Let's just get this out of the way first: I love the works of Jane Austen. I love the books, I love many of the adaptations (period and modern). I love the characters. I love long, rambling discussions of the books and the stories and the adaptations and the characters and whether (and what kind of) relevance Jane Austen has in the modern day. If I had my academic life to do over again (which, thank god, I do not), I might choose a different route, and perhaps devote my studies to an examination of the modern fascination with Austen.
And yet. I do not automatically love all things Austen. There's a lot of shitty Austen-inspired crap out there. The case in point being today’s two films.
Austenland, last year’s indie take on Jane Austen, is about an Austen superfan (actually, specifically, a Darcy superfan) who blows her life’s savings on what’s essentially a LARP vacation... and discovers how Austen really applies to real life. The Jane Austen Book Club is about a group of friends who decide to read all six Austen novels together… and discover how Austen applies to their real lives. Although both are (at least, on paper) reasonable efforts to look at how Austen actually translates to modern life, neither achieves much. The problem with Austenland is that it doesn’t trust Austen enough. The problem with The Jane Austen Book Club is that it trusts Austen too much. (Spoilers)
The Jane Austen Book Club is based on a novel published in 2004, set in and around Davis, California. I lived in Davis, California in 2004. So I saw it a lot. I must have picked it up a hundred times and then set it back down again, primarily because the blurb made it sound like everything I wouldn’t like: middle-aged women who learn life lessons and find love by reading the six Austen novels in a book club. I still have no idea whether I’d like the book, as Wikipedia tells me the film is a ‘dramatic departure’ from it. But, uh, that’s pretty much the elevator pitch for the film, too.
So what's wrong with the film? It commits the worst crime it can: it's boring. Despite some likable performances, it was immediately obvious from the very beginning how the film was going to end. And, yes, every rom com is ultimately that predictable – but there simply wasn’t enough to sustain my interest between the introduction of each character and their (happy) endings. With six main characters, and a number of important secondary characters, the film would have needed twice the run-time to do them all justice. But it didn’t even trust itself to pick one or two and let them carry the show.
Do I even have to go into the plot? Six people find love while reading the Austen novels. SPOILER ALERT! Everyone gets a happy ending.
As an aside, the film left a bad taste in my mouth from the very beginning, when it introduced the major love interest, Hugh Dancy’s Grigg, at a ‘science fiction conference*’ with a meet-cute in an elevator that revolved around some tone-deaf Buffy jokes. The bad taste never really melted away, as Grigg, who (we’re told over and over) is a science fiction fan, was shown as such by having R2-D2’s squeaks and blurps as his ringtone (…lazy, but fine) and… a row of cheap toy robots over his mantel. And they weren’t even in their boxes.
Now, look. I’m a Buffy fan. I’m also a science fiction nerd. I like toys, and robots, and toy robots. I know a lot of Buffy fans. And science fiction nerds. And people who like toys, and robots, and toy robots. But that? That is ‘geek’ by someone who has no fucking clue. That’s lazy fucking set-design and lazy characterization, and it pisses me off. But it was no less lazy than the entire rest of the film, so honestly, what’s the point of complaining?
Except to point out that, despite the mainstreaming of geek culture over the last decade, people still make films like this, where ‘science fiction fan’ = 'science fiction conference' and ‘shelf full of cheap robot toys’, the end. Fuck you, Hollywood.
(Also, fucking Mark Blucas plays a tertiary character in The Jane Austen Book Club. Mark Blucas, who was a major character for an entire season on Buffy. And yet, the lazy Buffy jokes persisted. IT BURNS.)
The same lazy writing and ultimately creative bankruptcy is, unfortunately, also on display in Austenland. Which is too bad, as Austenland is the more ambitious film of the two, and potentially the more interesting. Jane (played by Keri Russell, whose innate likability almost – but not quite – saves her character from the depths of mediocre writing to which the screenplay consigns her) is a major Austen fan. We know this because she has adorned every flat surface of her office cubical, personal possessions, and home with Darcy-themed crap, including ‘I <3 DARCY’ bumper stickers and tote bags. She has a life-sized Colin Firth cutout in her living room! She memorized the first three chapters of Pride & Prejudice when she was 13!
She is, not to put too fine a point on it, a total loser.
Anyway, Jane blows her (paltry) life savings on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to England where she’s promised the chance to spend five days living the Austen life, wearing corsets and flirting over whist. Unfortunately, she can only afford the copper package, which means she winds up with a room in the servant’s quarters, ugly dresses, and no whist lessons. But she makes friends with a woman who does have the platinum package, Jennifer Coolidge’s Elizabeth, and generally has a good time anyway. Mostly because she spends her vacation macking on a handsome stable boy and flirting with the resident Mr Darcy, JJ Feild’s Henry Nobley. The usual Austen-y nonsense happens; the initial love interest is actually a cad; snotty Nobley is actually sweet and wonderful; the snobs get their come-uppances; Jane finds love and gets over the whole pesky ‘incredibly unhealthy obsession’ thing. Happy endings for everyone!
Austenland is also based on a book, about which I know absolutely nothing. I do hope, however, that the characters are even slightly better drawn there than here; here, Jennifer Coolidge’s character is good hearted but so phenomenally ignorant that she somehow knows who Darcy is, but not what Pride & Prejudice is. (Why in god’s name would she go on a very expensive Jane Austen-themed vacation if she doesn’t know who the fuck Jane Austen is?) But the worst sin the script commits is with poor Jane – the audience isn’t given a single reason to think of her as anything other than a seriously damaged young woman. She spends dates watching Pride & Prejudice instead of trying to get laid. She has giant wooden letters spelling ‘DARCY WAS HERE’ hanging over her bed – which is covered in Austen character soft toys. (…yikes) In short, she has no life at all. But the film doesn’t present that as the very serious and real problem that it is – instead it’s just part of her adorable quirkiness!
She’s clearly meant to come alive once she gets to Austenland, which she kind of does, but we simply never see enough to make her transformation meaningful. She has a lot of spare time on her hands but doesn’t spend it reflecting on her sad, empty life. She just sort of lets stuff happen to her, and – only after she finally realizes that the whole thing was, y’know, a really sad setup – throws in the towel and decides to let go of her Darcy obsession and move on. Which is the moment when all the boys start declaring themselves to her, of course.
The funny thing is, of course, that Austen herself wrote a novel about a woman whose fantasy life has a damaging effect on her reality. Austenland is almost even aware of the parallels between its plot and Northanger Abbey; surely it’s not just a coincidence that JJ Feild played Tilney in the (legitimately wonderful) 2007 version of Northanger Abbey and Mr Nobley here? But where the heroine in Northanger Abbey learns the error of her ways and grows up, Austenland’s Jane never really has the same epiphany. She never sees herself for the sad sack she really is, nor how her obsession has damaged her. She just… gives up, and then gets her happy ending anyway.
Though, honestly, I can’t believe I’m crediting this film with anything. I mean, we never even learn what Jane’s awful, soul-sucking job is. (End spoilers, but honestly, you knew what was going to happen, didn't you?)
I’ve spent nearly 1500 words tearing these two films apart; now let’s talk about what they get right. In The Jane Austen Book Club, most of the characters are in their 30s and 40s (or older), which is great. And there’s a totally normalized gay character. Which is really great. In Austenland there’s a character played by an actor of color. There he is in his Regency clothes playing his insane Regency character, and it’s no big deal. Which is also really great! Both these characters are, y’know, just treated like normal people. Which we still don’t see enough of in rom coms or anywhere else.
Maybe the problem here is that the Austen of these films isn't my Austen. I have history with Austen - an ongoing, deep and personal relationship. I've read and reread the books, watched the films, argued about the themes, written papers and blog posts and posted stills of handsome men in Regency costumes on my Tumblr. I've done this for years. Hell, I was sixteen when I read Pride & Prejudice for the first time; I've probably read it 25 times since. Jane Austen's books, stories, characters - they all mean something to me. And these films present a take on Austen that isn't my Austen, isn't reflective of my meaning and my history.
Or maybe the problem is that they're lazy, undercooked, ill-considered and exploitative.
I love Austen. I love the books. I love the characters. (I fucking hate Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, though, so don’t even start.) Occasionally I despair of Hollywood and Austen. Certainly, I despair of films like these – no matter how loving and faithful the source material (and I can’t weigh in on how loving and faithful, as I haven’t read either novel), the adaptations above are tone-deaf attempts to cash in on the modern fascination with Austen and her books.
I don’t know, you guys. Let’s all go watch Clueless again.
*When the character first utters the words 'science fiction conference' I sat up straight and started paying attention, thinking him perhaps a professional author, or an academic. Interesting! Fun! Different! But, no; someone simply didn't know the difference between 'convention' and 'conference.'