OT: The Price is–wrong? My problems with an Austen poor relation

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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.

Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel as Edmund and Fanny in the 1983 mini-series version of Mansfield Park. This is reportedly an adaptation faithful to the original novel.

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?

Alessandro Nivola as Henry and Frances O’Conner as Fanny in the 1999 film version of Mansfield Park, which took some noticeable departures from the source material.

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.

Billie Piper, a great companion for Doctor Who, but a strange casting choice for the role of timid little Fanny Price.

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)

About fedoralady

I'm an LA native--Lower Alabama, that is. My husband of more than 30 years and I live here on a portion of my family's former farm with two gorgeous calicos and a handsome GSD mix. My background is art education, and over the years I've been a teacher, department store photographer, sales associate and a journalist. My husband, his business partner and I have Pecan Ridge Productions, a video production company, for which I shoot & edit video and stills and manage marketing. I also still write part-time for the local paper. I love movies, music, art, photography and books, and my tastes in all of them are eclectic.

38 responses »

  1. I’ve only read and watched a few Austen adaptations myself (Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice) but your post has made me want to check out Mansfield Park. From your description I am already seeing echoes of the other two plots/casts of characters, but that’s fine because I love them 🙂

  2. Yeah, I sort of get annoyed with shy, demure, virtuous heroines- I haven’t read mansfield park, but I have read pride & prejudice (and absolutely loved Elizabeth)! P.S. Nice post (:

    • I can understand why actors like to play the bad guys–they tend to be more interesting than the heroes and heroines sometimes. Yes, I love Elizabeth. I think France O’Connor’s Fanny had more of a Lizzie vibe to her, which is part of why I liked her so much. Thanks for commenting. 😀

  3. I’ve watched the last two, but don’t remember the first adaptation you list. I did like the 1999 version much better that the one with Billie Piper. She was definitely all wrong for the role. I think I would like to see the “83 version if it closer the Austen’s book. I haven’t read it and i’m not sure I want to given your description of Fanny. The reason many of us like Austen is because her heroines are so spunky! It’s just as the good vicar describes to Harry in VOD, a couple of misunderstandings and a fistfight before the heroine gets swept off her feet. (or something like that before Harry asks her if that’s ever happen to her and she mumbles “No”. The I turn into a puddle just like Gerri!!)

    • Looking at the reviews on Amazon, the ’83 version (which for some reason is also listed as the ’86 version, but it definitely aired in ’83) is described as being faithful and flawless, but also slow-moving and not for the casual fan. The running time is 261 minutes. As one reviewer pointed out it is her least favorite Austen novel (as it is mine) because we are accustomed to spunky, spirited heroines in Austen’s books and while Fanny is certainly good and kind, she is not particularly spunky. Still, it’s pretty cheap on DVD and free shipping with Prime, so I might eventually order it just to have it in my Austen collection. If so, I will do a review of it.

      I can hear Harry’s husky, teasing tones asking about the handsome stranger sweeping you off your feet . . . man, can he seduce with his voice alone or what??

        • Indeed! I think it helps that he’s a musician. It has been said that the cello is closest to the baritone voice in timbre, and now I believe it. Whether he’s shouting orders with that “chest” voice or doing a tender pianissimo love scene, his voice is so compelling that I have to listen. He uses that instrument to wonderful effect. I know of a few artists who have said publicly that they don’t like to listen to their voices as recorded. It does not sound the same as it sounds in your head, so it feels somehow uncomfortable. Yet I think that Richard may finally begin to realize that his voice can melt a woman’s soul…

      • *thud* I go weak at the knees every time I hear them. As soon as I learn how to load soundbites on my new iPhone those words are going in!!!

        • I love the way Richard …sorry, Harry..says those words but often wonder what he actually meant – it almost sounds dismissive if you can forget how it sounds…comprends? Take away the sound of Richard’s sexy voice- now..what does the expression actually mean?

  4. I’ve read almost all of Austen; my grandmother fed it to me when I was quite young, and I reread most of it later. “Mansfield Park” is not one I’d read for choice. I’ve seen three versions of it, and they have not improved my opinion. Fanny isn’t someone I find sympathetic. On the other hand, I loved the line in Stella Gibbons’ “Cold Comfort Farm”, where the heoine announces her intention to become a writer, her ambition to write a novel as good as “Persuasion”.

    • I keep wanting to tell Fanny to liven up a little. I found myself wondering how Austen herself viewed Fanny as a heroine. Now “Cold Comfort Farm,” I love both the book and the film version with Kate Beckinsdale, Aileen Atkins, Rufus Sewell and other talented performers. “There’s somethin’ nasty in the woodshed!!”

      • I’m really not keen on Rufus Sewell (sorry, maybe it’s because I’ve only seen him in “bad guy” roles) but it sounds like I should check out Cold Comfort Farm!

        • I think you’ll be glad you did. The film is pretty close to the book, and some of the sight gags will have you howling.

              • I’ve just ordered Cold Comform Farm from Amazon.co.uk (for 1 penny! plus postage), PLUS the Robin Hood box-set DVD. It’s the Dutch edition, but it does have all the extras, girls, right? Audiocommentary and the like? Please let me know! Thanks!!!

              • It’s a hilarious book and the film adaptation is also delightful. Yes, the boxed set has all the bells and whistles from the three series.I have the individual series AND the boxed set. Well, you know me and Sir Guy. One can never have too much Guy . . . 😉

              • That should read Comfort and not “Comform”! I was too anxious to press the post comment button.

  5. I wasn’t fussed about Mansfield Park, I think I skimmed through it from about halfway through after it failed to connect with me, and so I haven’t sought out the screen productions.
    I think the problem for me is that I read P&P first, adored it, and thereafter it has been the benchmark for the remaining Austen novels. None of the other lead characters have lived up to Lizzie and Darcy in terms of keeping me interested, involved and wanting more.

    • I think you’d enjoy the 1999 film; as I said it doesn’t follow the book so closely and Frances is quite good in the lead role. I actually watched it before I read the book. I knew from reading online that the novel was quite different and when I read it, I saw why certain fans would object to that adaptation. However, as I said, I enjoy it on its own merits a period piece. Avoid Billie Piper’s version, however. 😉 I am surprised P&P hasn’t had more screen adaptations. How many times has Jane Eyre been made? Of course, pop culture wasn’t heavily into Austen until fairly recently and then it exploded with all the sequels and new twists on P&P and then other Austen stories . . .

      • I saw the 1983 version which was shown as a mini-series on our ABC….But it’s so long ago that the memory of it is vague at best. I havent read the book so can’t comment about any possible departures from the original story.

        I didn’t like Billie Piper’s Fanny either…all wrong. Actually, I’m not keen on Billie in anything! I’m afraid I think she looks like a tart all the time – aren’t I awful? She was just right for “Diary of a Callgirl”!!! I obviously need some chocolate to sweeten me up today. (I didn’t watch that show – the name was enough!!!)

        Sorry, ladies 🙂

        I’d better shower (I mean, it’s only 4.05pm in my house but you can’t rush these things!) and head out to the shops for a few supplies – might pick up a Mars Bar while I’m there!! 😉 )

        • kathryn- totally agree with you about Billie Piper! She somehow looks…. very cheap. And very out of place in a costume drama! I’ve only seen some screencaps of it, in fact, I haven’t seen either version. Btw, wasn’t Nicholas Farrell in Sparkhouse? I think he played the dad of Carol’s lover (can’t remember his name, sorry).

      • Yes,there are way, way too many versions of Jane Eyre! Why on Earth do they feel the need to redo it so frequently, is beyond me. And I adore the book (in fact it was my favourite novel in high school)!

        • I think it’s because every generation that reads the book feels like they are making the only true film version. At least in England, it’s relatively easy because the have the architecture, the settings, the costumes, and the props, plus relatively inexpensive talent for all the roles.

  6. I admit I was one of those people coming out of the 1999 version thinking “WTW was that?!” I’ve watched it a couple times since and can appreciate it as its own thing but it is not a good Austen adaptation. I don’t remember much about the Billie Piper version (so perhaps that is saying something in itself?). The book is my second least favorite Austen (although to be fair to Northanger Abbey, maybe I should reread NH again) but I can kind of sympathize with Fanny. She helps out her relations, stays true to her convictions (even if they are a bit stiff), and refuses to accept a man she is pretty sure doesn’t really love her and who she herself does not love. She deserved a better supporting cast of characters. 🙂

    Haven’t read Cold Comfort Farm but the movie is such fun. “There’ll be no butter in hell!” Wonderful cast (even bonus baby-faced RPJ!).

    Will also admit to having a real fondness for the Olivier/Garson P&P! It was my first exposure to Austen, and I think you always have a place in your heart for your first. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Legenda 29: Stuff worth reading « Me + Richard Armitage

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