I reread Mansfield Park this week. It got me to thinking about movie versions of this story, and how much I disliked Masterpiece Theatre's recent interpretation of it. It isn't fair, really. MT did a very credible job of telling the story, preserving much of Austen's original intention for the story, complete with a Fanny Price so bland as to be entirely forgettable.
Because she is. As much as like Austen's book for its tone, satire, wittiness and plot, I am not crazy about Fanny. I don't know why. She is friendly and kind. She is loyal to a fault. Her principles are impeccable and her judgment sound. Her patience is infinite. In short, she has exactly those attributes I find myself striving for.
Yet, isn't it possible to have all of these lovely traits while, at the same time, standing up for herself? Explaining herself fully? Acting like a woman instead of a mouse? Her fearful shyness is sometimes so annoying I found myself gritting my teeth with her. Austen herself was so Mary Crawford; where does this Fanny Price heroine fit with the Emmas and Elizabeths?
No doubt, someone here is going to write back that they did one of those Austen Facebook quizzes and were declared to be most like Fanny Price. I'm not concerned; if you are most like Fanny Price than nothing I can say will offend you. I can criticize your social standing, your parents, your financial situation and even your looks without so much as a quiet nod as you return to your needlework.
So, imagine my delight when I re-discovered the 1999 version of Mansfield Park on YouTube the other day. While most Austen adaptations that veer too much from the original are extremely distasteful to me, this one left me feeling just the opposite. The screenwriter dissected the original Austen, read between the lines for plot development, enhanced character motivation, and gave Fanny a backbone.
The result is a piece that is both dramatic and funny, romantic and satirical, literary and entertaining. It is a story that, with the benefit of a more modern sensibility, helps put Fanny's entire experience at Mansfield Park in the context of her time. Here follow some brief comparisons.
The actress who plays Fanny is quite wonderful and pretty too. She contains all of Fanny's better attributes without being as sickly and retiring as Austen's heroine. The 1999 Fanny is vivacious, strong and natural. She hears each cruel thing from her Aunt Norris and others of her ilk without ever really believing it. To keep household peace, she will hang her head and acquiesce without complaint, but she never sees herself as second to anyone. Even the sassy and sensual Miss Mary Crawford. She may not know how to compete with her, but she doesn't ever defer to her either.
The characterization all around in the 1999 version is remarkable. The feckless older brother, Tom, is not merely a drunken lout; instead he is deeply depressed over his father's involvement in the West Indian slave trade. Austen's book uses his father's "business in Antigua" as a major part of the story, but she is less than forthcoming about what, specifically, he did there. The movie gives Tom depth of character from the first few minutes he is introduced. His extreme guilt over a lifestyle paid for almost entirely from the buying and selling of slaves leads him to self-medicate with extreme alcoholism. Nor is he the only one. Austen tells us that Lady Bertram is constantly lethargic and uninterested in almost everything to the point of almost being a non-entity. This film helps us to see why this is the case: she is an opium addict. Something not at all uncommon in that day and age. True to Austen's original story which paints Fanny's mother and her Aunt Bertram as so much alike, this version casts the same actress in both parts. A brilliant juxtaposition. The slave trade is also used to help explain Lord Bertram's alternating bouts of indifference, interference, cruelty and interest in Fanny's concerns. This theme of slavery is a major point in the way he basically auctions off his daughters to the highest bidders, regardless of their feelings. Fanny's defiance to his orders matches her revulsion for his money-making schemes.
All is not entirely well with the screenplay: the deletion of Fanny's brother was a mistake, even if Fanny's character picks up a lot of his best attributes. The help and advancement Mr. Crawford lends him is Fanny's primary motivation for even considering his overtures toward her, though the 1999 Mr. Crawford is a good enough actor that I almost began to wonder what Fanny's scruples against him are exactly. Which takes us to the only major flaw, in my eyes, in this particular interpretation. Fanny, desperate in the life she has been punished back into and eager to help her family, tells the charming Henry that yes, indeed, she will marry him. It is true that her acceptance of him only lasts for a day, but Fanny's chief virtue is her unwavering constancy toward her best principles and her beloved Edmund. I think this screenplay could have taken us down the road of Fanny's serious consideration of Mr. Crawford's advances without her actually saying yes.
So now we must talk about the beloved Edmund, played perfectly by Johnny Lee Miller. (Who I loved in Eli Stone--a short-lived dramedy on television for about 18 months.) Imagine my surprise when I found out he was in the MT series as Emma's Mr. Knightly as well. I missed it because I was so disappointed in both Mansfield Park and A Room With a View that I couldn't even attempt another adaptation. Anyway, there is a moment near the end of the film where Fanny has just learned a series of shocking things about her adopted family. She is sitting near Tom's sickbed in her nightgown, her face a mask of shock and horror when Edmund comes to her to ask her if she is okay. He is comforting her and in the intense emotion of the moment he (ALMOST!) kisses her. This almost kiss is more beautiful than any movie kiss I've ever seen. I won't link it here because this same clip has a few pretty shocking moments in it; this version of Mansfield Park is daring thematically and is for grownups only.
I do love Austen. I think if you have only seen film adaptations or read books about Austen's work, then you have seriously missed out on the actual Austen experience. Her gifts are legion and her legacy much deserved. But I will say, in this case, there is actually some improvement on the original.