Book to Film Adaptation: What are we missing?


Forgive my lapse, dear Janeites, as I took a little break due to some Spring Break travel with my elder daughter. I have at this point moved on from P&P and am now working my way through (slogging through) Mansfield Park and yet there’s something that has always gotten under my nails when it comes to the film adaptations and in particular, the ways in which the need to limit casting results in a weak storyline for one very important character choice.

Charlotte Lucas.

See, the thing is: in the films, the situation of Charlotte’s family is not given full display. Much like my earlier post about the piles of left-behind characters from Sense & Sensibility, the exclusion of the full Lucas family means that Charlotte Lucas and her martyrdom to marriage appears…unsensible rather than the sensible (ish) choice Austen presents – though of course any woman who marries for money is going to get some form of literary smack-down.

Perhaps, like me, you have watched the television/film adaptations (here I mean both the BBC Colin Firth and the more recent Keira Knightley versions) and have said, but wait, it looks to me like there’s just Charlotte and her sister Mariah (in the Keira Knightley version even Mariah is tossed onto the body heap!). And wait! Sir Lucas is apparently quite successful. And wait! There don’t appear to be siblings…oh right, I already said that. So then…why does Charlotte get so desperate to marry? Surely, between her father and her mother’s wealth, there’s more than enough to support her and Mariah both (depending on whether she’s alive or not) and therefore, what is this dire need for her to marry a man she cannot like and probably realizes within herself, she will actively come to despise?

There’s only one thing for it. Go back to the text:

“Within a short walk of Longbourn lived a family with whom the Bennets were particularly intimate. Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honor of knighthood by an address to the King, during his mayoralty. … Lady Lucas was a very good kind of woman, not to clever to be a valuable neighbor to Mrs. Bennet. — They had several children.” (Austen 18)

It is that final line which reveals all. Several.

Now, to be fair, the BBC adaptation does fill the Lucas drawing room with enough small bodies that an astute viewer and reader of Austen would know them to be the Lucas children and yet for the average viewer (i.e. one who has not read the entire novel), it would almost certainly be overlooked. There are many adults, many couples. Those kids could belong to anybody!

Not only is there already a young man ready to become the next Sir Lucas (though I’m not sure knighthoods such as his pass in such a manner), as well as fulfill his gentlemanly duties in drinking “a bottle of wine everyday” but there are indeed a fair number of siblings trailing like ducks after Mother Lucas (Austen 20).

Charlotte is only poor in the world of Austen if we understand how many siblings she has. Even Austen herself is vague on that point. There are “several.” Considering Austen was the second youngest of seven, we might imagine that the Lucas family exists somewhere in that range. Seven children is certainly more than enough to strain what is described as a “tolerable” fortune.

So what I lose when I watch these adaptations is the sense of strain on the Lucas family. In the Keira Knightley version, Charlotte says that she is already a burden to her parents, and yet how much more vividly could her choice be made if we could see that sense of burden! And in that particular version, Charlotte is presented as an only child!

This is what gets stuck in my craw when I watch any adaptation, but particularly for these ones – the economy of film requires the cutting of unnecessary characters and yet the cutting of those characters weakens the reasonings and motivations of others.

I thought I might add on to this post, but alas, I think I need to release this one. I’m approximately half-way through Mansfield Park and I hope there will be more to share soon.

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