Sunday, February 9, 2014

Film Recommendation: Northanger Abbey

In EN 461, we are looking at the 19th century British novel with a focus on Gothic texts. Whenever I read a classic I try to find a version or two in the film-verse. This could be seen as odd, considering that I am of the firm opinion that the book is almost always better than the movie. However, I will share a little secret with the world: seeing a story acted out makes it easier to understand. Shocker, I know. Reading and watching are two very different things, though. Shakespeare's works were meant to be performed and, while Jane Austen is not known for her plays—nor, I find, are most romantic authors from that era (with the possible exceptions of Coleridge and Byron)—any thick text can be better understood when put together in an audio-visual format. This isn't me proudly advocating those two types of learning, especially since I myself am more within the school of reading/writing. Even so, it can be difficult to grasp the full extent of a novel in one read-through...which is all a student usually has time for during busy college days.

So, for Northanger Abbey, I chose to go for the 2008 made-for-TV movie. Departures from the original text were usually only slight and, in one or two cases, they actually benefited the plot. Character portrayals were surprisingly accurate just as the overall romantic-Gothic feel was appropriately accentuated without being overbearing.

Felicity Jones as head-in-the-clouds Catherine Morland.

One aspect that threw me off was The Mysteries of Udolpho. Austen has Catherine read this Ann Radcliffe novel throughout her own story; doing so helped make a case for the value of novels that were, at the time, viewed as second-class material. The screenwriter and director had Catherine's over-active imagination come to life so that viewers could get a glimpse into her headspace. This first occurs when Catherine is on her way to Bath with the Allens. The vision of two highwaymen pulling a heist on the carriage and making away with our non-heroine had me extremely confused and a little annoyed that perhaps the story was not being taken all that seriously. Later, though, I came to appreciate these little interruptions for what they actually supplied: insight. Without the use of narration or VO, the viewer is left pretty clueless as to how Catherine is feeling at any given time. When she meets Isabella and the latter lends her Udolpho, the characters Catherine envisions are played by real-life counterparts in her own life. This added layer aids the viewer's belief of Catherine's imaginative disposition that in turn makes her final row with Henry Tilney all the more convincing.

There were some things I did not like, however. This version sees Isabella bedded by Captain Tilney, which seems extreme. One of the points in the novel was that a lady's reputation could be tarnished by mere gossip concerning her 'purity'. Besides, Isabella herself is manipulative and scheming, so it hardly seems likely that she would sleep with the man before securing her future via marital bondage. Another departure involves the protagonists. Henry comes off as less sarcastic and Catherine much less naive than their written counterparts. This I chalk up to the writers desiring likable leads...but that was a change they really could have done without. Faults give depth, and Masterpiece Classics usually need all of the three-dimensionality they can muster.

Constantly reading, just like an English major. >_>
Also, check out that set dressing!

Yes, the book is better; that should really go without saying. As far as film adaptations go, though, this one could have been a lot worse. When you're confined to a runtime of 120 minutes, some executive decisions need to be made. The creators here tended to make the right choices.

P.S.- JJ Feild fits the role of a 19th century gent quite well, I think you'll agree.
"Now I must give one smirk, then we may be rational again."

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