Adapting Austen: The Book Was Better?


Peter Scholl helps select films for our annual film festival. He a professor emeritus of English who taught literature and film courses at Luther College. Here are his words:


Persuasion (1995). Directed by Roger Michel. Production: BBC, Millésime Productions, and WGBH.




I recently watched Persuasion—a film based on Jane Austen’s 1817 novel of the same name—during the last session of four in a “Seminar for Lifelong Learners” on the novel. During the discussion amongst the participants—mainly well-educated seniors—quite a few expressed their displeasure at the ways in which the film deviated from the novel.


For example, the romantic male lead, Captain Wentworth (Ciarán Hinds) didn’t seem to look like the man some imagined while reading. Also, in the film Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood) confronts and remonstrates with the Captain, and that never happens in the book. And the film’s final scenes portray events that happen after the novel’s end: the Captain and romantic heroine, Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), are shown together on an English warship sailing away into the sunset. In the book, we never even see their wedding, much less Anne’s adventuring with the Royal Navy on the high seas!


Such objections must be expected from group that has just read and discussed the book and is then immediately confronted with a cinematic adaptation that takes liberties with the canonical text.


But are such objections valid, however predicable they may be?


Of course, almost all opinions and reactions to films are justifiable—“In matters of taste there can be no disputes.” Even so, tendency of book lovers to “prefer the book to the movie” often carries the taint of bias—or even of bibliolatry—by which I mean the reflexive preference for the written over the cinematic.


When the film ended, the first question posed to the seminar leaders was, “Did you think this was faithful to the book?” The answer was yes—although this yes was qualified by acknowledging its many smaller and larger divagations. The leader noted that some English reviewers had been upset that Wentworth and Anne finally share a kiss when actually “there are no kisses in Austen novels.”  And true, the unspoken inner reflections of Anne and other charactes that dominate the narrative in the book are not—and cannot be—an important narrative mode in the film. Still, the leaders said, compared to other films based on Austen novels (there were three others in1995 alone), Persuasion was much less Hollywood and more Jane Austen the rest.


One of our study questions had asked, “As a way of practicing thinking cinematically, [prior to the screening] you might outline the storyboard and/or script of a section of a possible Persuasion film.” I did some of this and wrote down: “Of course, we’d need to establish the manor house, Kellynch—and show the departure of the Elliots for Bath as a sort of ignominious remove to apartments in the city….Establish the divide b/w the rural elite country life and the bustle of the city with its heterogenous mix of people….I’d definitely do some location shooting—especially Bath and Lyme. This in the tradition of Merchant and Ivory…who did great adaptations of classics, such as Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day….”


Well, the film certainly did these things. And like the Merchant/Ivory films, Persuasion did a marvelous job of keeping with the look of the period: the costumes seemed right, the actors wore no discernible make-up, natural light sources predominated. Many of the very streets and buildings identified in the novel were featured in the film.


Yet for all of its close approximations of what was achieved in the novel, the film was using a different medium than print. It often compressed material by using the camera to quickly show what a narrator would establish at some length. For example, in the novel Mary Musgrove’s hypochondria and self-centeredness is developed over the course of many narrated scenes, but in the film this is done compactly and visually—we see Mary Musgrove (Sophie Thompson) eating heartily as she tells her sister Anne Elliot that she is quite ill—and then we get a close-up of her spearing another slice of ham. And of course the tale as a whole is severly truncated—the history of Anne’s friend Mrs. Smith (Helen Schlesinger) is mostly a blank in the film. And some characters and scenes are absent.


It is natural that those who have taken perhaps twenty hours to read a novel will tend to feel that its 107 minute film adaptation fails to match the richness, complexity, and nuance of the original. But is such a comparison fair? How can a film which occupies 9% of the viewer’s time be criticized for lacking the complexity of the novel?


Even more to the point, is it truly the case that the novel should be understood as the “original” and the film—as what? Secondary? Copy? More than a few film scholars have challenged such an unequal binary. Some say such a pairing presumes an unduly elevated status for Authorship, a concept linked to our understanding of Ownership. How dare filmmakers (screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, actors, etc.) tamper with what our Author-God-Owner Austen hath written!


But why not? Even Austen revised her books. We have, for example two endings for Persuasion. Why can’t screenwriter, Nick Dear, pen another? (And does Nick Dear object when the director changes the script?)

No one in our seminar would have criticized the way the film deviated from the novel if they had never read it in the first place. If we don’t choose to judge the film as an “adaptation” we won’t even be conscious of the issue of “faithful” or “unfaithful.” We can simply take a film for what it does and judge it accordingly, on its own merits as a film. In fact, many if not most feature films are adaptations—we don’t think of them as such because we never read the books that contributed to their scripts.


It’s lots of fun to judge the film against the book, and I will keep doing it.  But we shouldn’t get too worked up (as I admit to doing) when, for example in the 1995 The Scarlet Letter, Rev. Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman) and Hester Prynne (Demi Moore) escape together from Puritan Boston, as an adult Pearl (Jodhi May) eulogizes their years of wedded bliss in a voiceover. That film provoked apoplexy in English teachers around the world, but to the millions who never read Hawthorne’s novel, keeping Dimmesdale alive to allow a happy ending does no harm. The tens of thousands who saw the film and didn’t know the difference couldn’t care, and the thousands who were offended by the new ending had fun protesting this travesty.


In the case of Persuasion, the film does try to do many—by no means all—of the things accomplished in Austen’s novel, and it succeeds in many instances; it fails in some others. But above all it is consciously and for good reasons doing different things in different ways most of the time—because a film is what it is, and a novel does what it does. And we can all happily enjoy the best of both forms.

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