Much to some of my friends’ chagrin and astonishment, I have never been a fan of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I’ve read it at least two or three times in the past (even doing a really good book-discussion led by Maribeth), but nothing could convince me that Mansfield Park had any of the depth, humor or morals of her other stories. Recently, though, I’ve re-read (or rather re-listened to) the book through the fantastic reader, Wanda McCaddon. And this time, I tried to put aside my bias against the story and pay sharp attention to the characters, the progression of the plot, and the examples/lessons Austen got across with this story. And to my great surprise, I actually liked it this time around! Even though Mansfield Park has some of the most infuriating characters (aka Mrs. Norris) and situations (aka Edmund falling for Mary Crawford!?!), it is no less well written than her other masterpieces. I think I finally understand why I didn’t like it before – it’s not that it wasn’t a very well done, realistic, poignant depiction of the Crawfords, Prices and Bertrams. It’s that I didn’t like the folks themselves. It was like looking at a beautifully, masterfully-painted portrait and saying, “I don’t like it” because it was a painting of a person I disliked. Once I realized that my grudge was more against the Crawford’s and Bertrams (and even against Fanny Price herself, for being a pushover) I was able to set that aside and see the story for what it is, a classic and a work of art. In the process, I came to understand and like the characters better as well!
In a nutshell (but boy is it hard to put an Austen story in a nutshell!), Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, a poor girl from a big family who is sent to live at Mansfield Park with her rich cousins, the Bertrams. Lady and Sir Bertram, their children Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia and Aunt Norris all live at the Park. The only one who pays any attention to Fanny (while the rest of the family belittles her) is Edmund. Fanny falls in love with Edmund, but he has no clue of her feelings. New neighbors come into town – young, single and handsome Henry Crawford and his sister Mary. They’re bad news and huge flirts, and they almost single-handedly ruin the Bertram family by the end of the book. Mary breaks Edmund’s heart, and Henry tries (and fails) to do the same with Fanny. He ends up running away with Maria (who happens to be married) and destroying the Bertram family reputation. Through everything, though, Fanny remains the same. Steady, quiet, compassionate, submissive and ready to help. It’s easy to mistake her as a pushover at the beginning of the book, but it’s clear at the conclusion that she’s the strongest one of all. She resists wrong and pursues good no matter what, even if the entire household of Mansfield Park can’t seem to tell the difference.
So after finishing the book this afternoon, I decided to watch the 1999 movie adaptation. I didn’t expect much from it, but I also went in to it with something of an open mind (having not looked up any reviews). I should have looked up at least some reviews and saved myself 2 hours of agony – and that’s what I hope to do for you right now with this review!
For starters: Fanny isn’t Fanny in the movie. She’s okay as a completely original character, but she is almost the polar opposite of the book Fanny. Fanny Price in the original story is gentle, timid, submissive and quiet. In the film, she’s spunky, forward, loud, rebellious, energetic, feministic, boisterous, as well as being an abolitionist and writer of bold, sensational stories. I think they were trying to merge her with Jane Austen, but it just didn’t work. In the movie, Fanny tries to be force herself into the group at Mansfield whereas in the book, she knows from the very start that she is not truly a part of the family and never will be. In one scene of the movie, when she is shunned by Mrs. Norris in front of the others, she runs out of the room in slow motion, cries and runs to her room. This sort of thing happens all the time in the book and Fanny takes it quietly. It’s one of the reasons that I always had a hard time liking Fanny, because I hate to see her submit to ill treatment for years and years. It makes her seem weak, but again, as Austen gradually reveals by the end of the story, Fanny is stronger than anyone else at Mansfield Park. The movie cheats and tries to make Fanny “strong” by speaking boldly, walking with her head high and not giving a rip about what anyone (but Edmund) thinks.
I think it’s not so much that Fanny is weak, as that she’s intensely introverted. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that! It’s easy to mistake extroversion with strength, and introversion with weakness. This article really helped me see that I was falling prey to the “Fanny Price is a weakling” idea, and that I was actually dead wrong in my estimation of her character. Reading the book with a clear separation between introversion and weakness in my mind, I was able to really admire Fanny this read-around. The movie obviously fell prey to the “submission is weakness” fallacy and re-molded Fanny as a result.
Julia and Maria were pretty good, Maria especially. They really showed her character, motivation and slow descent into shame and immorality well.
Lady Bertram is more of a druggie than the languid yet dignified lady in the book. Literally, she’s addicted to opium. I don’t even know how to comment on a druggie in an Austen story……
Sir Bertram is such a creep in the film! He spends all of his screen time either yelling at Fanny or almost flirting with her like a stalker. I ended up liking and admiring him in the book, but I couldn’t stand him in the movie. He has no scruples in manipulating and threatening Fanny to get his own way. He’s downright cruel. In the book he did some manipulating, but he was never mean.
Edmund was okay though it was hard to separate him from Mr. Knightly because Johnny Lee Miller plays both characters in different adaptations. He was too flirty and love-struck with Fanny, when he wasn’t supposed to love her until the end. Then he almost immediately falls prey to Mary and says “he could never marry anyone else”. And then at the end, he claims that he’s always loved Fanny. What?
Mary was way too crafty and sensual – wearing low-cut dresses, smoking cigars, and playing billiards with the men. All of this was clearly designed to convey the fact that Mary is bad news, but it’s frankly very cheap (and not period-accurate). Austen gets it across with characteristic subtlety, and even makes her readers waver once or twice on the “is Mary bad” o-meter. The movie just jammed it down the audience’s throat. The scene with Fanny and Edmund helping Mary read her lines was ridiculous – Mary completely seduced (through an aura of cheap sexuality) Edmund in less than ten seconds. It totally demolished Edmund’s until-then honorable character.
They did a good job showing the inappropriate nature of the play (which I never really understood in the book) but it was super rushed. The play was such an important part of the story, and it took up less than 5 minutes or so of screen time. In fact, almost everything about the movie was rushed (except for the parts that they added in). It was like the film makers were terrified that the original story of Mansfield Park would bore viewers, so they jumped from important scene to important scene with no build up in between. Rather than making the movie fast-paced or engaging, it left me on the outside, viewing as if from a distance. I had just finished the book less than a few hours before, so I knew the story very well. Still, I felt confused and jumbled by the pacing and lack of development.
They try to lighten up the darker themes of Mansfield Park with very out of place comedy. Shaky cameras, lilting music, burping, awkward montages, characters speaking directly to the camera – none of which is actually comedic, and none of which comes close to true Austen humor: that is to say, wittiness. The one part I did laugh at wasn’t supposed to be funny – it was supposed to be romantic but I was literally laughing out loud. When Fanny is in Portsmouth, Henry Crawford sent Fanny a gift. He sent these two little peasant boys with a huge basket of doves and fireworks and one of the kids sat there playing some kind of strange looking instrument. The doves flew into the sky in slow motion, and there was “sparkly” romantic sounding music with fireworks going off the whole time. The whole street in Portsmouth jumped out of bed to come watch, like it was an amazing display, but it was so incredibly random that I couldn’t help but laugh!
Mansfield Park itself was so clear in my mind in the book, but in the movie it was strange. It was like a big cold castle. I’d imagined it as being well-furnished and beautiful, but it felt very stark and poorly furnished (almost dingy) in the film.
Fanny was way too easily taken in with Henry. She’s coy and flirtatious, encouraging him to continue pursuing her. Then when she firmly refuses his proposal of marriage, it feels out of place and strange. Henry hardly gave a moment’s suspicion of his dark and selfish nature in the movie, so it doesn’t make any sense for Fanny to refuse him. In the book, you see so much of his impropriety that you want to stand up and cheer when she is steady in refusing him. They seemed to be spending way too much time on Fanny and Henry in the movie, at the expense of developing other more important parts of the story.
And then – horror of horrors – they made Fanny and Henry FALL IN LOVE!!! They got engaged and what’s worse, they flippin’ kissed, y’all!! I jumped to my feet and started screaming, “No way!! No way!! You’ve got to be kidding me!” at the TV (something I never do, but it was just so horribly out of place and character that I couldn’t help it). Fanny then looks like a complete hypocrite the next day when she comes to her senses and refuses him. The entire story devolves into a soap opera between Henry and Fanny, with a little Edmund-Mary drama thrown in for good measure. I never understood why some “bonnet movie” critics accuse Austen’s stories of being little better than soap operas, but I think it’s because they’re just that: “bonnet movie” critics. No one who reads Austen could accuse her of such a thing, but poorly-done movie adaptations of her stories certainly can give that impression.
Worst of all, suddenly in the last 30 minutes of the film they work really, really hard to earn their PG-13 rating. Fanny finds a sketch book of Tom’s that depicts torture and rape of slaves in the Bertram’s estate in Antigua, as well as a sketch of Sir Bertram with a black mistress. Sir Bertram finds her looking at the book and blows up at her. (None of that, of course, had any part in the book.) She runs away to her room, but that same night, Fanny walks in on a very graphic, frontal-nudity bedroom scene of Maria and Henry committing adultery. I was absolutely horrified. The scene came on too fast to prepare for or look away from – it caught me off guard and made me really mad. Yes, in the book Maria does run off with Henry, but Austen would never depict such a scene in her stories. I’ve never felt dirty watching an Austen film, but I did with this one.
In short, whether you are a fan of Mansfield Park or not – DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE. It destroys the story, mocks Austen’s characters and plot, and is by far the most suggestive (and then graphic) Austen adaptation I’ve ever seen. I usually try to do positive movie reviews on my blog, but there are quite as many bad movies as good ones in the world unfortunately. I think it’s just as important to warn people away from some movies as it is to encourage them to watch others. I may have been unduly hard on the film makers as far as story and characters go, because I just read the book…but I think not. Overall, they took so many liberties and changed so much (and added such trash) that it felt like they were trying to “update” Austen’s story for modern viewers and make it more exciting and dramatic. As almost always happens when people try to completely revamp classics, this movie failed miserably. Mansfield Park may not be my favorite Austen story, but it is excellently written with very compelling, thought-provoking situations, ideas and lessons. One always comes away from an Austen story with a better understanding of humanity, morality and character. Mansfield Park is no exception. Sadly, however, the movie adaptation is.
In short – just read the book. 🙂