Seeing Fanny Price Through Modern Eyes

Until this week, I had seen all of the major film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels—the theater releases, the BBC series, etc.—except one. I have now completed the sweep by finally watching Patricia Rozema’s 1999 version of Mansfield Park.

I missed the movie when it came out. After reading a few reviews and coming across additional commentary over the years, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it. The reason is that Rozema takes the slavery issues in the background of MP and puts them in the foreground. The way she does this changes the book fundamentally.

I felt preemptive annoyance that people who saw the movie but never read the book would be confused about what Austen had written and about what her positions on slavery actually were. (In my view, Austen’s views are not at all clear.)

Rozema justifies the changes by saying that there’s a difference between a book and a film and by insisting that as an artist she has the right to provide a “fresh view.” She adds: “Whenever you turn a novel into a movie, you’re changing form. … I felt fairly free to make changes as long as I felt I could face Austen if I met her.”

She’s correct that some things in the novel form cannot be produced in the film form. A book can convey a character’s thoughts. A movie has to have the character express those thoughts in dialogue or demonstrate them through action. A two-hour movie can usually show only a third to a fourth of the content of a novel, so subplots have to be condensed or dropped or reduced to a passing moment on screen. Characters must be cut or combined. The Grant family disappear from the film, which is no big loss. But Rozema drops William Price, Fanny’s brother, and his naval service from the screen, which is a big loss and which creates complications described below.

When I finally saw the movie on DVD, I was not as bothered by the slavery issues as I thought I would have been. There was one immediate howler, though. Young Fanny, the poor cousin being adopted by her rich relatives, sees a slave ship in an English bay. A slave ship wouldn’t be within a thousand miles of England. That cargo passed between Africa and America. In England, those ships would have been delivering sugar, rum, and rice purchased in America with the profits from the slave sales.

But most of the slave references did bring out points visually in the only way possible. There’s one scene when Edmund and Fanny are riding and the topic of abolition comes up. Fanny says abolition is a good thing. Edmund reminds her that abolition will hurt the Bertram family finances. Fanny reacts as if recognizing this dependency for the first time. Strangely, the one direct reference to the slave trade in the novel—in a scene that would have made for great theater—is absent.

One possible exception to the slavery motif is the treatment of Sir Thomas. One depiction of his role in slavery left him irredeemable, which was not Austen’s intent nor, I think, Rozema’s.

I liked several other changes, too. Rozema heightens the sexuality with several brief but intense PG-rated interactions (along with one R-rated moment). She also converts Fanny’s interior life into Jane Austen’s, by having Fanny, as she matures from ten to eighteen years old, write and recite Austen’s juvenilia. That’s great fun.

What I didn’t like is that Rozema changed the emotional dynamics among the major players. In the novel, for instance, Edmund is gobsmacked by the beautiful, worldly Mary Crawford. She toys with him for fear that he will settle for a dull, country, clergyman’s life counter to her love of the big city. Edmund returns to Fanny at the end of the novel only because Mary’s attitudes on love and sex are revealed to be too scandalous. In the movie, Edmund is wary of Mary. She works her wiles on him and wins him over only after Fanny is sent back to Portsmouth by her uncle as punishment for not being willing to marry Henry Crawford.

Similarly, the dynamics change between Fanny and Henry. In the book, his attempts to seduce her cause the reverse—he falls for Fanny. As a result, he arranges for her brother, William Price, to be promoted to lieutenant through the auspices of his uncle, an admiral. This is a huge deal. Otherwise, William could have remained a midshipman indefinitely and his hopes for a career ruined. Most young ladies would have married Crawford for that act alone. (Cassandra, Jane’s sister, said she wanted Fanny to marry him instead of Edmund, probably for that very reason.)

With William gone from the movie, there’s no way for Henry to show his feelings for Fanny in a bold or honorable way. All we see is his continuing charm offensive against her until, when she thinks Edmund is committed to Mary, she finally gives in. Here, Rozema adds another element from Jane’s own life. She has Fanny accept his proposal, then reverse her acceptance overnight. This happened with Jane in December 1802, supposedly with Harris Bigg-Wither, though the veracity of the story is uncertain.

Fanny’s actions send Henry off in a rage, which he acts upon by seducing Fanny’s married cousin, Maria. These actions conform to the novel’s plotline, but the motivations are substantially different. In the novel, Henry’s seduction comes as the result of boredom, or an unwillingness to wait for Fanny, or plain self-indulgence. (Though Fanny has also made it clear she plans never to marry him.) In the film, Fanny’s actions are so hurtful that they justify some kind of retaliation by Henry—though not in the extreme way he does.

The characters are well played. Frances O’Connor is terrific as Fanny. Rozema makes her stronger and more independent than Austen’s Fanny, but O’Connor also is able to imbue her Fanny with morality and dignity without self-righteousness. She still has a tendency to keep her thoughts to herself, but the audience can read them on her face.

Johnny Lee Miller makes Edmund—a character who strikes me as undeserving of the heroine in the novel—an interesting, intelligent man. (He’s played a major role in the two Trainspotting movies and is best known to U.S. audiences for playing Sherlock Holmes on TV.) Alessandro Nivola has only one note to play as Henry Crawford but does it well.

In the movie, Henry Crawford has a reason to strike back at Fanny Price, unlike the novel.

Lindsay Duncan plays both the quiet Lady Bertram and her impoverished, overwhelmed sister, Mrs. Price, Fanny’s mother. I did not realize it was the same actress until reading the credits!

Last and least—in an amusing way—is Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Rushworth. It was a hoot to see Bonneville, who became a star a decade later as the solid, respectable Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, playing MP’s buffoon with a scrumptiously awful haircut.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

 

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