We’ve been discussing some of the pros and cons of various adaptations of period dramas in comments on other posts, so I thought I would bring up another Austen novel. Mansfield Park has been adapted several times for television and film, but it seems to be a difficult task, judging from some of the results.
To summarize: Fanny is one of a large brood of children, more than her parents can afford to keep, and so she is sent at age 10 to live with her wealthy relatives, the Bertrams. She grows up to be a very timid and demure young woman. Her spoiled female cousins never let her forget that, as the “poor relation,” she is their social inferior.
Only her cousin Edmund shows her kindness, which develops into a romantic attachment for Fanny (upon which she is too shy to act). Edmund, who plans to enter the ministry, is a steady, sensible soul, unlike his drunken wastrel of an elder brother. He and Fanny are clearly the two most virtuous characters in the story, and that virtue will be tested.
The charming but shallow and materialistic Crawfords come into the Bertram family’s universe and turn it upside down, leading to several romantic entanglements. Will Fanny lose Edmund to the worldly Mary Crawford? Will she herself fall under the spell of Mary’s dashing brother, Henry? Will virtue triumph over vice?
I have to confess, Mansfield Park as a novel is a problem for me largely because Fanny Price is a problem for me as a heroine. She’s so shy and demure and virtuous, she’s downright dull. I have no objection to virtue, mind you; but a bit of spark and spirit, a noticeable sense of humor, the sorts of qualities we see in Austen heroines like Elizabeth Bennett and Emma, would have gone a long way. Fanny on the page comes across to me as–blaah. So good she’s boring.
In the 1999 film version written and directed by Patricia Rozema, Frances O’Connor brings us an intelligent and forthright Fanny who keeps a journal in which she makes clear-eyed and witty observations of the world around her. I like O’Connor as an actress and I like her Fanny; but is she really Jane Austen’s Fanny?
The whole production takes considerable liberalities, including the addition of social commentary concerning slavery in Antigua, where the Bertrams have holdings. It hints that Mary Crawford may be attracted to women as well as men. We see Maria Bertram in flagrante delicto with another character rather than simply hearing she’s run off with him.
Purists often detest this version, but I confess I find it very watchable and enjoyable as a period comedy/drama. I’m just not sure it’s Jane Austen, if you know what I mean.
The other Mansfield Park adaptation I have seen is the 2007 ITV version starring Billie Piper as Fanny. Oh, dear.
Piper was charming as the companion to the first two Doctors in the rebooted Doctor Who. But she was truly miscast as Fanny Price. First of all, the look was all wrong. The nearly black eyebrows with the loose bottle blonde hair tumbling about her shoulders and the dresses more suitable for a serving wench than the demure poor relation made her look like she’d walked in off the set of one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Piper’s Fanny was more of a boisterous tomboy, giggling and cavorting about. I think she even played footsy at one point with Edmund, who came off as cute but a bit wet.
And once more there were departures from the source material, all of which I do not recall as I watched this only once and then tried to put it out of my mind. I had reservations about the last Persuasion, but found it considerably better than this.
The 1983 mini-series with Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel is one I haven’t seen but I hope to do so one day. It appears to have the highest overall rating of the three productions, adhering the most faithfully to Austen’s novel. Would I find Le Touzel’s Fanny more palatable than Piper and more faithful to the original than O’Connor–and also interesting?
Have you read the novel and/or seen the film adaptations? I would love to hear your thoughts. (images courtesy of IMDB)