Three Favorite Jane Austen Screen Adaptations

July 18, 2017, marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, my favorite (deceased) author.

JASNA Truth Universally Acknowledged Book Always Better

To honor her work, we rewatched all of the screen adaptations that we could easily get our hands on.

Jane Austen Rewatch Owned Adaptations

Here, in short, are three of my absolute favorites. (For links to the complete reviews, visit my post A Jane Austen Rewatch Project for the 200th Anniversary of Her Passing.)

Sense and Sensibility (anonymously published in 1811) is by far my favorite Austen novel, and my favorite adaptation is the Andrew Davies miniseries (directed by John Alexander; 2008). It stars Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as Elinor and Marianne. Both were new to me, but I was familiar with the significant male actors: Dan Stevens (Mr. Edward Ferrars) is in the first few seasons of Downton Abbey, David Morrissey (Colonel Brandon) portrays the confused faux-Doctor in the Doctor Who Christmas special “The Next Doctor”, and Dominic Cooper (Mr. Willoughby) as young Howard Stark scratches science to see if it bleeds in Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America: The First Avenger and Agent Carter (and rules as King Llane Wrynn in the Warcraft movie).

It was a gutsy choice of Davies to begin the series with Willoughby’s explicit seduction of a 15-year-old girl, an event which happens very much off-screen in the novel and most adaptations, but becomes the crux of the plot.

The series does have some issues. For example, the Devonshire “cottage” that the financially strained Dashwood ladies had to accept was turned into a literal cottage instead of a good, solid house from the novel. The events are condensed, sure, but their pace doesn’t feel rushed like in the movie versions. Most of the writing, acting, propping, and costuming are solid to excellent.

Jane Austen Rewatch Three Favorites

Emma (1815) was the fourth and last of Austen’s works to be published during her lifetime, and the Emma miniseries from 2009 (adapted by Sandy Welch, directed by Jim O’Hanlon) outshines the other adaptations. (Unsuprisingly, the miniseries format serves Austen’s nuance much better than the movie length.)

The version has several strengths, starting with excellent casting. Romola Garai stars as Emma Woodhouse, and Jonny Lee Miller (who has more recently – and deservedly – starred as Sherlock Holmes in the series Elementary) as Mr. Knightley. Miller’s is by far the most enjoyable Mr. Knightley performance I’ve seen. Mr. Knightley is often played as rather curt and strict, which I find not just offputting but a mistake.

All major characters are introduced at the beginning of episode 1, which helps people new to Austen. Moreover, this version does the epilogue clearly and succinctly, without massive infodumping. In addition, I immensely enjoy the music, the set dressing, costuming and propping, and other visuals. It’s a thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable Emma. In fact, if the same team were to make other Austen adaptations, I’d go to great lenghts to see them.

Finally, Persuasion is a novel of pressures, choices, and second chances, posthumously published in 1817. The 1995 movie version of Persuasion is excellent. The screenplay is by Nick Dear, and Roger Mitchell directed Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth. I really like Root’s understated and considerate version of Anne; Hinds works well enough even if a few scenes tend towards hammy.

Although the picture quality is grainy, the soundtrack is nice and there are subtitles (not a given on older DVDs). The props, locations, and costuming are also great. This is my favorite version so far—in an ideal world, of course, we would be due another adaptation.

For links to the complete mini-reviews of these and all of the other adaptations, visit my post A Jane Austen Rewatch Project for the 200th Anniversary of Her Passing.

Images: Book is always better screencap from JASNA website. Both DVD images by Eppu Jensen.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Quotes: A Question that Pretty Much No One Actually Asked to Be Answered

Aaron Pound at Dreaming About Other Worlds reviews the Star Wars movie Rogue One and includes this delicious bit of analysis:

“The obvious slicing and dicing of the intrigue and adventure in the early parts of the movie would be forgivable is [sic] one were able to think that it was done simply to try to cram as much of that as possible into the story, but instead the movie keeps shifting away from Jyn, Cassian, K-2SO and the rest of the intrepid rebels to focus on what can only be described as the deadly dull office politics of the Imperial Officer class. In large part, all these scenes really do is provide a really long-winded answer for the question ‘How did Grand Moff Tarkin become the commander of the Death Star’, which is a question that pretty much no one actually asked to be answered.”

– Aaron Pound

Reader, I LOLed. 🙂

Pound, Aaron. “Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. Dreaming About Other Worlds, June 01, 2017.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Arrival Recap

So, here are some initial thoughts on Arrival. Spoiler alert is most definitely in effect!

Twitter Arrival Movie Poster Aug 16 2016

Things I loved:

  • No stealth female protagonists here, but an actual, full-time, proper female lead who isn’t there for her boobs and butt, but brains!
  • Top notch plotting, dialogue, and characters, all in all. Also the directing, sets, music, and effects were impressive.
  • Some of the trailers make it look like the linguistics lecture in the very beginning is in a huge auditorium with only a handful of students attending, which might have meant that the movie university was going to have a neglected linguistics department or lukewarm students. Not so. There was a good reason why students didn’t show up, i.e., the alien landing.
  • Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) was treated as an expert almost universally. Notable exceptions were a CIA bloke at the Montana camp and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the male lead. The latter, upon meeting Dr. Banks for the very first time, quoted something she’d written and said something to the effect of “Too bad it’s wrong.” Tut tut. He got over himself, though.
  • Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the army liaison for the civilian consultants, was an actual ally to Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly, not an antagonist. It would’ve been so easy to take the lazy road. (Then again, they did take it with the antagonistic CIA bloke.)
  • The complexities of language and communication were explained with easily understandable comparisons.
  • Languages were treated as the complex systems that they are, i.e., other levels beyond the lexicon got attention.
  • Many of the English translations of the heptapods’ language were messy (e.g., “Abbott is death process” = “Abbot is dying”). As a non-native English speaker who operates with two languages on a daily basis, I found it very realistic. There are times when quick and dirty is what you need, and others when you can spend more time pondering. In a first contact situation where political and military pressures are high, there might not even be a need to polish the English syntax as long as the message is unambiguous.
  • Some of the aliens’ language was subtitled. I’m a visual person; in addition, I can’t always hear everything in noisy environments such as movie theaters or restaurants. ❤ subtitles!
  • The story is very explicit about the need for people work together to solve problems without feeling preachy. YMMV.
  • A male hero doesn’t punch an alien in the face at the end. I’m all for punching the bad guys—now and then. I explicitly do not want all of my reading and viewing rehashing the same old stories over and over, because SFF is explicitly about examining other possibilities. It feels (’cause I haven’t seen any statistics or anything) like lately we’ve mostly gotten the punchy kind of SFF. It was so nice to face a different fare for a change.

Things I didn’t think were quite as successful:

  • Only one prominent female speaking role. For realz. Surely you’re better than that, writing team.
  • The conflation of linguistics and translating. Of course the two disciplines are related, but each comes with its own set of principles and tools.
  • Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly each got their own team in Montana, but the teams were hugely underused. They might have been completely omitted for all the difference they made.
  • Dr. Banks’s visions affected her thinking and behavior, but weren’t integrated into the dialogue terribly well. The one time they tried (“Are you dreaming in their language?”), she responded very defensively, and the matter was dropped without further exploration.
  • Non-linear time as part of the plot. It’s a very difficult concept to pull off successfully. I haven’t come across a story yet where I think it works to its full effect. (I might feel differently about “Story of Your Life.” Note to self: Find it & read.) Even so, the execution in Arrival was one of the most elegant I’ve encountered, and the reveals were well-paced.
  • At the end, the aliens indicate that they’re sharing their full language with Dr. Banks because in 3,000 years they will need humanity, but that was it. What a cliffhanger!

I’ll finish with a couple of links:

How the writer of ‘Arrival’ spent a decade getting his sci-fi Oscar contender made. An interview with screenwriter Erik Heisserer that sheds light to the difficulties in getting a movie project greenlit and adapting the inspiration story.

‘Arrival’ Author’s Approach To Science Fiction? Slow, Steady And Successful. An interview with Ted Chiang, whose short story “Story of Your Life” (1998) was the basis for Arrival.

Ted Chiang, the science fiction genius behind Arrival. Another focus piece on Chiang.

Image via Arrival Movie on Twitter

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness

My latest reading project rolls on with The Left Hand of Darknessby Ursula LeGuin (first published in 1969).

21 Authors Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai is sent to planet Gethen (also known as Winter due to its extremely cold climate) as an envoy for the Ekumen of Known Worlds, an interstellar conglomeration for trade and cultural exchange. His mission is to convince the planet to join the Ekumen, easier said than done on a world where the conditions are semi-arctic even at the warmest time of the year and where cultures and technologies change at a glacial pace. (Pardon the pun!)

I knew a little of Left Hand before reading it. I knew that it’s highly regarded, that the inhabitants of the world are androgynous (or something) and that there’s an arduous trek across a glacier (or snowy steppes or somesuch) that’s somehow significant.

I also knew that some people describe the book as being about gender. Gethenians are all of the same sex – or, rather, of no sex until their monthly reproductive cycle known as kemmer comes around. At that point, depending on who else is in kemmer nearby, a person may turn either into a Gethenian male or female, and it’s quite usual for someone to be both a mother and a father.

I’m not entirely sure yet what Left Hand is about for me. The Gethenian biology does get a lot of attention, but I suspect it’s because it’s so unfathomable to Ai. The importance of hospitality and cooperation in the cold climate is also significant, as are the balancing of opposite forces (like you-me or individual-society), the complex Gethenian honor system shifgrethor and their aversion to war. Karhide’s neighboring country Orgoreyn sounds like a communist regime, with its people described as units instead of citizens and its communal resources or endless bureaucracy; Orgoreyn may, in an unprecedented step, be moving towards starting a war with Karhide, and we might have a Cold War echo there.

Structurally, Left Hand avoids infodump by alternating the present-day narrative chapters with short chapters on Gethenian mythology. I was a little bothered by how much longer the primary narrative chapters were, for it made reading the novel choppy; I may well change my mind about that if I read Left Hand again.

I’ve seen LeGuin’s writing described as zen-like. The descriptor fits her style in Left Handwell, especially when she’s describing traveling across the icy landscape. A fascinating read, and one I may well like to get back to after mulling it over. Considering that I very much enjoy and have read LeGuin’s Earthsea stories several times in two languages, I can’t believe I haven’t read The Left Hand of Darkness before!

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog.

Image by Eppu Jensen

This post has been edited for style.

ICBIHRTBpronounced ICK-bert-beeis short for ‘I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Read This Before’. It’s an occasional feature for book classics that have for some reason escaped our notice thus far.