of filming in the studio on a very tight schedule, using several cameras for each shot, and splicing the films together later: “We used to work this ridiculous system in the Seventies when you had eight days rehearsal and then you had two hours in which to record the entire thing. The result of this studio-based filming was everything I didn’t like about classic drama. It always looked slightly forced” (14). The 1982 Pride and Prejudice was considered the best of the BBC adaptations, but that was before they decided to remake the novel in 1995. The resulting production was an unprecedented television event.

Pride and PrejudiceFrom the beginning, the BBC was committed to getting it right, devoting as much air time as was needed in order to film the entire novel. The result was a six hour production as opposed to Huxley’s two hour MGM limitation. As Rebecca Dickson has noted, the BBC film “sticks to Austen’s plot like glue” (45). According to the screenwriter, Andrew Davies, this was a necessity: “Because the book is so tight – her plot works just like a Swiss clock and doesn’t have any flabby bits in it – everything counts” (Birtwistle & Conklin 1). Davies compared it to adapting George Elliot’s Middlemarch, “which was like trying to get an elephant into a suitcase.” Like Huxley before him, Davies found transferring Austen’s wit to the screen to be a challenge. Many of Austen’s best lines come from the omniscient narrator. Davies tried “capturing something of the ironic tone without using a JA voiceover – pointed visuals can help, also a few of the characters (Lizzie B, her father) are clever enough to voice JA thoughts.” Thus, the novel’s famous opening line is spoken by Elizabeth Bennet.

The time and attention lavished on this film were remarkable, including carefully researched sets with period furniture and wall paper, historically accurate music, choreography, and hairstyles. Location filming involved the use of five Regency era houses, a coaching inn, and appropriating the entire village of Lacock for the month of October. No detail seemed beneath their notice; even the food on the tables and the flowers in the gardens were checked for historical authenticity. The women’s dresses were lower cut than was actually acceptable or fashionable at the time, and the bright lighting was another inaccuracy, but the film certainly went to extraordinary lengths to recreate the look of another time period. Simon Langton took particular care with the dance scenes: “I decided to use a Steadicam (a camera mounted on the body of the operator), so it could move with them at the same pace; it was like another dancer and was much more spontaneous than a mounted camera could be” (72). It took the combined efforts and creativity of a small army of people to bring the film to life, and the public responded appreciatively.

Colin Firth as Mr. DarcyOver eleven million television viewers (the entire population of the United Kingdom in Austen’s day) tuned in to watch the trials and tribulations of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, setting a new British television record. Cracker, the most popular police detective show on British television, lost two out of three of its regular viewers to Pride and Prejudice. Britain was seized by Darcymania, or what John Maurice Ford describes as “the emergence of actor Colin Firth as a sex symbol of epic proportions” (13). As The London Times put it, “He smoldered, he was master of the moody silence, and he wore trousers so tight that you could count the small change in his pocket” (Tyler 263). On the final night of the series, there were traffic jams in London as commuters hurried to get home before the show began. When the videotapes were released, 50,000 of them, they were sold out in two hours. Within a year, over 200,000 copies of the tapes had been sold. As Ford has noted, Austen movies, “films with no nudity, no sex scenes, no swearing, no gunfights, where love and respectability are achieved with nary the rattling of a teacup” (13), are not standard Hollywood fare, yet American filmmakers, no doubt heartened by the British success, had already committed themselves to Austen projects of their own.

Part Two:
It Had to Be You: Hollywood Comes Courting 1995-96

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas and is preparing to teach a course on Austen in film and literature. A full bibliography for this article is available upon request.

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