It didn’t take long for Whit Stillman to work Jane Austen into his movies. It happened in his debut, 1990’s Oscar-nominated indie “Metropolitan,” in a scene with a New York debutante and a Princeton freshman talking about the English author’s “Mansfield Park” and its “virtuous heroine,” Fannie Price.
He finds the novel “absurd.” The young socialite is aghast.
“You found Fannie Price unlikable?” she says.
“She sounds pretty unbearable, but I haven’t read the book,” he responds.
“You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it. I haven’t read the Bible, either.”
Stillman’s protagonist, Tom, goes on to admit he hasn’t read any Austen. “I prefer good literary criticism. That way, you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.”
Stillman, of course, has read Austen — religiously — although, when he was a college freshman, he didn’t “get” the beloved Regency-era author, either.
“I read ‘Northanger Abbey’ when I was 18. It’s a parody of gothic novels,” says Stillman. “I did the typical young person — or even not-so-young-person thing — I read the wrong book, didn’t appreciate it, and went loudly around declaring Jane Austen terribly overrated … .
“Which lasted about five years, and then my sister put me on to ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ and I learned to love Austen.”
Then Stillman learned, in the early oughts, about a forgotten novella, written when Austen was “a foolish 19-year-old,” but left unpublished until after her death.
“Love & Friendship,” starring Kate Beckinsale as an anything-but-virtuous heroine, is the writer/director’s winning adaptation of said work.
It joins a list of films and telefilms based on Austen’s books, or inspired by them, that appears infinite. A few of the classic interpretations: “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), “Emma” (1996), “Pride & Prejudice” (2005). The long-form TV series: “Persuasion” (2007), “Pride and Prejudice” (1995). The updates: “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (2001), “Clueless” (1995). The fan-tasies: “Austenland” (2013), “The Jane Austen Book Club” (2007). The biopics: “Becoming Jane” (2007), “Miss Austen Regrets” (2008). Another biodrama, “Jane by the Sea,” adapted from the Carolyn V. Murray novel, is in the works.
Call it Austen-tatious, but there is no stopping the woman, dead now for 199 years.
And, speaking of being dead for centuries, Quirk Books has made a pretty penny off the literary luminary, buried in Winchester Cathedral in her hometown of Hampshire, England. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a jolly mash-up of Austen’s 1813 classic and the horror tropes of the walking dead, was published in 2009. The parody, written by Seth Grahame-Smith, spawned two sequels, plus a companion mash-up: “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.”
This year, the film adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” staggered into theaters, complete with corsets, courtships, fancy dress balls and decapitating swords. The DVD and Blu-ray editions hit May 31.
“If there is a more loved novel in the English language, I don’t know it,” Quirk publisher Jason Rekulak says of the Austen original that his house cannibalized with glee. “If you ask people what is the most-loved novel in the English language, it is ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ and everything else is like a distant second. ‘David Copperfield’? It’s not the same … .
“She set the template for the romantic comedy as we still know it today, 200 years later. All these movies — Jane Austen movies or just romantic comedies in general — they all play off characters and relationships that were introduced in her books. And it still works. It’s indestructible.
“We couldn’t ever ruin it with zombies! It’s so bulletproof you really can’t mess up what she does.”
And “Pride and Prejudice’s” heroine, the landed gentry lass Elizabeth Bennet, remains “the model for so many heroines in contemporary fiction and film,” Rekulak adds.
“She’s the one who is bucking the system and the trends, and she’s feisty and independent and strong-willed, dealing with all these pressures coming from her friends and her family.”
Lady Susan Vernon, the Beckinsale character in “Love & Friendship,” certainly fits that description. And then some.
For Stillman, who has now read Austen backward and forward, Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” — scripted by (and costarring) Emma Thompson, with Kate Winslet as the strong-willed Marianne Dashwood — represents the high-water mark of Hollywood’s Austen adaptations.
“It’s wonderful,” he says. “I think that they had some of the advantage we had, that there’s something very liberating and very encouraging about adapting work that is valuable but not perfect. ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ of Austen’s great novels, is the one where there’s a certain amount of imperfection, and they humanized it and filled it out beautifully.”
In “Love & Friendship,” Stillman took off from Austen’s epistolary tale — published posthumously as “Lady Susan” — stealing whole chunks of dialogue, and inventing characters and complications along the way. Beckinsale, who had the title role in a 1996 television version of “Emma,” is wickedly candid and cunning as a widow looking out for herself, and mooching, with the utmost politesse, off in-laws, friends, admirers. Joining the actress in Stillman’s Regency romp are Xavier Samuel, the sublimely buffoonish Tom Bennett, Lochlann O’Mearain, Jemma Redgrave, Chloe Sevigny, and Stephen Fry.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps fatefully, two actresses — Morfydd Clark and Emma Greenwell — appear in both “Love & Friendship” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
Stillman has not seen the latter. “I’m not a zombies guy,” he demurs.
But as the sales figures for Quirk’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” suggest (about 1.5 million copies in print, translated into 25 languages), a lot of Austen lovers, guys and girls, are zombies fans.
“What we found is that if you drew a sort of Venn diagram of Jane Austen fans and zombie fans, there was a lot more overlap than you would expect,” says Rekulak. “When our book came out, we started going to comic cons, like the San Diego ComicCon, and we’d see the people walking by, we’d see the Lord of the Rings fans with their cosplay and the Star Trek fans with their cosplay, and then we’d see the Jane Austen fans in their Regency dresses come by.
“It made me realize that, for a certain kind of reader, it’s just another fantasy, its own world with its own weird rituals and customs and costumes and language and card games that we don’t play anymore.
“Surely, they’re the only characters from a 200-year-old novel wandering around the San Diego ComicCon.”
As Austen might say, it’s enough to pierce the soul.
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