Adventures in Contemporary Lit: Gillian Flynn

Warning: This post contains spoilers for all three of Gillian Flynn’s novels: Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and Gone Girl. Plot twists will be laid bare.

Gillian Flynn is the argument for library books.

I don’t read a lot of contemporary lit. I don’t really know where to start with it, and in general (unless we’re talking Cormac McCarthy), what I’ve found just doesn’t speak to me in the same way. It’s not just popular literature like Gillian Flynn. For example, my book club read Colum McCann’s award-winning Let the Great World Spin last month. And it just didn’t do a lot for me. In a weird way, the book seemed to announce its own themes and then spend most of the text continuing to demonstrate those themes. When I read something like Jane Eyre, I feel like I have to do more work to construct a theme and find that my book-club-type questions tend to range a little deeper. Contemporary lit is something I need to work on.

Anyway, I kept hearing that this book Gone Girl was good from friends. I used to enjoy mysteries, so I thought, why not? I found a copy at the library and dove in. In the first hundred pages, I suggested our book club read it. It was pretty good. It was summer. Beach reading! (Well we’re landlocked, but you know.)

Then I finished the book.

Gone Girl is a novel about a guy (Nick) with a kinda-failing marriage whose wife (Amy) goes missing. Of course he’s the suspect. His narrative is intercut with diary entries from his missing wife about how she’s starting to become afraid of him. But Nick maintains his innocence (even though he withholds a lot of information) Then, suddenly, it turns out Amy is not dead. She faked her disappearance to take revenge on her husband for crossing her. And it turns out she’s faked a bunch of stalking incidents in her life. And it turns out she’s thought of absolutely everything because she’s just that smart that she didn’t leave behind a single piece of evidence that’s she’s actually evil and staged the whole thing.

Here are the things that bothered me about Gone Girl: the characters and the plot. So, you know, nitpicky stuff. Nick was unlikeable, but fine, whatever, you’re supposed to be unsure about whether he’s a murderer. Amy is the worst, not just because she’s like a clichéd Psychobitch of the first order, but because she’s not a real character. Her motivations baffled me: she pretends to be someone else, then takes revenge on her husband when he doesn’t bow to her every whim when she turns off the persona she’s constructed to get him to fall in love with her? That’s on you, lady. The unbelievability of her hitch-less scheme is matched only by the unbelievability of her undoing: for all her plotting and perfecting every detail, she has no bullshit detector. And this fact is only revealed when it’s convenient to reveal it.

The plot felt like a bad episode of Law and Order to me. Amy is evil? WHAT A TWIST. It felt unbelievable and yet clichéd at he same time. Amy gets out of everything, no one asks questions, even Nick stops asking questions and they just accept it. And some of the plot threads were dropped: Nick’s abusive father is prone to escaping from his nursing home and is found wandering around town in a dementia fog. And….nothing comes of this. Nothing. It just drops out of the narrative. At one point, Amy gets into hot water when some motel rats steal all the cash she’s set aside. Wow, Amy, how are you going to get out of this one? Oh, by contacting your high school boyfriend who is conveniently still in love with you and conveniently filthy rich and can conveniently hide you in one of his many houses, which are all conveniently nearby.

It’s been interesting to talk to people about Gone Girl. A lot of people I’ve met don’t like it, but it seems like they don’t (or do) like it because it’s “dark” or “twisted.” Maybe I’ve just read too many Cormac McCarthy novels, but I like dark and twisted and Gone Girl doesn’t cut it. It’s more like, “Look how dark and twisted I am! Someone tried to get her husband sentenced to death because she’s EVIL!” You know what’s dark and twisted? Scalping innocent people for money, a.k.a. the plot of Blood Meridian.

I borrowed a copy of Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel and winner of the Edgar award. I had to know if all her books were as terrible—and they’re not that long so they’d only take about a day to read. One thing I will say for Gillian Flynn, her books go fast.

Sharp Objects was better, I thought. The premise was a little dumb: Camille is a journalist at a failing paper and gets sent home to Missouri to investigate the murders of young girls, who are showing up dead with their teeth pulled out (to sell papers, I guess?). Her family life is fucked up: her horrible mom and the entire town dote on Amma, Camille’s thirteen-year-old sister, who is creepy as all get-out. But Camille is damaged goods: she used to be a cutter and she has words carved all over her body. Yes, words. And she can “feel” them light up at various points. This is just so dumb to me. It’s too neat. I imagined Camille with a Miss America sash reading “DAMAGED PROTAGONIST.” Seriously, parts of this novel sound like something a seventeen-year-old would write for NaNoWriMo.

Again, it was better. It turns out creepy mom makes her daughters sick with all her “medicine”—this actually killed Camille’s older sister—and eventually Camille fingers her mom as the killer. This conclusion was arrived more elegantly than Gone Girl‘s “oh wait we can lure Amy back because even though she’s super smart she’s ridiculously gullible.” But, aha! A twist! It was Amma who murdered the girls in town. The creepy dollhouse she’s been making has an ivory floor made of their teeth. Amma was raised by someone who has a classic case of Munchausen by proxy. Sure, it’s not a common disease, but the fact taht she turned out to be a murderer makes more sense than Gone Girls “Amy is just a  bad seed.” Do bad seeds occur in real life? Sure they do, but normally there are warning signs.

So I was pretty on the fence and decided to check out Dark Places—both literally and figuratively. Dark Places has another damaged protagonist, Libby Day, whose older brother Ben is in jail for murdering their mother and two sisters. Libby can’t function in society and lives off the proceeds from well-wishers and book royalties. The funds are nearly depleted and she takes offered money to speak at an organization for murder hobbyists. The hobbyists have dedicated their lives to proving Libby’s brother’s innocence, so she begins to conduct an investigation of her own.

Dark Places really wasn’t that bad. Again, the characters seemed a little flat: Libby is pretty much defined by her anger and depression, Ben felt more like a sketch than a person to me. This could be because the narrative alternates between Libby’s first-person, present perspective and the third-person narratives that alternate between Ben and the children’s mother, Patricia, on the day that Ben allegedly committed the murder. It was stretched a little thin.

Again, the plot in Dark Places depended too much upon coincidences. The day of the murders is rife with drama: Ben and his pregnant girlfriend are trying to get out of town, Ben is accused of molesting young girls in town, Ben and girlfriend have a run-in with Ben’s deadbeat dad and the participate in a Satanic ritual. Ben’s mother searches for Ben amidst the rumors of his troubles, she also has a run-in with the deadbeat ex-husband, and decides to have herself killed to get the kids life insurance money and avoid foreclosure on her farm. The killer-for-hire does his job, but he’s seen by one of the daughters, who he then also murders. While all this is going on, Ben and his girlfriend are in the house trying to leave town. Ben’s girlfriend strangles the oldest daughter when she threatens to tattle. When the two emerge, they think like their Satanic ritual worked or something? And right after Libby finds Ben’s girlfriend and daughter, the killer-for-hire is caught: turns out he’s someone the Kill Club was onto who has been killing people in debt for decades. Maybe this is just the way that mysteries are? So full of coincidences? I don’t read many of them, so this seemed a little too convenient for me.

One thing that frustrates me about Gillian Flynn in general is that she kind of addresses issues we experience in contemporary life—the recession, missing pregnant women, blaming violent media for violent actions, the twenty-four-hour news cycle—but sometimes only addresses them halfway. For example, running through Dark Places is the idea that Ben was wrongly convicted of murdering his family because he was a moody teen that didn’t fit in and got swept up in Satanic Panic. But then later in the novel, Ben’s girlfriend and her friend bring Ben along on an honest-to-God (no pun intended) Satanic ritual fueled by PCP. So…instead of critiquing the Satanic Panic mentality of the 80s (like Donnie Darko), the rumors are kind of half-true? What?

So, in conclusion, I am really glad I’m not one of those people who is fundamentally opposed to library books because then I’d be stuck with three Gillian Flynn novels that I’d have paid my hard-earned money for. Some people don’t think I have a very open mind, but at least I tried. I read all her work, I just didn’t like it.

I promise some day soon, I’ll finish The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but I owe plenty of other fines for non-Gillian Flynn library books, so I wanted to get Dark Places out of the way.


Eff the Jazz Age, Old Sport: Re-Reading to Watch the Great Ghastly

Warning: This post speaks freely about shit that happens in The Great Gatsby (the 1925 novel AND the 2013 film) without a plot summary.

I’m still reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (almost 25% through!) but rather than let this whole project fall victim to the fact that house-hunting and moving have taken over my life, I decided to write about something I actually re-read this year, old sport: The Great Gatsby. (Cue jazz music.)

I admit with a healthy amount of English Major Snob Shame that I re-read in preparation for the movie to come out. I feel like I was brainwashed into seeing the movie because I had to watch that goddamn trailer for like 18 months in every movie I went to. (I saw all nine nominees for Best Picture this year, too, so that’s at least nine times too many.) It seemed like the whole world was going apeshit for Gatsby. I remained skeptical because I just don’t care for Baz Luhrmann that much. He may have given us teenage Leonardo DiCaprio brooding to Radiohead, he also gave us men in top hats line-dancing to Nirvana in a terrible medley.

I read The Great Gatsby in the tenth grade, old sport. I remember a lot of talk about money, that dumb green light, and a random smattering of other stuff. I flipped through the copy I bought when I was sixteen and found not a single underline or margin note. I remember having the vague feeling as I watched people get glitter-bombed to Florence + the Machine: “Isn’t the whole point of The Great Gatsby that rich people are shitty?” The trailer looked like it was setting up Leo for the love story of the twentieth century (which, Sorry Baz, but Titanic still holds the title) and I had the feeling: “Isn’t Daisy like the worst human being ever?” But my book held no notes, I didn’t quite remember, and it was only 200 pages long so what the hell?

First of all, I remember our reading of The Great Gatsby to be a Significant Tenth Grade Event. It felt like we spent forever dissecting the symbolism and plot points. We talked about the American Dream, old sport, and unlike The Crucible not everybody hated it. Turns out there’s not really a lot to The Great Gatsby from a plot perspective. All the major plot points you probably remember from high school are pretty much the plot points. For example, Myrtle Wilson and Meyer Wolfsheim barely appear in the novel despite the fact that they’re pretty major figures. It feels like you don’t really spend a lot of time with any of the characters before suddenly Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are having the most awkward tug-o’-war ever over Daisy in a hotel room. All of a sudden, Myrtle’s dead, Gatsby’s dead, and Nick is still like having feelings or whatever he does.

And those epiphanies you had about the symbolism in tenth grade? You may be confusing them with the fact that Nick beats you over the head with redundant exposition and actually tells the reader what stuff means (like the green light).

My reaction to this book surprised me. Literature didn’t start to affect me until eleventh grade (have a teenage girl who doesn’t fit in and worries she’s mentally ill read Frankenstein, The Metamorphosis, Hamlet, and the poetry of Sylvia Plath and then dare her not to feel). Since college graduation, I’ve found myself openly weeping at books and I felt very strong emotions while re-reading The Great Gatsby. Maybe it’s because my heart grew three sizes that year. Or maybe it’s because I went to private college and became aware of the phenomenon of privilege—both mine and others’. Who knows. But The Great Gatsby kind of punched me in the solar plexus. But not really in a good way, old sport.

This book shocked me completely. Where I may have raised my hand in tenth grade English and said, “I think, like, Fitzgerald thinks that, like, rich people suck,” now I was like, “OH MY GOD these are the most HORRIBLE FICTIONAL PEOPLE I’VE EVER ENCOUNTERED.” (Of course, at this point I not yet read Wuthering Heights.)

My feelings on the novel as a whole were complex and divergent. Primarily, I was struck by the fact that all of the characters were horrible people. All of them. I could empathize with NONE of them. I kind of pitied Gatsby, but mostly I wanted to shake him for loving Daisy in a way that makes him kind of an asshole. I felt sorry for Daisy that men who proclaimed to love her put her in such a shitty situation, but then she’d open her mouth and say something like, “‘I’m glad [my baby] is a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool'” (21). (Note, all quotes from this Scribner edition.)

Daisy boggles my feminist inclinations. On the one hand, it makes me so sad that she’s so dependent on her cheating husband that she probably couldn’t choose Gatsby even if she wanted to (and it totally sucks that both men just make her into a trophy). On the other hand, she is exactly the type of female character that makes me want to go back in time and punch F. Scott Fitzgerald in the penis (from my cursory research, he was also a total dick to his wife). Not that anyone in The Great Gatsby is so complex they’re coming off the page (and that’s the way it should be for the novel to pack as much of a wallop as it does). But for some reason Daisy and her proto-MPDG-ness seemed flatter and more vapid than the others.

Other elements of the text made me oscillate between “wow” and “wtf?” I’m going to talk about the “wtf?” first so I can end on the high note. On the WTF side, we have the mode of storytelling. The timeline is wonky. I mean, I’m someone who enjoys Faulkner, but the handling of Gatsby’s backstory is straight-up clunky. At some point, the reader gets reminded of a flashback they were already told. Part of that, I know, has to do with Nick as a kind of unreliable and overbearing narrator—which he very much is. I found myself often wondering, “How does Nick know how this person feels?” But it annoys me nonetheless, even as a literary device that probably serves a greater purpose.

And Fitzgerald can’t always tell when to put the brakes on the drama. For instance, the reason those discussions in tenth grade were so boring was probably because Fitzgerald often tells the reader what the symbols mean. What really got me is after the huge dramatic conflict in the hotel room between everyone else, Nick takes a giant dump on the action by suddenly realizing and then complaining about the fact that he forgot his own thirtieth birthday. And then: “Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade” (143). I almost had to laugh. Just…what?

All that being said, I found it easy to lose myself in some of Fitzgerald’s gorgeous descriptions.

For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the “Beale Street Blues” while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor. (158)

Holy alliteration, Batman! Part of me tried to to break apart the components of these descriptions to try to analyze them further, but I realized that reading not-for-class means I don’t have to. I’m not confident descriptions like this make sense entirely, but I had to indulge myself and float away on of lush, dense diction. Moments like this made reading the text really enjoyable, and I really give it a lot of credit to keeping me from tossing this book as yet another piece of classic literature I think is completely overrated. Instead, it’s probably mostly overrated. At most.

So I finished the novel and I started to really give that trailer the side-eye. I mean, sometimes trailers aren’t accurate portrayals of the tone of a film. For example, Ruby Sparks looks like it’s advertising the exact type of MPDG-fueled rom-com it’s actually trying to deconstruct.

Turns out I was giving Baz Luhrmann too much credit. He botched this movie so badly I even stopped griping that Ryan Gosling and JGL should have been the leads (though I love Leo). But he’s not the only one who misinterprets that The Great Gatsby is all about denouncing total decadence. Okay, sure, maybe I should lighten up a little and just enjoy the party as though I were not a member of the main cast of the novel. Rouge my knees, roll my stockings down, and…well I’m not going to say it.

But the film and many people on the internet also talk about Daisy/Gatsby as some kind of great love story. There’s even a Lana Del Rey song called “Young and Beautiful” that plays over the scene in the film where Gatsby and Daisy frolic around and rediscover their long-lost love. The chorus lyric? “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” Um…no. If we’re supposed to take the song to be from Gatsby’s perspective, maybe he’ll love Daisy when she’s no longer young and beautiful, but maybe not because he pretty much only loves an idea of Daisy as the young and beautiful woman he fell in love with anyway. And if it’s from Daisy’s perspective, maybe she’ll still love him when he’s no longer young and beautiful, but even if she does he’ll never know because she’ll just let him take the heat for a hit-and-run and not go to his funeral when her action directly leads to his death. You can’t believe that “happily ever after” crap with these characters. They’re too vapid, old sport.

Some of the choices made by the scriptwriters I just don’t get. For example, there’s some bizarre-o framing device where Nick is not just writing his memoirs but in a sanatorium/sanatarium/whatever. You don’t need that; we all took tenth grade English. The narration (which is included in the film, by the way) is enough.

One thing that really made me mad is the fact that we have time for this weirdo framing device, but the film skipped over perhaps one of the most important (albeit heavy-handed) pieces of foreshadowing in the novel: after Nick attends his first Gatsby party, there is a car accident right outside. It’s a scary moment that really casts a dark shadow over Gatsby’s affairs. And they cut it in lieu of Tobey Maguire whining to his doctor and glitter bombs. All style, no substance—and not enough commentary on “all style, no substance,” which seems to be something that is all over The Great Gatsby thematically.

Bottom line: I really need to read more Fitzgerald to get a better feel for him as a writer. I can’t believe I have SO MANY conflicting feelings on one novel that I’ve read before. I don’t think it’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, but it gripped me and I respect it. I really feel like a lot of its fans are missing the point. But first—after forcing myself to relive The Great Ghatsly film, that is—I need to watch some Boardwalk Empire. Now that’s my kind of Lost Generation.

I Regret Nothing: I Watched Miss Austen Regrets After All*

*Warning: I am actually filled with regret about many things.

Sorry, guys. I know this book blog has gone off the rails a little bit in that this post and the last one are about movies. I’m currently slogging through The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is my main reading focus right now. However, in between moving and trying to keep my shit together at work and even attempting an existence outside my bedroom, I’ve not been successful at getting much reading done. All my books but Tenant are in boxes right now, so I’m hoping to get a jump on that. But today I had an outpatient medical procedure done and it’s almost 100 degrees outside my non-air-conditioned room. I feel pretty good outside of being a person who spent 90 minutes of her day driving around in 100-degree weather, but I’m not at 100%. So I decided to lie down and watch a damn movie and that damn movie was Miss Austen Regrets.

For those of you just tuning in: after seeing Austenland, I had kind of had it with Jane Austen fan fiction, but I still wanted to see Miss Austen Regrets. One of the commenter recommended it to me (and she didn’t like Austenland either, so I trust her). Truthfully, I don’t know a lot about Austen’s life—for a Janeite, that is. I know Becoming Jane is a steaming pile of horseshit. I also watched a special feature on the Jane Austen Book Club DVD in which Austen scholar Joan Klingel Ray (author of Jane Austen for Dummies) talks about Austen’s life. I haven’t read Austen’s letters yet, but I understand that the writer of Miss Austen Regrets followed them closely.

In her life, Austen may have had a flirtation-or-more with Tom LeFroy and was actually engaged once to a man named Harris Bigg-Wither. The couple remained engaged for one night, before Austen changed her mind. The film adds another former suitor, a family friend named Brook Bridges (played by Lord Grantham himself, Hugh Bonneville), who I don’t think existed in real life, but his hanging around makes for good drama. The forty-year-old Austen also enjoys the company of young Dr. Haden for a bit (played by Jack Huston in one of the rare occasions I see his face intact). Even if Brook Bridges was invented to stir up drama, I thought it was way better than the way Becoming Jane made Tom LeFroy The One Who Got Away. Bridges is more inclined to revel in the past than Austen.

I really liked Miss Austen Regrets. I liked Olivia Williams as Austen: she was both excellently dry-witted but emotional when the moment called for it. She felt very genuine to me, not timid like Anne Hathaway in the cock-up that is Becoming Jane. Of course, that Jane is only twenty and beginning to write. The Jane of Miss Austen Regrets is pushing forty and knows she won’t get her Mr. Darcy (not that she wants him). Here’s a great quotation from Olivia Williams in the article linked above:

Austen’s bittersweet experiences endowed her novels with a rare astringency. “One’s impressions from screen adaptations of Austen is that it’s all lovely girls running down hills in flowery dresses,” Williams says. “But Austen could be a real bitch as well. She could nail the weaknesses in someone’s appearance or accent. She could deconstruct people accurately and uncharitably, and would rail against their faults and foibles. That’s why I – and the vigilante Janeites – love her.”

Perhaps my favorite part of Miss Austen Regrets was the most heart-wrenching element of the film: Jane regrets not marrying because the actions of her youth have left her family in the lurch decades later. She doesn’t make enough for a household of three women to live on. Her novels are immensely popular, but she has to team up with her brother to fight the publishers’ low-balling her. As her brothers’ financial futures become uncertain (one loses much of his estate because of inheritance; the other’s bank fails), her mother admonishes her for rejecting Harris Bigg-Wither, which would have secured the family. In one way, Austen is sort of the reverse of the heroines of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Marrying for love may be important, as she says to her twenty-year-old niece in the film, but marrying for money is almost just as important. Perhaps all of that is very close to real biographical details. If they are, I appreciate Austen all the more.

I’m not sure I’ve This is Jane Austen as she should be on the silver screen: independent, sharp, dynamic. I think part of my wariness of film biopics comes from 2003’s The Hours, which my class on the Bloomsbury group watched together. In eighth grade, this film didn’t bother me (except that I went on a double-mother-daughter-date with my Catholic bff and we all had to talk about the large amount of lady kisses in the car). After taking a class in Virginia Woolf, The Hours made me mad (and Woolf scholars all over the world). Sure, it was based on a novel, but it also reduced the brilliant, articulate Woolf to a dithering madwoman. Perhaps as I learn more about Austen’s life, I’ll find more and greater faults with Miss Austen Regrets. 

So, yes, this is short and gushing, but this bed-ridden Janeite has no regrets about Miss Austen Regrets.



Austenbland: I Think I Need to Give Up on Austen Fanfic

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the 2013 film Austenland and also probably anything else about Jane Austen or any movies that may in any way be connected to Jane Austen.

I’ve written about my love of Jane Austen before. I’m probably not as hardcore a Janeite as I aspire to be. I’ll get there one day. But for today, I’ve only read Austen’s six published novels, but not her letters, her unpublished and/or unfinished works, or her juvenilia. And I need to officially join JASNA by, like, paying my dues and going to meetings and all that stuff. One day I’ll remember all the minor characters and minute details, but for now I’m going to ride the fact that for me, reading Austen is just something I always enjoy on a very deep level. One of my best experiences of 2013 was attending a regional JASNA event: sitting and listening to lectures on Austen all day by professors. It made me miss being in college without the stress of papers, reading, or having to wear flip-flops in the shower.

As far as the films go, I’m kind of a cock-eyed Austen purist. I had one friend who refused outright to watch the 2005 Pride & Prejudice because “they have chickens in their house.” I like that version, even if I cringe a little because they changed the text of Darcy’s proposal—mostly because that version has since inspired a bunch of folks to get tattoos and/or make needlepoints that misquote the actual source material (maybe they’re aware and just prefer it?). Also, let’s not talk about that horrible tacked-on ending. But there is wiggle room. For example, the 1999 Mansfield Park is contentious for Janeites, but I liked it and so did Claudia L. Johnson, a bona fide Austen scholar from freaking Princeton.

But I digress. Every Janeite has their own allowances. It’s a balance. For instance, that same friend above doesn’t care for Elinor’s public emotional breakdown at the end of the 1995 Sense and Sensibility—I think it works reasonably well with the way Emma Thompson wrote the script. From listening to Thompson’s commentary, Sense and Sensibility is a hard work to adapt: it doesn’t have the zippy dialogue of Pride and Prejudice (and let’s face it: nobody but Elinor has ever had a thing for Mr. Ferrars). But even the queen of Austen adaptations—the five-hour miniseries of Pride and Prejudice starring none other than the Firth himself—strays from the text. Believe it or not, Austen did not write Darcy swimming in a lake.

Vulture recently ranked twenty-one instances of Austen on film. These fall into three categories: close adaptations (read: bonnets, breeches, and barouches), loose adaptations (or “reinterpretations”), and what I call “Jane Austen fan fiction.” For my intents and purposes, this latter category includes movies based on Jane Austen’s life (I hesitate to call them “biopics”) and movies about people who love Jane Austen’s novels. (Note: these also apply to the Jane Austen book industry, which is huge into what I’ve categorized as “fan fiction,” including novels about Jane Austen solving mysteries, sequels and off-shoots of the original books, those monster mash-ups, and even vampire novels.)

Okay, we’ve established that I like my adaptations to have period dress. Well, I kind of need that, even if the particular adaptation is not so much a movie as a bad acid trip. For this post, I was hoping to watch both Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary again and try to appreciate them as updated Austen adaptations. I may be the only person on earth who doesn’t like either of these movies. I know, I know. Clueless especially is highly regarded as an Austen adaptation, empire waists or no. I just never liked it. It’s true that Emma is my least favorite Austen, but I read it years after my last viewing of Clueless. And Bridget Jones is not Lizzie Bennet. And if she’s not supposed to be, I don’t want to watch it even more. I generally don’t like romantic comedies, so once you take away the country houses and the dances, my preferred balance is thrown off and I kind of don’t care and tend to get annoyed.

Now, as for the Austen fanfic…It’s complicated. First, I don’t really understand it. Truthfully, I’ve never felt the urge to read fanfic online or in any fandom (I might not belong to a fandom?). I am a snob almost to the core, but I have seen some Jane Austen fanfic movies because I often rent free movies from the library and I don’t mind wasting a couple hours staring at a screen as much as reading a book with a premise I don’t buy.

My relationship with these movies is weird. I still want to see Miss Austen Regrets, but Becoming Jane made my blood boil because it is against everything I love about Jane Austen for reasons The Other Austen notes beautifullyLost in Austen just wasn’t for me. Yet despite all this snobbery on my part, I have to reveal a terrible secret: my bizarre love for The Jane Austen Book Club. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but even I am not made of stone (besides, anyone transformed by Medusa could probably have been cured by the sight of Hugh Dancy in bike shorts). When I finish an Austen fanfic movie, about half the time I’m left just wanting to watch my old favorites again.

Which brings us to Austenland and the fact that it finally hit my hometown after months of anticipation. I couldn’t tell if it would be great or terrible. Reviews said “mediocre,” but my friend and I looked at each other during the previews at Much Ado About Nothing and said we would go. She enjoys Jane Austen fanfic much more than I do. So last night we downed a couple large sandwiches and made our way to the theater. We had to see it because we love Austen.

Based on the novel by Shannon Hale, Austenland is the story of Austen addict Jane Hayes (played by Keri Russell) looking for a real life Mr. Darcy. She spends her entire savings on an immersive Austen experience at an English country house, where actors that rock the Regency Camel Toe are paid to seduce the ladies who pay to be there. Jane meets one of her Austenland companions at the airport. Elizabeth Charming (Jennifer Coolidge) asks, “Are you going to the Darcy place, too?” Elizabeth has paid for the Platinum Package. Jane has paid for the Copper Package: her character is assigned as a penniless orphan named Jane Erstwhile, who has to live in the servant’s wing.

After a couple experiences that make it apparent she’s wasted her money, Jane just decides to go for it and flirt her way to the top of Austenland. She gets pretty far with one of the servants named Martin (Bret McKenzie), but can’t seem to keep away from the stare of Mr. Nobly (JJ Feild, a.k.a. Mr. Tilney), the resident Mr. Darcy. By the end she can’t tell what’s real and what’s fantasy, she rejects Mr. Nobly for confessing his feelings because she knows he’s an actor and therefore faking, then discovers that Austenland’s owner (Jane Seymour) has been having Martin play her all along. Mr. Nobly follows her to America, everyone there to see a kissing scene gets a kissing scene, happily ever after, the end.

Describing Austenland in a word, I’d pick “weak.” The central idea could have worked well: Austen’s novels, of course, are satirical. The biggest satirical element are the other women at Austenland: rich women who pay to be adored. Elizabeth Charming wants to be fawned over by Darcys yet who asks “What’s that?” at the mention of Pride and Prejudice. Coolidge plays the role she seems always asked to play: big-dumb-loud. Sometimes it works, but a lot of the time it just made me sad to see her talent wasted on the character’s insistence of doing a terrible British accent—a joke that only needed to be told once.

But at least we know where Coolidge stands—because parts of Austenland didn’t make any goddamn sense.  And one of those parts was a character named Lady Heartwright (Georgia King). Neither my friend nor I could tell if Lady Heartwright was an Austenland actor or an Austenland customer until the end of the film (she also goes from barely there to totally crazy, literally hopping around). Even weirder was one of the actors plays a character named Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), a man who tells outrageous stories of his adventures on the high seas when he’s not finding excuses to rip off his shirt. Why is this allowed at Austenland when it’s so improper? No one addresses the arbitrary rules. Perhaps the worst was a scene where Martin asks the other actors what they think of Jane—it seemed like he genuinely liked her in his private moments, but then at the end the film makes a show of it all being an act. What?

The first rule of Austenland is no modern stuff so that the customers can live as they would in the Regency. In fact, Jane almost gets tossed out for having a contraband cell phone. And yet, Elizabeth Charming has a TV in her room that show’s Captain East’s soap opera. AND YET the women make their own hats using a HOT GLUE GUN. Some of the gags are funny and charmingly weird, like the numerous taxidermied animals all over the grounds. But often times, the humor is so forced that there were moments when my friend and I turned to each other and asked, “Why is this happening? Why are the other people in the theater laughing?”

And the biggest bummer of all: the main character. Keri Russell is pretty adorable and I think she does a good job of playing Jane Hayes/Erstwhile, but she didn’t have much to work with. Jane memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice and regularly macks on her cardboard cutout of Firth’s Darcy. The exposition is handled badly: we see the rabid Austen fan side of Jane (she pulls a guy’s tongue out of her ear to say he’s missing Firth’s clingy shirt), suddenly her sleazy ex-boyfriend is coming up to her and saying he’ll give it another go since she just got dumped, suddenly she’s running to the travel agent. So…there’s a whole backstory here that’s being eschewed in establishing that Jane is a lonely Austen nerd.

From the start, she’s more type than character: we hardly know anything about her beyond her Austenmania and I think it cripples her character for the rest of the film. If this film truly followed the spirit of Austen, Miss Charming and Lady Heartwright would remain flat, but Jane would be much more complex. That’s not what happened. Instead, the characters seemed more like chess pieces and they were moved around according to what the script needed to happen.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two leads in an Austen film must have chemistry. And while this truth is universally acknowledged, there’s plenty of room for poor execution. Mr. Nobly looks over at Jane with a scowl, suddenly they’re falling for each other, then she “realizes” it’s just a fantasy, then never mind! he’s legit! let’s kiss! It was as though they (the actors and the characters in the film) were going through the motions of Darcy and Elizabeth with a little side of Wickham. Mr. Nobly’s exposition was also handled pretty poorly, to the point where parts of his Great Big Speech at the end felt like it should have come earlier.

So there you have it. Austenland was a disappointment and that’s just too bad. On the other hand, it was produced by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, and if anything associated with Stephenie Meyer had been good, my whole world might be turned on its ear.

When Death Comes to Pemberley hits Masterpiece Theatre next year, you will not find me parked in front of PBS. I love Austen’s work as she wrote it.  It’s bad enough when people don’t get that much right. To me, the sequels and the reinterpretations and the fanfic are at best pale imitations or at worst downright insulting to the author herself (Becoming Jane). I think I’m going to give Miss Austen Regrets a fair chance and then just march to the beat of my own Janeite drummer from here on out.