Friday, October 24, 2014

Can I Persuade You -- Which Persuasion is Best?

My book club faced it's monthly dilemma: what to read next. This time around, we were going to pick from among the Classics. So I faced my sometimes dilemma of whether to suggest a Jane Austen work. As odd as it may seem -- and though I've been with this group for almost 10 years -- we've never read anything by Austen and I'd never even suggested one until now.  In the past, I was hesitant to float an Austen title because I wasn't keen to have my serious and intellectual friends trash the the work of my favorite author. I just wasn't sure I wanted to go there.

But I guess I've gotten older or more secure . . . or just have enough good company in my corner that I really think I can withstand hearing 6 people's derision if it comes down to that.

Anyway. . . I was a bit surprised when I made the suggestion and everyone said 'yes'! I decided to recommend Persuasion because I thought its more mature heroine and slightly more serious tone might play well in the club.

We shall see. We haven't actually met to discuss it yet.

I, of course, am blasting my way through the book and mostly just trying to slow down. In aid of that, I ended up turning to film to assuage the Austen interest but distract me from reading.

Having now watched both modern adaptations -- the 1995 cinematic release starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds and the 2007 BBC television movie staring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones -- I am ready to render my opinion as to which is the best.
The 1995 version wins. But just barely.

The strange thing is that, almost across the board, I preferred the actors, characterizations and performances of the 2007 version to the earlier one; but I found its screenplay weaker overall. Enough so that I would give the nod to the 1995 version.

The fact that 2007 departed more from the book was not in itself the problem for me, but rather that some of the changes made were significantly worse than what was written and worse yet, rather hard to understand the motivation behind. Immediately springing to mind is the odd ending with Anne running through the streets of Bath searching for Wentworth, while her friend chases after calling out plot details (in order to at least give the impression that loose ends are wrapping up). This ending was honestly absurd and uncalled for.

However, 2007 did make some non-traditional decisions that I thought played extremely well, including a sexier and warmer approach to the love story, for instance by allowing Wentworth to make his friend, Captain Harville, a confidant; or in allowing Wentworth and Anne to have a more passionate relationship, a more drawn-out meeting of the minds, and some nice moments of gazing. But, ultimately, although these scenes are cool, and passion is certainly a draw for the modern viewer, I felt that the change did not suit the real purpose, and that large sections of the story were underplayed to give more screen time to the romance. It was an interesting try; It just didn't work.

The worst decision of the 2007 version was to take the key moment in the plot, indeed the climax of the book, and throw it away. I am referring to, of course, when Wentworth overhears Anne speaking to Harville about romantic love and constancy of feeling and is so moved by her words that he writes his reaction to her in a letter. Unfortunately, all of the power of this moment of revelation is lost in 2007 as this dialog unfolds with Anne speaking to a different character at a dinner party, much earlier in the story and Wentworth isn't even aware of it. Later, because it is not tied to that moment of truth, Wentworth's letter to Anne at the end floats adrift in a senseless ending that leaves the viewer confused.

Had it not been for the screenplay issues, I would have had an extremely difficult time picking a favorite as between these two. I might have gone for 2007 out of its newer, more sparkly and fresh cinematography and generally better acting, because the truth is the 1995 version is really no standout either.

The 1995 version is solid and good. It doesn't strike new territory or come across as massively entertaining, but it does a good job of dramatizing the book in the short time frame of a feature film.  The best thing about the 1995 version is the incredible performance of Ciaran Hinds who makes a wonderfully compelling Wentworth.

Just as with Emma, where there are several quality adaptations to choose from and it might seem that the overall quality and choice should feel like a positive, but I feel mostly disappointed that no one has yet really covered this ground the way it needs to be covered. (And that includes the 1971 BBC miniseries version that is simply now so dated -- though far truer to the full extent of the story -- to feel satisfying.)

And, thinking about how much fun I had doing this with Emma a couple of years ago, I do believe it is time for an across-the-board actor-by-actor comparison of how the versions stack up.  Look for that coming soon :)

End Note (added 11/11/14):
In preparation for the role-by-role and picking of favorite performances, and in order to really rip into the world of adapting Anne, I now have also (re-)watched the 1971 BBC miniseries.

It is exceptionally hard to compare adaptations that sit nearly 25-35 years apart years apart. The 1971 version compared to the modern ones discussed above just feels outdated in production standards and style, and, as I am human, that manages to distract me. In particular it is the film quality and filming choices where the adaptation's age really shows. It does not have the movement and vibrancy of the more modern versions, and its flat bright sets cast an entirely different mood from what modern filming on location can accomplish. That shortcoming is not properly addressed even when this production steps outdoors; instead we simply encounter a different set of challenges such as poor picture quality, that is fuzzy and faded, and imprecision of sound. An example is when the party is walking on the beach at a location shoot at Lyme; unfortunately the sound of feet strolling along the crunchy, shelly beach nearly drowned out the dialog.  However, this being said, any viewer who can make her way past these distractions will be well-rewarded with the 1971 entry. The casting, the acting and the performance choices are overwhelmingly good and some are fantastic. And there is the added benefit that, being a miniseries, this version has time on its side and can afford to be truest to the book.  Although it does not serve up the best Sir Walter or Captain Wentworth, it does presents the best trio of sisters as a whole (Elizabeth, Anne and Mary) and surprises with a perfect Charles Musgrove.

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