Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mansfield Park (1999)

Constructing a film adaptation of a classic novel written nearly two centuries prior is no easy feat. Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999) succeeds in creating a close resemblance to the original text by Jane Austen, but also reveals some strong contemporary influences. Current ideologies and conveniences infiltrate many aspects of the movie, making it increasingly modern.

The most noticeable difference is in regard to the practice of slavery. In the novel, the Bertram’s plantation in Antigua which is run by slaves is mentioned briefly in only a few passages leading to a subtle questioning of morality. The film on the other hand takes up a large portion of the plot and seems to reflect the modern ideology and completely condemns the practice. Many of the scenes that offer these criticisms are completely made up or dramatized to such an extent that they vaguely resemble the actual text. One of the largest examples is the scene where Fanny discovers Tom’s sketches from Antigua. Sir Thomas is depicted as a cruel, violent, misogynistic sexual predator in the sketches and upon seeing them, abruptly flies into a rage and burns the entire book. This is far from the respected, quiet and reserved father we see in the novel.

Fanny’s character is similarly transformed, but is made more likeable. Fanny is less of the quiet, reserved teen we see in the novel and is instead a bold and expressive woman. She is unafraid to address her uncle and even mocks Mrs. Norris, thus expressing a woman more akin to the twenty-first century. Another interesting twist is that in her letters to Susan (who in the text is William) she includes excerpts from various stories, which correspond to actual texts written by Austen in juvenilia. Like many instances in the film, this aspect of the novel is changed but makes it arguably more interesting for the modern viewer.

Likewise, the film includes much more sexually charged characters than the novel does. For example, Maria actually has a sexual relationship with Henry before she is even married and is caught by several people including her own father who does not denounce her and simply overlooks the matter. Fanny also walks in on the pair, creating more conflict and excitement in Mansfield Park whereas in the novel, the family finds out from letters and friends.

One thing that the film can be commemorated for is that although often times distorted or even misplaces, there are not many aspects of the novel that are missing. Much of what cannot be conveyed through dialogue is made up for when Fanny writes letters to her sister Susan, during which she directly addresses the camera. Although creating some scenes, the film conveys similar themes as the novel. They are however, modernized and blatant whereas the novel was far more subtle and offered a subtle critique.

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