Saturday, June 4, 2011

Adaptation Corner: Northanger Abbey

I confess that a year has passed between my reading Northanger Abbey and watching the movie with the specific purpose of preparing for this post. By the end of the film I was in tears, my love for Henry Tilney and Northanger Abbey renewed. Yet in addition to reminding me that Austen heroes are some of the greatest out there, this film also made me reconsider how the Gothic parody represents what Catherine wants versus what she gets and how both of those things change throughout the storyline.

When I first put this movie in, I thought it looked like quite a bit of other Austen adaptations. The scenery is lovely, there is a family with a girl who is starting to reach a marriageable age and beautiful costumes. Of course, this novel is a little different from Austen’s other work, and Catherine Morland is a somewhat different protagonist.

Catherine Morland is invited by family friends Mr. and Mrs. Allen to spend some time in Bath. Catherine and Mrs. Allen are both eager to spend money, and Mr. Allen is the perfect mixture of a kind man and a curmudgeon. Moreso than other Austen heroines, Catherine is interested in reading Gothic novels, and her fellow characters often wonder whether or not she reads too much. This adaptation brings the novels that Catherine reads to life by showing little snippets as she reads--it’s as though there several smaller adaptations within one adaptation.

Like some other Austen heroines, Catherine spends a certain amount of time divided between two love interests, namely Henry Tilney and John Thorpe. Henry Tilney is handsome and sweet, often saving Catherine a seat for the ball or showing her the sights around Bath, whereas John is slightly creepy and disrespectful towards Catherine’s desire to spend time with Tilneys. I was glad to see the scene where John speeds past the Tilneys in this adaptation, because I’d had a hard time imagining it on the page. John’s recklessness in that moment was perfectly captured. Catherine’s romantic adventures are made more interesting by the fact that uses the Gothic novel as lens to see the people she knows in real life.

As Catherine, Henry and Eleanor walk in the countryside near Bath, Henry talks about how Gothic novels are often full of intrigue, secrets and betrayal. Catherine sometimes imagines either or Isabella in danger, either being held captive by or saved by one of the men they know. Several of her inventions seem to have a slight sexual undertone, such as Catherine moaning a bit as she wakes up from a dream. Of course, Catherine eventually visits Northanger Abbey, which is dark at night and has rooms that she is forbidden to enter, fulfilling some of her ideas of the Gothic. The directors enhance Catherine’s need to step away from the Gothic and not make assumptions by playing with the settings. Catherine is only able to learn the truth about the Tilney family’s past, and her own Gothic fantasies, when she is outside, and a step away from the Gothic settings.

I won’t tell you what happens after that, because I don’t want to spoil the movie. Even though Catherine has made some mistakes throughout the story, I feel that this adaptation focuses on what she has learned because of them, and how she has grown. Catherine sees that while real life may contain some of the scandals or secrets of the Gothic, tragedy sometimes goes hand in hand with these incidents. Even though places and incidents in real life which are reminiscent of the Gothic are not taboo, this film emphasizes that they still have a dark side, and leaves viewers with an intriguing question to contemplate. Catherine sees that even though the idea of a young man rescuing her from a dungeon may be romantic, the idea of a young man in every day circumstances who will stop at nothing to be with her is much more romantic.


  1. I really need to get this one and watch it again. I saw it on PBS and enjoyed it but also thought it was "just okay". But I recall feeling that same way about the latest version of Persuasion, with Sally Hawkins and then watched it again on DVD and just fell in love with it. I've watched it dozens of times since then. I suspect I might feel the same about this one after a second viewing.

  2. I love this adaptation! I thought both the leads did an excellent job portraying their characters - Felicity Jones in particular manages to pull off a Catherine who is sweet and naive without coming across as whiny or ditzy.

  3. VERY nicely done, Liz. And I agree with Danya, I love this adaptation, too. Though I don't know that I've seen another. I need to look up some of the older ones, maybe do a movie Face Off...

  4. i really liked this version as well. i especially liked the gothic part. it was fun to see a touch of the dark side of jane austen.

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