You have the right to remain silent


Oh, so we’re The Austen Cops now, are we? If only, if only!

Emmy and BAFTA award-winning writer Andrew Davies claims not to be overly concerned about the police. A monthslong storm of “cop” communiques on the Web about the British writer’s recent works was probably to be expected. We’re talking here about Davies’ adaptations of Jane Austen’s classics “Northanger Abbey,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice.” As a result, he’s under the scrutiny of “the Austen police.”

Apparently there’s an enormously vocal army of Jane Austen fans out there who are anxiously awaiting the January launch of “The Complete Jane Austen” on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater.” The series is being touted as the first time on television that all six of Austen’s classics will be presented as a complete collection. Davies has adapted four of these.

The mastermind behind the TV coup is Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of “Masterpiece Theater.” It was Eaton who revealed the presence of who she describes as “the Jane Austen police” in an interview last week in Los Angeles. The reference was actually a respectful nod because Eaton is thrilled that the series already has a groundswell of genuinely interested Austen fans.

Nice job trying to deflect any criticism in advance and pre-shape public opinion. “Don’t listen to those nasty Austen Cops! We know better!” Honestly, if we’re the cops, then, mixing our metaphors dreadfully, the inmates are running the asylum. Because these days those making the films are pretty much doing whatever they darn well please while we just sit here bewildered and powerless to stop it.

But they do tend to make one very aware that every nuance or deviation from the text of the original novels will come under intense scrutiny, Eaton concedes.

The level and intensity of not getting it just staggers one, doesn’t it?

Davies, who is accompanying Eaton on a multi-city tour to support the series and to chat up sponsors, makes no bones about the fact that he has confidently put some very individual fingerprints on the works. “Adapting Austen was pure pleasure in that it entailed copying out the best bits. But what gave me most pleasure was exploring scenes that she herself didn’t get around to actually writing, the back stories of various characters,” he says.

“Copying out the best bits?” Try “Crossing out the best bits and adding my own, inferior bits.” We would prefer, sometimes, sir, that you keep your “bits” to yourself.

Davies unearthed some gaping new opportunities for dramatization — at least as far as television drama is concerned. He notes that scenes are sometimes suggested but never fully explored in the novels, such as the affair between Isabella and Captain Tilney in “Northanger Abbey.” “Did Isabella really believe that Tilney would actually marry her? I mean, it was preposterous.” The affair, hinted at in the novel, becomes a nasty little bedroom scene in the television version with Tilney dismissing the devastated Isabella like a whore.

Nasty, yes; but we still think Isabella had more cunning than to act “like a whore” in the first place.

Additionally, Austen wrote “Sense and Sensibility” a decade prior to its publication but never updated it to address new trends and poets of the day, including Lord Byron. Davies fixes that.

Fixes. Okay. We suppose it’s not at all possible that Jane Austen left out Byron on purpose. It was totally an accident. Isn’t Jane lucky to have Andrew Davies available and willing to “fix” her mistakes?

He professes nothing but respect for Austen’s works while conceding the point that to create a masterpiece in a modern medium clearly requires a revisionist’s touch.

No, not “clearly.” We’ve seen too many really good adaptations where no “revision” is necessary. Contracting, combining, yes; we can forgive a certain amount of shorthand that explains away period oddities; but changing the stories wholesale, changing the meaning and intention of the work, is another thing, especially when other adaptations have shown it is not at all necessary to make a successful work that is enjoyable by modern audiences.

And the thing is, we can’t heap all the derision at Andrew Davies’ door. After all, they also hired the scriptwriter of the 1980s adaptation of Northanger Abbey, which most Janeites (yes, we know not all, but most) regard with varying amounts of bewilderment and contempt, to adapt Mansfield Park, because she did such a bang-up job with the first one. The producers of the three ITV films clearly meant to wring every last pound out of these productions while spending as little as possible in the process, making the adaptations, borrowing a phrase from Hobbes, nasty, brutish, and short. About the only thing they got right was casting, mostly; a very appealing group of actors for the most part who did their best with the material they were given; unfortunately for the thinking part of the fandom, many of the potential audience won’t see past the fresh, pretty faces to recognize the flaws in the storytelling.

The main positive we are taking away from the whole Complete Jane Austen thing is the public and media attention that our favorite author will receive. That doesn’t mean we, as a blog and as a fandom, are going to accept inferior Jane Austen Brand™ products without comment. It can’t be that much more difficult and expensive to make quality products than to do it halfway.

Thanks to Alert Janeite Lisa for sending us the link.

(And we think we’ve got over our blogging malaise. What say you, O Gentle Readers?)