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Three Unconventional Jane Austen Adaptations

2012 November 8
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In one of my first posts on The Hub, I mentioned that I enjoy the notion of synchronicity. If you hear about something over and over from seemingly unrelated sources, it’s worth making a connection. Once three similar things get my attention, they begin to coalesce. Here’s my latest occurrence: Jane Austen, outside the box.

Jane Austen adaptations are ubiquitous, and a lot of them are pretty similar. This is not really a bad thing. The stories are captivating and the characters are familiar enough to feel like family. Curiosity about which particular details each adaptation will highlight is enough to intrigue me into almost any version of an Austen story. These, however, are something more.

Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars is a science fiction story inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The fact of this alone is intriguing. The execution is a balanced blend of original and adapted ideas, science fiction world building and heart-wrenching romance.

The apocalypse in this world was caused by genetic experimentation. In the generations since the Reduction, much of the human population is reduced in intellect, while a class of technology abstaining Luddites rules. In recent years, Post-Reductionists, normal children born to the Reduced, are coming into being. Elliot, the daughter of a Luddite plantation owner, exchanged letters from the age of six with Kai, the son of a mechanic. They fell in love as young teens, and Kai asked Elliot to run away with him. Elliot said no. She could not leave the plantation’s inhabitants to her uncaring father’s whims. For four years, Elliot has done her duty despite her broken heart.

When the Cloud Fleet comes to rent her family’s land for ship building, they bring Captain Malakai Wenforth along with their unprejudiced ideas about technology. Kai has changed so much — time and heartbreak have pushed him far away from Elliot — but their chemistry is undeniable. Each chapter begins with letters between Elliott and Kai from when they were younger, giving context to the depth of their relationship and their world. The bulk of the story is narrated by Elliot, allowing the reader to closely follow her range of emotions at having Kai in her life again, while leaving Kai’s feelings and motives mysterious. In addition to borrowing their delayed love story, Peterfreund’s characters borrow their names from Austen’s Anne Elliot and Frank Wentworth. As Elliot struggles over her feelings for Kai, her people struggle between the safety of tradition and the risk of scientific experimentation. Peterfreund is writing another book set in this world. Across a Star-Swept Sea, due to come out next year, takes its inspiration from The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I have blogged about Nancy Butler’s Marvel Comics Austen adaptations before, and the latest additions to the series are equal to, if not more exciting than, their predecessors. Butler’s care in storytelling remains evident. Main characters Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Moreland are two very different teenagers. Emma is overly sure of herself and her matchmaking abilities, while Catherine earnestly wants to be a romantic heroine. Neither, as is true of any Austen protagonist, is entirely capable of keeping her opinions to herself.

Janet Lee’s colorful illustrations set proper moods for Emma and Northanger AbbeyEmma is bright with springy primaries, well suited to the spirit of romantic comedy, while Northanger Abbey‘s best hues lie in the flames of sunsets and candles perfect for a gothic tale. Slightly expressionistic figures convey a lot of emotion through their features and posture. Manga fans may enjoy this quality, though it does not go nearly as far as the visual language of popping veins and sweat drops.

What if Elizabeth Bennet was a twentysomething graduate student with a passion for video blogging? The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice in web series format created by Hank Green (of Vlogbrothers fame) and Bernie Su. It is currently comprised of 60 episodes, each about five minutes long, with new episodes every few days. There are also various transmedia elements, including blogs and social media sites for the show’s characters.

Ashley Clements portrays Lizzie with wit, intelligence, humor, and a little social awkwardness. Her sisters — Jane, the nice one, and Lydia, the party girl — appear regularly in the videos and add their own  dramas to the plot. Where Jane Austen’s novels commented on the social mores of Austen’s time, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is full of social commentary for the Internet age. Concerns over the proper etiquette for dancing at a ball are replaced by concerns over the proper etiquette of networking at VidCon. Worrying over a potential suitor’s correspondence is replaced by the question: “What happens if he sees my videos?” And we know that when something is on the Internet, it’s only a matter of time. Lizzie and Charlotte Lu, her friend and sometime-producer, discuss this in this video:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EG5VOu_hME4?rel=0]

Jane Austen’s work continues to survive, thrive, and mutate into stories and formats for the future. I can only wonder what the next innovative Austen adaptation will be.

— Erin Daly, currently listening to The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

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