How to adapt Jane Austen – and why it’s so hard to get it right

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It’s a braver act than marrying for love and riskier than running off with Mr. Wickham. But the filmmakers nevertheless keep trying to adapt the beloved and essential books of Jane Austen to the screen.

There are modern reinterpretations – “The Little Girls of Beverly Hills” who launched her Emma Woodhouse in Beverly Hills and dressed her as Alaïa, and “Fire Island: Pride & Seduction” this summer, a version of “Pride and Prejudice” with gay protagonists.

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There are those who cling to the text, like the noisy “Love and friendship” by Whit Stillman, and the miniseries “Pride and Prejudice” 1995, which turned a generation of viewers into die-hards of “Colin Firth-as-Darcy”.

Make an adaptation more or less and you risk the wrath of Austen’s legions of readers. See “Persuasion,” which caused a massive stink before it was even released in July on Netflix when its trailer included snippets of new, modernized dialogue that cut Austen’s original text and did a “Fleabag”-style assault on the camera.

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It’s an unenviable task, condensing volumes of social criticism, brilliant dialogue, and characters so beloved that they’ve inspired an entire love interest archetype. But often these films are successful and even reveal new layers of Austen’s canonical works. At the very least, they inspire debate among many of her readers.

THE CNN consulted with several Austen scholars and devotees to explain what they look for in an adaptation of Austen’s work – and explain why the magic of her words can be so difficult to translate to screen.

Why we love adapting Austen

Seen in one way, Austen’s short stories are novels par excellence. They have all the hallmarks of the genre: disapproving family, mismatched couples, love-hate relationships, long-awaited reunions, swoon-worthy declarations of love.

Each of these points has surfaced in almost every romance story since then. So what makes Austen’s novels so good to be retold?

On the one hand, it’s a shrewd business decision to revive Austen — there’s always an audience for her work, they agree. Jillian Davis and Yolanda Rodriguez presenters ofPemberley Podcast “, in which they analyze various adaptations of Austen’s work.

“Complex interpersonal relationships never go out of style,” they told CNN.

Over the years, Austen’s adaptations have earned millions, been nominated for more than a dozen Oscars and multiple Emmys, and have convinced viewers around the world that Darcy is the gold standard of suitors.

The 1990s gave us a boom in Austen adaptations – “Pride and Prejudice” starring Firth, “Emma” with Gwyneth Paltrow, “Sense and Sensibility” with Emma Thompson, to name a few – and other similarly Regency-era stories. to what we have now amid the enormous popularity of “Bridgerton”.

Austen’s popularity spans the globe – see the Bollywood-inspired film “Bride and Prejudice” and the Chinese film “Mr. pride vs. Miss Prejudice,” two of several Austen adaptations starring Asian protagonists.

Although Austen’s novels always included love and marriage in their plots, the author did not always portray marriage as the perfect happy ending to which her heroines aspired. It’s a financial decision and a family duty, which your female characters are aware of.

Austen women are often ambivalent about what it would mean for their independence to marry, even when they truly love their partners, says Inger Brodey, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“Austen is a way for today’s readers to romanticize soulmates and also sustain their self-respect,” said Brodey, who has published several articles on Austen.

And so, in that way, she said, Austen’s tales continue to inspire and empower today: they are clear-eyed love stories told from a subtly feminist perspective that still give her protagonists some sort of action.

What Austen’s Best Adaptations Get Right

A strong Austen adaptation doesn’t need to repeat the original text or even take place in late 18th-century England. In fact, Brodey said, she would prefer a film not to feel indebted to the original novel.

The Austenites interviewed by CNN agreed: For an Austen adaptation to succeed, it needs to retain the spirit of her work, especially her incisive depth and unparalleled intelligence.

“What is most challenging for any Austen adapter must be capturing the incredible combination of comedy, irony and social criticism of her fiction, along with genuinely moving courtship stories,” said Devoney Looser, Regents English professor at Arizona State. University and author of “The Making of Jane Austen.”

“It’s obviously difficult to get that balance of characters in content in two hours, along with the necessary and satisfying happy endings.”

“I would say any Austen adaptation is successful if it makes me think, or rethink, any part of the original,” Looser told CNN.

Take the seemingly deviant but thematically faithful “Mothers of Beverly Hills,” a retelling of “Emma” from the 1990s. It’s not an obvious candidate for the most accurate adaptation of Austen (the protagonist’s name is Cher, for example, and her closet comes with software that helps her coordinate her clothes), but both Brody and Austen scholar William Galperin said that Amy Heckerling’s film is an exemplary version of a film that modernizes elements of the story while maintaining the spirit. of Austen.

“Clueless” is “celebrating a certain kind of autonomy, fun and solidarity among women,” the kind that Austen also took seriously, says William Galperin, a professor of English at Rutgers University and author of “The Historical Austen.”

And like “Emma,” “Mothers of Beverly Hills” is more concerned with Cher’s development than her romantic escapades, and even these plotlines serve to strengthen her character.

Films that update, modernize or remix Austen for a new time, place or culture are, paradoxically, “better able to reveal new aspects of Austen than films that try to follow her novels more faithfully,” Brodey said. Even “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” while far from subtle, found a parallel between “settling down” and zombieism.

But, in addition to the rare battle between the Bennets and the undead, Austen’s stories draw rich narratives from relatively mundane events in English mansions, between members of a few local families.

“What (Austen) is trying to suggest on a larger scale is that what happens in the day-to-day of all our lives is fraught with all sorts of implications,” Galperin said.

It doesn’t have to involve big things like power struggles on a big kind of geopolitical level. Ordinary everyday life is fraught with all kinds of complexities. And the closer the movies come to represent that, the better they are.

William Galperin, teacher and author of The Historical Austen

Where Austen’s Adaptations Fail

Condensing hundreds of pages of rich text—filled with social critiques, beautiful lines, and revealing inner musings—into a two-hour movie or even a six-hour miniseries is no small feat. So, Galperin said, some filmmakers focus on the most obvious strand of the story: the wedding plot.

Of course, relationships are important in Austen’s novels, but more often than not, Galperin said, the marriage plot is the mere skeleton of a story. The flesh, according to him, is in the narrative episodes that reveal the true intentions of his characters.

Some adaptations – such as the more recent “Persuasion”, according to many critics – lack the ambivalence and depth present in Austen’s books.

“Persuasion” is a story of a “second chance at love” between single Anne Elliot (played in the last version by Dakota Johnson ) and his former partner Captain Wentworth. But he’s also preoccupied with family duty, conformity, and independence, and those themes, at least on screen, often come after the novel.

“The novel is extremely good at demonstrating that tension (between love and duty), while the film simply turns it into early rejection,” Galperin said.

Often, Brodey said, films “overwhelmly indulge in romance at the expense of social satire.”

Why Austen’s Stories Will Live Forever

Even if new versions of “Persuasion” and other classics aren’t necessarily successful in reinterpreting Austen’s work, they’re still worth it, Looser said — at the very least, they’ll draw new audiences to fall in love with the brooding Darcy, the happiness at hand. Sanditon’s waterfront and the shrewdly resourceful Lady Susan.

“If we don’t recreate Austen’s 19th-century stories for our own time and attract new generations of viewers, these texts won’t survive,” Looser said. “So I’m definitely in favor of adaptations that use Austen’s material as inspiration and leave their own imprint on it, rather than treating their originals as projects to be copied religiously.”

And continuing to create new strands of Austen’s original work opens up her world to figures her books didn’t represent, including people of color and LGBTQ protagonists.

“Fire Island” uses the loose structure of “Pride and Prejudice” to tell a story about two Asian-American gay men, the racism and classism they experience with white gay men, and the relationships they forge despite that hatred.

Both “Sanditon” and “Persuasion” cast people of color into Austen’s world, set in a time when racism was codified (a decision that inspired debate, as these projects often don’t address racism in her fictional world).

There are a million ways to tell an Austenian story today: put your plot in the present day, break the fourth wall or give the Bennet sisters swords to dispatch zombies.

It’s impossible to please all Austen fans, but scholars and readers alike say that while an Austen adaptation retains what makes her work so beloved in the first place — wit, irony and, yes, “capital-R romance” — it almost will always find an audience willing to fall in love.

Source: CNN Brasil

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