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Why Jane Austen? Why Now?

Written By Arti of Ripple Effects

The Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway once made a controversial remark* criticising film versions of literary work as mere “illustrated books”. Regarding Jane Austen’s work, he said:

“Cinema is predicated on the 19th century novel. We’re still illustrating Jane Austen novels–there are 41 films of Jane Austen novels in the world.
What a waste of time.”

To the discomfort of Mr. Greenaway, there have been more Austen adaptations made since he spoke. Just weeks ago, BBC announced that a four-episode production of Emma will be launched this fall. The award-winning writer Sandy Welch (Jane Eyre, 2006, TV; Our Mutual Friend, 1998, TV) has been working on the new script, and filming has already begun.

Why do we need another Austen adaptation? Do we need another “illustrated book” as Greenaway has argued?

I was surprised to hear such remarks from Mr. Greenaway, himself an art house filmmaker. He certainly doesn’t need to be reminded of the power of the visual. I have expressed my stance against his argument in a previous blogposting entitled Vision not Illustration. But as more Austen adaptations appear, laying ratings and profits aside, I still believe there is an artistic merit in turning book into film.

The visual has an immense power in bringing out the essence of the literary. An image can elicit deep and hidden thoughts, stir up emotions of past experiences, point to new insights, and unleash multiple responses in just a short lapse of time. The cliché “A picture speaks a thousand words” has its application in this visually driven generation. Not that I do not treasure the classics, or the literary tradition. Far from it. I think a good film adaptation can, at best, enhance our enjoyment of the literary, and if it fails, can only help us appreciate the original genius even more.

If Bach, over 300 years ago, could invent Theme and Variations, why can’t we in this post-modern age, where multiple narratives are cherished, create adaptations to a recognized original? Of course, the key is held by the filmmakers. It takes the insightful and interpretive lens of a good writer, director, and cinematographer to craft a fresh perspective, one that can evoke a new vision and yet still remain true to the spirit of the original.

Kate Harwood of BBC explains why another adaptation of Emma is ensued:

“In Emma, Austen has created an intriguing heroine, and our four-hour canvas allows us to explore this multi-faceted character in detail. Emma was Austen’s last novel, written when she was at the height of her craft, and we are delighted that such an esteemed writer as Sandy Welch is bringing her vision to this appealing story.”

How appropriate it is for Harwood to see film as a canvas for visual exploration, and the writer’s vision as a crucial element in the creative process.

I say, bring on more Austen adaptations. Jane would be most pleased… belatedly.

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Arti reviews movies, books, arts and entertainment on her blog Ripple Effects. She has pleasure in many things, in particular, the work and wit of Jane Austen.

* The full text of the article can be found here: Cinema is dead says Welsh film-maker, available online from Walesonline.co.uk.

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