Like many people, I've been eagerly anticipating Masterpiece Theater's Austenpalooza coming over the next six weeks. I'm particularly pleased that they're doing Northanger Abbey, which got overlooked in the glut of Austen movies in the mid-90s, and doing a proper Mansfield Park (the movie of the same name from the 90s was many things both good and bad, but it was not Austen's Mansfield Park). I wasn't as sure about the prospect of new versions of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility since it's hard to imagine anything that could top the two masterful big-screen versions. And sadly, last's nights Persuasion proved me right.
Several years ago, I rented an earlier version of Persuasion, thinking it would provide an interesting change from the 1995 version. After 15 minutes of the main characters sitting around the parlor spewing out stilted plot exposition, we revolted and put in the 1995 version, which managed to convey in two minutes more information than the fifteen we had watched of the other version. It was a textbook example of show, don't tell. Sadly, the movie last night completely ignored that lesson.
One of the things I like most about the book is that it's subtle. Anne is much more akin to Elinor Dashwood than Marianne, and doesn't sit around bemoaning her wretched present and the lost opportunities of the past. She holds it together and takes care of her ungrateful family, with her regrets existing as an undercurrent of sadness. The 1995 film excels in conveying that subtlety. Last night's, on the other hand, had all the subtlety of a sackful of anvils hitting you on the head. Reams of unnecessary plot exposition. Actors who delivered their lines in a way that made you wonder if they had trouble remembering them. Emotions conveyed through hammy overacting that seemed to convey constipation more than concealed heavy emotions. The actress who played Anne in this version couldn't compare to Amanda Root, who was able to convey more throught compressed lips and a slightly pained look than she was able to convey in an entire scene of sobbing exposition on Lady Russell's shoulder.
What offended me even more than the out-of-character weepiness, however, was that the scene was but the first of many that didn't appear in the book. The plot wound up in the same place as the book and hit the same major high points, but they seemed to feel no need to use the actual scenes from the book or remember little details like the fact that Anne's invalid friend in Bath couldn't walk, which would have made running after Anne a bit hard. I have nothing against making changes from book to movie, but these changes were utterly unnecessary and changed the story and the characters, almost universally for the worst.
I'm still looking forward to Northanger Abbey. It doesn't have a good earlier version to compare it to, so I'll be going in relatively fresh. I think, however, the night they show their new version of Sense and Sensibility, it might be a good idea to pop my dvd of the Emma Thompson version in instead.