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During our family screening of the new Masterpiece version of Northanger Abbey, my 10-year-old snuggled up next to me, shivering, as my astonished spouse stared at me in consternation and exclaimed, “Turn it off!” He was referring to the cuts from the story to the lurid gothic fantasies, filmed in a blue-gray palette and with a florid musical background, that lead the viewers through the mind of Catherine Morland. People who have never read Northanger Abbey are always surprised that it is, in part, a sly commentary on contemporary fiction, its readers and detractors.
The new production gave the heroine’s dramatic adolescent fantasies full rein. The fantasy sequences are not Jane Austen, of course, but they were fun and very well done. The film pleased all of us, bringing to life the ordinary Catherine, whose life became less commonplace upon her visit to Bath and introduction into a wider society. Felicity Jones’ Catherine was believably pretty but not glamorous; JJ Feild’s Henry Tilney was witty and good looking without being a heartthrob; and Carey Mulligan is delicious as Isabella Thorpe, the pretty gold-digger who becomes Catherine’s best friend only because she thinks Catherine’s brother James has money.
Jane Austen fans cannot resist comparing any production of an Austen novel with the book, and as always, we found that some differences between the production and the book are appropriate, while some are not. I can understand why Eleanor Tilney’s suitor is brought into the story earlier—for a TV audience, having him appear at the very end, as he does in the book, would be almost incomprehensible. I do not, however, understand why the conversation between Henry and Catherine regarding the possibility of his marrying someone who had little fortune, was added—it adds a shade to his character that I believe was unintended by Jane Austen. The scene in which it is clear that Isabella has been duped into an affair by Captain Tilney was also not entirely accurate, though from a contemporary point of view it did add to the story on screen
But the chief difference between this production and the book was in the character of John Thorpe. In the book he is described by James Morland as a “rattle,” and by the narrator as being stout and plain. Though William Beck’s Thorpe is certainly profane and boisterous, deceitful and a braggart, his personality appears more sneaky and dangerous than in the book. He has the face for it, too—sort of a cross between Puck and a leprechaun, but older, more predatory and worldly-wise. I thought he was very handsome, but my daughters found him “creepy.”
Still, the Austen story rings true—Thorpe’s rough courtship of Catherine, based primarily on his misperception of her wealth; her dislike of him and discovery of his lies; Henry’s witty courtship and simultaneous education of Catherine. I have always wondered what Henry Tilney sees in Catherine—he is so well-read and well-informed, while she is simple and ignorant. That is not a fault of the production, therefore, but a point on which the production follows the book. Likewise the ending, which is abrupt in the film as it was in the book. It came too soon, not just because Jane Austen wrote it that way, but because the production was so enjoyable.
--Luanne Redmond, Letter from Chicago, Spring 2008