A Note to Film Makers

If you want to make movie or TV series of a semi-autobiographical novel, be careful how you use your own background research. It is, after all, still a novel, and the author has made the deliberate choice where to write fiction and where to include events and experiences and people from their own life.

I see a trend in more recent adaptations, for instance the newest adaptations of Little Women and All Creatures Great and Small, but also many others, to blend in historical facts that don’t actually fit in with the author’s own blend of fact and fiction, and thus loses its actual impact.

If you want Jo March, whose personality is based on Louisa May Alcott herself, to be Louisa, she will be an alien to the world she created, because Little Women is still a novel, and because all other characters still exist in their fictionalised form. Just because she Ms Alcott made the decision to weave in her own happy and unspeakably unhappy memories into her stories, does not mean that you can equate her with a fictional character. Just because Jo is very much like Louisa, she is still Jo, as written by Louisa.

If you want to express that Siegfried Farnon, like Donald Sinclair, was already a widower in the beginning of the story, a fact Alf Wight (James Herriot) and the writers of other adaptations left out out of discretion, then you can do it, but if you cast him as a man in his 50s (which is actually a very good thing, because he felt and appeared so much older than he was) and make him a widower of four years, for everyone to know, then the fact that he lost his wife at the age of 24, and began an entirely new life afterwards, will get lost, and with it the whole inclusion will lose its “point” beyond “look, we dug up some angsty trivia!”

You wouldn’t make Amy March marry a younger man in her late 30s, rather than Laurie. And you wouldn’t make Helen Alderson a town-bred secretary which James’ parents didn’t approve of. Because authors know what they include from their real lives, and what they make up.

Or take the 1999 Mansfield Park. If you want to adapt a novel, and find its heroine to be a bore, you might rather choose a different novel, rather than turn her into Jane Austen. Even though Jane Austen drew on some personal experiences, it does not mean that Fanny is Jane, or that Fanny is so unsuitable a protagonist that she has to be made Jane.

Because a semi-autobiographical novel (or a fictionalised memoir) is not an autobiography.

(Note, please: I do not mean that these films are bad because of this, or anything of that sort. They are just good examples of what I mean, and whether I like them or not or whether they are otherwise good or bad is in no relation to this. And the first two are also very recent, and a good example of that current trend. The third, however, shows a different way of doing this, which is also not a good idea.)

And there are many, many other examples, but I think you see my point. If an author includes things from their life, then they know why and what and how, and it is only up to them. Especially if the finished work is, after all, a work of fiction.

Learning about some more background is lovely, being really invested in such a work is a brilliant thing, but if you want to include that knowledge in an adaptation you must be really, really careful.

You might include some allusions, or some sort of little nod to this or that. Some detail that those who know will recognise and appreciate. That sort of thing is lovely. And there’s a lot of possibilities there, one can hide a good deal of Easter eggs in a movie, as long as one stays subtle and respectful, without trying to re-invent the original work. A little comment here, a design choice there, and people can really enjoy it.

But crude info dumping, random blurts of this and that to cause angst or drama, pseudo-intellectual blends of fact and fiction that subvert the authors’ intention, or the inclusion of intimate details that the author (or other involved persons) never wanted to be included to begin with, do not improve your adaptation. It’s just insensitive, pretentious, and in many cases off the mark.

The Lizzys and the Darcys

I think it’s rather funny, how in the discussion about the adaptations of Pride and Prejudice from 1995 and 2005, it is so very frequently claimed that those who prefer the 1995 version do so because of Colin Firth, whereas those whose main concern is Lizzy prefer Keira Knightley and the 2005 film…

whereas I just absolutely adore Jennifer Ehle, while I don’t care very much for Knightley’s Lizzy (though I don’t dislike her—she’s Lizzy all right, just without the brilliance of Ehle’s performance) and I actually find Colin Firth’s performance as Darcy—though certainly very good! as he is an expert actor—to be one of the weaker aspects of my otherwise favoured adaptation. In fact, I nearly prefer Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy… simply because I prefer his vibe.

On the other hand, his performance, though I generally like him a lot, is comparably bland, just like Keira’s. But my critique of his performance is the opposite of Firth’s: Darcy needs a balance of actual mean snobbery and well-meaning awkwardness, and Firth is mostly the former, Macfadyen the latter. That is, I think, also the reason why both appear to specific, different groups of fans. Both are good Darcys, but with distinctly different appeal.

I actually think the 2020 version of Emma is in many ways like 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice—though not as good—and equally popular on the internet, because the characterization of the leads is so very adjusted to the taste common, modern taste. (I suppose I am an exception!)

As for Mr Darcy, I would even go so far and say that Laurence Olivier’s version had quite a good snob-awkward-nice balance, maybe better than any other Darcy I’ve seen. And Greer Garson is a very lovely Lizzy, even outshining him, though only almost as perfect for the role as Jennifer Ehle.

Anyhow—I really like both the 1995 and 2005 versions in different ways, and all four leads, too. It’s just that my preferences and reasons for them don’t really align the way that people usually claim they always would.

Triple Book Rec: Literary Lovers

“I you liked this, you’ll love that!” is not usually a concept of book recommendation that I agree with. I might be very picky, or I just have a different idea of which books are similar to each other, but very often I find that these recommended books simply share some superficial traits, yet otherwise don’t real suit each other, nor appeal to the same readers.

But there are some cases that I personally find to just fit. Incredibly well, in fact. Those books often have a similar air about them, evoke a similar feeling, or simply and plainly suit the same taste.

As for these three books, I recommend them individually, but I also have to say that, if you liked one or two of these, you’re very likely to also enjoy the others. Or the other, respectively. These three certainly have a similar appeal, they are cosy and gentle, and very funny and witty. But they also have very similar themes: gentle, intelligent romance and a beautiful blend of fiction-within-fiction.

There’s Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Though one of her less famous novels, it is certainly a classic, and in my opinion frightfully underrated. It is a splendid satire, but it also stands well on its own as a story, and while different from her later novels, it already has the wit and spark that makes Jane Austen so well-beloved. Catherine is a reader, rather than a writer, but her imagination is very active and independent, and sometimes takes a bit too far. Unlike the heroines of the other two novels, it’s not her own writing that gets her into trouble. Her ideas are more than sufficient. The romance is as splendid as any other Austen romance, in fact it’s particularly good. And it’s very, very funny.

And Sylvester, or the wicked uncle by Georgette Heyer. Unlike most enemies-to-lovers stories it is far more about Phoebe and Sylvester’s determination to dislike and misunderstand each other, and also about the way they sometimes understand the other better than themselves. Phoebe is a novelist and based the characters in her book on people she met, and Sylvester’s air of arrogance and the shape of his eyebrows make him an excellent villain. But it’s the things she made up herself that cause the actual consequences of her writing—including a kidnapping to France, a great many misunderstandings, and some improvement of character.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson is about Miss Buncle who wrote a book. Miss Buncle had no money, which is why she decided to write a book, and she insisted on having no imagination, so she based her characters on real people she knew, and most of them didn’t like it at all. The odd thing is just that all of a sudden people began to behave differently, and things she wrote in her book—made up entirely, without any imagination!—turned out to be real. But while Miss Buncle herself changed and grew and learned, hers was the only story without a proper outcome, even in her book’s sequel. The romance is not as obvious in this book, but it’s lovely and gentle, and it does feature one of the sweetest marriage proposals I have ever read.

So, if you like books, and books about books, and romance, and women writing about women who write, and sweetness, and romance novels with actually good stories, or rather novels that do have actually good romance—these might be for you! And they are all very good autumn reads. 🍂