Friday, September 5, 2008

TV review: Lost in Austen

Lest my friends and family bother to ask me what I thought about that TV show on this week, I will clarify my feelings once and for all. I am talking, of course, about Lost in Austen. I could only get about 3/4 of the way through.

It's utter pigswill.

I spent a good half hour last night ranting to D. about why I thought this, and other chick lit-y Jane Austen books (like this and this) give me the squicks. I won't repeat all my points, but Lost in Austen embodies everything I hate about the chick lit empire. First, as an aside, can I just say - leave Jane Austen the freak alone? Seriously. Her works are fabulous, amazing and wonderful. Her heroines, particularly Elizabeth Bennett, are everything literary heroines should be: intelligent, witty, opinionated and loveable with a wonderful sense of humor. I couldn't agree more with Jane herself when she says of Elizabeth, "I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know". So why do other authors think it's okay to piggyback on Jane's greatness? If it's the Regency period you're after, why not create new characters instead of bastardizing beloved ones? Heyer made a fantastic career out of it and you don't have to look further than Loretta Chase to see how wonderful Regency romances can be without Mr. Darcy.

I won't reiterate my points about why I loathe chick lit heroines*, but Amanda Price, the heroine of Lost in Austen, reads like my own personal checklist of chick lit hate. High-maintenance, semi-alcoholic glamour girl? Ding! Living an empty life in some London apartment? Ding! Lameass boyfriend who's over-the-top boorish to make the real hero seem so much better? Ding! Constantly saying stupid things and making mistakes to show how "cute" she is? Ding! Half-heartedly made to seem smart, even though we all know she's stupid and selfish? Ding! Being all Mary Sue and having every freaking guy fall in love with her, even though they never would have gone for someone as lame as her in the real 19th century? Ding! Yes, I believe it was at the point Mr. Bingley pulled Amanda outside at the Netherfield Ball to confess his undying love for her that I couldn't physically cringe any more and had to turn my computer off.

How the heck am I supposed to relate to a woman like that? I wouldn't be friends with her if you paid me, so how am I supposed to react to her coming in and interfering with favourite characters? How many times is my intelligence supposed to be insulted with this drivel that they throw at me, expecting me to like it because it's vaguely related to Austen? Don't give me a chocolate bar and tell me it's swiss truffle when it's cheap, crappy advent calendar chocolate and expect me to like it just because it's chocolate. Give me something edifying or don't make it at all. Pathetic. F-

Good god, what's next? Are we to have James Purefoy as Mr. Rochester, coming in through some hausfrau's kitchen and making sweet love to women in the 21st century? Oh, wait. That sounds pretty good. I'd watch that.

*Okay, maybe just a little bit. It boils down to this: I believe women are more than martini-drinking, shopaholic ditzes who spend their days chasing men. Maybe it's my own narcissism, but I wish the women in books were more like me. I want to see strong, intelligent, funny women actually doing important things in the real world. Women, we are capable of writing better stories about these kinds of heroines. We should not just demand them. We deserve them. I won't settle for less, but I fear that women have started to do just that. This being the case, I won't stop my crusade against chick lit until I start seeing a more realistic picture of women mirrored back to me.


Shirley said...

But is Amanda Price a high-maintenance, semi-alcoholic glamour girl? We see her having a glass of wine while reading a Penguin Classic, but that is hardly a crime. Later she has some punch when she is "Lost in Austen", at a point when she is feeling particularly vulnerable (as I suspect many of us would do if we found ourselves trapped in a book!). There is not a martini in sight. Amanda is rather a sweet thing, and her dress sense is decidedly odd - not really glamorous.

Should she be sent to the stocks for being a modern woman, living in a rented flat, having a job and choosing to have the occasional glass of wine? Is that so bad?

As a self confessed lover of Jane Austen I have to say that I was dreading this. I was expecting a very broad comedy. I was expecting to cringe at the crass liberties taken with my second favourite Austen text. In fact it was literate and inventive. The script is funny and light and full of scholarly wit. On the evidence of this first episode, I think this will make a very happy companion piece to 'straight' adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Have we seen a better Mr and Mrs Bennet on screen? I love Donald Sutherland, but was he playing the Bennet girls' grandfather?? And Mrs Bennet has recently been reduced to a panto dame, post Alison Steadman's too large performance. Alex Kingston plays the comedy, but she also reveals a lovely steeliness when she is under attack. There is real attention to detail here - Lydia is tall, as she should be. Jane is full of grace and delicacy and youth, as she should be. Longbourne felt just right.

This is a good hearted celebration of Jane Austen which manages to be both silly and erudite. And it inspired me get out my Penguin Classic edition of the novel and pour myself a glass of wine!

KJH said...

Thanks for your comment, Shirley. It's clear that you enjoyed the show, and if so, you probably had a better time than I did!

However, I still stand by my original opinions. My point about her being a glamour girl and semi-alcoholic was not that I had a problem with these things per se, but that they have become a cheap, easy shorthand for every chick lit writer or chick lit script writer to get us to identify with her. Can you think of a lighthearted portrayal of women that hasn't used this ploy? Hey, she wears a long shirt and leggings with little boots, just like me! She has a high-maintenance haircut that she clearly doesn't want anyone to mess with, just like me! She needs alcohol to loosen up in awkward situations, just like me! Unfortunately, these "characterizations" come at the price of revealing any actual personality or character development.

Much has been said already in other comments on the other characters, and yes, I agree that they were cute. But again, what do we really see of their personalities other than bits and snippets that we already know? And the attention to detail you mention doesn't seem to extend to the actual setting. It's clear the researchers did shoddy work at best. Even I could tell you that the girls wouldn't have worn bonnets after the dance, would have had access to toothbrushes, would have drunk chocolate at breakfast, not eaten it. This whole production smacks of lazy, quick, second-rate Regency-grabbing.

I understand that women want to have some light entertainment to relax with. But a hastily thrown-together period piece with a bit of snappy dialogue, nice sets and pretty people can't compare with a heroine I actually care about and well-developed characters. When I walk away from something feeling extreme disappointment and that my intelligence has been insulted, that's a problem.

Sylwia said...

I agree with everything you said! Elizabeth is a great character. Why replace her with such a Mary Sue?!

KJH said...

Thanks, sylwia! I loved your checklist of "you know you created a Mary Sue when..." It made my morning.

Incidentally, I hope my review hasn't spoiled anyone else's enjoyment of the show. It is, as always, my opinion and not one I expect everyone else to share. If this show floats your boat, more power to you. It just isn't my cup of tea, is all I'm sayin'.