Mansfield Park is the least accessible of Jane Austen’s novels to us moderns. Its heroine is literature’s greatest doormat. Its romantic hero is perhaps Jane’s dullest, a nice enough fellow, but no romantically aloof Mr Darcy or dashing Captain Wentworth. And above all, the whole story hinges on notions of morality and decorum that seem at best quaint now–what, after all, is so very wrong about privately staging a silly and mildly suggestive play? Fanny does prove to have an inner moral strength, but it is not apparent in any way that makes much of an impression on our modern sensibilities.
So it’s hardly surprising that film and television adaptations don’t really really do the book justice. I imagine the only two options are to be unfaithful to the spirit of the book or to be boring. Last week we watched the recent ITV production on Masterpiece (Theatre as was), and it opted for a bit of both. I never could take Billie Piper seriously as Fanny; she tried, I suppose, but she was just too darned perky for the part (also too breasty, I think, but I somehow reconciled myself to that). I have to admit I got bored and lost interest after a while; maybe it picked up after the halfway point.
By way of contrast we then netflixed Patricia Rozema’s far more compelling 1999 film. It wasn’t terribly faithful to the book, but at least it veered off in interesting directions. Rozema was after deep and dark subtexts–never mind that they really weren’t in the novel. The fact that the Bertram estate in Antigua was worked by slave labor, only briefly mentioned in the book, was made explicit here. Tom was no mere dissolute rake; he was a tortured soul trying to escape the horrors he had witnessed on the family plantation. Sir Thomas himself, creepily played by Harold Pinter, had depths best left unexplored. Mrs Price was a desperate drudge, Lady Bertram a blissed-out opium addict (both well-played by Lindsay Duncan). And despite all that (and unlike other Austen adaptations I might mention) Rozema somehow managed to remember that the book was in fact a comedy.
Mansfield Park does at least provide a pair of Jane’s best quasi-villains in the Crawford siblings, and (unlike the ITV film) Rozema found actors who could do the parts justice. Alessandro Nivola was not much as I had imagined Henry in the book, but I liked what he did with the part; he was a cad, but a driven, needy, obsessive cad. Gorgeous Embeth Davidtz, on the other hand, was exactly as I had imagined Mary, even if her best scenes were not in the book. I have to admit to very much liking the little frissons of lesbian attraction between Mary and Fanny, which I remember causing a bit of a stir when the movie was first released.
And speaking of Fanny, Frances O’Connor was so likable I can even forgive her her spunkiness in the part. If you’re going to make her a writer, well, you may as well take her writings from Jane herself. I do remember the ads for the movie called her something to the effect of “Jane Austen’s most spirited heroine.” I have to assume here that the tagline-writers had never read the book, and probably not seen the movie. Fanny is Jane Austen’s least spirited heroine (the most spirited being, of course, Elizabeth Bennet).