Book to Screen – Mansfield Park (1999)

Recently, I read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. In my review, I mentioned the movie from 1999 that I’d seen and liked. But I haven’t seen it in quite a long time so I thought it was time for another viewing since the book was fresh in my mind. I got quite a surprise. There will be spoilers below for both book and movie.

The movie is very different from the book. Character personalities are changed. The plot is manipulated and changed somewhat and there’s even a brief sub plot injected for no other apparent reason than to make a politically correct comment that slavery is a Very Bad Thing. Unless I missed it, that’s not in the book at all and it felt very out of place here.

Fanny Price, our heroine, as written by Jane Austen, is meek, mild, proper, respectful, intelligent, shy and tends to blend in to the background, the objective observer. She has her own opinions but doesn’t usually express them. She loves Edmund Bertram from afar most of her life but never breathes a word about her feelings to him or anyone else. She doesn’t trust Henry Crawford and will never love him.

The movie starts with Fanny moving to Mansfield Park from her home in Portsmouth. You get a few brief scenes where you understand that she is the poor relative and will always be treated as such and there’s a scene where Edmund introduces himself to her. You kind of see that they become good friends in a brother/sister way but it’s not really emphasized and the next thing you know, the plot leaps to somewhere near the last third of the book. We’ve barely met the Crawford siblings and they’ve hardly made an impression on us and yet Fanny already has them pegged and figured out as not to be trusted.

When Henry Crawford decides he will woo Fanny, it’s nearly instant and after he asks her uncle for her hand, he accepts and she refuses, it all goes to hell. In the book, her relatives are far more gentle in their attempts at persuading her to accept Henry. In the movie, she is immediately banished back home where, after some time, Henry Crawford appears with sparkly fireworks and doves. Huh? Henry confronts her with his knowledge that she loves Edmund which she admits and is told Edmund is going to marry Mary, Henry’s sister. We really haven’t seen much of Edmund and Mary together to fully accept that he’s besotted with her and she’s undecided because he’s only a second son and is going to be a minister.There’s really not much build up to that on screen at all aside from a couple of speeches and no chemistry.

Henry nearly convinces her to accept his proposal, at least I think that was what her dream of doing exactly that was about, but the health crisis of her cousin Tom calls her back to the Park, which also didn’t happen in the book.  And also, never part of the book, Tom’s extended illness seems to be implied caused as a result of his reaction to seeing slavery at his father’s estate in Antigua. His father has a book with drawings of slaves and says his son is mad. I believe the implication is that his son saw the mistreatment of the slaves in Antigua, drew the pictures himself and what he saw is now haunting him. What? In the book Fanny remained in Portsmouth and was continually updated by letter as to Tom’s  recovery. She didn’t return until the scandal about Henry Crawford and her cousin Maria hit the fan.

Ah yes, the scandal. In the book this was totally off “screen” as it were. Fanny receives news that her newly married cousin Maria has run off with Henry Crawford after Fanny firmly rejects his proposal yet again and Edmund arrives to take her back to Mansfield Park.  In the movie, Fanny walks in on Henry and Maria in bed after she has returned to Mansfield and while Tom is still ill. I can understand why they’d change this for the movie since it would have more impact for a viewing audience but by this time as you’re watching the film, having read the book, you’ll just be shaking your head.

Then there’s Fanny herself. Her personality is very different. She’s bright and cheerful, ready, willing and able to stand up for herself if need be. She’s also a budding writer, having loved to write her stories since she was a child. This is encouraged as she gets older, by Edmund, and at the end, a possible publisher is found for her. Not even close to the Fanny of the page.

The bare bones of the story is the same and there are the same characters but they really aren’t developed well. The story, such as it is, resembles that of the book, or a small part of it. So much of the detail has been left out. Most of the characters have a tenuous relationship to the personalities that Jane wrote for them. I do get that you need to see a lot of the action that, in the book, was only conveyed by letter or conversation. A movie would be very boring otherwise. I know that a lot of detail has to be left out of a book because there’s only a limited length for a film. I tried to think of how the movie might be viewed for someone that has never read the book, and I think that was me when I first saw it. I’m pretty sure now that was one of the books I hadn’t read.

I did like it when I saw it but it’s been quite a number of years since I have seen it, likely rented on DVD at the time. Fans of Jane Austen’s books will not like this filmed version very much. I would be curious to find other versions to compare but I’d not be optimistic that I’d actually think any of them are a worth adaptation.

To use a phrase from the end of the movie, it could have been different. But it wasn’t.

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