Friday, April 4, 2014

Jane Austen in any other time

Guys, I love a well done parody. Or transposition. Or mash-up. I adore "Bride and Prejudice" and "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" and "From Prada to Nada." I'm fascinated by seeing the story and characters I love transposed to a different time.

(On the other hand, I wasn't thrilled with "Lost in Austen" because it felt to me like it missed the point).

However, when you move one of Austen's stories out of the time they were written, you have to change the characters and motivations, because modern women simply don't have to marry for money.

We lose sight of that today, but 200 years ago, it was absolutely crucial. If a woman did not marry, she would spend her life living off of her relatives, and hopefully she would have prosperous brothers (as Austen herself did). This is why, although Austen's books are love stories, they are love stories and social-economic commentaries. Austen is called the mother of chick-lit, but she's concerned with examining many issues that today's chick lit doesn't even notice. Today's chick lit is about 'girl meets guy, girl and guy get separated, girl and guy get back together.' And that's the primary focus of the book. Everything else is stage dressing.

Not so in Austen. "Sense and Sensibility" is about romance vs. practicality, it's about loyalty and honor, concepts that our society doesn't care much about these days. It's hard to translate the dire straits of the Dashwoods into the modern day, because today girls can just go get jobs. And we have no similar situation to the Lucy/Edward scenario. Today, if you fall out of love, you break up (even if you're married). We have to be told that in Austen's day, once a man made a proposal, he couldn't get out of it. It would be dishonorable. Only the woman could break it.

"The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" did a pretty good job of changing points to fit the times (best example being what they did with Charlotte Lucas). But that changed the story. The greatest truths and delights of the characters are still there, but it has a life of it's own.

Personally I think "Emma" and "Northanger Abbey" are the easiest to transpose to modern day, mostly because their central plots have almost nothing to do with matrimony as an economic necessity. That's why "Clueless" did so well... although I'm still waiting for someone to do a modern day "Northanger Abbey" with Catherine Morland as a Twilight-Obsessed teenager.

And it's a struggle to make "Mansfield Park" enjoyable even in it's proper period without drastically changing it. Although, perhaps that would make it a prime canidate for a time period switch. We are so far removed from that era that we can't understand what makes Fanny who she is. Our culture has no respect for her sweetness and loyalty, which to us often makes her appear "meek and boring." What would Fanny look like today? What would a person of her ideals come across as to us, raised in our modern culture? In a way this could be the most interesting transposition of all, although almost certainly the least likely to ever appear.

"Persuasion" has the same issues of money and honorable engagements as S&S, but also deals with class in a way almost no other Austen book does (except for Lady Catherine de Borough, of course!). Since America sees itself as a nearly "classless" society, it would be hard to properly set it up in a way that we'd understand without minimizing the situation of the day. I did read one modern version in which Anne was a wealthy Southern Heiress, and Wentworth started off as a gardener's helper - enough for her godmother to send him packing!

What do you think? What are the flaws and strengths of transposition? What are your favorite modern adaptations?


Elora Shore said...

This is very insightful. I haven't seen modern spinoffs, so to speak, but there's time enough--but your article certainly provided food for thought. And now I feel a challenge coming on.... How WOULD a P&P/S&S type story be told WELL, in a modern society? That is a very good question....

Elena Sobrino said...

Have you seen Emma Approved? It's from the same people who did Lizzie Bennet diaries...honestly at first I was just mostly annoyed by it (mostly the acting) but I find myself keeping up with it so regularly I'm starting to think maybe they were just really really effective at capturing Emma's personality (being annoying at first IS kind of the point, after all), because I'm hooked.

Also, not a Jane Austen adaptation, but I recently discovered a vlog retelling (a la LBD) of Anne of Green Gables which is really cute and fun. It's not very far in the plot yet but even just watching a few of them has my mind swimming with ideas and excitement for where this modern adaptation could go (and AHHHH where is Gilbert!?!!!). The girl who plays Anne is also very charismatic and perfectly suited to the role, which is all the more impressive since as far as I know she is not a professional actress, and in fact the whole series was dreamed up by three creative high schoolers for fun.

Anyways, here's links if you're interested :)

Emma Approved:


Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

Elena Sobrino - I watched the first couple of episodes, but then the close-captioning fell behind and it was too much trouble to try to guess when the captions were going to get up. I'll watch the whole series once it is finished and the captions are updated. :)