Briefly reflecting on the debacle that was the ITV Jane Austen season - excusing to a slight extent their version of Northanger Abbey - I am bewildered at what seems to be a dramatic decline in quality text-to-screen adaptations of works by Jane Austen. For sure, the ITV adaptations were very much a step backwards, after what can only be described as an illustrious era for Austen adaptation in the 1990s.
I recently re-watched the 1995 Sense and Sensibility and was shocked at the difference in class between this twelve year old film and the recent ITV adaptations. OK, I realise that Sense and Sensibility was a cinematic film with a much larger production budget, and a a more impressive slate of acting talent on board to boot, but the differences went deeper. There was a genuine attempt to 'interpret' Austen's text, to offer a fresh reading of her work. This was apparent in both Emma Thompson's script, which utilised, for example, an embellished characterisation of young Margaret Dashwood to express rebellious feminine sentiment, and also in Ang Lee's extraordinarily beautiful and strongly-crafted direction, as throughout the production he strives to recreate scenes from 'Vermeer'. Everything about this film is pitch-perfect - something I have only come to realise in recent years, most noticeably in contrast to other Austen adaptations.
In that same year of course, we also had the BBC's famous Pride and Prejudice, which rejuvenated the period drama genre and is still a top-selling BBC product worldwide. And we also had, from BBC Films, a filmic version of Persuasion, which is superior in every department to ITV's latest, and lesser, offering. Again, this film actually had something to say. Nick Deare and Roger Michel (an enormously talented director) offered us a grittier, rain-sodden Persuasion, suffused with wistful emotion, never shying from the mental cruelties inflicted on poor Anne. The dialogue, the direction, all were handled deftly, smartly, and the acting performances were top-notch throughout.
The following two years witnessed an Emma-fest: two versions directly transposed from Austen's novel, and another, Clueless from Amy Heckerling, offering us a modern-day translation of the action to 'chichi' Beverley Hills. Clueless was especially impressive, but the two 'Emmas' were both 100% superior to the recent ITV fare - and notably the 1997 Kate Beckinsale version of Emma, with a script from Andrew Davies, was itself an ITV production. Again though, it had something to say. There was a genuine attempt to instill a sense of context to the narrative action, with scenes inserted which showed us the rustic poor of Highbury. Servants too were highlighted, ensuring we could never avoid an awareness of how the gentry of Regency England were able to live their lives of elegant ease. The Hollywood Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, was a little more pastiched than parodic, but was an exercise in delightful, aesthetically pleasing filmmaking, all the same.
Unlike many Austen fans, I also enjoyed Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park in 1999. This adaptation really did have an awful lot to say - too much for some, who felt Rozema's wild deviations from the original text were an 'adaptation' too far. I disagree with this approach (although I can understand the sentiments expressed), because I like to see texts re-interpreted, re-created, in new and exciting ways. This was also a visually pleasing film, well thought-out, nicely acted.
There has been little to cheer in the field of Austen adaptation since then. Working Title's Pride and Prejudice (2005) was easy on the eye and pleasing in many departments, but it lacked substance. As for ITV's lacklustre offerings, these were frankly depressing. These were lazy adaptations, with little to nothing to say. They were adaptation for adaptation's sake - a crude attempt to accrue cultural capital for the ITV channel, better noted for its populist fare. I have higher hopes for the BBC's Sense and Sensibility, airing this Autumn, partly because Andrew Davies is at the helm (screenwriting), and unlike many, I strongly approve of his adaptation skills. Of course there have been some duds along the way (to be expected in a career as long and productive as Davies's), but he has also brought us some of TV's best adaptations, including Bleak House (2005), The Way We Live Now (2001) and Pride and Prejudice (1995).
So what has changed in the field of Austen adaptation? Why is mediocrity the order of the day? Is this a problem with text-to-screen adaptation in general (a more involved and contentious debate of course)? Or is there something awry with TV and Filmmaking? (Even more contentious!).
Certainly there appears to be less attempt, with recent Austen adaptations, to re-interpret the source text, to say something new and different. Is this because we are Austen-ed out? I can't quite see this - there are multiple schools of critical thought alive to her literary texts, why can't this be replicated in the world of TV and Cinema drama? Or, is it the fault of over-commodification of the Austen 'brand'? There is thus no need to 'challenge' audiences who are seeking simple entertainment and easily digestible cultural capital, rather than seeking out fresh and illuminating narrative experiences (or so the TV/Film-makers would presume). Worryingly, the standards of 'aesthetic' filmaking appear to have dropped dramatically (excusing Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, which is a literal visual feast of a film). Arguably, of course, ITV simply cannot 'do' period drama - it lacks an eye for the genre, although not all BBC adaptations have been as adventurous and slick in their production values as, for example, the corporation's triumphant Bleak House in 2005 - which to my mind remains the benchmark in quality adaptation.