Jane Austen Movie Club

In David Lodge’s novel Changing Places, there’s a scene in which a group of English professors and students play a parlor game called Humiliation. It goes like this: each person in the group names a book that s/he hasn’t read, but which s/he assumes everyone else in the group has read, and scores a point for every person who answers in the affirmative. At the end of several rounds, the person with the most points wins. Basically, you win by humiliating yourself intellectually. It’s funnier than it sounds—a professor at the party loses his chance for tenure by proclaiming loudly and almost proudly that he’s never read Hamlet.

Anyway, there’s no way to get around the fact that I’m a bookish, quiet young man. I was an English major in college, and I read and write more than I do anything else except sleep. (I work in publishing, so this even applies to my job.) So, here’s my Hamlet: I’ve never once read or had the desire to read a Jane Austen novel. Not one. I’ve read, and loved, Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. I’ve seen multiple adaptations of Emma (including the best one ever). I tried to watch the beloved 1995 adaptation with Colin Firth, which is loved by a great deal of my women friends, and which I realized that I wouldn’t finish after I fell asleep twice while watching it. I’m not big on the Victorians, but I managed to plow through George Eliot’s behemoth Middlemarch for a class–which I acknowledge as one of the greatest English-language novels ever.

Part of this–at least the movie part–is my natural aversion to well-meaning, genteel, Merchant-Ivory productions with the soft glowing light and the tasteful string-quartet music and the perfectly recreated decor and the slooooooow pacing that is intended to let us know how seriously the filmmakers have taken the subject. I couldn’t reconcile what I’ve heard about Austen’s prose–quick-witted, subtle, sharp–with the lethargic pace and feel of the adaptations. If all these filmmakers adapt her in this way, then maybe she really is as dull as they make her out to be. So I never bothered with her.

But here comes Stephanie Zacharek who has written such a lovely, searching review of the new version that I’ll make a point of seeing it, and of finally curing myself of an Austen-less life. A taste:

In this Pride & Prejudice, we can understand at a glance how much, or how little, money means to any given character: We can read anxiety or confidence in the cut of an overcoat, in the type of knickknacks that decorate a room, even in the set of a character’s shoulders. In this Pride & Prejudice, realism isn’t a punishment, but a kind of music, a sound that cuts from Austen’s day to ours with the clarity of a strong radio signal. There isn’t a frame in the picture that doesn’t feel alive and immediate, instead of merely faithful.

You’ll have to click through an advertisement wall to see the review (gotta love Salon…), but it’s worth it. Even if I end up disliking the movie, Zacharek’s piece is one of the best-written film critiques of the year.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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3 Responses to Jane Austen Movie Club

  1. ogic says:

    Wait, wait–are you sure you don’t want to read the book first?!!! I may be too late, I realize.

  2. QB says:

    OGIC, this is Jackson, Mississippi we’re talking about–the movie probably won’t even come here until after Christmas. I bought a copy of the book to read over Thanksgiving.

  3. ogic says:

    Perfect. I used to read it every Christmas vacation. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.
    I am actually trying to be more restrained in my book boosterism these days, realizing it can be obnoxious however well intentioned, but once in a while an exhortation just slips out.
    I will probably blog about this, but for different reasons than yours, I also had my head turned by Zacharek’s review.

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