Friday, August 14, 2009

Becoming Jane

"Becoming Jane" (Julian Jarrold, 2007) Jane Austen is a double-edged sword for Hollywood, a god-send and a nightmare. Her stories make great movies that make quite a bit of coin and their period settings and costuming guarantee that they will receive at least technical Oscar nominations. The only problem is Jane died at the age of 41, having written only six complete novels, those being (say along with me now) "Emma," "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," "Mansfield Park," "Northanger Abbey," and "Persuasion." They have become their own English cottage industry in the last 20 years or so, and there have been numerous films and BBC series of each of them. I would dare say that Keira Knightley has a shot at appearing in all of them, and if not her, Kate Winslet. Emma Thompson could retire making adaptations of Austen films, so successful was her adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility." But, it's counter-productive to keep making the same six movies over and over (although God knows they've tried*) There have been modern-dress adaptations of them, like "Clueless," and "Bridget Jones's Diary," and "The Jane Austen Book Club."** An obvious solution would be to broaden one's literary horizons and go back to the Brontë sisters (although they're a bit gloomy and have also been well-represented in media).

But instead they've concocted a sort of "Jane Austen Begins" origin story which plays fast and loose with the facts in order to make
her life play like a Jane Austen novel (but without the "incandescent marriage" or happy ending). It's a great cast with Anne Hathaway as the spunky young Jane, James McAvoy as her would-be love Tom Lefroy, Julie Walters and James Cromwell as Jane's fretting parents, and Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson as the stodgy bumps in the road of romance that are an intrinsic part of any Jane Austen story.

Was there a romance? Well, Jane did write about Lefroy to her sister Cassandra:

"I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together."

And Lefroy supposedly confessed in his dotage to having "a boyish love" for her. Probably a lot of sighing went on. But "Becoming Jane" blows it up to be the Great Love of her life, the inspiration for her writing, becoming a wish-fulfillment of what could have been. Maybe. But maybe, as it is inconveniently often is, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. "Becoming Jane" would have you believe that she was a great literary success—when the truth is that she was published anonymously as "By a Lady." She enjoyed good sales of her book (two of which were published posthumously), but few knew her identity while she was alive. That flies in the face of what the movie manufactures for a "happy ending."

Still, the filmmakers get to cherry-pick the Austen canon for their story, and carefully insert the few known biographical bits—Wikipedia has this fine quote by a biographer saying that details of her life are "famously scarce." But, they know she ended up writing those novels, so once they know the end-point the authors can start constructing
the path of the creature of "Becoming Jane." Whether that portrait is becoming, doing justice to the author, is open to debate. There's a term that serves as an ad hominem defense for writers making it up in the absence of facts—"writing to silence," in other words, there's no one alive to protest the accuracy. The assumption for the people who wrote "Becoming Jane" is that she wrote what she knew, and that her novels were somewhat autobiographical, negating that most essential of writerly gifts—imagination. If that's not an injustice to any writer, I don't know what is.

* One of my favorite titles for a movie in the last 15 years was the gangster spoof, originally called "Jane Austen's 'Mafia!'" as a knock on how many adaptations of Austen there had been, but the producers chickened out and took her name off before it opened.

** And just as this was to be published, I became acquainted (via PBS) of the British mini-series "Lost in Austen," in which a modern day Austen fan exchanges positions with Elizabeth Bennett of "Pride and Prejudice" (via time portal, and one would assume a fiction/non-fiction bridge) and tries to keep the storyline in place—much like an Austen heroine—while trying to put herself and Elizabeth back in their proper places. Naturally, a movie adaptation is being planned with an executive producer being Sam Mendes...who is the husband of Kate Winslet.


No comments: