Welcome to Girls on Film -- a Monday-night Cinematical column full of female-centric musing, rants, love and aggravation.
When we think of English writers, we think of the irreplaceable William Shakespeare -- the man so prolific, in so many genres, that we've been served well over 800 films and series that dig into his tomes. But there's another English writer whose also had a massive impact with far fewer -- and far less diverse -- works. She is Jane Austen.
You can't throw a stone into female-centric fare without hitting Austen in some way, shape or form. In the last decade alone, there have been four 'Pride and Prejudice' productions, two treatments of Emma, dalliances into 'Mansfield Park,' 'Northanger Abbey' and 'Persuasion,' not to mention four looks into 'Sense and Sensibility,' including this week's Latina-spinned twist, 'From Prada to Nada.' That's all of her novels getting at least one adaptation, if not multiple stabs, in just a 10-year span.
But today's Austen is a new beast entirely.
As Sue Parrill notes in 'Jane Austen on Film and Television,' "It is surprising that after the filming of 'Pride and Prejudice' in 1940 -- a film which was very successful at the box office -- no other film adaptation of an Austen novel was made for theatrical release until 1995." The 1940 film starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson -- which, interestingly enough, was co-adapted by Aldous Huxley -- won an Oscar for Best Art Direction. Countless television treatments followed, but not one more film. The closest Hollywood got to an adaptation was 'Jane Austen in Manhattan' in 1980.
In 1995, however, 55 years after the last film, everything changed. The BBC offered up 'Persuasion' while Ang Lee dug into his first fully English film, the Emma Thompson-adapted 'Sense and Sensibility.' There couldn't have been a bigger hammer to fall on Hollywood's collective head and stress the promise of Austen's work. The film earned seven Academy Award nominations and one win, for Thompson's screenplay, and started a pervasive vein of Austen appreciation.
It also led to an outcry of "Why now?" In a blink, Austen was everywhere on the silver screen. After a dry spell that lasted more than a half century, we were hit with three films hit in just two years. (The third being the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring 'Emma.') 'Jane Austen in Hollywood' discusses how Time Magazine ran a headline asking: "Sick of Jane Austen yet?" Wall Street declared the mania to be "cash driven." Her immediate impact was so far-reaching, in fact, that 'Austen in Hollywood' details how the Socialist Workers' Party Marxism '96 Conference featured a session on "what is so great" about the author. Austen had become not only a cinematic icon, but also a social force to be reckoned with.
It helped that the mid-90s rush also included 'Clueless,' Amy Heckerling's 'Emma'-twisted tale about one girl finding love, after she tries to romantically link everyone else. But 'Clueless' is also an obvious marker in a more subversive Austen influence. There are nods to the late writer's work everywhere you turn. Some, like 'Clueless' or 'The Jane Austen Book Club' are obvious, striving to applaud Austen's work to modern viewers. But they're only the tip of the iceberg.
'Bridget Jones' Diary' not only played on the literary dalliances in Austen's work, like the direct reflections of 'Pride and Prejudice,' but it also set forth to relay the carefree v. reliable romance in 'Sense and Sensibility.' Even more relevant today, the entire 'Twilight' universe is entrenched in Austen's romantic sensibilities. Though started in a dream, Stephenie Meyer's world is directly influenced by these novels, from how she came up with names and story lines, to how Bella prefers to read Austen than deal with the real world, to how the basis of the story is deeply entrenched in 'Pride and Prejudice' as well. And as Bella digs into Austen, Jemima Rooper's Amanda Price gets to literally live Austen's romantic world in the British miniseries 'Lost in Austen.' In the last 10-15 years, Austen has not only had a resurgence, but become the signifier of youthful modern passion.
The question, once again, is "Why now?" It's no longer merely a Hollywood trend overflowing from the screen. Writers and filmmakers are influenced by Austen's work. It's quoted and referenced, either obviously or subtly. We've now got extra Austen 'Prada,' not to mention the possibility of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,' which started the historic supernatural trend that's about to wash over us.
Some call it a nostalgic yearning for the past, to wipe away the complicated and difficult nature of modern times, to go back to something "simpler," even if that so-called simplicity's price is the release of gender freedom. Many see the trend as a turn towards the conservative, to praise and uphold traditional ideals in the face of modern society, upheld by feminists like Camille Paglia who see the resurgence as a sign that culture is "turning backwards" ('Jane Austen in Hollywood' pg. 161).
Essentially, it seems that Austen offers enough of any world that either the most conservative and traditional figure, or the most liberally modern-minded one, can thrive in Austen's writing. Those who yearn for traditional values cling to the notions of romance and place -- the quest to find love, financial security and someone with the appropriate lifestyle. For the more progressively minded, Austen offers an alternative glimpse of women during a time when they had little freedom, her pen having created a diverse roster of heroines, even if they were all romance-minded. To quite firmly grasp moviegoers on both sides of the spectrum, Austen becomes just about the most relevant creative source for women there is today.
As a moviegoer, I must admit, I never understood the attraction. Austen's worlds are rife with diverse females, yes, from the mirth of Emma Woodhouse to the strict decorum of Elinor Dashwood. But they're always so focused on their men and lives, that it's easy to be pushed away. Yet we must remember our modern sensibilities, and also the wry commentary Austen -- a woman who never experienced this literary love -- relays. The women ultimately fit into society, but they also hint at something more, while chastising the world they must live in.
Austen's women are completely foreign, yet ultimately relatable.
Are we clinging to the past? Does Austen offer a sense of release? Why is Jane Austen so beloved today?