Happy birthday to us. Jane Austen was born on this day, 246 years ago.
Let’s raise a glass, celebrate life, and watch some films
“Fog, sun, sweet day.”
Many of you will recognize that description as coming from the journal of 18th century English naturalist Gilbert White, describing his Hampshire village near Steventon on December 16, 1775.
On this “sweet day” 246 years ago, as recounted in Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of Jane Austen, parents Cassandra and George Austen greeted the arrival of Jane - “She is to be Jenny,” her father wrote - at Steventon parsonage.
The parsonage housed, as Tomalin recounts, a large, noisy, book-loving family of five boys, two girls (another boy would follow), a small boys’ school, some chickens, many chores, and boisterous evening read-alouds - all comprising a wonderfully clamorous climate from which would emerge lots of irreverent early writings by this youngest sister, followed by the classics we are still reading, filming, talking about, and swooning over 246 years later.
So: Today, on this 16th of December, let’s take a moment to step away from the noise, raise a glass, and take a breath of gratitude for the artist and the writings that began on this day, and to appreciate the fact that readers, writers, teachers, and narrative-lovers like you and me are keeping these stories and the legacy of this Hampshire girl alive.
And, because it’s December and the month of lights, joy, and romance, many of you are already celebrating - with your favorite holiday films, and Austen adaptations.
So, this is a party post - and we’re celebrating by taking four contemporary films that take Austen’s classic stories and put them in settings that still reach us, inspire us, and challenge us today.
The four films we’re looking at - Clueless, Modern Persuasion, From Prada to Nada, and Bride and Prejudice - each take an Austen novel - Emma, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice - and sets the story in contemporary families, workplaces, cities, and situations. And all of them involve romance, light, comfort, and joy, appropriate to the season.
It’s always fascinating to me that Austen, writing more than 200 years ago, helped establish some of the foundational situations that contemporary storytellers like directors Amy Heckerling and Gurinder Chadha take and deploy, to turn swooning into a science.
But - we’re not going to just drool over these stories. No, not here, where we are rational creatures and obstinate, headstronog critics: Looking at each of these films, we’re going to apply some criteria and questions that will hopefully enlighten us as we both read Austen, and watch these watchable films. Enjoy!
Obstinate, Headstrong Critiquing
Here are the three things we’ll look at with each film:
Austen Themes: What - possibly hidden - themes from Austen are helpfully highlighted in this contemporary retelling? (Don’t you love it when your Austen adaptation takes an aspect of the original that you hadn’t considered, and highlights it?)
Romance Tropes: What romance-genre tropes are leveraged in this story? It’s always fascinating to me that Austen, writing more than 200 years ago, helped establish some of the foundational situations that contemporary storytellers like directors Amy Heckerling and Gurinder Chadha take and deploy, to turn swooning into a science.
Favorite line that invokes Austenesque themes. Please help me with this one - chances are, I’ve missed the best line of the film. Please set us right by commenting.
Ready? Let us begin!
Austen Themes: Mean Girls, comedies of manners, pretentiousness, misplaced judgements about wealth, class, and status, and Austen’s biting satire - all abound in Amy Heckerling’s version of Jane Austen’s Emma.
These are the obvious ones - but Heckerling’s film also tackles subtler themes such as the education of women (gotta love Cher’s class presentations), the value of women in society; the motherless finding family in each other; how to be a good friend; and making each other better in a relationship. I think the abundance of Austen themes shining through this sparkly romcom is the substance of why it’s a favorite among Janeites.
Tropes: Forced proximity; friends-to-lovers; soul mates (What are we missing?)
Favorite line that invokes Austen: “You think … I’m just a ditz with a credit card?”
Also favorite line: “And may I remind you that it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty?” (followed by triumphant stretching and twisting of chewing gum)
Clip: Here’s where Cher and Josh set aside differences and give in to the attraction they barely knew was there - perhaps the best part of Austen and the best part of this film.
Austen Themes: patience, perseverance; marshaling one’s inner resources when all is lost
Tropes: Second chance; enemies-to-lovers; workplace romance; mutual pining (But don’t get too excited, friends, none of this is as good as it is in Austen’s version.)
Fave line that invokes an Austen theme: “I can do this, right? Yes, I can.”
So how are things at work, friends? Seen any Lucy Steele strategery lately? Sir Walter condescension? Sir Thomas Misogyny? Or just downright John Dashwood-delivery of passive greed? Bullying? Fakery? All of these Austen dilemmas are very appropriate to office-place navigation! Are we not right?
Unfortunately - and tell me whether you agree, friends - our take is that this film, while in many ways a loving tribute to Persuasion, rises to the height of only so-so.
Seen any Lucy Steele strategery lately? Sir Walter condescension? Sir Thomas Misogyny? Or just downright John Dashwood-delivery of passive greed? … Unfortunately, all of these Austen dilemmas are very appropriate to office-place navigation!
But it does something very interesting that warrants further discussion, by transferring Austen themes about interpersonal dynamics, hierarchy, and power, to the workplace. In the Regency world, marriage and relationships were high stakes, perhaps more in tune with a professional setting today than with a family setting. Perhaps we should be talking about what lessons Austen has for us for the hierarchies, the dramas, the oppression even, and the relationships, that unfold in the workplace, which for most of us is our community - our Highbury, or Bath.
Clip: This is the trailer, which is fun and perhaps all you need to know from this film.
‘From Prada to Nada’
Austen Themes: Affection over affectation; family loyalty; search for a home; generosity
Tropes: Opposites attract; fish-out-of-water
Fave line that evokes Austen: “My heart is, and always has been, yours.” Simple, to the point, spot on. Thanks much, Edward.
Also favorite line: “Careful with the white boy. Don’t let him make you dizzy.” - Delivered in Spanish by Nora’s aunt.
From Prada to Nada is about two Latina sisters - Nora and Mary - who are tossed out of their large fancy Beverly Hills home after the death of their father. Sound familiar? Yes, this is retelling Elinor and Marianne and Sense and Sensibility.
The 2011 film is directed by Angel Gracia, with a screenplay by Fina Torres, Luis Alfaro, and Craig Fernandez.
Our take is that this is another only-ok Austen retelling for the screen, but the film does a good job of teasing out the themes and images of home and displacement and class anxiety - in ways we sometimes miss in our film adaptations.
What’s most important here is that the sister dynamics are wonderful, and play well: Nora is wise, restrained, considerate, and a law student who likes helping people. When you think about it? - Of course Elinor Dashwood transported to contemporary Los Angeles is a law student working pro bono! Mary, like Marianne, is a literature major, rash, emotional, and ready to fall in love - which she does, with her handsome Lorca-quoting Mexican TA. I would have liked to have more poetry than Prada from Mary and to see her fully embracing her Romantic side, rather than her fashion-obsessed side. That would have been way more interesting and original even while borrowing directly from Austen.
When you think about it? - Of course Elinor Dashwood transported to contemporary Los Angeles is a law student working pro bono!
Our “Colonel Brandon” type is a quietly talented and patient neighbor who helps Mary embrace her Latina heritage; and the Edward Ferrars stand-in is a fancy attorney who goes weak and wayward for a while, as he should, and then finds his path back to Nora, as he also should, handing over to her not only his heart but a set of keys - to a law office in her East LA neighborhood, where she can set up shop.
Clip: Another HEA - and also a spoiler if you haven’t watched this film yet.
‘Bride and Prejudice’
Austen Themes: Inner resources vs “status”; the pleasure of embracing community traditions … and lots of dancing!
Tropes: Hate-to-love, enemies-to-lovers - but of course!
Fave line evoking Austenesque themes: Lalita to Darcy: “When I first met you I thought you were rude, arrogant, intolerant and insensitive … I was right.”
This 2004 film, directed by one of the UK’s most successful film-makers, Gurinder Chadha, seems to be a huge favorite with Janeites.
It’s vibrant, fantastically choreographed, and combines romance, passion, humor and social commentary all into one.
“When I first met you I thought you were rude, arrogant, intolerant and insensitive … I was right. ”
The film takes Austen’s classic story of five sisters - here four, Jaya, Lalita, Lakhi, and Maya, whose mother desperately wants and needs them to marry well - and puts the story on a global stage. The action takes us from Amritsar, India, to Los Angeles and beyond, and this all seems to somehow work.
For me, this film, like Clueless, actually deploys the original themes and leverages up - it takes classic Austen themes of appearances vs. authenticity; status vs. true inner value and character; and the hate-to-love trope, and throws in a vibe of big celebration. As great as all those Pride and Prejudice adaptations are, none of them have the choreography and dancing that makes your heart leap like Bride and Prejudice does. Move, over Andrew Davies.
Clip: This clip shows how surprisingly closely Chadha’s film adheres to the plot of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with Darcy’s and Lalita’s first reluctant, then celebratory dance among family and community that ultimately leaves Darcy standing awkwardly on the margins.
So! What are you watching right now, friends?
There are many films that put Austen themes in a contemporary setting - and it’s really hard to get that right. But all these contemporary film adaptations make up just one more important way that we’re still celebrating, commemorating, and communing with Jane Austen, 246 years to the day after her birth. Cheers!
What’s your favorite film adaptation or screen retelling? Is it Clueless, or Bride and Prejudice? What is your favorite aspect of - and what is your favorite line from - Clueless, or another favorite screen adaptation? Tell us here!
And most of all, have a wonderful Jane-birthday today. Use this day as an excuse to treat yourself to something nice, even if it’s just a walk, a latte, a good book, or a guilty-pleasure film - or all of the above.
Coming up, we have special holiday editions of the Austen Connection, plus a podcast episode with New Yorker writer and Harvard Professor Louis Menand, about “Misreading Jane Austen” and more.
So, we’ll be here with you over holidays - meanwhile, stay tuned, stay well, stay in touch, and enjoy Jane’s birthday as if it were your own birthday, today.
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