Northanger Abbey 2007

Northanger Abbey is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, so I've looked forward (with some trepidation) to Masterpiece Theatre's latest version.

Trepidation because when it comes to favorites, the result often doesn't live up to the expectation.

It should be stated immediately that 2007 Northanger is far superior to the 1986 version. Peter Firth did an excellent job as Henry Tilney in the 1986 version, but he was far too worldly-wise (more about this later). And collectively, the 1986 version didn't get the joke.

The joke is that Catherine Morland loves "horrid" novels (more about this later) and enjoys imagining potential gothic horrors, but her own life is fearfully prosaic. So prosaic, in fact, that when she finds herself in the middle of a classic adventure story, she fails to recognize herself as the thwarted romance heroine.

The 1986 version instead presented Northanger Abbey as straightforward gothic romance--which completely and totally missed Jane Austen's point.

Unfortunately, the 2007 version kind of missed it too (they did miss is less). I think Catherine's "prosaic" adventure is just too tempting: script writers and filmmakers can't resist it. They can't resist underscoring parts of the plot with thudding music. They can't resist making Northanger Abbey a huge, rambling building with dozens of towers (no, it isn't that way in the book: that's part of the joke). They can't resist making John Thorpe far more villainous than he actually is. And consequently, they miss how truly funny the novel is.

Watching the 2007 version, it occured to me that perhaps the novel isn't translatable to film. If you moved the whole thing into modern times, Jane Austen would be the smart, introverted, withdrawn high school student who decided to spoof not JUST the antics of the jocks but also (and this is important) the antics of the arty-self-important crowd. In other words, nobody is spared. There's Isabella who complains about men looking at her and then insists on strutting past every man in sight. There's John Thorpe who brags about on fast he drives his "car" and then brags about how safe a driver he is and then brags about how he got into an awful wreck just last week (all in the same conversation). There's Mrs. Allen who says placidly to Catherine, "Oh, yes, dear, I wish someone was here in Bath to talk to you" and then does absolutely nothing about it.

Basically, Northanger Abbey is Heathers.

But the thing that makes it outrageously funny is how completely matter-of-fact it is. No thudding music. No gothic ramparts. Everything is down-to-earth and ordinary. The horrors don't stand out the way they do in a "horrid" novel and in a movie. When Catherine travels home by herself, she doesn't even realize she has behaved heroically.

This hum-dum quality is hard to translate into film: instead of asking you to sympathize with the main characters, the audience would have to be taken into a conspiracy with the narrator against all the characters. The downside of such a conspiracy is that the audience would have a hard time sympathizing with Catherine and, possibly, a hard time understanding Henry.

Catherine is the original innocent. She is so artless, she is clueless; her love of "horrid" novels does not translate into, for instance, a Jane Austen type of imagination. Catherine would never spoof anyone. And a complete innocent, who is also likable, is hard to pull off. (Hence the 1999 Mansfield Park where innocent Fanny becomes instead a combination of Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Austen.)

2007 Catherine, played by Felicity Jones, is not Elizabeth Bennett and does a good job as an innocent, but she is not quite as gullible as the book's Catherine. (In the book, our high school Jane Austen isn't spoofing Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) as much as Mandy Moore (Walk to Remember). And she isn't really spoofing; she's just being cryptic. Rolling her eyes a bit, perhaps.) Without some hint of reserve or suspicion, a film Catherine would, I'm afraid, come across as an airhead which doesn't invite sympathy, especially since Jane Austen fans tend towards the Elizabeth Bennett model.

The second main character is Henry Tilney and here 2007 Northanger hit the money bag. The actor is JJ Feild, who is a PBS classic workaholic
(Railway Children, Death on the Nile, Pullman novels). The character of Henry Tilney--working off our high school model--is the stereotypical smart, semi-arty type who sees through the arty pretense but doesn't have the confidence to be completely himself. So he turns sardonic. This pretty much sums up every guy I knew in High School. I should have hung out with the AV guys, who really didn't care what anyone thought. Instead, I hung out with the arty guys who couldn't stand to be thought pretentious, so they watched lots of Monty-Python. THIS is Henry Tilney.

And he is entirely lovable. He is funny, first of all, and he is flawed. The 2007 Northanger won my heart because although the writer and director fell down when it came to capturing Austen's caustic purpose, they entirely captured the unstable dynamics of the Tilney household. Henry is an unhappy and vulnerable young man. He isn't unhappy because his father is a gothic villain; he is unhappy because his father is an overbearing jerk. There's mundane and prosaic for you.

The 1986 Northanger made Henry much too confident and wise to the ways of the world; one never had any doubts that that Henry would fix everything. But 2007 Northanger gives Henry much more complexity; he may not fix everything; he isn't masterful like Darcy; he isn't accustom to authority like Mr. Knightly; he may not be as heroic as we wish him to be.

Okay, it's Jane Austen, and she may have been caustic but she wasn't cynical: Henry does achieve a level of heroism, but one suspects that this Henry, at least, is just relieved that someone loves him at all. Which is sweet in a very ordinary, human way.


1 comment:

Damien Sullivan said...

I just re-read Northanger Abbey... I thought it *did* have ramparts, or at least original Gothic architecture. But with modern indoor furnishings, and modern office extensions. (Modern for 1818, of course.) In modern terms, you'd see the Gothic building, but it'd have Martha Stewart Inside, and outside you'd pan from the flying buttress to a trailer. Which would be funny.