Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Modern Austen Adaptations

Posted by lea at 4:59 PM
Jane Austen sure knew how to write a great story, as evidenced in the multiple modern-day film adaptations of her work. So I've decided to do a bit of a comparison to see who's done it best, going in chronological order.

Clueless (1995)

This was a really smart adaptation of Emma, transported into LA's superficial Beverly Hills high school scene. Didn't we all fall in love with Alicia Silverstone's irresistably clueless Cher and Paul Rudd as her dorky ex-step-brother?

They got the ingredients just right because although Emma is a privileged meddler who thinks a little too well of herself, at heart, she's a well-meaning and kind person who gets things wrong. It's a nice bit of narcissism for the reader/viewer to be more astute and insightful than the girl who knows everything but her own heart, and it's nice to see her humbled a little.

Amy Heckerling did a great job of injecting absurdist humour, poking fun of modern teenagers (like the bumful of underwear showing under low-slung jeans) while also making them endearing and even quite delightful to watch.

Just as it's easy for people to overlook Austen as a bit of fluff about women's obsession with marriage and climbing the social ladder, it's easy to write off rich kids as spoilt brats. But instead, with both Emma and Clueless, we get a reminder that people are people no matter what social culture you belong to, and that we're really not that different at heart.

Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

A simply superb adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennett as a modern, slightly chubby Londoner in the form of Bridget Jones, played to perfection by Renee Zellwegger. While it isn't strictly true to Elizabeth's character (she's witty and intelligent whereas Bridget is kind-hearted and perceptive but very much accident and embarrassment prone), she's just as endearing.

What they do really well in Bridget Jones is bring the fiery love/hate sexual tension between Elizabeth and Darcy to life while making it really funny rather than dramatic and intense. The foibles of the modern independent woman are humorously portrayed and the common theme of people just wanting love, no matter what era you live in, plays out nicely in what is essentially a love story.

Helen Fielding's humour translates well into film, and the characters are modernised scrupulously well. Even Daniel (the wicked Wickham) is someone you love to hate rather than just hate.

This is my favourite adaptation so far.

Bride and Prejudice (2004)

This is Pride and Prejudice with all the colour, verve, drama and music of Bollywood. Instead of Elizabeth we have gorgeous Aishwarya Rai as Lalita, in Darcy's place we have wealthy American hotelier Will, and instead of starched British manners we get people breaking into song and dance, like the memorable 'no wife no life'.

Gurinda Chadha does a great job bringing this story to life, focusing on the common themes of Austen's England and modern day India - like Mrs Bakshi's obsession to marry off her daughters (if only Mrs Bennett had had the resources of and the idea of arranged marriage versus love marriage.

There are a few times when it slips into a little bit of cringe, like the love scenes of Lalita and Will looking into the sunset, playing in the fountain and walking on the beach, which perhaps were deliberately OTT to poke gentle fun at Bollywood films, but overall it's a good girlie film and quite true to the original novel.

From Prada to Nada (2011)

I watched this a little reluctantly as I had a feeling I might regret it, but as an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility I felt a certain responsibility to watch and report. It's a Latina version that's tried to do a cross between a cultural Bride and Prejudice type thing on an obviously smaller budget, and a playful Clueless thing without the witty script.

The Dominguez sisters fall from great heights when their wealthy father passes away and they're relegated to the very modest East LA home of their very Mexican Aunt - a culture they've had almost nothing to do with and in fact seem quite ashamed of at first.

Almost from the first scene the characters are more like caricatures and the level of predictability is breathtaking. But it's not all bad. I liked that Nora (the ever-responsible Elinor) is re-envisioned as a law student fighting for the underprivileged, but I wasn't so crash hot about the stereotyped Mexican cleaners whose case she takes up and, through the process, falls in love with her boss Edward Ferris. Colonel Brandon is reinvented as a thug-looking tattooed handyman/artist with a heart of gold (a very surprising turn by an unrecognisable Wilmer Valderrama, The 70s show's Fez), which isn't too bad, but the very passionate Marianne is turned into a spoilt shallow rich girl who totters around on high heels in constant miniskirts and just wants to marry up to go back to Beverly Hills. In the end she bears almost no resemblance at all to Austen's original character.

I wouldn't recommend this movie unless you want to pass an hour and a half with Latina cliches and some vague semblance of Austen's plot. In my opinion, this is probably the worst adaptation.

Have I missed any movies that have moved Austen's novels into the modern day? And which is your favourite?


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