Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sniffing the coffee beans :-)

Between the Written Word and Visual Drama:
Pride & Prejudice on Television

Why is it useful to look at translation in the context of a television dramatization, and what is the primary difference between the two processes? By comparing and contrasting the act of translation and the act of dramatization, it is easier to highlight the difficulties and solutions inherent in both, but much more discernible in the latter. People watching a dramatized version of a novel are generally familiar with the novel or will become familiar with it afterwards, when they proceed to read the novel as a result of the movie. In this sense, both the original work and the dramatized version are equally known and knowable. Not so in textual translation. Very few people who read a book or a document in translation will try to revert to its original form. For most readers, the language barrier is insurmountable. As a direct consequence of this difference, a dramatized interpretation of a novel is always only one version among others, just as likely, interpretations. Every novel reader has already formed an imaginary adaptation. Therefore, the relationship between the underlying text and the post-translative product – the visual dramatization – is much more explicit and visible than the one existing between the source-target texts. The latter relationship is probably best known by the translator who performed the work and a handful of reviewers who may be familiar with the original.

Dramatizations of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice (P&P) have been attempted many times, on the stage, in the movies and for television. The two versions I have chosen to analyze were both made by the BBC, and are probably the best known adaptations for the novel. The earlier version was done in 1982. Fay Weldon, an Australian-born British writer who, besides writing scripts, is also a novelist in her own right, did the dramatization. The second version was done in 1995. Andrew Davies, an English Literature professor as well as a dramatiser, wrote the six-hour script. By his own account, P&P has always been his favorite novel. These two equally capable dramatisers had set out to translate a Jane Austen novel for television and bring her into the living rooms of millions of people. Both working from the exact the same material, in English, managed to produce two vastly different dramatizations.

The Betrayal of Elizabeth Bennet (1982 BBC TV dramatization)

In her adaptation, Weldon used the text of the novel as source material to build up the dialogues in the series. As the text was divided among the various characters to be used as conversation fodder, it became possible to retain in discourse some of the wit, charm and information of the underlying text. The major drawback of this strategy is that at times it becomes self-defeating: the wordiness of the production emulates the literary source, but does not do justice to the new medium into which it has been translated.

In film, the engine of the action should be: show, don't tell. Another downside result of too much reliance on dialogue to move the action forward is the unwieldiness of many of the conversations. Moreover, some of these conversations not only have never taken place in the novel but they could not have taken place in the world Jane Austen created and wrote about. Some characters are chatty, irresponsible and always revealing confidential information. But when this sort of mindless chatter is applied to the responsible characters, which are usually in control of their emotions and speech, it creates a distortion in the way we relate to them.

A good example is the scene in which Elizabeth is playing croquet with a relatively new acquaintance, George Wickham (who turns out to be a cad!). It transpires just after Elizabeth's sister has been dumped (or so it seemed) by her erstwhile beau, Bingley, and is pining and trying to come to terms with her disappointment. In this scene, Elizabeth tells Wickham about Jane's sorrow and disappointment. By placing Elizabeth in that fabricated scene, Weldon betrays Elizabeth's complete and unquestionable loyalty to her sister and her social savvy, thus presenting her in unflattering colors.

This betrayal of Elizabeth's quintessence cannot have been done randomly. Weldon seems to detect in her a certain recklessness of behavior, a flouting of decorum, which indicates a heroine who is at odds with society. According to the Weldon script, Elizabeth Bennet is a provocative girl, who maintains a mocking self-composure throughout the production. A smile of superior intelligence and understanding never leaves her face. She is not only irresponsible but also defiant. In Fay Weldon’s adaptation she seems to disregard the basic moral underpinnings of the novel: she is seen exchanging confidences with her friend Charlotte about her family's failures, even after Charlotte has proved herself to be a manipulative, self-seeking female. Jane Austen makes a point of telling us in the novel that Elizabeth never again trusted her friend as she had done before, but the Weldon script ignores this qualification. It seems that Charlotte was to be reinstated as Elizabeth's intimate friend in spite of the author's explicit intent.

Elizabeth seems to defy the basic rules of moral behavior of her times: she is seen visiting on her own a bachelor in his home, she receives a letter from a man and responds to it, in a way that no genteel woman of the time should have done. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth is very much a woman planted within her society, with its values and rules of decorum. We could easily find out what Jane Austen thought of such behavior as Weldon gives her heroine if we look for it in her other novels.

In "Sense and Sensibility", the author makes it quite clear what she thinks of a young lady indulging in such self-ruinous conduct. There is no true liberation for a young lady at the mercy of her raging hormones, as far as Jane Austen is concerned. Elizabeth is the opposite of that. Her independent freethinking happens when she deems the circumstances justify breaking the rules. She does deviate from social norm, when she takes a three-mile walk across muddy, rain-soaked fields to visit her sick sister who is confined to a stranger's house. Her love and anxiety for her sister endorse what seems to be an unusual action. This action does not generate from defiance of society but from common sense. That is why it stands out in the novel as a moral achievement. The Weldon script diminishes Elizabeth's ability to discern and judge. This in turn diminishes the stature of the narrative and its achievement.

Fay Weldon is a feminist writer. In her novels, such as "Splitting" and "Darcy's Utopia" she likes to portray misleadingly demure women who do and say outrageous things, as a way of upsetting the smug power of patriarchy. Her heroines are subversively soft spoken and tractable. They show themselves prone to brazen behavior and shocking expressions. They are very obviously not in control of their lives. In "Splitting", this leads to a splintering of the heroine's psyche. Eventually, she ends up regaining her faculties, acquiring a direction in her life and opting for sensual fulfillment with a red-blooded, working-class male, definitely not English.

The despondency that besets Weldon's central female characters reverberates throughout her adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. For her, Elizabeth is not a strong female personality, nor is she very wise; but rather a young woman who lives on the brink of perpetual fear facing a bleak future. There is a modernist, helpless, angry feel to Weldon's Elizabeth, which is in remarkable contrast with Austen's own reflection on the novel as "light and bright and sparkling”. This adaptation is a violent translation of the novel, in so far as the writer/translator has distorted the characters, adding to some, detracting from others, made up scenes that are nonexistent in the original novel. Weldon’s script clashes with Austen's narrative and beefs up its feminist undertones. This kind of translation engages the text of a well-known beloved novelist in a cause of feminist ire. The process by which this was done can only be described as violent. Weldon’s rendition of Pride & Prejudice abrades and reduces the novel.

Next coffee break: 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice: The Outing of Fitzwilliam Darcy.

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