Jane Austen is famed for her pervasive use of irony. There are many other things one could praise in Jane Austen's writing: Her perfectly crafted plots, her deep understanding of human nature, her true-to-life depictions of everyday society, but it is her use of irony that makes her a really great writer, and which also contributes to making these other aspects of her writing so praiseworthy.
It might be said that the characteristics that make her such a good writer also make her an attractive writer to adapt onto the screen. Film thrives on a good plot and memorable characters. And a well established name like Jane Austen's is also seen to influence the box office. 1995 and 1996 saw the event labelled by some as Austenmania. What seemed like an avalanche of Jane Austen adaptations hit cinema and television screens over a relatively short period of time. Ten years later time has been deemed right for new film versions of her stories.
But what happens to Jane Austen's irony when it is transferred from page to screen? And if it gets lost on the way are we then really left with a successful adaptation of Jane Austen? Is she then being done a disservice by being promoted through all these screen adaptations?
This thesis takes a look at adaptation theory and the literary theory concerning irony before moving on to an in-depth study of four adaptations of Jane Austen's Emma. This is considered to be her most accomplished novel with a complex ironic structure. How much of this is preserved in the adaptations? Seven adaptations of Pride & Prejudice are looked at in brief to asses the representation of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Bennet, two characters that seem to embody Jane Austen's philosophy regarding irony.
Unfortunately, most of the adaptations studied display little of Jane Austen's irony. One adaptation is reasonably successful at reproducing the ironic structure of Emma, and one manages to create a distinctly ironic tone. But the appeal of adapting Jane Austen's writing for the screen seems to mainly be her love stories.
The thesis hopes to show that, though an adaptation will probably never be able to reproduce the full complexity of the novel, irony certainly can travel from page to screen. The question is rather whether filmmakers have the imagination required, or even the inclination. It seems a shame that not more of the potential for filmic irony is put to good use in adaptations of Jane Austen's writing. Adaptations do become part of an author's legacy, and it is a concern that film adaptations can potentially replace the reading of the novel for some people, and also make them think they know something of Jane Austen as an author.
The investigations in the thesis do, however, seem to indicate that what is really at stake here is the issue of interpretation. Of this irony is perhaps the most important aspect with an author like Jane Austen, but there are other factors as well. Her galleries of intriguing characters that provide us with archetypes, social issues and timeless interpersonal relationships. Every adaptation is a new take on the original novels, and some of them provide us with more interesting perspectives than others. What should make us dismiss an adaptation is not its lack of literalness, but its lack of intelligence. A good adaptation should have the courage to say something interesting, and not shy away from things that are deemed difficult, like irony.