Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What, Did Exxon Get "Theater" in the Divorce?

Dear Masterpiece Theater,

It's only out of love that I have to ask: what the fuck is wrong with you?

I'm not going to get into your new credits, which frankly I barely noticed and don't really care about. And I won't make unfavorable comparisons between Gillian Anderson and classic hosts Alastair Cooke and Russell Baker, although I will say that the red curtain behind her clashes with her hair; cream or a light yellow would set it off beautifully.

No, it's your content I'm pissed off about. You start off your new season with probably the most exciting idea ever, the complete oeuvre of Jane Austen, and then you go and eviscerate -- eviscerate -- Persuasion and Mansfield Park (I only saw a few minutes of Northanger Abbey, so I'll reserve my rage on that, if any, for another time).

Both adaptations, crammed into an inadequate 90 minutes, are rushed, superficial, and completely manage to skip the important points and emphasize the trivial. Austen's books are not about the plot, or at least, the plot can't be understood without the nuances of personality, behavior, and social convention that make up the lives of the characters. The infinitely superior 1995 version of Persuasion, though only 17 minutes longer, had time to build up the social milieu in which the story took place, so that the viewer could understand what a shocking and unlikely thing it was that Captain Benwick should marry Louisa Musgrove, or receive the full import of Mrs. Smith's news about Mr. Elliott. In this version, one hardly knows who these characters are or cares what they do, and that diminishes the impact of Anne and Wentworth's coming together. And rewriting Wentworth's letter -- one of the finest love letters in all of English literature -- was another supremely stupid choice.

The again totally superior 1999 film of Mansfield Park, although it errs in making Fanny too lively and clever, too much like an idealized Austen herself, at least takes the time to set the stage of Fanny's childhood, including the malice and cruelty of Mrs. Norris and the neglect of Sir Thomas and the whole Bertram family. This background allows us to understand why Edmund means so much to her and why she distrusts the motives of the smooth-talking but shallow Crawfords. Your new version makes it seem like she fell in love with Edmund simply because there was nobody else better around and rejected Henry because she saw him kissing Julia. And Mrs. Norris barely figures in the story, so when she is banished at the end, what kind of comeuppance is that for her?

In short, it's not enough to simply call characters by the names Austen gave them, have them address each other as "sir" and "ma'am," and dress them up in pretty clothes. Although, if you're going to depend on externalities like that, it would help if you got them right. A young lady like Anne Elliott would never career through the streets of Bath like that -- the whole source of tension after Anne receives Wentworth's letter is that her movements are constrained by propriety and politeness, the whole social world seems to be conspiring to keep her from him. And a young lady like Fanny Price would never walk around with her hair loose like a schoolgirl; putting your hair up when you reached the right age was a Very Big Deal.

Speaking of characters like an idealized Austen, what crack is your intro-writing staff smoking? Jane Austen did not identify with Mary Crawford. You may think she had all the best lines, but Austen couldn't have registered her disapproval more clearly if Mary had shown up wearing a sign saying, "Don't be like this, young ladies!"

Just when Frontline is confirming the not-very-new-news that kids don't read books anymore, why are you giving them -- us -- these Cliff Notes versions of great books? One of the fabulous things about Masterpiece Theater has always been that you had the leisure and the scope to tell stories as they needed to be told, however long that took. I mean, you could spend six entire episodes on the inconsequential The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, and you can't spare a full two hours for some of the best books ever written?

Come on, show; you're better than this. We rely on you to be better than this.


Muse of Ire

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