This is a recommendation for home movie viewing: in this case, a triple-feature based on the works of a famous novelist whose name has been known to scare otherwise brave men. (And it may take a few nights to watch the three, as they take up more than six hours of time.) The three videos are The Jane Austen Book Club and Austenland and the television mini-series Lost In Austen.
Even whisper “Jane Austen” and you may indeed strike a wee bit of terror into the heart of many an otherwise avid book-lover/reader, if only as a member of an already feared class of writers one is doomed to face in any class that dares go beyond English Lit. 101—the 19th century English novelist. (I shudder lightly just writing those four words.)
Reading Jane Austen’s novels can be a daunting task for today’s reader. They are written in a style that clashes with many contemporary rules, givens, and strictures, especially those interminably long sentences punctuated in a manner seemed intended to drive the reader mad with consternation.
Aside from that, once one relaxes into the language and the stylisms of the period, she’s a bloody great read!
Nonetheless, despite having published only four novels in her lifetime, she is a touchstone in modern Western literature and a necessary read for anyone wanting a real knowledge of the novel’s history. Her six novels are:
Sense And Sensibility (1811)
Pride And Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
A common opinion is to read Pride And Prejudice first followed by Sense And Sensibility. Apparently, that will hook many a reader and then the others can be read in chronological order of publication (and note that the last two titles were published posthumously).
“Her works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary as well as her acclaimed plots have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics.” (Wikipedia)
Digging in and reading all six books can be an eye-opening experience for the modern literary adventurer, and that is what six characters do in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), and they do again in the movie of the same name (2007).
The Jane Austen Book Club
Produced by John Calley, Julie Lynn, and Diana Napper, The Jane Austen Book Club was written and directed by Robin Swicord. It stars Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, and Hugh Dancy (the book club) with Kevin Zegers, Marc Blucas, Jimmy Smits, and scene-stealer Lynn Redgrave as a delusional ex-hippie gramma.
Basically, the story is simple: a group of five women form a loose ‘club’ to read Jane Austen’s novels and then get-together and drink wine and discuss the books. Needing a sixth, a man whom none of the others know is invited for various reasons into the club and to everyone’s surprise, appears and takes everything seriously—specially the one woman who does not want any man taking her any where.
While a bust at the box office—Sony Pictures lost millions!—the movie was reasonably well accepted by the critics:
“Austen devotees are sure to lap up the central premise that her notions of love and friendship are as relevant today as ever. If The Jane Austen Book Club gets people thinking about forming a club of their own, it will have served a more admirable purpose than most movies.” (Ruthe Stein)
Brava! I want to find five other readers and form a Jane Austen Book Club and do all six novels! And, in the spirit of Hugh Dancy’s character, we will follow that with a Ursula LeGuin Book Club!
“Like the other movies and television projects in a Jane Austen boom that continues to gather momentum, it is an entertaining, carefully assembled piece of clockwork that imposes order on ever more complicated gender warfare.” (Stephen Holden)
The movie is enjoyable throughout—especially for the uniformly fine acting—even if at heart is a “formulaic, feel-good chick-flick.” While the female actors would seem to be receiving the bulk of the director’s attention, the men shine in their roles, each a reflection of Austen’s often misunderstood male characters.
And fellow guys: this ain’t no just-a-chickflick! Well, okay, it kinda is . . . but if you’re single you might learn something about meeting women. And if you’re hooked up, you’ll get points with the wife or girlfriend if you pick this movie out and bring it home with a nice bottle of wine for your weekly movie-watching evening. Oh, and if you don’t already drool over Emily Blunt, you will after The Jane Austen Book Club.
Lost in Austen with Amanda Price
In 2008, ITV of the UK (formerly Independent Television) adapted Pride And Prejudice into a modern time-travel fantasy titled Lost In Austen. Written by Guy Andrews, it starred Jemima Rooper with Alex Kingston, Hugh Bonneville, Morven Christie, Elliot Cowan, and Gemma Arterton. Since it has been a while since I saw this series, I will let the Wikipedians do the talking:
“Amanda Price is a keen Jane Austen fan from present-day Hammersmith who has just rejected an unromantic marriage proposal from her boozy, unfaithful boyfriend. Amanda explains to her mother that Jane Austen’s novel has shown her that she can set higher standards for a husband for herself. She also discovers Elizabeth Bennet, a character from Pride And Prejudice, in her bathroom
Amanda steps through a secret doorway and finds herself at Longbourn, the house of the Bennet family, and apparently in the novel near the beginning of the story. She is trapped in this world while Elizabeth is in 21st century London. Despite the mix-up, Amanda tries to ensure that the novel progresses as it should according to Austen’s intentions, but she keeps messing it up.”
The show is engaging and humorous and while it helps greatly to be familiar with Ms. Austen’s novel, it is not necessary to understand the plot or the characters. The plot does call for various cultural anomalies:
The four episodes run 45 minutes each, so the entire series is three hours of extremely pleasurable viewing on a single DVD. And fellow guys, this ain’t no just-a-chickflick either! Well, okay it kinda is, but since it is a time-travel story of sorts, think of it as a science-fiction/fantasy movie you missed along the way. And be prepared to have a BIG crush on Jemima Rooper by the end of the series.
A visit to Austenland with Kerri Russell
The third in our triple-feature is last year’s Austenland, another fantasy with a somewhat different slant than Lost In Austen. It is a British-American movie producd by Stephenie Meyer and directed by Jerusha Hess. The movie is based on Shannon Hale’s novel (2007) of the same name, which is intended to be the first in a series.
It stars the lovely Keri Russell as a woman obsessed with the novel Pride And Prejudice who travels to a British resort called Austenland, where the Austen era is recreated in set and by professional actors. Co-stars include JJ Feild, Jane Seymour, Bret McKenzie, James Callis, and the inimitable Jennifer Coolidge.
This is easily the lightest fare of the three movies. And fellow guys, beware: this is a most definitely chickflick, but the characters of dumb-as-an-American Miss Charming (Coolidge) and the daffy-as-an-Englishman Colonel Andrews (Callis) elevate the film to a comedic level and justify a viewing.
And while Ms. Russell does not have the blatant sensuality of Ms. Blunt or the loopy charm of Ms. Rooper, I can assure you that more than a few of you will want to see other movies simply to see her again.
Finally, the craze for Jane Austen is not over with: Austenland was the first in what may be a series of similar-themed books. Ms. Hale followed it with Midnight In Austenland in 2012. A movie version of Lost In Austen based on the UK series has been planned for several years. A draft for the script was left unfinished by Nora Ephron at the time of her death in 2012. Carrie Brownstein, the co-creator and co-star of the idiosyncratic television series Portlandia will be picking up where Ephron left off.
Alas, no new novels are expected from Ms. Austen so this is what we have to be lost in Austenland. Oh, the image at the top of this page is a proposed English bank note to be issued in 2017 . . .