The Cinematic Jane Austen
Essays on the Filmic Sensibility of the Novels
Edited by David Monaghan, Ariane Hudelet and John Wiltshire
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009
Reviewed by Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris
Université Paris X-Ouest-Nanterre
This collective opus directed by three film specialists keenly tackles the elusive question of filmic adaptation and, more specifically, the potential problem of yoking together two so-called dissonant media. In a very insightful introduction, David Monaghan analyzes the specific structures which turn a novel into a cinematic novel. He discusses the transferability of plot and character functions between genres as well as the visual potential of language. But he also takes into consideration what theoretician Judith Mayne identifies as “the middle-class realist ʻreaderly’ text, [which is] the type of fiction that most closely approximates the norms of classic cinematic narration” [Private Novels, Public Films 6-9].
Using Eisenstein’s writings about the influence of Dickens on D.W. Griffith, Monaghan tries to assert to what extent nineteenth-century novelists influenced cinematic practice. He convincingly demonstrates that Jane Austen’s linear and well-constructed plots easily transfer onto the screen as her archetypal or romantic narratives mirror approaches to the cinematic based on narratological criteria. Beyond the surface reading of her simple love stories’ adaptability however, very few critics seem to actually emphasize the cinematic potential of her fiction alledgedly because of three often mentioned obstacles: her consistently ironic narrative voice, her emphasis on her characters’ inner lives and her cursory descriptions of characters and places. Hence the conclusion that Jane Austen is not to be acknowledged as a conventional cinematic novelist.
In his introduction, David Monaghan shows how, more recently, some critics have focused on the intensely visual and auditory dimensions of Jane Austen’s novels making no attempt to draw any comparison with the filmic medium. Most of her narrative technique seems nevertheless to have direct filmic equivalents. Such “visuality” in her novels is then explored at length by John Wiltshire in his essay entitled “Jane Austen: Sight and Sound”. He provides keen insights into the work of a notoriously unvisual novelist by closely analyzing point of view and overhearing as well as mise en scène. In his second essay “By Candlelight: Jane Austen, Technology and the Heritage Film”, Wiltshire also analyzes Austen’s use of lighting and the way in which it relates to affect and materializes moments of harmony and reconciliation. Kubrick’s direct reference to eighteenth-century paintings in Barry Lyndon is beautifully explored.
Ariane Hudelet later deals with the construction of experience in “Deciphering appearances in Jane Austen’s novels and films”. Her insightful comments cover the manner in which the fundamental ambiguity in Austen’s texts naturally redoubles cinema’s central concern with the construction of truth from sensorial perceptions. After detailed analyses of specific novels and films (Wiltshire on Pride and Prejudice, Monaghan on Mansfield Park and Persuasion), Hudelet reverts back to the notion of construction by focalizing on the Austen myth on the international screens and book clubs. She demonstrates how and why the Austen material is constantly being discussed and, as Barthes says, “is to be appropriated”.
The entire opus proves a useful tool for any Jane Austen researcher as well as film adaptation student. A general chart retracing the destiny of the multiple adaptations of the Austen novels would have been welcome however.
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