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To begin with an obvious question: How could the same 90-minute span allotted to Northanger Abbey accommodate Mansfield Park, a book twice as long and considerably more complex? A partial answer is: By omitting the Grants and Mr. Yates, as well as Sotherton and Portsmouth and everything associated with them. Instead of dwelling on the evils of these omissions let us judge the new film within its chosen boundaries.
First, pretend there is no Jane Austen book, only this film. How well does it work? On the whole, the production is lively, pretty, and well acted. But the radical compression of plot required even after major omissions leaves its characters’ motivations confused. Is Lady Bertram somnolent or perceptive? How does Sir Thomas skip from disdain toward Fanny to respect? Henry Crawford, the catalyst for so much of the action, is particularly puzzling. His first scene has him speaking of the Bertrams with mischievous glee: “They are doomed . . . Are we not more likely to deceive than to be disappointed?” Yet in what seems like no time he goes from mistaking Fanny for a servant, to deciding “to make a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart,” to making an apparently sincere proposal of marriage.
More troubling problems arise for people who know Austen’s book and hope to see it reflected on film. This version makes a hash of the character development central to the book. Readers who have relished the biting portrait of the terrible Mrs. Norris will find nothing like it in the film. Worse, because it underplays her pernicious role in raising Maria and Fanny, the film cannot draw a contrast between her values and Sir Thomas’.
There can be little understanding of his shifting point of view and the “anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters.”
Tom, too, seems to grow very little, ending up engrossed in the racing papers, unlike Austen’s Tom, who “became what he ought to be . . . steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself.”
Worst of all is the depiction of Fanny. Jane Austen describes Fanny as growing up timid and diffident, kept back by everyone at Mansfield except Edmund. But contrary to series host Gillian Anderson’s introduction, Edmund (and thus the reader) “knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading . . . he recommended the books . . . encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment.” Compare the two versions of the response to Sir Thomas’s departure for Antigua: In the book, “Fanny’s relief, and her consciousness of it, were quite equal to her cousins’, but a more tender nature suggested that her feelings were ungrateful, and she really grieved because she could not grieve,” wrote Austen.
But in the film, Fanny’s voiceover exults, “I was 18, it was summer, and I had never been happier,” as she races across the park. This ever romping, tousled Fanny is hard to reconcile with Austen’s girl, who “enjoyed being avowedly useful as her aunt’s companion . . . talked to her, listened to her, read to her; and the tranquility of such evenings . . . was unspeakably welcome.” Even less does the film’s portrayal hint at Fanny as the unwavering moral center of the book.
Finally, in the book Mansfield Park itself is a sort of character, a locus of values. The film fails to contrast its way of life with Sotherton or Portsmouth and depicts it simply as a beautiful estate, suitable for frolic, merely a setting for romantic encounters. The film’s hectic pace, melodramatic music, and lack of concern with motives keep it from evoking a sense of the deliberate procession of seasons and orderliness of living arrangements that characterize Austen’s Mansfield.
While the new film dramatizes incidents of the book, it violates its tone and values. For a more faithful, if still not satisfying, adaptation, readers will have to turn back to the 1986 BBC version. But if the cool, ironic voice of the narrator is indispensable, only the book itself will serve.
-Shirley Holbrook, Letter from Chicago, Spring 2008