Monday, February 15, 2010

Review of the PBS Northanger Abbey

NOTE: The questions for Tuesday are in the previous post.  This is a review of the PBS Northanger Abbey that aired last night. 

For more information about this version, see PBS's website at:

Andrew Davies, who is more or less the adapter-in-chief for Masterpiece Theater (he did the famous Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, among others) adapted this version of Northanger Abbey, which I believe is pretty faithful and etertaining.  In an interview with him on the site, he comments about the book:

"I think perhaps the easiest for me was Northanger Abbey because it is one of my most recent ones so I've kind of got the hang of it now I feel, and Northanger Abbey is a relatively simple story to tell. The only difficult bit was really trying to convey Catherine's imagination and what all these gothic horror novels were like. So what I did was actually dramatize them and put them on the screen so we can see what is going on in her head."

I think his attention to detail here was superb, since the movie more or less opens with one of Catherine's "Gothic" daydreams--until she is disturbed by her brothers and sisters.  The scene has her reading privately in a garden, lost in the throes of Romantic passion--it's quite effective.  Davies tinkers with this and that detail of the book to bring out the Gothic elements, often inserting more of her "daydreams" which are soon populated by people in her life--Henry Tilney, Isabella, Captain Tilney.  He also does a good job of narrating the relatively "simple story" of Northanger Abbey; the movie flies by in less than two hours, and yet we don't lose anything too substantial.  The plot and characters are remarkably preserved with only a slight curtailing toward the end and a very abrupt ending--the last three chapters of the book take about five minutes!  If I didn't know the book intimately, the ending might have confused things wrapped up and why isn't entirely satisfactory the way it is in the book (and indeed, the Narrator makes fun of her spontaenous "solution" which is in itsef a satire on the art of novel writing). 


Perhaps my largest misgiving with the adaptation itself was the role of the Narrator.  The Narrator does appear in the movie--occuring right at the end and right at the beginning, reading verbatim from Northanger Abbey.  Sadly, that's as far as it goes.  In a screenwriting class I took as an undergraduate, the teacher told us that using a narrator is a crutch; it means that you can't find a way to introduce expository information and are basically spoon-feeding it to your audience.  In most cases, yes, but in some movies narration is masterly--and essential to the story.  Northanger Abbey is a true eighteenth-century novel, very much in the mold of Fielding's Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, where the narrator literally stops the action of the book to converse, pontificate, or simply to stir things up.  The Narrator should have been cast as an actual role in this adaptation, since she contributes so much to the feel and substance of the novel.  Lacking her, much of the satire of the work is missing, particularly satires on Gothic novels, their readers, and the conventions of the novel itself.  I really missed this, and when the Narrator returns to deliver her final sentence in the novel, it doesn't have the satiric effect (or satisfaction) in the novel: it just seems like a convenient rounding off.  It falls a bit flat, actually.  An earlier Masterpiece version of Tom Jones has Henry Fielding (the author) appear as the narrator and it works beautifully, capturing the spirit and the satire of the original. 

The casting, however, is one of the best I have ever seen in any Jane Austen adaptation (on a par with the greatest adaptation of all, 1996's Persuasion, starring the amazing Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds).  Catherine is portrayed by Felicity Jones, who I recognize from other BBC productions; she is an ideal Catherine, able to portray a wide-eyed sensibility and vulnerable naivete.  Of course, I think she is rather too pretty to totally inhabit Catherine; when her father says, "Catherine almost looks pretty today," you say to yourself, "no shit."  She's gorgeous, so this undercuts the "intellectual romance" she and Henry have together.  This does come out, but clearly he sees her first and the mind comes later.  Henry Tilney, portrayed by JJ Feild is first-rate, able to convey a quick-witted sarcasm as well as a darker, brooding sensibility that comes from the "curse" of Northanger Abbey.  Other noteable roles are Eleanor (Catherine Walker), Isabella (Carey Mulligan) and John Thorpe (William Beck), all of whom flesh out these character admirably without making them cartoons.  Thorpe's character is particularly humorous with all his "dammits!" and his unpolished vulgarity.  The chemistry between our leading couple is palpable, and really sold the final scene--where, anarchonistically, they share a kiss and a virtual tumble into the bushes! 


I noted some interesting changes throughout, notably when Isabella says that Tilney's family is notorious for their behavior, especially the older brother (Captain Tilney) who is "like Lord Byron."  Byron would not have been a big name when Austen first wrote the book (1797-98), so this is pushing the time back a few decades to 1818, when it was actually published (and when Radcliffe was less of a name than Byron).  I also noted that Thorpe's detestation of novels is softened; though he refuses to read Udalpho, he does offer to lend her Lewis's The Monk, which she accepts.  Now, Thorpe does admit to liking only two novels in the book, Tom Jones and The Monk, though these are merely asides; he mostly bashes all novels except those of Ann Radcliffe, though he has clearly never read them.  The adaptation has him lending The Monk to Catherine, who reads one of the more enticing excerpts--when Abrosio plans to rape Antonia.  This leads to a "Gothic daydream" sequence, but also blurs the lines between the two men: Thorpe appears to share Catherine's sensibility here, though he clearly does not in the book (and why doesn't Tilney offer to lend her more Radcliffe at this rate)?  However, Thorpe is soon dispatched in the adaptation, so the audience scarcely remembers this.  He actually doesn't appear as much of a threat in the book, while another character, Captain Tilney, emerges as a blackguard of the first degree.  While he still seduces Isabella from Catherine's brother, the book leaves it on the level of a strong flirtation.  In the movie, to spice things up and add some modern darknesss to the work, he sleeps with her and jilts her afterwards (merely telling her, as she's naked in bed, "make yourself decent").  While Austen never says any of this, a soldier of the time may well have acted this way, particularly from the hints we get of Tilney's character.  I think this is an interesting and useful choice, since it reminds us of the "actual and natural evil" that Catherine discovers in General Tilney.

I think the adaptation might have made more of the carriage ride to the Abbey, where Tilney and Catherine flirt through Gothic novels.  Henry does do some of this, but he says most of it off camera, so we only get his narration.  This could have been a major scene, since he essentially eggs her on, and she plays along gleefully--setting up her snooping in the Abbey itself.  However, note how they flirt throughout the movie, and from their first meeting in Bath, Catherine is very aware of this fliration--she plays along.  In the novel, you can read her as conscious OR oblivious, and I like the decision they make her; it shows why he might have a strong intellectual attraction to her.  The MOST disappointing scene is when Henry discovers her in his mother's room.  Two problems for me:

a. He hasn't been away for a week at Woodston (he leaves, but in the movie it was 1 minute ago!).  He's just left her recently, so his sudden arrival seems mundane.  In the book he's been gone for a while, the house is quiet, so Catherine thinks she can snoop around--and lo and behold, here he comes!  It's dramatic and startling in a Gothic sort of way, since this is the very LAST person she wants to meet.

b. His speech is almost entirely re-written.  True, he says accuses her of a monstrous thought, but he doesn't say "Remember that we are English, that we are Christians..."  Instead he dismisses her with a haughty, "Perhaps after all it is possible to read too many novels."  Yes, that is the tenor of his speech, but it loses all the meaning and the irony.  It suggests that she is merely foolish--not that he is equally culpable in her fancies, or that he, too, is young and naive about the "evils" of the world.  In the book, this speech contrasts nicely with the fact that he breaks with his father over the general's unfeeling behavior.  He, too, has learned to recognize the "actual and natural" evils that reside under his roof.  In the movie, he does not necessarily undergo this transformation.  Worse still, he never speaks to her again before she is ejected from the Abbey!  She sees him next when he comes to propose to her, negating his "sensibility" in immediately forgiving her trespass the next morning (in the novel).  Ah well. 

The end, too, is super abrupt, and we don't quite put all the pieces together.  Notice that the movie also introduces Eleanor's lover earlier in the film, as if to say "look, he really does appear in the book!"  The Narrator of Northanger Abbey makes fun of that fact that she introduces a character right at the end simply to foster a wedding.  That's part of the fun.  However, if you throw out the narrator, you throw out little delights like this thoughout the novel.  Ah well.  The version makes up for this through the sheer chemistry of the characters and the visual beauty of the film itself.  I love the little scenes, such as the moment when General Tilney has to go to London, leaving the trio alone in the Abbey--you can see the delight in their faces as his carriage rumbles off.  This follows quiet scenes of them talking in front of the fireplace, strolling across the fields, and horseback riding, which leads to a very modern moment of Henry wiping the mud off Catherine's face.  Risque for the time, but satisfying for ours. 

All in all, a great version and a nice complement to the novel.  Probably it's more enjoyable if you already know the novel, but what's wrong with that?  Films don't necessarily need to stand alone, and in the 19th century, many adaptations were often created with the expectation that the audience knew the works in question.  If you haven't seen this version, I strongly recommend it.  If you have, leave your own comments to this post...we'll brieflty discuss it in class tomorrow.


  1. I rather enjoyed the path the film took with the course of events, though it was a shame that it seemed more of a dramatic work than a satiric one. I was disappointed that, when discussing the keeping of journals, Henry simply smiles and we fade to the next scene. The discourse he has about keeping a journal in the novel leads to the further satiric comments of his down the road. I also missed the intricacies of the exchange in the carriage ride scene, and felt that the satire of the work was sacrificed to the gods of the dramatic. It tried to be like the other Masterpiece works, compressed down to 1.5 hours of viewing, and also with enough shocks and suspense to keep the audience riveted. In a way, to those familiar with the novel, this could seem ironic because of the fact that it quite simply is not a scary Gothic work.

    All in all, the movie succeeded on some level to keep the audience watching it, but I was left with a hollow feeling after. A rare miss, PBS.

  2. I still think this is a great version--strong in style and substance. It does sacrifice some of the satire (but not all) for a more dramatic effect, but a "miss"? Don't be too hard on it--there are far worse adaptations of Austen out there! But many of your points are well-taken. I look forward to watching it again...doubtless I missed some virtues that will reveal themselves in future viewings.