The summer between my sophomore and junior years in college I worked in a retail establishment with a woman I'll call Cindy who intended to start at a local community college in the fall as an English major, planning to become a high school teacher. As a consequence of this mall's declining power, we had few customers, so the hours passed slowly. Cindy wasn't the sharpest tack in the drawer, but I was nonetheless happy to pass the time talking to someone who shared some of my interests. One night we got to talking about movies. It was the summer that the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was in theatres, and as the conversation came around to this film, my co-worker's utterances became weirder and weirder. I mentioned that in my opinion it was the worst film ever made after Top Gun (I had yet to see Flashdance) and further, I asked, why do bad films always have to manipulate the characters' identities so as to make them all related to each other at the end? The whole thing about Robin Hood and Will Scarlet turning out to be brothers struck me as the most contrived aspect of a completely contrived film, I said. Cindy looked thoughtful for a moment and then replied, "But it followed the book really well." I stared at her. "Which book?"
"Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I bought it so I could read it before I saw the movie." At that moment she produced from her bag a paperback novelization of the movie—the kind that studio marketing departments produce and sell at the checkout stands in supermarkets.
After I looked to see that neither one of us had turned into a rhinoceros, I tried to explain to her the concept of a novelization of a film— that some writer, probably not working under his or her own name, takes the final draft of the screenplay and adds the "he saids" and "she saids" to it. Cindy would have none of it. She insisted that what she had read was a novel, and furthermore, that the movie was good because it followed the novel word for word. I was dumbstruck, which for me is a rarity.
Cindy, of course, was just voicing a fairly commonly-held belief about the relationship of novels to the films made from them. Her notion was that the novel holds some sort of authority over the film that might come of it. She felt certain that a novel is something a priori and a film is just a shadow on the wall of a cave. In order to be "good," a film made of a novel must follow the printed matter on which it is based to the letter, so to speak. After ten years of various versions of this conversation, I find myself more impatient with it than ever. Aligning oneself with a novel against the film apparently makes you seem learned—after all, you read. But it also assumes that novels are "great" and that films are "popular." But those of us who love both words and images know better.
Cindy's arguments irritate me above all others because she was looking for authority from the wrong medium. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves owes less to folk tales about Sherwood Forest that it does to the earlier Robin Hood pictures with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Errol Flynn, or Richard Todd. Cindy wouldn't have to look farther than the costuming to see the influence. (Mel Brooks saw it right away, and called his parody of Prince of Thieves, Men in Tights.)
I wonder if Cindy saw any of the Merchant/Ivory productions based on E.M.Forster's novels. She would have like them; they certainly are what she thought of as excellent examples of their genre. They were the Academy's cup of tea too, as on at least one occasion they gave the pair the Oscar for best screenplay. It is fundamentally sad that the most visible organization dedicated solely to the promotion of film sees its subject as the bastard child of novels. The M/I films followed the novels so exactly you could bring a flashlight and read along right there in the theatre. They were lovely, too. Around the time Howards End came out a well-meaning friend decided that I'd be the kind of person who would like a gift subscription to Victoria Magazine. Victoria drooled over Howards End as it drooled over Remains of the Day a few years later. Vintage lace! Vintage tarts on the vintage plates on the table that had been expertly set by the consultant who happens to be the only person alive in England who remembers that in the old houses one set the knife precisely three inches from the right of the plate... .The minutiae were exhausting. The props are pretty but the films lack real visual texture.
Worse, what were these films doing there in the theatre in the late nineteen eighties and early nineties? They told us nothing about ourselves, except that nostalgia for arcane objects is a powerful marketing tool, perhaps responsible for such oddities as Restorations Hardware's school lunch tray. Worse yet, the films were rather popular, so much so that a director and producer unrelated to the M/I team optioned Forster's first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and cast Helena Bonham Carter, an M/I favorite, to play the lead.
Why would you want a film to reproduce exactly the novel on which it is based? One common complaint I hear is that filmmakers change the endings. Presumably the movie-going public has less tolerance for unhappy endings than does a book-reading one. But I'm not sure that such changes are always a bad thing. The ending of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda made me so gloomy that only my Bronco-fan-husband's exuberant return from their victorious Superbowl appearance saved me from something drastic. Seeing a less-grim movie version of Lucinda's fate gave me an alternative ending for the story in my mind, without diminishing my enthusiasm for what has become one of my favorite novels.
Though Ralph Fiennes and Gate Blanchett were wonderful in the roles, and Cindy would have approved a screenplay that, until the last five minutes, followed the book exactly, I found myself still dissatisfied. Massive amounts of the book had been cut to fit the movie's short time-frame, and we thus missed what novels do best: rationales for motivations, long expositions, elaborate character introductions. So, why not take liberties when you make a film from a novel? Why not acknowledge that film and novels are two different media and make something wonderful?
Do even filmmakers believe that because film enjoys a popular following it is in some way a lesser art? High school English teachers perpetuate this understanding as they fill holes in their lesson plans, routinely "rewarding" students for reading The Scarlet Letter, or Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird by showing the film versions. When I was in school the teachers would give us these breaks after we'd turned in our papers or taken our tests on the books, the underlying assumption being that watching the movie was a far less intellectually strenuous activity than actually reading the book. I remember becoming wise to the ploy of assigning novels whose film versions incorporated serious differences from the original, thereby catching out those unwary students who might be tempted to rent the video rather than plowing through all those pages. I wondered, as I watched Angela's Ashes—so scrupulously attentive to the book, and then so apt to skip large sections like a dirty CD—had its maker so thoroughly absorbed his high school training in the dominance of the book? Both teachers and students would benefit from a wider and deeper teaching of film studies in public schools.
Patricia Rozema's recent Mansfield Park, by contrast, suffers from no novel envy whatsoever. Rather, it announces its film presence in one shot. At first we think it's just an obligatory transition shot of stagecoach on a highway. But then we see the man with the sickle in the foreground—surely superfluous to the narrative— and we laugh. This homage to Bergman in the middle of Austen's England makes so much sense: it's telling you that you are no longer in Austen's England.
Of course, this is not completely true. Mansfield Park satisfies the cursory requirements for film adaptations: it introduces all of the major characters, puts them in situations drawn from the novel, pays attention to the author's original narrative, and pairs everybody off as that author intended at the end of the film. But its genius lies in its understanding of itself as both a film and a product of a literary tradition. The film may borrow imagery from Seventh Seal as a way of staking out its territory in movieland, but it is also very concerned with the problems inherent in the novel, as well as in Austen's own circumstances. Ro/ema is interested not only in Fanny's struggles to exist in her dual roles as guest and servant, but also in revealing to viewers—by means that Austen would never have dreamed— the obstacles that lie in her way.
Austen could never have dreamed Edward Said, but in the film her Mansfield Park characters eat, drink and speak his reading of the novel. Said's paper, "Jane Austen and Empire" provides the subtext to Austen's love story. In the paper, Said applies post-colonialist theory to the novel in order to demonstrate that the idea of an imperial mission was fully formed in the British mind well before the "scramble for Africa" and the establishment of British raj in India. Questions that might have drifted through our minds as we read the novel—e.g. just what is Fanny's uncle doing in Antigua and what might that have to do with the everyday goings-on of an English country estate?—get answers here. Through Said we see Mansfield Park as a kind of internal colony, and Fanny as a colonist, exported from her overpopulated home, and, like the criminals transported to Australia, expected never to return.
The film appropriates Said's interpretation to turn Austen's story inside out as it were, to expose the bits that Austen, whether through propriety, but probably more through priority— Austen in Said's view is pre-colonial—leaves swathed in mystery. The estate's family, the Bertrams, owns slaves. In one scene, Sir Thomas Bertram's entire operation in Antigua is illustrated, literally, in morbid detail, down to the basest of cruelties that the characterized slavery. Need we say that such a scene does not appear in the novel? In the film it opens Fanny's eyes to the secrets that Mansfield Park hides. In a scene reminiscent of those moments of gothic "discovery" that Austen herself found so risible, Fanny discovers her cousin Tom's drawings of the plantation. As she flips through them, her bodily spasms recapitulate the gothic heroine's encounters of horrors previously beyond their imagination. Fanny—helplessly turning the pages—witnesses a rape, and experiences a thorough physical revulsion.
The film's post-colonialist understanding frees Tom Bertram from the novel's narrow portrayal of him as simply wayward and rebellious. Instead, we see his drunken ranting as the revelation of his bad conscience. He has retreated into alcoholism as a way of dealing with the particular responsibilities of being heir to Mansfield Park: this elaborate household is dependent on a fortune generated by slave labor. His illness, which in the book merely warns him of the moral dangers of too much partying and sets him on the course of "being useful to his father," in the case of the film awakens the entire family to the evil from which they have so long benefitted. By investing him with a conscience, the film rescues Tom from the long and colorful list of Austen rakes and includes him in the great Romantic tradition of troubled, substance-abusing heroes who die young for hopeless causes.
Though the film takes the context of slavery seriously, it doesn't always take Tom's Romantic self-aggrandizing solemnly. The revolutionary ambitions of the Romantic poets were jokes long before Rowan Atkinson spoofed them in Blackadder III. Tom is not left as the sole exponent of the era's Romantic obsessions; we see others as Julia's husband raves about the new ruins he has had installed at his estate. This willingness to insult its costuming gives Mansfield Park a freshness that so many film adaptations of old novels lack. It reminds us that our traditions and history do not necessarily deserve our reverence.
If this new version of Mansfield Park makes Tom a sympathetic character, it does the same for Fanny, the novel's highly principled heroine. She retains the Austenesque determination to have it all when it comes to marriage: she will marry a man of the best character for money, position and love. But Rozema, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing the film, invests Fanny with a sense of humor as well as a particular sense of herself that, to be frank, the Fanny of Austen's imagination could never have afforded. Austen's Fanny is trapped by her position as woman and guest. Her tenure at Mansfield Park is subject to the whims and generosity of relatives who regard her as a lesser form of human being. Her future depends on the approval of these relatives, without whom she will have no position in society, and so she must be somewhat manipulative, even scheming, sometimes apparently two-faced. Contemporary audiences, used to the idea of women with real choices based on real bank accounts, could hardly be expected to sympathize with Fanny's dilemma unless she were presented to us as clearly forthright and honest with herself. This is the Fanny Rozema gives us, and chances are that today's audience will like her better than the Fanny in Austen's novel.
The film retains the idea of Fanny as a principled person, but makes those principles easier for the contemporary audience to understand. The cinematic Fanny is a feminist heroine, never content to be silent on decisions that concern her. But even dearer to the hearts of feminists, she has a room of her own in which she engages her imagination by writing stories for her younger sister at home. This addition to Fanny's character might have flustered Austen, whose own relationship to her work was marked by a conviction that writing compromised her femininity. Women of her class did not write for publication without risking offense, and Austen wrote secretly, the legend goes, depending on a squeaky hinge of the drawing room door to warn her of visitors and give her time to stash her writing materials. Austen's novel ends with Fanny and Edmund moving into the parsonage at Mansfield Park "just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience." Fanny is pregnant, and here the story ends. But by the end of the film, Fanny appears to be writing her own story. Her ambitions lie somewhere beyond her marriage to Edmund. There is the indication that this is only the first of her stories, and there are move to come. That this conclusion is seen as a happy ending strikes me as heartening evidence that the situation of women has indeed improved, despite much evidence to the contrary.
I do not know what happened to Cindy. By the time I left for the summer she had abandoned her plans to start college and was setting her sights on becoming the manager of our little store. Perhaps by now she understands that stories are subtle and fluid, and that they expand and contract into shapes related to but not exactly like their originals. Perhaps she understands that novels are not objects of veneration, but living documents. Perhaps she knows that film is a medium that, like literature, has its own language and traditions and conventions, and that the filmmaker's responsibility to a novel has less to do with how faithfully she follows the story than with how imaginatively she translates its meanings into images. If not, I hope Cindy sees Mansfield Park soon. If she could learn these things from any movie, it would be this one, because it is so elegant in the way it turns its back on those aspects of the novel for which it has no use, while at the same time revealing the novel's hidden context and playing with the literary tradition from which it comes.