Jane Austen leads the autumn crop of book adaptations. Robin Buss looks on
If Dickens is something of an adaptor's nightmare, Jane Austen must be the answer to a prayer: plenty of dialogue and simple storylines. In Emma, for example, the heroine dissuades her best friend from marrying someone who is right for her, encourages her to pursue someone who is wrong for her, and in the meantime fails to pay proper attention to the man who is obviously right for herself. Austen manages to cram all this into a novel approximately as long as A Tale of Two Cities. With a little urging, you feel she could have expanded it to the length of War and Peace.
It is not only the adaptor who is cheering: lavish period costumes, glorious exteriors over the English countryside, a small cast of well-delineated characters, the whole package leading to a happy ending in the village church - and who cares if the village church, in this case, belongs to a period well after that of the novel?
Contrast, if you will, the predicament facing the producers of Jude, who have to sell us Thomas Hardy's relentlessly grim tale of a self-made stonemason, who is not saved by education, who is not redeemed by love, and where children can see no way out of the ghastly mess in which they have been placed by their creator - forced, for example, to hang themselves "because we are too menny". Jude is a Bildungsroman that, before you know it, has turned into a demolition site for even the most reasonable of human aspirations. The rolling English countryside is still there, with Oxford's towers for good measure, but otherwise the material lacks the feelgood factor.
Emma is the curtain raiser to an autumn of adaptations, Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre follows by the end of the month, then Jude and a new version of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, plus a couple of Shakespeares (Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet) out before Christmas, and Conrad's Victory scheduled for the New Year.
Douglas McGrath wrote the script for Emma and Gwyneth Paltrow is quite convincing as Austen's simultaneously irritating and sympathetic heroine. She has fine support from Greta Scacchi and Juliet Stevenson, and the film looks good, especially when it goes indoors. It also follows the text closely enough to make it a useful crib for anyone studying the novel as a set book, without ever doing anything to convince you that it is worth such study. Adaptation is also a form of criticism, and this gives an account of Emma as a rather anaemic exercise in comedy.
One pleasure for young cinemagoers this summer has been John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Inish, which can still be found lurking in selected cinemas. Set just after the war, it is the story of a girl who is sent to live with her grandparents in Donegal. They belong to a community of fisher folk, who have been obliged to leave their island home among the seals and move to the mainland; but the child's determination and a fair bit of magic will get them back. This is an enchanting film, not too whimsical, with (needless to say) glorious landscapes. Any child of eight or over should enjoy it.
Finally, Edouard Molinaro's comedy Beaumarchais, l'insoleat has most of the things you expect from a French costume drama, and it's all (more or less) true. In the last years of the Ancien Regime, the dramatist (the superbly ironic Fabrice Luchini) is sent on a secret mission to London to recover some compromising papers on behalf of the King. Meanwhile, he is involved in a couple of law suits, gets married and writes a play. Great fun and just the thing for A-level French students.