Seeing Fanny Price Through Modern Eyes

Seeing Fanny Price Through Modern Eyes

Until this week, I had seen all of the major film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels—the theater releases, the BBC series, etc.—except one. I have now completed the sweep by finally watching Patricia Rozema’s 1999 version of Mansfield Park.

I missed the movie when it came out. After reading a few reviews and coming across additional commentary over the years, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it. The reason is that Rozema takes the slavery issues in the background of MP and puts them in the foreground. The way she does this changes the book fundamentally.

I felt preemptive annoyance that people who saw the movie but never read the book would be confused about what Austen had written and about what her positions on slavery actually were. (In my view, Austen’s views are not at all clear.)

Rozema justifies the changes by saying that there’s a difference between a book and a film and by insisting that as an artist she has the right to provide a “fresh view.” She adds: “Whenever you turn a novel into a movie, you’re changing form. … I felt fairly free to make changes as long as I felt I could face Austen if I met her.”

She’s correct that some things in the novel form cannot be produced in the film form. A book can convey a character’s thoughts. A movie has to have the character express those thoughts in dialogue or demonstrate them through action. A two-hour movie can usually show only a third to a fourth of the content of a novel, so subplots have to be condensed or dropped or reduced to a passing moment on screen. Characters must be cut or combined. The Grant family disappear from the film, which is no big loss. But Rozema drops William Price, Fanny’s brother, and his naval service from the screen, which is a big loss and which creates complications described below.

When I finally saw the movie on DVD, I was not as bothered by the slavery issues as I thought I would have been. There was one immediate howler, though. Young Fanny, the poor cousin being adopted by her rich relatives, sees a slave ship in an English bay. A slave ship wouldn’t be within a thousand miles of England. That cargo passed between Africa and America. In England, those ships would have been delivering sugar, rum, and rice purchased in America with the profits from the slave sales.

But most of the slave references did bring out points visually in the only way possible. There’s one scene when Edmund and Fanny are riding and the topic of abolition comes up. Fanny says abolition is a good thing. Edmund reminds her that abolition will hurt the Bertram family finances. Fanny reacts as if recognizing this dependency for the first time. Strangely, the one direct reference to the slave trade in the novel—in a scene that would have made for great theater—is absent.

One possible exception to the slavery motif is the treatment of Sir Thomas. One depiction of his role in slavery left him irredeemable, which was not Austen’s intent nor, I think, Rozema’s.

I liked several other changes, too. Rozema heightens the sexuality with several brief but intense PG-rated interactions (along with one R-rated moment). She also converts Fanny’s interior life into Jane Austen’s, by having Fanny, as she matures from ten to eighteen years old, write and recite Austen’s juvenilia. That’s great fun.

What I didn’t like is that Rozema changed the emotional dynamics among the major players. In the novel, for instance, Edmund is gobsmacked by the beautiful, worldly Mary Crawford. She toys with him for fear that he will settle for a dull, country, clergyman’s life counter to her love of the big city. Edmund returns to Fanny at the end of the novel only because Mary’s attitudes on love and sex are revealed to be too scandalous. In the movie, Edmund is wary of Mary. She works her wiles on him and wins him over only after Fanny is sent back to Portsmouth by her uncle as punishment for not being willing to marry Henry Crawford.

Similarly, the dynamics change between Fanny and Henry. In the book, his attempts to seduce her cause the reverse—he falls for Fanny. As a result, he arranges for her brother, William Price, to be promoted to lieutenant through the auspices of his uncle, an admiral. This is a huge deal. Otherwise, William could have remained a midshipman indefinitely and his hopes for a career ruined. Most young ladies would have married Crawford for that act alone. (Cassandra, Jane’s sister, said she wanted Fanny to marry him instead of Edmund, probably for that very reason.)

With William gone from the movie, there’s no way for Henry to show his feelings for Fanny in a bold or honorable way. All we see is his continuing charm offensive against her until, when she thinks Edmund is committed to Mary, she finally gives in. Here, Rozema adds another element from Jane’s own life. She has Fanny accept his proposal, then reverse her acceptance overnight. This happened with Jane in December 1802, supposedly with Harris Bigg-Wither, though the veracity of the story is uncertain.

Fanny’s actions send Henry off in a rage, which he acts upon by seducing Fanny’s married cousin, Maria. These actions conform to the novel’s plotline, but the motivations are substantially different. In the novel, Henry’s seduction comes as the result of boredom, or an unwillingness to wait for Fanny, or plain self-indulgence. (Though Fanny has also made it clear she plans never to marry him.) In the film, Fanny’s actions are so hurtful that they justify some kind of retaliation by Henry—though not in the extreme way he does.

The characters are well played. Frances O’Connor is terrific as Fanny. Rozema makes her stronger and more independent than Austen’s Fanny, but O’Connor also is able to imbue her Fanny with morality and dignity without self-righteousness. She still has a tendency to keep her thoughts to herself, but the audience can read them on her face.

Johnny Lee Miller makes Edmund—a character who strikes me as undeserving of the heroine in the novel—an interesting, intelligent man. (He’s played a major role in the two Trainspotting movies and is best known to U.S. audiences for playing Sherlock Holmes on TV.) Alessandro Nivola has only one note to play as Henry Crawford but does it well.

Lindsay Duncan plays both the quiet Lady Bertram and her impoverished, overwhelmed sister, Mrs. Price, Fanny’s mother. I did not realize it was the same actress until reading the credits!

Last and least—in an amusing way—is Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Rushworth. It was a hoot to see Bonneville, who became a star a decade later as the solid, respectable Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, playing MP’s buffoon with a scrumptiously awful haircut.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

The Trilogy is also available in a single “boxed set” e-book:

10 Responses to Seeing Fanny Price Through Modern Eyes

  1. I watched this many years ago and it looks like it’s time for a re-watch. I never realized the same actress played Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price. I wonder how I did not notice this, I will definitely have to pay attention next time I watch.

  2. What a wonderful informative post. I collect Jane Austen movie adaptions. THIS version is the only one I don’t have. I bought it, watched it, and threw it away. I was instantly, and have been to this day, furious at the way this movie portrayed Austen’s work.

    I loathed the way they ‘dropped off’ Fanny in the beginning… what??? Where was Aunt Norris?? I thought the Fanny character was way too sexy, flirtatious and had a sensual knowing look about her. That was not Fanny Price and she would have been loathed to know she was portrayed in that manner.

    Rating: Why on earth would I need to look at the ratings on a DVD for an Austen story??? I hate being ambushed. Had I looked at the ratings I might have seen the mature content or whatever is on the back of that stupid thing. The slave ship bothered me and those graphic artist drawings made me sick and I nearly cried. What did that say about Sir Thomas? I am so hurt and so mad regarding his portrayal.

    The sex scene [in the wrong locale] made me furious… I felt I had been ambushed seeing partial nudity when I wasn’t expecting it. Also, as they cut corners in making the film, they had the affair discovered at Mansfield Park… and having Fanny walk in on them was inappropriate to say the least. This threw off canon’s discovery of the couple in London by the maid, Sir Thomas going to London and altered the subsequent letters from Mary to Fanny warning her to not listen to the gossip as there must be a mistake. Nope… no mistake… Fanny walked in on them, how could that be mistaken. See??? Wrong, wrong, wrong!!

    And what was up with Fanny’s father? In thinking back… I vaguely remember my having a creepy feeling… there was a lecherous look about him. What?? What was Rozema trying to say by having him act that way? Maybe I was wrong but my skin crawled when he was on the screen. I missed brother William Price but couldn’t put my finger on why. Yes, he was a big influence in Fanny’s life and a pivotal point in the story between Fanny and Henry.

    I suppose you can detect from my comments that I am still mad. You have pointed out many things I couldn’t articulate and I agree completely. There were just too many ‘changing form’ scenes for me. No… I did not like this version. All those good points I might have liked… costumes, locations, lighting, photography… were overshadowed by the points I did not like. I am sure there are other points, but I refuse to watch it again to find them. Thank you for this post.

    • J.W., I agree that someone shouldn’t have to put an “R” label on an Austen movie, but Rozema apparently wanted to shock in several ways. I mostly enjoyed Fanny coming out of her shell; it’s hard to film a silent character, though O’Connor is masterful at showing her thoughts through her expressions. Having Fanny come upon the couple in the bedroom was a movie shortcut that saves 2-3 scenes, but your complaint really is about the nudity, which I appreciate. As for Sir T and Mr. Price, I find both men creepy even in the novel. When Edmund starts talking to Fanny about how his father, her uncle, appreciates her developing figure … I’m creeped out by Sir Thomas AND Edmund!

  3. Good morning, Collins. I enjoyed your piece. Like you, I had avoided the Rozema version for many years.
    If you have not read them previously, I have looked at several Mansfield Park films for my blog. I would love to hear your thoughts to see if you agree (or disagree) on any of the finer points.
    Mansfield Park 2007 https://reginajeffers.blog/2015/05/25/mansfield-park-2007/
    Mansfield Park 1999 https://reginajeffers.blog/2015/05/18/mansfield-park-1999/
    Mansfield Park 1983 https://reginajeffers.blog/2015/05/04/mansfield-park-1983/

    There was a scene in the movie “Amazing Grace” where there was a slave ship on the Thames (at least, I think it was the Thames – been awhile since I have seen the film). Do you know the film? It has Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce and Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt. Some of my other favorites are also in the flick: Romola Garai, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N’Dour, and Ciarán Hinds. Great film from 2008! When I was still teaching AP Language, we used a piece from Olaudah Equiano as part of the curriculum, so I was interested in the film’s take on his “The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano.” Have you ever read it?

    Here is a NPR piece on “Amazing Grace and the End the Slave Trade.” https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=7551106&ft=nprml&f=7551106

    • Regina, I enjoyed catching up on your blogs on the different MP movies. I agree w/your take on all of them. You wrote in more detail and w/more nuance than I did. I didn’t have as much of a problem w/the changes in Rozema’s version as you did on the slavery issue but did on the internal romantic dynamics. Also agree w/the comments about too many characters looking like other characters. I also had trouble w/Fanny Price being a blonde in one version. … I did see the movie “Amazing Grace.” Thought it was a good synopsis of the book. Metaxas shows Wilberforce as a saint, which he was on abolition, but he does not show Wilberforce’s human side, which was to support Pitt in his ugly suppression of peaceful dissent on other issues. The leaders could not distinguish between people who wanted to reform/improve the system and those who wanted to tear it down. The NPR piece goes into that a little, but does not call out WF’s role in the suppression.

      The ship in the Thames has the problem I mention–the ships carrying slaves would not be anywhere near England. You point out in your blog that in Rozema’s MP, the coachman tells Fanny that the ship captain was taking a few of the slaves to his wife–how would a coachman know that?–but in both cases the blacks would be free the moment the ships docked at an English port, which would defeat the point of the scene! This goes back to Lord Mansfield in 1772 ruling that slavery was illegal in England, if not in its colonies. As you know, Mansfield’s ruling was limited to one black man, but the country took the case to mean all. As maybe the judge intended.

      • Do you not think it is ironic that William Murray’s title was ‘Lord Mansfield,’ and we are talking about ‘slavery’ in “Mansfield Park”? Austen would have been not quite 20 when Mansfield died.

        “The Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board.”

        • Regina, yes, I’m certain that Mansfield Park is named for the judge and Mrs. Norris for a nasty slaver. Mansfield freed the slave Somersett in 1772. In 1783 he first supported the insurance repayment for the slaves who were deliberately drowned but later reversed it on narrow grounds.

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