Library Dissertation Showcase

Where’s Austen? The use and misuse of Jane Austen’s irony in literary film adaptation

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2021

My topic on film adaptations of literary novels will be explored through the cinematic recreations of some of Jane Austen’s works. There are several reasons as to why this topic and area of film have been chosen; the topic of film adaptations of literary works is important to the study of cinema as it assists in understanding the relationship between literature and film, and the importance of the properties of film in creating, or recreating, meaning; film adaptations of Jane Austen’s works have been chosen because they are arguably some of the most well-known and intently studied pieces of adaptation in film criticism.

For this dissertation I intend to understand how the film adaptation relates to its literary source through the reconstruction of the literary film, and will be answering the question ‘How far does Jane Austen’s irony reach in film adaptations of her novels?’ I will be looking at three films and the technical or cinematic choices made by the directors and screenwriters, the effect on the tone of the films (whether they pursue a tone or style that is romantic or ironic), and the overall impact of these choices. It would be an impossible demand to present a literary film text without infidelity and would be equally as impossible to keep text and screen as separate artistic mediums, thus I pose that not every change made in a film adaptation is negative. This dissertation does not intend to compare novel to film and determine which medium is superior; it intends to discuss how filmmakers chose to interpret Jane Austen’s irony, and what their individual intentions for their films were as their own texts rather than texts exclusively related to Austen’s. What I intend to prove is how far film adaptations recognise the literary author’s tone without making a complete replication of the original work, and how this can be attributed to the differences between page and screen and the subjectivity of the filmmaker as an individual literary reader.

In this instance, textual analysis of both my four key academic sources and my three chosen film texts will be crucial to my argument; textual analysis of academic sources will enable me to create an understanding of the views of others and to create my own understanding based on this, and textual analysis of film texts will allow me to specifically identify film techniques that prove or disprove the discussed academic adaptation theories. Analysis of cinema will additionally exemplify how these films create the tone and atmosphere of their respective literary texts, and the individual tone and atmosphere of the film as a separate text.

‘Novels, Films, and the Word/Image Wars’ by Kamilla Elliott acknowledges the translated difference between literature and cinema but equally acknowledges the two art forms as not entirely separate, whilst additionally providing alternative arguments on the relationship between film and literature, and will be a key part of all chapters of my dissertation. ‘Adaptation and Misadaptations: Film, Literature, and Social Discourses’ by Francesco Casetti draws the similarities between the mediums of film and literature to establish why film and the novel should not be treated as strictly separate forms of artistic expression, but rather than analysing the technical aspect that Elliot explores, Casetti elaborates on how the search for meaning creates the connection between film and literature. Additionally, Celestino Deleyto’s essay ‘Me, Me, Me: Film Narrators and the Crisis of Identity’ offers a very significant theory on narrative voice that will be useful for understanding the role of the voiceover narrator, and how this uses techniques for film in order to recreate Austen’s ironic tone, in the Mansfield Park section of my third chapter.

My final key text will be Marie Sorbo’s Irony and Idyll. Although Sorbo makes many excellent points that I generally agree with in her analysis of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, there are areas of her work that I also disagree with and areas of the film texts that I felt were not explored enough in her analysis. I intend to use Sorbo’s work to support my own, but also intend to criticise her writing on Jane Austen film adaptations where it differs with my perspective in this dissertation. The basis of Irony and Idyll is that Austen’s work treated romance with an ironic distance, and that contrastingly the film adaptations of those works rarely use the same technique. Although much of Sorbo’s argument bears relevance to my own, I disagree that these films do not acknowledge Austen’s literary tone enough. I intend to explore where these films may choose to be romantic and how they wish to emphasise that their differing reconstructions of Austen’s work are not without significant acknowledgement of Austen’s original text and intentions; their choice to present elements of her stories as more romantic for the screen does not necessarily lessen their impact or make them inferior. I will address Sorbo’s argument from Irony and Idyll mainly in my second chapter, with references to her work in my third chapter. All of the above theory will be outlined in my first chapter, and used throughout my argument.

To demonstrate the contrapuntally romanticised and sometimes ironic framing used in Jane Austen film adaptations, three films adapted from three different works will be analysed and discussed with reference to relevant adaptation theory. Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005), Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema, 1999), and Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman, 2016) best demonstrate the use, deliberate misuse, and lack of irony in comparison to its utilisation in their respective literary source texts. Each film demonstrates how different contextual influences, and the differing intentions of each director, affect their presentations. Although they are all very different stories and based on different novels, each novel was written by the same author, unlike each film, and thus it is still important to note the differences between the three films in their approach to the same author’s works for the screen. The films outlined above serve to demonstrate how the use of irony, romance, or both, has shifted and rearranged in a non-linear manner over the last few decades.

In my second chapter, I intend to use Pride and Prejudice as an example of how romanticism takes precedence over irony, and how mainstream films can be swept up in the notion of romance as perfection and idealism rather than to approach it with realism. However, Joe Wright’s 2005 film does demonstrate an understanding of Austen’s original intentions, which can be evidenced by both analysing the film critically and as expressed explicitly by the director himself. Using the second chapter of Irony and Idyll to look specifically at the lack of irony in Pride and Prejudice is important, as understanding why irony was not used in this film will contribute to understanding why irony was used in the other two films. In addition to the critical film theory and analysis surrounding this text, understanding the intent of the directors and writers will be a key component to exploring why this film resulted in a lack of criticism of romantic fiction. For this reason, I will be analysing the effectiveness of the narrative as a separate text from the novel, however I will also consider what key elements the film does choose to adapt from the book and for what purpose.

By contrast to Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park serves to exemplify how some filmmakers have attempted to use irony more frequently in their narratives to critique certain themes and character types, similarly to the original story but, due to the differing mediums, not always through the same devices. In the first half of my third chapter, Mansfield Park will mainly be examined through Celestino Deleyto’s essay on narrators in film adaptations of literary texts, as it is the only film to produce a voiceover narrator and to acknowledge the presence of the audience through this narrator. The second half of the third chapter will be dedicated to the more committed use of irony and greater lack of romance in the ironically titled Love and Friendship. There is not a great deal of theory or critical essays on this text in comparison to the previous two case studies, attributed partly to it not having as much time to gain such critical recognition as its predecessors, but also due to its lesser known status as a Jane Austen story, making its commercial success and marketability more difficult; it must be remembered that the Pride and Prejudice film had the advantage of being adapted from one of Austen’s most well-known novels, and of being the successor of several previous famed adaptations. Even Mansfield Park had academic discussion and at least one previous adaptation for television behind it. As a result of its lesser known status, the analysis of Love and Friendship will be entirely my own, breaking down some of the most important scenes through reference to the director’s expressed intentions for this adaptation, and the pre-established adaptation theories discussed throughout the prior chapters. Specifically, I will be using theory discussed in Kamilla Elliot and Francesco Casetti’s respective essays to understand the significance of the changes that make Love and Friendship so effectively ironic.

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