From Novel to Screenplay
In transforming one of Jane Austen's
lesser known works, director/screenwriter Patricia Rozema was well-aware
of the giant shoes she needed to fill, especially given the long tradition
of quality Jane Austen adaptations. She also recognized that she was doing
something new: "What we hadn't seen before was this boisterous, anarchic
spirit. We adapters just take out the parts we like and emphasize them.
So Ang Lee, being from an Eastern background, was attracted to all the
formality in his adaptation of 'Sense and Sensibility.' I was more attracted
to the idea that this world is saturated with an almost menacing eroticism.
It's a much more dangerous world in this novel than in Austen's others,
and the violations are much more extreme."
Two years before, Miramax Films had
asked Rozema to direct an adaptation of the novel from a script that had
been written by someone else. She didn't like the script, but became fascinated
by the novel: "Many Austenites consider it flawed but fascinating, but
I really think it's her best. I wasn't guided one way or the other. My
marching orders were to write a script I wanted to direct."
Rozema adds that her relationship with
the somewhat controversial co-President of Miramax Films was quite harmonious:
"I was amazed at how much freedom I had. We never had any battles at all.
Harvey worries about things like sentimentality. You'd think it would be
'Make it faster, make it funnier, make it louder...' But all I got from
him was 'Make it smarter, don't make it sentimental.'"
In adapting "Mansfield Park," Rozema's
boldest decisions (which she prefers to call "additions" rather than "changes")
were to emphasize its anticolonialist aspect, by inflating scattered references
into a major aspect of the plot, and making the novel's otherwise rather
bland heroine, Fanny Price, into a budding writer who greatly resembles Austen. Defending her decision to heighten the novel's politics, Rozema
says that the novel was written sometime between 1805 and 1811, precisely
when the slavery vs.abolition argument was raging in Great Britain: "Austen's
audience would have been more aware of all this than my audience. It was
happening everywhere, and all these young people were set to inherit what
they might have thought was dirty money."
To flesh out Fanny Price, Rozema took
much of her dialogue from Austen's own letters and journals, and she shows
the character "composing" what were Austen's own juvenile writings. The
effect is to greatly enliven the character, even if, as purists might object,
it distorts her: "Austen's early writing is fantastic, so grotesque and
surreal, and all about cannibalism and alcoholism and so on." 5 Rozema believes
that she imbued the mousy main character with some forceful traits of Austen
herself, making her a bold, freethinking, slyly humorous writer: "What's
needed is not just roles for strong women, but ones where women are allowed
to be failures and fragile and twisted and complex... And not some guy
doing twisted chicks in a movie out of hate for women, but out of fascination
The director insists that the changes
weren't made arbitrarily or to make the project more commercial: "It's
amplifying the fiction with the facts and fiction taken from elsewhere,
that's all. When Fanny accepts her suitor Henry Crawford and then rejects
him, that was an event in Austen's own life. I also made Henry a bit more
of a plausible choice, because I thought that in the novel Austen tipped
her hand too quickly that he was a cad. I needed to have more of an excruciating
dilemma for Fanny."