Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Outraged Sense and Sensibility

Ah, tiresome writers who want to meddle with Austen we will always have with us.
For a British novelist writing about class, manners and marriage, there is probably no higher praise than being compared with Jane Austen. Best-selling novelist Joanna Trollope earned that badge 13 years ago, when a critic reviewing her novel "Marrying the Mistress" called her "a modern-day Austen."

Now Ms. Trollope has invited the comparison once again, much more explicitly. Her new novel, "Sense & Sensibility," takes the characters from Austen's 1811 novel and plops them in contemporary England. The Dashwood sisters—Elinor, Marianne and Margaret—are cast out of their family estate when their uncle dies and leaves the house to their half brother and his heartless wife. In Ms. Trollope's update, sensible Elinor is an architecture student, and the emotionally volatile Marianne is a guitarist. Over the course of the novel, the sisters fret about their meager inheritance and uncertain romantic futures. Ms. Trollope sticks to Austen's blueprint almost slavishly, recreating nearly every scene with modern flourishes: One of the Dashwood sisters sends her suitor text messages, for example, and when Marianne's boyfriend, John Willoughby, dumps her in public, the humiliating encounter is recorded and posted on YouTube. 
...A few critical plot points were hard to preserve in a modern context. She struggled to explain why the Dashwood sisters and their mother can't inherit the estate when their father dies (in Austen's original, the reason is simple: they're women). To make the disinheritance seem plausible, Ms. Trollope made Elinor and Marianne's parents fun-loving bohemians who never bothered to marry, making their daughters illegitimate heirs. And while Austen's heroines, even the middle-class ones, led lives of total leisure, Ms. Trollope felt that in 2013, the characters would need careers.  
Ms. Trollope's book marks the first release in a new series of contemporary remakes of Austen novels, which were commissioned by HarperFiction, an imprint of HarperCollins in the U.K. HarperCollins is a unit of News Corp, which also owns The Wall Street Journal. The books are being released by various U.S. publishers.

Future books in the series, called "The Austen Project," include a retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" by Curtis Sittenfeld, an update of "Emma" by Alexander McCall Smith, and a modernized "Northanger Abbey" by crime writer Val McDermid.
Well, that makes four of the six, but what about Persuasion and Mansfield Park?
The Austen updates aren't going over well in some corners of the fandom. When the Guardian's book blog asked readers to nominate contemporary authors to rewrite the remaining two Austen novels, "Mansfield Park" and "Persuasion," Austen lovers shot back with answers like "no one" and "leave her alone." Some called the project "vandalism" and "utter depravity."
And they're right! Who would be so gauche as to tamper with the classics? Any writer who wants to mess with Austen ought to have her manuscript die a slow, lingering death.


Jenny said...

I'm sure Melly is aghast at the impropriety of it all.

Anonymous said...

Anyone retelling an Austen novel ought at least to have the decency to change the names of the characters and not take the name of the original book in vain.

Enbrethiliel said...


I once ran into an Austen fan who was livid at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. She called it "theft" and said that the writer should have come up with an original story Which begged the question of how anyone is to write a parody. =P

As a Weird Al Yankovic fan, I have a rather benign view of these new adaptations. You-know-what included. (We're not supposed to say what it is yet, right?) They remind me of all the ways of staging Shakespeare's plays: a reflection of their universal appeal and humanist sensibility.

Bob the Ape said...

Great - they've invented the book remake.

I think the reason Shakespeare can be redone anywhere, any time is that his plays are really not set in a particular time and place. Julius Caesar's Rome is Hamlet's Denmark is Macbeth's Scotland is Othello's Venice is Measure for Measure's Vienna is A Midsummer Night's Dream's Athens. Each play is the characters, their relationships, their passions, and their words; the setting is very nearly irrelevant.

Jane Austen's world is different. The sensibilities and problems of her characters are those of late 18th century English gentlefolk, and cannot be moved to any other era. Certainly not our own. Willoughby gets Eliza pregnant and abandons her? She has an abortion. Edward wants to marry Elinor instead of Lucy? He breaks the engagement. Edward has no money? He and Elinor wait until she graduates and she supports them both. And, broadening the scope a bit, Lydia runs off with Wickham and Maria Rushworth is unfaithful with Henry Crawford? Big. Fat. Deal.

Vandalism is about right. Modern-day barbarians appropriate and deface the work of a higher civilization, which they are incapable of appreciating.

Enbrethiliel said...


If you're looking for vandalism, try the new editions of the Sweet Valley and Baby-sitters Club books, which were "updated" so that the characters who originally went to school in the 80s now have mobiles, laptops and DVDs. Unless you diligently root through the book piles in thrift stores or the publishers release "nostalgia" editions with the original text, you'll never get those novels again.

There would be another serious issue if "book remakes" caused people to stop reading the originals (the way movie adaptations, even--heck, especially--the really faithful ones, have been doing for years). But there is an audience for such books precisely because there are so many people who love Austen's novels. I may be a naive optimist, but I doubt that readers will forget Pride and Prejudice because of Prom and Prejudice and Prada and Prejudice.

The "remakes" may be implausible, of poor quality and in bad taste, but that takes nothing away from the originals--not even readers! Unless, of course, Austen is some sacred cow, in which case, they're blasphemous. (But let me check my Catechism before you quote me . . .) I'd say that the worst thing about these books is that they reveal how much modern readers need everything dumbed down and reduced to a formula. But I stopped being outraged at the thought that I was surrounded by idiots many years ago. =P

Kristin said...

I don't have a problem with retelling an old story as long as the changes add something new, like a different character's perspective. Tossing in cell phones and texting and oh wow they're such modern women doesn't cut it for me.

Brandon said...

The compliment of theft is an essential part of the author's trade. I think the problem ends up chiefly being that it often comes across as a lazy way to make money off another author's work, instead of as an homage or as a way of building something good on a model given by someone else.

sciencegirl said...

I greatly enjoyed "Clueless," which was a 90's Val Gal high school setting of "Emma." I think adaptations may be bad, good, or indifferent, but take nothing away from the original. One of the reasons "Emma" worked so well was that it just dropped the illegitimacy storyline altogether and dealt with high school girls, who are more restricted than adults. These changes also work better in movies than in books because they are shorter and the storylines are simpler, but I think that these books are now in the creative commons and the storylines and characters are up for grabs.

The "Sense and Sensibility" book sounds ridiculous. For the women to be both devastated by a disinheritance AND have middle-class careers, particularly high paying ones like architecture, just doesn't make sense. It sounds like the adapter is trying to make the characters totally normal modern women, but they never were. They were rich women fallen on hard times, awkwardly straddling their old social set, but not really welcome anymore as wives. Women like the Dashwoods could be found all over the world during and after the recession, and there are plenty of modern couples who don't marry for economic reasons, or because they are more worried about other responsibilities. The strongest aspect of the novel "Sense and Sensibility" is the sisterly love and personality clash between the girls, with romance being secondary. Money and honor still put up obstacles to love -- there are still reasons a nice man wouldn't marry the woman he loves and still reasons for a jerk to break up with a girl for shallow reasons. I would like to read a clever retelling of these novels. However, I am not desperate, and unless I hear of a re-write that captures the current economic situation as well as Austen did in her own time, I probably won't bother reading.

Bob the Ape said...

I was intemperate in my language above and I apologize.

Nevertheless, I think that this is a plan better left unfulfilled.

Firstly, it's unnecessary - it's not as though Austen is so inaccessible to today's readers that a translation is needed. It seems to be more a stunt than anything else, and, as with all stunts, just because it can be done doesn't mean it should be done.

Secondly, if Trollope's remake is no better than the original, then why do it? and if it's better, then Trollope should be writing her own stories.

And thirdly, the Elinor-and-Marianne-are-illegitimate contrivance is (a) pointless: in the original, they don't inherit anything because the estate was tied up by their grandfather's will; and (b) it's an insult to Elinor and Marianne, to Mrs. Dashwood, and to Austen herself, who, while acknowledging sexual irregularity to be a fact of life, had no sympathy with it whatsoever, and would no more have thought to make one of her heroines a bastard than to have her float down a river and across the Atlantic in a canoe.

Darwin said...

Books that are "based on" or "inspired by" classics can, I think, be very good, and aren't a violation of the original. However, it does strike me as something of a writing ethics issue when you give the book and characters the same name as the original, remake style.

Writing under a separate title and character names (as, to pick a light example, Clueless did with Emma) the work implicitly admits that it has to stand on its own and also be judged in relation to the original it's based on. Giving the derivative book the same title (as in this Sense & Sensibility) strikes me as more problematic because it implicitly claims that this book is the same as the original novel.

Then there's the even lower form, where a book (usually a children's book) gets turned into a movie and then the studio issues a novelization of the movie under the same name as the original book. As I recall, this happened with Little Women when the Winona Ryder Little Women came out -- there was a reprint of the real novel with a cover tying it to the movie, and then there was also an easier to read "novelization" which included the plot changes that the movie had made. This seems particularly egregious because you'll inevitably have some people who think they've read the original work but haven't.

Given the fame of Austen's novels, I can't imagine there's any danger of confusion, but it does still seem a bit problematic from an authors ethics point of view to keep the title and character names. In part because it seems like the re-use of the title and names implies that this "really is" what the original means, and also because it seems in some sense to relieve the author of the duty of making the new work stand alone successfully, implicitly casting the blame on Austen for anything that doesn't seem to make much sense in the modern setting.

That said, I have to say, figuring out how the recast the inheritance at the beginning of Sense & Sensibility in a modern setting seems like a fun Sunday post topic -- and one that could be much better done than Trollope appears to have managed. Expect more developments soon...

Josiah Neeley said...

This reminds me of the scene about Mansfield Park from Metropolitan.

I do disagree with Darwin on the ethical issues involved, though. The new BBC Sherlock, for example, is set in modern day with characters of the same name, etc. It's quite good, and I don't see anything problematic about doing it that way. Similarly, if you go to a Barnes and Nobel you'll find entire shelves of books set in the Pride and Prejudice universe, so to speak (imagined sequels, prequels, reset stories, and so on). If people don't like the idea of such books, then by all means don't read them. For me, the only issue is are they any good.

Darwin said...

It sounds like my critique came off more broadly than I intended. I don't object to a adaptation to another medium (such as Sherlock) whether it keeps the setting and names or not. And I don't object in concept to fanfic type stuff (sequels, prequels, etc.) though I'm not sure if I've ever read a good one.

The reason this project strikes me as having a sort of artistic rudeness is that it consists of re-writing the work in the same medium (another novel) with the same title and same characters. It seems like at that point the re-writing author is coming between the reader and the original author as a sort of claimed re-interpreter.

Kind of like reading only literary criticism instead of fiction so that you can get the ideas of the author and the critic at the same time :-)

sciencegirl said...

The more I thought about this -- and last night I had a great time imagining a S&S set in 2009 post-Recession New York -- the more it bothered me that the new version will be using the same title and character names. I agree with Darwin that this move gives the work a more unethical feel than, say, "Bridget Jones," which changed the title and main character's name, most of the plot, and kept only the names of the two male leads. If I were to rewrite S&S for modern times, I would WANT to change the title and character names to make them more believable for this decade.

Enbrethiliel said...


But if movies can do it, why can't books? We already have S&S (1995) and S&S (2008) on Now we'll also have S&S (1811) and S&S (2013) on Goodreads! And one day we may even get a remake that makes the original seem like its herald. =)

Darwin said...

But the two Sense & Sensibility movies (and there must be at least one or two BBC miniseries as well) are both adaptations into another medium of the one book. Somehow that doesn't bother me. But, for instance, the re-make of Psycho (remaking an original within the same medium) does seem wrong.

Jenny said...

The upcoming TV remake of The Sound of Music seems a heinous crime. Also what they did to Annie in the 90s, turning Miss Hannigan into a good guy. Terrible.

Enbrethiliel said...


Darwin, I realised that when I was writing the comment, but for some reason chose to stick with the "S&S" motif. =)

On the other hand, we could also go with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) or Halloween 1978 and Halloween 2007. But then we come to the obvious third in this Slasher trinity, Friday the 13th (1980) and Friday the 13th (2009), and come to our first wrinkle. The problem with the second Friday the 13th is that it isn't a "remake" as much as a "reboot" inasmuch as it totally changes the ending.

And maybe that's what's happening here. Maybe the new Sense and Sensibility is rebooting Austen. For the record, I don't support this trend where either Austen or Slashers are concerned--and in general, scoff at the idea that each generation or each culture needs to have its own version of a classic--but having put up with all the reboots of the latter, it's hard for me to work up a lot of indignation for the former.

Brandon said...

I was thinking about this with movies. The first Stepford Wives, which adapts a novel, is quite good; the second, in 2004, mauls the prior movie by trying to turn a sad and slightly creepy story into a comedy. This changes the story so much that you get the question, "Why even call it The Stepford Wives anymore?" The ending wasn't an alternative ending, building on unused potential in the original; it wasn't an adapted ending, making it more suitable to the medium (which the first already did very well). It was just somebody making something up and calling it The Stepford Wives.

On the other hand, The Body Snatchers novel has had three movie adaptations, and the first two, which are rather different in story and tone, are quite good. So perhaps it's a matter of "If you're going to change it, you'd better at least do it well."

Which becomes a problem with high-level classics like Jane Austen. It's one thing to say, "Let's make a movie inspired by Casablanca, putting a new spin on it!" It's another to say, "Let's remake Casablanca, a new Casablanca, for Millenials!" Everyone will reasonably think you're proposing something abominably awful. This is because the likelihood that you will be able to produce something that is as good as Casablanca and yet that is not just an unimaginative repeat of Casablanca, while at the same time keeping it identifiably and obviously Casablanca, is so extraordinarily tiny that it's just not going to happen. You could make a 'new Casablanca' that was a new species of Casablanca-story; but only an idiot would try to remake Casablanca itself. And keeping the same name would usually suggest that this was exactly what you were trying to do.

Brandon said...

Actually, having made that comment, I immediately thought, "Given Hollywood today, it wouldn't actually be surprising if someone were trying to remake Casablanca." Fortunately there doesn't seem to be one in the works, but I notice that over the past five years there have been a lot of scaremongering rumors about the possibility.

Bob the Ape said...

A book is a much more personal thing than a movie: it belongs to its author almost as does a child to its parents. What's being done to S&S is something like kidnapping.

A movie is the creation of a team; there is no one person who can say it belongs to him. Also, a movie is a compromise, as its production must accommodate the particular talents and quirks of all the people involved, as well as limitations on time, money, and technical resources; so no one can even say that it is the realization of his own vision. A movie remake, then, doesn’t run into the same ethical problem (as Darwin would put it) as a book remake.

Brandon said...

I think there are more than a few directors, and in former times producers, who would disagree with you on its being less personal. And books, too, are in practice compromises: compromises with readers, compromises with editors and publishing houses, requiring accommodation of time, money, and technical resources that often have to be negotiated to be had at all. Most bookwriting has been more like indie film-making than studio production, but this is a matter of economics rather than anything else. While there are no doubt differences between the ethical problems, I don't think this is one of them at all.

Enbrethiliel said...


To add to what Brandon is saying, we again see relevant parallels with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. ANOES 1984 was writer-director Wes Craven's vision through and through--which was probably why the producers of ANOES 2010 didn't want him to have anything to do with the new version. As you can imagine, Craven was not happy about that. Freddy Krueger and Nancy Thompson were his babies as much as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood were Jane Austen's.

Again, I'm not a fan of reboots whether they appear in literature, film or liturgy (Oooh, I went there!), but I'm not hearing a definite argument for why we should give one specific medium special treatment.

Bob the Ape said...


I understand that there will, most of the time, have to be negotiations between an author and a publisher with regard to financial arrangements, subsidiary rights, etc.; but I'm afraid I don't see how the resulting compromises are creative compromises; surely by the time all these issues arise the book has already been written. (And I confess I don't understand at all how an author compromises with his readers - unless it's something like Dickens changing a story arc when the monthly sales started going down.)

But when making a movie: the producer, director, and the writers each has his own vision of the story to be told, and, unless there is a remarkable concord among them, or else one manages to overbear the others, the result will be a compromise. Then there is the casting: how well does each actor match the character he or she is to represent (unless the role was written with that particular actor in mind, the fit will in most cases be only approximate); and then, in actually playing the part, how well does he or she realize the character (and the actor may have his own ideas about that). Then there are the production values: the ideal location might be unavailable, or too far away; the weather may not cooperate; the budget for effects is limited; and so on.

I'm not saying this always justifies a remaking a movie; I'm trying to explain, if only to myself, why, in the exceedingly remote event that the issue arises as a practical matter, although I might consider remaking a movie, I would never consider remaking a book.

Bob the Ape said...


As I said to Brandon above, not all movie remakes or reboots are necessarily justifiable; whether any given movie should not be remade would be an interesting topic for discussion.

There is a problem with using Nightmare on Elm Street as a counterexample, namely, that there was not a single movie; there was a whole series, and, as far as I know, Wes Craven was not involved with all of them. I have DVDs of the first four, and Craven's name is nowhere in the credits of II or IV. By the time the reboot came along, any claim he might have had to exclusive possession seems pretty moot. If Jane Austen had franchised out Elinor and Marianne to Fanny Burney, William Beckford, and Monk Lewis, then it wouldn't matter if somebody came along later and had another whack at them.

Finally, I don't think I'm arguing for "special treatment"; what I'm trying to say is that books and movies are different media, and each medium should be treated appropriately. Mention has been made of a possible remake Casablanca; I think that is at best a very dodgy proposition. But suppose Casablanca had started out as a play rather than a movie. Every generation would see one or more new productions - remakes, if you will - because this is how plays work. Movies are not books, plays are not movies, and what goes for one need not go for the others.

Brandon said...


I think you're wrong on both points. For one thing, the degree to which publishers simply accept a manuscript as is varies considerably, but it is very, very common for editors to ask for modifications, such as cutting or reworking passages, that they think will improve the book, or make it sell better. Further, books are very often collaborative in the writing; very few people write a book in secret and send it off without having received any feedback at all. And, while it also varies considerably, there often are people -- usually the director, sometimes the producer -- whose vision is what everyone else is being employed to contribute to. The compromises are usually compromises of budget or time -- which authors have to deal with too -- not compromises of the vision itself. And even if such compromises were common, people like Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg or (sadly) George Lucas certainly have no such need to compromise, and what they produce is theirs. Certainly they think so.

Also, with respect to your comment to Enbrithiliel, it's perhaps worth noting that Casablanca was in fact a stage play; it hadn't been actually staged at the time, but that's just because the movie studio bought it out before they could find a Broadway producer. The movie itself is an adaptation for Hollywood. Some of the dialogue was re-written, and some minor details and one key plot point -- how the female lead got away (in the play it's strongly suggested that she slept with Rick to get transit papers) -- were reworked to make it fit the screen, but the basic story is much the same, right down to the black pianist and "As Time Goes By". (The play itself has since been produced in London, after a long, long legal dispute about who had the right to produce it.)

Bob the Ape said...


Sorry I took so long to respond - we had a major project at work, with an absolutely inflexible deadline, which required pretty much all my energy for some time.

If I may be allowed a few quibbles:

I did not intend to imply that books are generally written or published without any feedback at all; but not all feedback can be taken to be a dilution of authorship. If someone, a friend or editor, points out to an author some flaw in his story - a plot hole, an implausibility, an awkward construction - which the author then corrects, such criticism is merely helping the author to be more himself. On the other hand, if a publisher forces the author to change something, and the result - in the author's judgment - is inferior, then this is a compromise.

Regarding Messrs. Hitchcock and Spielberg: I did acknowledge the possibility of an overbearing personality. It may be that, even absent such a personality, there is more harmony in Hollywood then I had supposed.

I did not know, and am interested to learn, that Casablanca started out as a play. This does not affect my argument, however - simply substitute any movie which was a movie from the get-go.

However, as I said, these are quibbles; this is because I have concluded that my hypothesis does not, after all, do the job I had thought it would. Nevertheless, I would never - not that the occasion is likely to arise - remake someone else's book; when I imagine doing so, a cold hand grips my guts, and a voice in my head says, This belongs to another; you have no business touching it."