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 But for today, I’ve only read Austen’s six published novels, but not her letters, her unpublished and/or unfinished works, or her juvenilia.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 beautifully. Lost 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.