I am not as avid a reader as I would like to be. This is something I love about the Books on Film Club series at TIFF Bell Lightbox. I am forced each month to pick up and get through a new book, one that I likely would never have read to begin with. That being said, my lack of reading proliferation makes the act of getting through the books a little trickier than I had expected. I also do not have a degree in English literature. I feel like if I did have one, reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park would have been a might bit easier on my mind.
Mansfield Park , Austen’s third novel, released after her more prominent works, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility , came with a set of accompanying tools, like suggested additional readings and historical chronology, in order to better understand and contextualize the text, but I still had a rough go of it. The flourish was surely elaborate and vast, but it might as well have been in another language for me some of the time. (I love how freely I can admit my own ignorance.) While reading it, and I realize how lazy this admission makes me sound, I was longing to just put it down and pop in the movie.
Last night, I finally got my wish. Canadian writer / filmmaker, Patricia Rozema’s 1989 film, Mansfield Park , screened as the second Books on Film Club selection to another expansive and enthusiastic group of book and film lovers alike. Series host, Eleanor Wachtel (CBC’s Writers and Company ) introduced the film to the crowd before it screened and referred to Rozema’s screenplay (she both wrote and directed the film) as more intervention than adaptation. She then told us that Rozema had once said of the changes she made to the original text, that as long as she felt comfortable running into Austen in the street, she would stand behind them. I should note here that Austen died in 1817, 172 years before Rozema wrote the adaptation.
What makes Rozema’s interpretation of Mansfield Park so brazen is that she actually amalgamated the protagonist, one Miss Fanny Price, with elements of Austen herself. Even the opening credits state clearly that the film is based on the novel, as well as on early Austen letters and journal entries. The obvious question is why on earth Rozema would want to mess with one of the most acclaimed authors in history. Does she think she knows better than Austen? Not at all. She does know a thing or two about film though, having written and directed I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing , a film that is widely considered one of the greatest Canadian films in history. With that expertise to back her up, she just did not feel that Fanny made for a great film heroine as is. Infusing Fanny with some of Austen’s unexpected, personal gusto though, allows us to explore what Rozema calls the inner landscape of Fanny’s mind, a place that most don’t even want to go near when reading the novel.
Fanny Price is one of Austen’s most maligned characters. Even Austen’s mother couldn’t love her, calling her insipid. In the novel, Fanny comes across as a weak, frail little girl, too scared of everything to get involved in anything, who just sits idly by to the side of the action, criticizing and judging the lives of others. Certainly, these are hardly admirable characteristics but they are also fairly typical of someone with Fanny’s history. Fanny was sent to live with her aunt when she was very young. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother, more interested in the boys than the girls when it came to her children. She goes from unwanted at home to tolerated at Mansfield Park. She is put to work there as an aid to her aunts and is always made aware of her position in the household, somewhere between family and help, but always inferior.
If you remember these beginnings, it is much easier to find sympathy for Fanny. It was this dreadful mistreatment that Rozema connected with and subsequently fueled her inspiration for the screenplay. Rozema had passed on making the film initially because she didn’t care for the draft she was given to read and felt that Austen’s other novels that had become films were unsuccessful efforts. It was suggested that she read the novel instead and that did the trick. Mansfield Park presented an opportunity to talk about who was paying for the parties instead of just putting them up there on screen. She saw Fanny as a human being who was being treated like currency.
Rozema’s compassion for Fanny is evident in her film. She is portrayed by British-born, Australian actress, Frances O’Connor, and though she is still very rough around her edges, it is impossible to ignore what influences have made Fanny into the imperfect person that she is. Suddenly, I found myself able to sympathize with Fanny’s plight and not just wanting to knock her down from her priggish perch the whole time. Suddenly, I wanted good things to happen for her when before I had only wanted to be done with her.
Rozema is currently working on another adaptation of another dense novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Stone Diaries , by Canadian author, Carol Shields.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox Books on Film Club series continues on Monday, April 4, with Lolita . The novel and the screenplay were written by Vladimir Nabokov and the film was directed by Stanley Kubrick. The special guest speaker will be film critic, David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film . Individual tickets for any of the remaining screenings are available at the TIFF Bell Lightbox box office.