The Year of Reading Dangerously: Northanger Abbey on Film

I am writing this whilst slogging my way through 672 pages of The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Yes. 672 pages.  I am hoping to have something to write about on this blog when I get to the halfway mark.  Until that delightful day, dear readers, I thought we might pass the time with a discussion of Northanger Abbey on film.  

Naturally, when I decided to embark on this project, I reread Northanger Abbey.  Then I decided that I must watch the film version(s).  I had not yet seen the 2007 version and after reading Bruce Stovel’s article “Northanger Abbey at the Movies,” I felt I really had to see the 1986 (1987) version.  Fortunately both are available on Amazon Prime. Click here for 1986(1987) and here for 2007. Stovel has it right when he declares the 1986 version a “campy…romp.” Indeed it is.  This version stars Peter Firth (brother of Colin) as a Henry Tilney who alternately smirks and simpers his way through the movie. It is hard to believe from this performance that he had been nominated for an Academy Award in 1977 for his work on Equus with Richard Burton, or that he would go on to become the chief Spook on the series of that title, also known as MI5 in the United States, but I digress.  Henry really is probably the best thing about this version, since Catherine is portrayed as weak-willed and already in thrall to Gothic fiction from the opening scene in which she reclines in a large tree reading and imagining herself as the heroine about to be ravished. (!)

One of Stovel’s best points in the article is how the 1986 film version forces the reader to notice what is important in the book that cannot be easily translated to the movie. The Narrator is at the top of the list; “the narrator of Northanger Abbey is the closest Jane Austen comes to Henry Fielding’s obtrusive, poised and witty, wise philosophizing, self-conscious narrator of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews.” (238)  The 2007 version, which we will get to shortly, does attempt to include the narrator, with uneven results. The voice overs are lackluster at best.

In the novel, as I wrote earlier in my post about rereading Northanger Abbey, the reader sees Catherine grow and learn to be discerning, both in selecting her reading and her companions.  However, in both film versions, Catherine is played as a static character, without the roundness of which E. M. Forster was so fond. The cast of the 2007 version includes J.J. Feilds and Felicity Jones, who both sparkle on screen. However, the dialogue, even when taken directly from Austen’s novel, feels stilted.  And Feilds’s Henry seems to smile at inappropriate moments–he’s not as creepy as Peter Firth’s Henry, but he is odd, to say the least, and not just because he knows about muslin….

If you, like me, enjoy the settings and costumes, by all means, watch both, though the 2007 version is probably superior in this regard.  Interestingly, the opening scene of the 2007 version is a near copy of the 1986 opening scene, but the films diverge pretty quickly from there. Carey Mulligan makes an appearance as Isabella, and though she is uber smarmy, she is infinitely superior to her counterpart from 1986. Interestingly, the 2007 version uses numerous references to Lewis’s The Monk, which features prominently in Catherine’s Gothic fantasies (but as Janeites know this is only in the movie).  I had forgotten that it is mentioned once in Northanger Abbey by John Thorpe when he goes on about novels being nonsense.  The only two he has enjoyed are Tom Jones and The Monk.  If you read my previous posts (part 1 and part 2) about The Monk and if you have read Tom Jones, you will no doubt see the humor here.  John mentions two books with plenty of sex and seduction, and a deal of it explicit to someone he is supposed to be courting for marriage.  He betrays his lack of couth and tact, but of course, Catherine, at this point in their relationship, is too innocent to catch the references.  I do not doubt that Austen’s readers caught them and had fair warning, if they needed it, of John’s real character. His reading choices also make his refusal to stop the carriage with Catherine in it more diabolical, and perhaps more meaningful. He intends to keep Catherine from his rival, even by force. Is it a nod to Ambrosio?  I can’t say for sure…

I don’t intend to bash either of these versions, though both are ultimately inadequate.  I think Stovel’s assessment is accurate–that without the witty narrator and without keeping the action from Catherine’s point of view, there is something lost in the translation from novel to film–Northanger Abbey is primarily an interior story, and those are hard to put on film. It is quite possible that in the future someone will find a way to adapt Northanger Abbey by distilling the essence of the novel in a way that neither of these versions does. They are not bad, and if I had to choose, I would prefer the 2007, but they are not instant classics in the way that the 1994 P&P or the 1995 Persuasion are. Even though purists may have their complaints about these adaptations, they are still beloved in a way that neither version of Northanger Abbey has been–though each is still great fun and a fine way to pass an hour or two if you enjoy costume drama with a big steaming helping of “camp.”

Stovel, Bruce. “Northanger Abbey at the Movies.” Persuasions 20 (1998): 236-247.

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