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Andrew Davies's Six Austen movies

Dear Friends and readers,

Over the past few weeks I've been watching Andrew Davies movies as background for my projected book on the Austen movies. My justification for watching as many as I did is that if I did try to cover all the Austen movies, he'd be a major player.  Together with different directors, producer, and actors, he's done 6 Austen movies -- and all of them clearly reflecting his obsessions, like and dislikes, character types which mean something to him.  I also enjoy his films marvelously. And it is a kind of marvel that I do as they often lack real subtlety and fineness, or do not have empathy for psychological vulnerability. He walks away from this, for example, when it comes to delving Louis Trevelyan in Trollope's He Knew He Was Right. Still there is otherwise so much there that is rich, thoughtful, entertaining, filmically brilliant, humane, liberal in attitude and so on and so forth.

So which are his six Austen films:  the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, the 1996 Emma, the 2007 Northanger Abbey, and 2008 Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, as well as 2001 Bridget Jones' Diary, and 2004 Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

I thought I should write about these on this blog rather than Jim and Ellen have a Blog, two where I'm writing about Davies' movies from books other than Austen, or Austen-derived, relates texts.  There I've written about his films, The Signalman (Dickens's ghost story), Middlemarch and Wives and Daughters (George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell). 

I have written about Davies' P&P and Emma and Northanger Abbey on my previous blog, websites, as postings and for conferences, but separately and not as a group written by Andrew Davies.  I've also touched on the connection between the Bridget Jones' movies and Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail as screwball romantic comedy.

So what's been left out are the parallels and paradigms which repeat in these series and are found in other Davies movies and are transmutations of Austen's material or consonant with it.  Motifs found in other Austen movies include the female narrator obvious in both Bridget Jones's movies. This is across the Austen movies a repeating motif that makes them different from other female diaries or novels. All six make a strong use of fantasy and dream-sequence to pull the audience along. All but Northanger Abbey has some sort of bridal scene.  All six have clever graphics and paratexts.  All of them operate to solace us (or me): the strong presentation of characters who care intensely about one another is deeply appealing.  I don't think this is necessarily from Austen, but it is typical of women's and the Austen films.  So all these Davies uses:  what other film-makers have taken from Austen. 

Unique to Davies is the self-evidently emotional vulnerable male who cannot articulate who he is.  Davies likes to question point of view.  He has this in all his movies whether out of Austen or not.  His ability to write simple eloquent dialogue is not, for one sees that in all his film adaptations -- phrases from the sources are intermixed.  His drive towards social criticism is in all his film adaptations.

Now I wonder what specifically is in Austen enables Davies to present something his rivals don't or cannot.  I haven't got an answer to this question. 

I really wonder if he was drawn to her or it's a matter of opportunism as she is such a central text for English and BBC film adaptations.  With Eliot and Dickens there seems to be something in the text drawing him; so too Dr Zhivago; with Austen he picks up on general paradigms and (as he says) seems to "tussle" with her, change her meaning to suit his preoccupations, not stealthily pulling out or elaborately cinematically upon hers.  The 2008 Sense and Sensibility shows him going into a romantic direction which goes against the spirit of the original.

Comments anyone?



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 30th, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
Andrew Davies
I am not a big fan of Mr. Davies. Yes, his P&P is entertaining, but I do not love it the way I do P&P80. My favorite of his films is the recent S&S, and even then, the first 5 minutes annoyed me no end.

His interest in bringing out the sexual undertones in the books he adapts is what annoys me most about him. To expand upon your own comment, he is as subtle as a jackhammer. I thought his Northanger Abbey and his The Way We Live Now are the worst examples of his obsession with sex. In this NA, Catherine looks as if she's having orgasms in her daydreams, it is strongly implied that Isabella slept with Captain Tilney, and then, of course, there's the nude scene. I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but these are absolutely not true to what I have always thought to be the spirit of Austen's novel. As for The Way We Live Now, Davies takes a biting, scathing study of white-collar corruption and turns it into a tawdry soap opera about Sir Felix Carbury's sex life. He glosses over an attempted rape (in my experience, people who only saw the adaptation don't even know about it), and takes Sir Felix, a narcissistic, dangerous man who almost destroys his mother and sister, and turns him into a misunderstood puppy who never pays for his misdeeds. In a word, "feh."

It is because I despise this adaptation so much that I am loath to see "He Knew He Was Right" and get very nervous whenever I hear that Davies is thinking of adapting The Pallisers. And the idea of that man getting his grubby little hands on that most subtle and beautiful of books, Persuasion, upsets me more than I can say.
Jan. 1st, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC)
"not a big fan ...."
Sir or Madam (as you have written anonymously I can't know who you are at all), the opening phrase is surely ironic or is used the way people do who begin arguments by defensively saying "I'm sorry but." They are not sorry at all.

As a matter of fact, Davies does not overdo the sexual aspect of his original matter, and his way of visualizing and dramatizing here is analogous to other modernizing changes he makes. You have misunderstood and overreacted. Davies wants us to despise Sir Felix, and his ending as a remittance man is punishment enough, one he is capable of feeling if not overcoming.

What Davies can be criticized for is playing to the "mob." He is willing to present himself as doing what will bring big audiences, and he obscures the interesting aspects of his adaptations, such as his depictions of emotionally-sensitive males.

The strong emotional dread you register tells us more about you than Davies's film adaptations.

Jan. 1st, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC)
A plan
I thought it appropriate for me to put my plan for blogs on Davies's adaptations here: I mean to write 4 more: 1) one comparing his and Anne Pivcevic's Dr Zhivago to David Lean and Robert Bolt's; 2) one just on _He Knew He Was Right_; 3) one on _Bleak House_ and _Little Dorrit_; and 4) one on _Tipping the Velvet_ and _Line of Beauty_.

Jan. 20th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
Davies and Austen
Fascinating idea and question - I am (as you know) a huge admirerer and enjoyer of Davies' work in general, and particularly his work on Austen's books. He's said that she's his favorite author, but that he wouldn't feel comfortable talking to her, and that he knows she wouldn't approve several of the things he's done (though I'm actually not necessarily convinced that he's being as radical as he thinks he is).

I think that the vulnerable, inarticulate male can be found in Sandy Welch as well - John Harmon in Our Mutual Friend, John Thornton in North and South, Rochester in Jane Eyre, and Mr. Knightley in Emma all are very vulnerable, and often at a loss for words.

Your comment about Davies' intermixing of his dialogue is very appropriate - I was watching clips on YouTube from his early nineties (1993-1995) alternate history political thriller trilogy (House of Cards, To Play the King, and The FInal Cut - which also star familiar actors, such as Susannah Harker and Ian Richardson, both of whom appear in later Davies projects, P&P and Bleak House respectively), and the main character uses a line I first heard in P&P - "You think that, if it gives you comfort," which he also used in Middlemarch.

One thing I think Davies tends to get (and Welch too) is the importance of secondary characters. Though he often massages characters to fit his general types (for example, the cheerful kindly older man who loves family and marriage, as in Mr. Weston in Emma, Mr. Allen in NA, Sir John in S&S, Squire Harmon in W&D, Mr. Jarndyce in Bleak House), he loves to focus on more than just the main romantic pair. Though Emma Thompson, Roger Michell/Nick Dear (1995 Persuasion), and Sandy Welch are good at that as well, Joe Wright/Deborah Moggach (2005 P&P), Douglas McGrath (1996 Emma), Adrian Shergold (2007 Persuasion) are not nearly as good at encapsulating the rich secondary characters of Austen compared to the main lovers. I'm sure that's not all, but it's something I've noticed.

I agree that he and the production team tends to pull S&S into a Bronte direction - but I have to say that I've always felt that that is the Austen novel that most suits that kind of treatment (as opposed to the 2005 P&P, which was waaaay too drippy). I think it was Patricia Meyer Spacks who said that S&S is a dark and painful book, and I thought that the 2008 series (and Emma Thompson's film) legitimately draw that out.
Jan. 21st, 2010 04:59 am (UTC)
Dear Ian,

Back again from teaching and can try to say something. I think the males of the other film adaptations you cite are nowhere near as un-macho male as Davies. Thornton is scary. the Davies' ur-type is Stephen Daker from A very Peculiar Practice.

On secondary characters, yes Davies is careful to bring them to life and cuts as few characters as he can. He works with Granada and often has a more seasoned cast (all the actors are long-time veterans or at least not newcomers who can barely do the older English sentences).

I too loved Dan Steevens in The Line of Beauty. I hope to write a blog on it.

Ellen (too tired to say any more)
Jan. 21st, 2010 07:32 am (UTC)
Very true about Thornton - hadn't thought about that as much. And I can see John Harmon's explosion near the end of Our Mutual Friend working that way as well. But what about Mr. Knightley in Welch? I don't see a qualitatively more macho element in, say, Davies' Darcy.

I've not seen more than about five minutes of Stevens in Line of Beauty, and haven't read the book - I do like him quite a bit (in S&S and in interviews and such), but I think (like Hattie Morahan) he's chosen to focus more on theatre work (sad for us in the states, but good for him as an actor).
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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