#4- “Almost Forgot, Lizzie- Yesterday Mr. Darcy Started the Cold War”- Jane Austen, Exposition, and Basic Storytelling
Chekhov’s Gunman is a film and television blog by Kevin Lanigan, future writer of film and TV and past writer of certain specific verses of songs by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Spoilers will follow.
Do you ever feel like everything interesting happens after you leave the room? Like, every time you decide to turn in for the night, your friends encounter a caravan made up entirely of cannibal supermodels? Seems about right. I lost an entire group of horny, tasty friends that way.
How I Met Your Mother covered this very well in an episode called “The Blitz,” where a curse travels amongst our favorite group of flashback alcoholics that when one of them leaves the room, something great happens in their absence, and they punctuate the moment by saying, “Aw, man” and waiting for the studio audience’s laughter.
Well… That is exactly how I feel watching Jane Austen movies.
Jane was the queen when it came to romances about poor women with lots of sisters. These siblings often come at odds with their protagonist sister, mostly because they are reckless and impulsive and fundamentally useful to the plot. More on that last bit in a second…
Austen tends to focus her stories on one character, which is an absolutely fine way to tell a story. Harry Potter did it. It puts us in the shoes of our protagonist so we can see the world as they see it, and often be just as lost as they are. It’s a helpful storytelling mechanic. But there is a drastic and sharp difference between Harry Potter and the vast majority of Austen’s leading, siblinged ladies: Harry Potter actively advanced the plot himself, what with his witchcraft and mystery solving and Alan Rickman taunting, while Austen seems content to let her characters sit around and wait for the town crier to come by and tell them that they have a kidney stone, instead of letting the characters make that deduction themselves.
She lets all of the fundamentally interesting parts of her stories happen out-of-sight, because that’s just… great? Because having your dude friend explain to you what happened in some Die Hard sequel is “waaaaaaaaaaaaay much more better than just watching it yourself,” he said, hoping that sarcasm translates well over the Internet.
If The Godfather had been written by Jane Austen, we would have found out Sonny was shot when someone’s gossipy cousin had nothing better to talk about at a party. If she had done Star Wars, the Death Star assault would have happened up above as the audience was forced to listen to the protagonist complain about how she doesn’t know what’s going on in space these days. In Jane Austen’s Shrek, Shrek and Fiona would have been married without us knowing and we’d hear the story being told to an uptight British woman who totally thought she was going to get a piece of that Shrek before she realized he was a flaming butthole (Shrek being of course the logical stand-in for George Wickham).
Sure, Argo’s great, but Jane Austen Presents Argo would have blown people away with its gripping depiction of Bryan Cranston walking into a room and telling everyone that they saved the hostages.
Do you see what might be wrong with this brand of storytelling? All of the story action happens while we aren’t looking and we catch up by listening to whoever’s currently playing “Trying to Make Exposition Interesting.” And for some reason we give her a pass. Every single time.
A particularly glaring example comes in Sense and Sensibility, where after a whole novel’s worth of time and effort and pining, Alan Rickman’s character, who most likely has a name, finally confesses his undying love to Kate Winslet and asks her to marry him. An entire narrative building to this and it finally happens! But we don’t see it! Because we’re watching Emma Thompson at the time, twiddling her British thumbs in the corner.
For the record, Rickman’s character’s name is Colonel Brandon. Don’t be mad at me, Austen fans of the Internet.
Let the record show, for all of you burgeoning storytellers out there, that this is not how stories are told. Austen is an enigma. Wrapped in a riddle. Dipped in chocolate and served on a wedding cake. As a romanticist, Austen is tops. There’s almost no competition up on her level. But as a storyteller, she could use a proofreader.
I do agree with Austen on one thing, though: The wedding is the least interesting part of a romance story. She spends entire stories building up to what would normally be a wedding, and then ditches it in a few paragraphs, similar to how Catching Fire ditched almost its entire third act into two pages with almost no dialogue. However, on all other aspects of storytelling, I have to agree with Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, two big detractors of the Austen machine.
The issues I have with her film adaptations cannot be expressly attributed to Austen. She was a novelist, not a schmaltz merchant. She never claimed to be a schmaltz merchant, except maybe on her W2 for the tax benefits. When writing a book, writing a scene and writing someone talking about a scene are not fundamentally that much different for either the writer or the reader. I blame the people doing the adaptations.
The tricky thing about adaptations (and something I’ll hit on more about the time we get a Hobbit sequel) is staying true to the source material while at the same time cutting something the size of a novel into about two hours. If you’ve ever read a book, as I’m sure half of you have, you know how drastically different those two amounts of time are.
Some books lend themselves very well to adaptations. Elmore Leonard has had a big string of successes, including Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and FX’s very thrilling Justified. The Hunger Games also lent itself surprisingly well to adaptation, having to cut very little outside of some of the in-tournament segments that were nothing much more than glorified versions of the infamous camping chapters from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but with oodles more cuddling. They changed who gave Katniss her Mockingjay pin, but they changed it into A MUCH BETTER AND MORE CHARACTER RELEVANT MOMENT.
See how I capitalized that? If your science textbooks taught you anything, it should be that that phrase is important.
It is in that Caps Locked section that the Austen adaptations tend to fall apart (except for the Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightly that is juuuuuuuust fine in Kevin’s book). Plays, especially the old Greek kind, needed Messengers to run in and tell the lead what happened due to setting limitations. Books can do the Messenger thing as well because, hey, they’re all just words on a page. But film is a visual medium. And because of that it is infinitely more powerful for us to see the tension between George Wickham and Mr. Darcy instead of hearing about it through Lydia or some other intermediary.
That’s just the fundamentals of storytelling. If you can show it, show it, because it’s always better to listen to “Take on Me” than have your buddy explain to you how he’ll be gone. In a day or twooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!
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