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Monday, 7 January 2008

Andrew Davies and Jane Austen

Is it a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen novel looking for a TV script must be in want of an Andrew Davies treatment?
Persuasion (2007, ITV1) was so relentlessly downbeat, I found myself hoping one of the carriages which kept hurtling towards Anne Elliot would put the poor girl out of her misery. My teenage daughter commented it was the Brontë version of Jane Austen! Half of Jane's sparkling dialogue, and vast tracts of the storyline, were jettisoned at sea somewhere off Lyme Regis, now seemingly lashed by a perpetual hurricane. I couldn't help wondering if Davies had actually read the book.

So it was with feelings of trepidation that I finally sat down and caught up with the new BBC version of Sense & Sensibility last night. My premonition of doom was fully justified. This lacklustre offering was a disappointment; many viewers new to Austen's work were more likely to reach for the remote control rather than stick it out to the end. The screenplay was very pretty to watch, but Davies has once again seen fit to tinker with Austen’s dialogue and substitute his own. Although Hattie Morahan (Elinor) and Charity Wakefield (Marianne) were obviously trying hard (perhaps too hard) Elinor comes across as gormless rather than strong and silent and Marianne has none of the fire of her fictional original. I much prefer Emma Thompson's 1995 screenplay. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet's performances were beautifully judged and gave us a much more human and believable Elinor and Marianne.

Of Andrew Davies’s most recent adaptations of Jane Austen, I would say Mansfield Park (2007, ITV1) ranks above Sense & Sensibility and below Northanger Abbey (ITV1). I feel he did a workmanlike job of rendering some of Austen's more complex characters, such as Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, approachable for modern audiences.
However, Northanger Abbey last year had a charming Henry Tilney and all the fun of Austen's original work.
It goes without saying that all Davies's screenplays will be judged by his deservedly popular adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the BBC (1995). I wonder if Davies has got bored with Austen.

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