COMMENTARY | MOVIES
Jonny Lee Miller and Frances O'Connor are star-uncrossed lovers in 1999 film of Mansfield Park.
Novel resisted adaptation
For whatever reasons, Mansfield Park went unadapted for film much longer than most of Jane Austen's novels. The first adaptation of the 1814 book I know of is the 1983 version, and that was made for television. It was relatively faithful to the novel, despite running less than an hour.
By contrast the first cinematic version in 1999 took purposeful liberties with the plot, theme and characters—and yet may make you question: what's so great about being faithful to a book anyway?
Further adaptations were to follow as the novel approached and passed its two hundredth anniversary, but the maverick 1999 film remains most interesting.
Better than the beloved book?
A couple of issues with Mansfield Park, the novel, make a movie adpatation of it unpalatable for a late-twentieth century audience. Franny Price, the protagonist, is not much of a heroine for a feminist age. She's a mousy, timid character, perhaps not even that bright—especially compared to the sparkling, endearing young women taking the lead in most Austen epics.
And then there's that nastiness of slavery lurking in the background. In the novel, Austen brushes off mentions of the vile practices that lie behind the wealth of the Bertram family, her rich relatives who take Franny in.
Mansfield Park, the 1999 movie, starts by addressing the latter concern almost immediately. On her way up the coast to the Bertrams' she hears the singing of slaves in a harbour before they are to be shipped off to America—historically unlikely but a nice touch to set the scene for later confrontations over the issue.
And this Franny is not afraid to speak her mind. Under the direction of Patricia Rozema, who also wrote the screenplay, actress Frances O'Connor is metamorphosed into perhaps the strongest Austen heroine ever. She is humble and diplomatic in her role as the poor relation, treated like a servant by the Bertrams, but when her principles are challenged she won't back down. She is also anyone's intellectual equal, a wit—and a budding author, as many of the features of Austen's own life are forged onto the character.
This has been too much of a departure from the novel for some Austen fans, but it seems fair to me, almost like giving Austen her due through the character of Franny Price.
The plot is changed accordingly, so this newly fledged character and that of second Bertram son, Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), who loves her now for her strength rather than for her meekness, can take up more screen time. Along with more attention given to the racism issue, this change of focus means some other characters get reduced roles and some subplots are cut.
The only falter comes when Franny breaks down and accepts Henry Crawford's (Alessandro Nivola's) marriage proposal, before taking it back the next day. Even the Franny of the novel never fell for his showy, wealth-motivated campaign, even for a minute.
Otherwise the film is assured and authoritative, as though a great novelist had written it thus. Sure, the ending is somewhat pat, and you can probably see it coming from miles away, but this is Jane Austen after all. Just a more satisfying Jane Austen for us today than the author's original.
COMMENTARY | MOVIES