What happens when a good novel is turned into a film?

Every few years I go back and re-read some or all of Jane Austen’s novels, and then watch the filmed versions of the one I have been re-reading. I still think that she was the first great novelist, and that in the form she chose she is yet unequalled. That form is the comedy of manners, enlivened with one or more love stories. I am not allowed to call her work ‘chick lit’, but it has inspired thousands of imitators, and that term can at least be attached to a good deal of their work.

Much as I like the filmed versions, it seems to me that they suffer from three weaknesses. The first is that they supply actual people in place of the reader’s own imagined characters. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is arguably the most desired woman in all literature, at least by men. I hear her without quite seeing her, when I’m reading, and I imagine what it would be like to be in the same room as her, and engaged in conversation with her. It would be fun, unless she turned her wit on me, which I would hate.

Of the four Elizas whom I watch,  Greer Garson, Elizabeth Garvie, Keira Knightley and Jennifer Ehle, the last is the most bewitching, but in my judgment at least she is actually prettier than her screen sister Jane, which is not supposed to be the case. I can live with that, but it is a bit disturbing, nonetheless — not quite the way it ought to be. My own sense of Anne Elliott, in Persuasion, is different to all the fine women who have portrayed her. Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is spot on, but a tad too old. And so on. No matter how good they are in the role, they’re not quite right, and that not-quite-rightness is disturbing. No one will every be quite right, partly because my imagination has probably changed over the years, and partly because my imagination does not wish to be denied!

A second problem, understandably, is that the filmed versions focus strongly on the romantic stories embedded in the novels. Jane Austen thought that relationships were very important, and she came from a family where the core family itself provided a structure for everyone. And then, for women at least, the object was to secure a good marriage, not necessarily one based solely on sexual attraction, or love, but where that was at least important. Though she herself remained unmarried, she had offers and may have loved deeply herself; it is hard to imagine her understanding of Marianne Dashwood’s passion in Sense and Sensibility being based simply on her own imagination or what she saw in others.

We are used to love and passion in portrayed relationships as well as our own, and to their being the be-all and end-all of the hunt for The Other. But for Jane Austen they were only a factor. She would not counsel any woman to marry were there no affection (as with Charlotte Lucas in P&P), but equally could imagine love growing between a couple if mutual esteem were there at the beginning. It has to be said, at least in my view, that all the filmed versions of her novels cannot escape the pressure to show a love story as the whole point of the film.

Finally, and in consequence, the films lack the ironic and comic persona of the author. The words she uses and the way she constructs the little entr’actes in which they are used don’t transfer well to the screen. Mrs Bennet, aghast at Lizzie’s having turned down Mr Collins, who will in time inherit the Bennet estate, and at Charlotte Lucas’s having almost at once accepted his offer, complains to Mr Bennet about it all. What follows is the text, shortened just a little.

‘… it is very hard to think that Charlotte Lucas should ever be mistress of this house, that I should be forced to make way for her, and live to see her take my place in it.’

‘My dear [replies her husband], do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.’

This was not very consoling to Mrs Bennet, and, therefore, instead of making any answer, she went on as before,

‘I cannot bear to think that they should have all this estate. If it was not for the entail I should not mind it.’

‘What should you not mind?’

‘I shouldn’t mind anything at all.’

‘Let us be thankful that you are preserved from a state of such insensibility.’ 

And the exchange continues, the reader chuckling at each sally. It just doesn’t transfer to the screen, because the reader has been prepared for it in tiny little ways from the beginning. Mr Bennet likes to poke fun at his wife (he is by no means a model husband), and she gives him many opportunities. It is the richness of the imagined scene-setting which the filmed versions cannot simply reproduce, and they try to compensate by offering us exteriors and interiors of the time — but that is not the same thing.

And my critical, historical mind tends to reject many of them as being too grand — only Darcy has the money and the background to have a grand place, and it is entirely possible that Jane Austen used Chatsworth, the home of the Dukes of Devonshire, as her model for Darcy’s Pemberley; she had been there as a tourist.

This post is already long enough, but it is fascinating that the reasonably well-off, like Elizabeth’s London relatives, the Gardiners, thought nothing of visiting a great house as tourists, asking to be shown through — and being shown through. And that was 200 years ago.



Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Very interesting and even though I am not a fan or reader of Jane Austen I think I understand very well what you mean. My Elizabeth Bennet and your Elizabeth Bennet are quite different they depend on our life experience and character. The film maker can not do that.

    A fourth thing can happen though sometimes I could believe the movie seeks to present a story in which the characters are completely changed. I really liked Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” when I read it. Then I saw the movie, big mistake. It was someone had set out to destroy the story and the characters in it.

  • PeterE says:

    I had a friend who constantly re-read ‘Pride and Prejudice’. In his view, it was an enchanting lesson in how to write. I have a CD and have read some of the book. I also saw the Keira Knightly version. This was indeed pleasantly entertaining but I can accept that it falls short of the subtlety of the novel. A favourite of mine is ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ by Thomas Hardy. The film version starred Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, our ‘own’ Peter Finch and Alan Bates. It was a fine rendering of the book, very well acted. I also own a CD read by the charming Ms Christie which is a delight and indeed by judicious editing may be said to enhance the book. Another favourite novel is ‘The Great Gatsby’. This superb prose work (which is at the very top of popular polls) is worth re-reading almost every year for the beauty of its composition, its poetry, the seriousness of its themes of life and death, romantic love and the ultimately vain strivings of individuals. Some years ago there was a film version with Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy. This was a most worthy attempt to translate the book into film and it succeeded in part, despite some awkwardness here and there. As you would predict, Redford did not entirely fulfil the vision of Gatsby that the reader has. Gatsby is indeed something of a mystery figure and even the original editor commented to Fitzgerald that he could not ‘see’ Gatsby. Just recently ‘our own’ Baz Luhrmann has had a go. I applaud his version. The first third is ‘over the top’ but that may be justified since the narrator. Nick Carraway. is appalled by the vulgarity of the parties thrown by his neighbour Gatsby. Thereafter, the film settles down into the saga of Gatsby’s attempts to win back his now married girl and many of the scenes (such as their first meeting, or the confrontation between Gatsby and the husband Tom Buchanan) are wonderfully rendered. Leonardo Di Caprio, a fine actor not always appreciated for his craft, does a creditable job of being Gatsby and brings it off with just the occasional slip. The viewer is willing to suspend disbelief. Still, in line with your theme above, Di Caprio’s Gatsby is like Don Bradman’s average – not quite perfect.

Leave a Reply