Mansfield vs. Mansfield vs. Mansfield

On February 18th, JASNA-NJ discussed the three major adaptations of Mansfield Park. Here’s a quick summary of my (purely subjective) thoughts post-meeting:

First, the BBC television adaptation of Mansfield Park (1983):

One negative review of Jane Austen novels summed up her books as lots of people going to different houses. While I obviously don’t agree with that myself, it’s a fair summary of some of the problems of this adaptation. It is very early-80s BBC. This means lots of long, padded sequences of people walking around, to fill up the fifty minutes of the required episode airtime, and fidelity to the literal word of the text, without much of a real take or perspective on the part of the director or scriptwriter. It does boast a fine performance by Anna Massey as Mrs. Norris, who catches the bustling cruelty of the character quite perfectly. Samantha Bond’s performance as Maria Bertram is another standout, a tragic mean girl whose supercilious smirk conceals a hollow shell of insecurity.

The big issue for me, however, are the Crawfords and Mr. Yates. Henry in particular is supposed to be a quirky-looking plain guy with quarts of charisma. Mary’s supposed to ooze intelligence and sexual knowingness. Instead we get some curious hairdos on competent but rather unexciting middle-aged actors. In fact, as can be seen in the below photo of Tom, Mary, and Yates, the sophisticated Londoners look far dowdier than the countrified Bertrams. Truthfully, there’s a lot of wig acting–lots of focus on the external trappings of each character, versus the characters’ inner lives (which is the appeal of the novel). Angela Pleasance playing Lady Bertram just seems drunk in every episode.

Next, director Patricia Rozema’s feature film release Mansfield Park (1999).

This version is deliberately designed to give the director’s highly personal vision of the text, including injecting Jane Austen’s own letters and actions into the words and character of Fanny Price. Now, while probably most of us would rather spend two hours with Jane versus Fanny, the problem with this is that Jane Austen was a highly educated clergyman’s daughter. The whole point of Fanny’s shyness is that she hasn’t had the advantages of her wealthier cousins. A Fanny who is more erudite and more sarcastic than Maria or Julia suggests something that, I’d argue, is very anti-Austen in spirit, namely, that women of intelligence and good character don’t need family support and education to shine. Austen clearly had both, and Fanny had neither. So Fanny as a kind of Anne of Green Gables-style orphan blossoming into her own as a writer in a new household doesn’t make sense and I doubt Austen would have thought such a phenomena possible.

The film does make some gestures to acknowledging the source of the Bertram’s wealth (ahem, slavery) but they’re just that, gestures. There’s also a lot of people saying things they’d never say aloud, not just in the Regency period, but in normal, decent human society. Mrs. Norris talks about not wanting Fanny in front of the child, not before Fanny comes (as in the book) and Mary’s statement that Henry running off with Maria isn’t so bad is made to the family, rather than in a letter. This makes her seem cruel as well as socially deaf.

Last but not least, I must confess that I only watched the 2007 Mansfield Park recently, having heard that Billie Piper as Fanny Price was famously miscast.

The fact that its director Iain B. MacDonald is better known for laddish films than Austen adaptations might explain why there’s lots of boobs and beachy waves on the women, while the men are fairly buttoned up.

This very short adaptation not only leaves out quite a bit of plot (while inserting a lot of skin) but frankly makes the actors look rather ridiculous, as they refer to how sweet and demure Fanny appears. It wasn’t as terrible as I anticipated, though it appears to have been made on a Mrs. Norris-skinflint of a budget, with almost no location shots outside of the Bertram estate itself.

So has a definitive version of Mansfield Park been made? The consensus appears to be “no,” although there is one highly recommended BBC Radio adaptation starring David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch. Unlike Austen’s other novels, there isn’t a clear theme (like “enemies to lovers” or “friends to lovers” or “an old flame rekindled”) that emerges from Austen’s text, and perhaps filmmakers will continue to struggle with how to render it successfully on the screen.

2 thoughts on “Mansfield vs. Mansfield vs. Mansfield

  1. Delightful summation of MP on film! Having talked about the BBC Radio version, I’ll have to try to obtain it for a relisten. 🙂 Perhaps sadly, my favorite Fanny Price was in a local play some 4-5 yrs ago. She was maybe 17-18 and had just transferred into a local school from Geneva or Genoa. Lol…I really enjoyed it because they cut out Aunt Evil(I think) and the Portsmouth grimness.


    1. It doesn’t surprise me that the best Fanny you saw was a complete unknown–I kind of think that the best Fanny would be a new actress, but one who was still very natural (versus the BBC ’83). I will definitely give the Tennant and Cumberbatch version a listen. They are two of my favorite actors in classical stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

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