12 May 2008
The Art of Transposition: Austen’s Persuasion into Michell’s Persuasion
Although Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion, is the last of her completed works, it’s not the least in its complexity. Norman Page, in his book The Language of Jane Austen writes that, this novel, when placed among the rest of Austen’s works, employs the “… fullest and most important use of free indirect speech” (113). Artery-like, and vital, to the functioning of the text, this device, combined with the cutting voice of the narrator, is responsible for carrying much of the novel’s sharp ironic wit as well as the deep, inward, subtle (and often sardonic) depictions of its many characters—the serious ones, even the comic ones:
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did...He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion. (Austen 6)
Further complicating attempts at close adaptation is the novel’s presentation of the main protagonist, Anne Elliot. Among the pantheon of Austen heroines, Anne Elliot could be considered the most reticent and inward of them all. In the novel, she is given very few lines of dialogue, yet her characterization is far from deficient. In fact, it is deeply expressed and windowed into the reader. A film adaptation, if it had hopes of reproducing some semblance of the novel, would seem to require a great deal of departure from the original hypotext—or otherwise a reinterpretation.
However, the 1995 BBC film adaptation, directed by Roger Michell, seems to overcome this difficulty and gives us an Anne Eliot, and a Persuasion, that captures to great effect all that would appear elusive to adaptation. In this paper, I explore the many ways the Michell adaptation of Persuasion has creatively and skillfully leveraged the various techniques and features unique to the medium of film—what Robert Stam refers to as the “multitrack” aspect of film. There are clear signs in the film where the visual and/or nonverbal is commissioned to convey a significant portion of the narrative. We see this in a variety of instances in the film: from the noticeable color change, from pale to blush, of Anne Elliot—her aspect rekindling with the promise of renewed attachment to Captain Wentworth (a man she was persuaded to refuse a marriage proposal eight years prior), or even the carefully selected use of imagery and landscapes, used strategically to reinforce characterizations. So that now, even the absurd, vain quality, of a character like Sir Walter Elliot—as depicted by Austen above—can be divined just as well by that which is unspoken than by that which is: and surely, Sir Walter Elliot does not disappoint our expectations, as we see him early on in the film, on one occasion, grooming and admiring himself by the slim reflection of a butter knife at the dinner table.
Before looking more closely at the film adaptation of Persuasion, I want to first define the concept of the “multi-track.” Robert Stam in his essay “Beyond Fidelity: Dialogics of Adaptation” brings to focus a critical distinction between the tools—or “tracks”—available to film, to those available to printed text. The novel, he asserts, is a “single-track” medium, which “has only words to play with,” while the film medium is multi-tracked, having, in addition to the use of “words” (both spoken and written), a myriad of other methods, such as theatrical performance, music, sound effects, as well as the moving image (Stam, Dialogics 56). The use of language such as “multi” and “single”, may affect an impulse to compare by merit one medium over the other; to consider the matter quantitatively, it would appear that film has an advantage over written text. Yet, if one were to survey popular responses to typical book-to-film adaptations, the most voiced responses would likely be in favor of the book. However, what most critics would instead and more prudently assert—including Stam—is that a merit-based comparison between the two mediums is a fruitless endeavor. Arguing one over the other in such a way may be the equivalent of arguing the worth of a sculpture over that of a painting in artistic efficacy—both being very different and very distinct forms of expression.
Written textual medium, as opposed to film, works on different levels. While the experience of film is consumed through both the aural and visual senses—relying heavily on the use of these senses—text does not. The experience of film is processed from the immediate seeing, and hearing, while the experience of reading is seeing and hearing inwardly through our imaginative facilities. The visual sense might be needed to extract words from a page, but the words themselves are only given expression within our own psyche. In fact, the novel is still considered a novel despite whether it is an audible reading, or a brail transcription.
We then enter a complex issue in regards to the consumption of the novel. Words in a novel are in essence a script—inert till they are read and reenacted and given meaning within the mind of the reader. And although the mind-as-a-stage is often elevated and described in terms that suggest a sense of boundlessness, or limitlessness to what can be envisioned, the mind is still influenced complexly by its own personal prejudices, experiences, etc.—the things that vary the inward “reading” of a novel from person to person. If a reader has never experienced the color red before (if one were born blind for instance) an analogy to the color of blood, or words comparing it to the setting of a sun may look very different in the mind of this reader, and does not necessarily imply an incorrect “reading.” This is of course an extreme example, but still, all the infinite experiences and background foreknowledge that a reader might possess (or not possess) and all personal stereotypes, or connotations that are in-play and mixed within a reading of the novel, adds to the complexity of this “single-tracked” medium. This can easily segue into the postmodern notion of intertexuality (which will be discussed later), however, what I want to first draw attention to is that a film can alleviate some of the spiraling connections that may ensue in reading, and in turn provides its own reading of the novel. In the Michell film, instead of some timid, reticent late-twenties woman (that can be anyone or anything in our own minds) we are shown Amanda Root. Instead of our own interpretations of Kellynch Hall, we are shown a specific estate—a specific Kellynch Hall. Likewise, the Roger Michell adaptation of Persuasion is in essence a specific and exclusive “reading” of the novel—or so it would seem.
What is interesting, however, is that there clearly are general consensus “readings” or interpretations for at least particular parts of Austen’s novel Persuasion. What else could explain the “consensus” approval of this film adaptation by many critics, as a close, successful adaptation of the novel? This is further complicated, as mentioned earlier, by the suggestions that most of the text in Austen’s novel is in the form of a third-person omniscient narrator—and a very particular type of narrator. The narrator of this novel is laconic, ironic, subtle, and even ambiguous at times, and overall there is a liberal use of free and indirect discourse. The BBC film on the other hand, does not contain this intricate and major part of the novel, specially the narrator, which guides our reading of the text. In lieu of this, the film finds other means of guiding our impressions and reaction to the film that would seem to fall inline with those first created by the narrator in the source text. This is all done by creative and skillful translation of the single-track nature of the novel to the multi-track elements of the film.
One track used to full employment in the Michell film, and which supplies a wealth of inferred information to the viewer, is the camera and its relative positions throughout the film. It has already been mentioned that the Austen novel focuses primarily on its main protagonist, Anne Elliot. And since this book was published posthumously, Austen’s brother, Henry, was the one that gave the book its title, “Persuasion.” Might the novel, If published with more direct involvement by its author, have received an eponymous title, like the novel Emma? Perhaps, though typically, conjecture of what “could have been”, is rarely critically productive; but if the novel was titled, “Anne,” it would at least seem to be justified. The location of Anne Elliot, wherever she is situated and residing at the time, is where the narrative is focused. She is at Kellynch Hall in the beginning of the novel with her father, sister, and Lady Russell, and likewise the scene is concentrated there. Similarly, in the film, the use of the camera provides a similar effect—it follows Anne most attentively throughout the narration. There are very few scenes in the film that occur when she is not present. Likewise, whenever something happens outside of Anne’s field of vision, for instance, the attachment of Louisa and Captain Benwick, it is often submitted to the narration as outside news given to Anne—we never see the attachment growing, and rarely see anything of characters that Anne cannot see herself. When Anne embarks on her trip to Uppercross to visit her sister Mary, she is riding bumpily along in a horse carriage. The camera weaves in and out of perspectives, from gazing at a seated Anne, to an entrance into her point-of-view, bumping along the path with her. The novel seems to do this as well with its liberal use of free and indirect discourse: it weaves in and out from dispassionate third-person omniscience to the mind and subjective feelings of the characters.
The perspective of the third person, a perspective that is privileged to the reader in the novel, is given a like form to the “viewer” of the film version. As one looks onto the film, and observes the various characters enact, one seems privy to information that the rest of the “world” within the film may not be aware of. This can be, of course, a form of dramatic irony, but it can also be considered a form of retranslating information that the Austen hypotext expresses via the omniscient narrator. Skillful histrionics, particularly the nonverbal, and especially body language, are channels that produce this type of information. Communication theory, based on the research done in 1971 by Professor Albert Mehrabian, has long established what many in the field call the “rule” of express verbal communication. The longstanding findings by Professor Mehrabian suggests that for any verbal message being communicated face-to-face between two parties, the words that are actually spoken account for only 7% of the total message—nonverbal gestures and tone of voice account for the rest (Cooper 89). Since film is performed by actors, a more deliberate effort is required to produce these cues of intense meaning, and we see the employment of this throughout the Michell adaptation in a variety of examples.
For instance, the characterization of Anne—since her words are few—are expressed quite often through nonverbal means. We see this most overtly in the scene of the first meeting between Anne and Captain Wentworth in the film—a meeting taking place after several years, and with all the tension that a marriage refusal could bring. Austen is very sharp and terse in her words describing Anne’s feelings, she writes simply that, “a thousand feelings rushed on Anne” (56). This phrase is transposed into the film quite well; it is felt in her looks; her eyes are expressly opened, and her breathing is heavier and more visible; the camera zooms in on her hands which are seen behind the table clenching the leg of a chair, turning red along the knuckles. While all this is happening, the spoken exchanges by the characters seem normal and contained, and the scene is quiet (almost too quiet), but the rush of anxiety, the “thousand feelings” are occurring to Anne—and mutely so, contained within her own mind, though ostensibly wanting to burst.
There is yet another more revealing physical aspect of Anne that is used strategically in the film to express Anne’s inward emotional state, Anne’s face. John Wiltshire, in his book Recreating Jane Austen, acknowledges the significance of Anne’s facial expression in the Michell adaptation, stating that it is “a site or screen onto which the viewer is invited to inscribe a history which is never articulated…convey[ing] by quite different means, that impression of direct contact with another being’s inner life” (96). Anne’s appearance in the beginning of the film can be described best as “plain.” Her face is worn, pale, and bears signs of a perpetual state of worry, or grief. This of course, parallels the impression given of Anne in the novel: that she “had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early” (Austen 7, emphasis added). Anne smiles very few times in the first half of the film; and even the times she does smile, they look forced and merely a response to propriety, and nothing more. Her eyes as well, are doe-like, wide, and express a sense of naiveté and submission, and still more sadness. But as the film progresses, and her attachment to Wentworth begins to rekindle, her face takes on a gradually improving look. In the film, it is her trip to Bath that we see a smiling and transformed Anne Elliot—one with confidence and self-composure. In the film (and in the novel) her father, Sir Walter Elliot, remarks it, believing it to be owing to some special facial ointment: “Your looks are greatly improved, Anne. You're less thin in your person, and your cheeks and complexion are fresher. What are you using?” (Michell)
Another character in the film that nonverbally exposes much of her character is Mary Elliot, Anne’s younger sister. The first impressions of Mary in the Michell film are established before even a word is said. As Anne approaches Uppercross on the carriage, the viewer sees Mary peeking out her head through the window, clearly in anticipation for Anne. But as soon as Mary glimpses her sister approaching, she hastily leaves the window—and the camera sees the curtain still swaying and troubled from Mary’s wake. What one might suspect then is that Mary’s dash from the window was just in eagerness to meet her sister, perhaps at the front door. Instead, what we see is true-to-form with the Mary we see in Austen’s novel. Mary is tucked in her couch, swaddled with blankets, looking as though she hasn’t left her “sick-bed” all morning. This affectation on Mary’s part of feigning illness, perhaps driven by a need for attention, is established in a matter of a few seconds by the film. The narrator in the novel describes this behavior directly, but not without a little sly, succinct wordplay, describing only that Mary’s “being unwell and out of spirits, was almost a matter of course” (Austen 35). And again, later, with the witty relation of how Mary’s illness eventually dissipates:
A little further perseverance in patience, and forced cheerfulness on Anne's side, produced nearly a cure on Mary's. She could soon sit upright on the sofa, and began to hope she might be able to leave it by dinner-time. Then, forgetting to think of it, she was at the other end of the room, beautifying a nosegay; then, she ate her cold meat; and then she was well enough to propose a little walk. (Austen 38)
In the passage above, the narrator of the novel—and in the narrator’s own style—cleverly provides the information one expects, though a bit buried in indirect suggestions: particularly with the use of the words, “forgetting to think of it,” which suggests the illness as entirely cerebral, and by pointing out that the “cure” was Anne, and attention. Even what Mary does while she “forgets her illness,” like the beautifying of a nosegay, and the eating of some “cold meat” are retained in the film adaptation. Michell, however, uses these as vehicles to further establish early-on the characterization of Mary. Beatifying the nosegays is filmed as Mary petulantly disheveling what was before a pretty sort of flower arrangement. The cold meat that she eats is on a table fully arrayed with amenities, and is a giant slab of ham that she gorges with Anne meekly watching—and with Mary dominating the conversation, talking and chewing, often at the same time. The impressions of Mary as narcissistic, vain, and lacking a gentleness of manner, is established in just a few minutes by the film.
Yet no one in either the film or book is looked on with more general cheer and affability than the Admiral and Mrs. Croft. Again, the film captures this brilliantly and quite subtly. Mrs. Croft’s face is all smiles, and not a forced type of smile, but one that seems would be hard to contain if she tried to. Her gait and demeanor is that of someone self-possessed and sure. In the novel, Mrs. Croft is described as having “manners [that] were open, easy, and decided, like one who had no distrust of herself, and no doubts of what to do; without any approach to coarseness, however, or any want of good humour” (Austen 46). Her eyes mirror this friendless, they glimmer, especially during the first dinner table scene with the Musgroves (Mary’s in-laws), a scene where Mrs. Croft has her longest lines. This same scene, in a response to Anne’s inquiry of whether she has ever experienced sickness on the seas with her husband, have the eyes of Mrs. Croft glistening in reverie; her final thoughts are punctuated with an affected silence that sits on the dinner table, a silence that seems to acknowledge the depth of love felt for her husband, the Admiral. Her husband also projects a warm and gentle temper in the film, and more through his demeanor than his words. During a formal call by Mary and Anne to the Crofts over tea at Kellynch Hall (the residence the Crofts are renting from the Elliots), Mary’s two boys burst through the door to see the admiral. But while Mary scolds her children from their disruption, they are already met in the warm arms of the Admiral whose face seems to radiate joy over the two boys.
skilled theatrical performance and close attention to nonverbal clues, like
body language, are just one track that a film has in its repertoire. Image is
another major track used in film, particular in the Michell adaptation, to
great effect. When spouting clichés, it
is hard to miss one about the image being worth a thousand words; yet, in these
examples—without equating it to any quantitative measure—it is apparent that a
symbol or image used poignantly can produce a torrent of information. In the Michell
adaptation, they are often subtle. For instance, it is fairly obvious that the
Mrs. Clay’s attentions to Sir Elliot—her amour eyes batting coquettishly—are
directed at one man alone. However, it
may take a few viewings before one notices the smaller details, like that Mrs.
Clay is eating a heart-shaped cookie while she is looking longingly at her
object. Or, for instance, that Anne Elliot, unlike all the other characters in
the first half of the film, rarely wears any jewelry, especially earrings that
would seem commonplace. She of course, eventually fixes herself up, and adorns
jewelry as the film progresses—in line with her growing “bloom” that reaches
its denouement in
Many critics have observed
similar instances where the cinematographic image of the BBC Michell film adaptation
conveys information beyond the literal. John Wiltshire is one of these critics.
He points to an interesting scene towards the beginning of the film, after the
Elliots have left Kellynch Hall, when all the furniture is being draped in
white linens; a backdrop of furniture in these “dust-wraps” provides the
setting for a tête-à-tête between
Lady Russell and Anne over tea. Wiltshire suggests that Anne—also wearing white
at the time—becomes a fixture of the room along with the draped furniture, and
that the dust-wraps speak to a sense of “life suspended, just as Anne’s hopes
have been put under wraps for the past years” (93). Another critic, Kathi
Groenendyk, in her essay “The Importance of Vision: ‘Persuasion’ and the
Picturesque,” focuses exclusively on the role landscape plays in the Michell
film. Groenendyk offers many insightful observations, but two of particular notice
are the ones made of Sir Walter Elliot’s estate—Kellynch Hall—and of
And as one continues to analyze the respective functions of the various “tracks” used in the production of this film, we might then tend to notice that the very process of interpretation lends itself to interpretation. The spiraling web of intertextuality begins to appear within the analysis—it was always present, but buried beneath the surface. The term “intertextuality,” developed by Julia Kristeva, refers to the complex interrelations that “texts” (a term used loosely) have to each other and all the bodies of influence, including the social or cultural contexts that shape “text.” In essence, every “text” is informed/influenced by other “texts,” and those “texts” by still others, that eventually give substance to text. Kristeva uses the word “mosaic” to describe this relation, which is quite apropos, since a mosaic is a new object, that is actually built off others—and those, possibly others.
The BBC film Persuasion can be considered a unique “reading” of the novel. Although many might argue that the reading is predominantly the director’s (Roger Michell’s) or the screenwriter’s (Nick Dear’s) it can also be safely contended that the reading has taken on influences from many other additional sources: the costume designer, the actors, the musical composer, etc. As each “reader” contributes to the making of the film, offering a unique perspective of the novel as it may relate to their own complex background and experiences, the film has taken on levels of complexity that, as might Hamlet say: if one were to divide them inventorially, would “… dizzy the arithmetic of memory.” And once the film is locked into 35mm still prints, it does not signify a cessation of future readings. No, this analysis itself demonstrates that the very act of watching the film, especially offering interpretative analysis, is a type of “reading” of the film that adds more connections to an already chaotic web of intertextuality.
Gerard Genete, in his book Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, eases critical consideration of the mammoth term “intertextuality” through the branching of the term into various subdivisions. I want to consider one of these subdivisions, specifically “paratextuality,” in the context of the Michell film, Persuasion. This term is defined by Genete as “the relation, within the totality of a literary work, between the text proper and its ‘paratext’—titles, prefaces, epigraphs” (Stam, Film Theory 28). As mentioned earlier, “text,” is a loose term, and can be aptly applied to the film as well as classic literary works. With film, there are often copious amounts of corollary material packaged alongside its—often various—releases: items such as, the cover print (the image that becomes the branding of a particular film, appearing on posters, and DVD covers), cast listing, television spots, trailers, et al. All these extra materials contribute to the impact a film has on the viewer.
When Austen’s novel Persuasion was first published, that is, by her brother Henry a year after her death, the paratext of the printed matter—as can be expected—bears sharp contrast to the paratext of the 1995 Michell film. Persuasion, the novel, in its first edition, was packaged alongside another Austen novel, Northanger Abby, having the look of quiet modesty—a short reverential epigraph by her brother—and overall, more of a sense of homage and in memoriam to a recently deceased and beloved sister, than a book looking to sell high and earn a profit. The film on the other hand, looks quite different. While the novel’s paratext is discreet and modest, the film places on the cover an intimate kiss between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth—a kiss that we might presume to be the public one made at the end of the film. This “kiss” has become the image now associated with the film, and can influence a viewing of the film before it is even seen. At once, such an image might seem enough to brand the film into the realm of romance film/fiction, and in effect, perhaps typecasting its presumed content, and drawing it away or toward a particular audience. Why this image was selected as the icon for this film could be a result of how the novel was “read” by other members of the film’s production staff. Further still, how a consumer of the film might “read” such an image (and perhaps having never read the novel) might also lend translation of the image to his/her own understanding—and associations of like kind—and thereby make another complex intertextual relation that has now affected the film at what might be its most pivotal moment—the moment of decision: to view, or not to view.
from the cover image, there are various other examples of paratext. Another
important paratextual element that influences film is the cast listing. Film
studios are often willing to spend extra money on particular actors that they
know will add value to a film merely through their inclusion. An actor that has
already formed intertextual connections in the minds of a consuming public
complicates a viewing of the film, and can influence a spectator’s “reading.” Directors,
screenwriters, and other support staff to the making of a film, are not exempt,
and can also have this effect as their own body of prior work is tossed into
this same intertextual web. There are many other examples of paratext that can
be offered, but one last one that I want to mention in relation to the Michell
adaptation is the name of the
producing company. The Michell film was first released as a television feature
on the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and at the time, could only be seen
What has not yet been mentioned in the analysis and would seem to play a critical role in the adaptation of the Michell film of the Jane Austen novel is the relocation in time and culture of the hypotext to that of the hypertext (the film). This in itself opens into a vast field of further critical study, and it would be unwise for me to paraphrase—and as such, leave largely incomplete—any such analysis. However, I want to mention just one observation in a way of recapitulating the ideas that have been brought forth in this study. The novel written almost 200 years ago, in a time that is very different from the present, would most likely have also been “read” differently by someone endemic to that time. It is worth than noting that perhaps the general acclaim and acceptance of the 1995 Michell adaptation may be in part to our own modern interpretation of what Austen wrote so many years ago. This further suggests that if someone in the past—of that time—were to view the Michell adaptation, they might have seen things very differently. Where we see successful transposition of free and indirect discourse by the film, they might clamor “misreading.” Where we might see a pale face and construe it as sickly and unattractive, they might read this as delicate beauty. In essence, the my arguments themselves presented here, as well as the acclaim for the film, is in itself subjected to the same web of intertextuality that we’ve explored herein.
Yet still, —and confined to our own context,—it can be seen that the Roger Michell film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, is an impressive piece of work. It seems to transpose the single-track quality of the written work (the hypotext) successfully using the multi-means available to the film medium. The film is a “reading” of the novel, and the process of viewing is a “reading” of the film. Likewise a “reading” in itself is not a closed act capable of derivation and comprehensive analysis. No, in fact, a comprehensive analysis into all the elements that might influence a film can be overwhelmingly complex: a consideration of intertextuality is just one term of analysis, and paratextuality is—to Gerard Genete—just one subsection of intertextuality. Though in all, Michell’s adaptation seems to have earned the regard of many. The answer to why may be speculated and argued, but the seemingly endless and intertwining possibilities contained in a “reading” and within the realm of intertexuality make categorical assertions impossible. But there is one thing that can be safely said, which is that the 1995 Michell film adaptation, Persuasion, does offer a striking resemblance to Austen’s esteemed novel: by its art, its subtle characterization, but most especially, by its complexity.
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