PBS to Air Adaptations of Jane Austen Novels Andrew Davies is the go-to screenwriter for adapting classic literature for television and the movies. He adapts Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility as PBS prepares to air The Complete Jane Austen.
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PBS to Air Adaptations of Jane Austen Novels

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PBS to Air Adaptations of Jane Austen Novels

PBS to Air Adaptations of Jane Austen Novels

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Hollywood directors reached a tentative agreement with studios yesterday and that could put pressure on striking writers to reach their own deal. While the writers' strike continues, your entertainment options include pro-football, and reality TV, and some films for which the original story credit goes to Jane Austen.

"Masterpiece Theater" on PBS is offering the complete Jane Austen. These are adaptations of all six of Austen's novels. Four of the six productions were written for the screen by Andrew Davies. He approaches the famous novelist with a mischievous streak.

As NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: So here's how Andrew Davies' adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility" begins.

(Soundbite of TV Mini-Series, "Sense and Sensibility")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actress): (As Character) Do you truly love me?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Character) Trust me.

NEARY: Those are words no woman should ever believe in a situation like that, as anyone who's ever read a Jane Austen novel knows. But Austen fans may also note that no such scene occurs anywhere in the novel, a fact which doesn't bother Davies in the least.

Mr. ANDREW DAVIES (Screenwriter): Chronologically, that event does happen right at the start of the story, so I put it there. But also, I suppose, the kind of rather cheeky reason for putting it there is to put a seduction scene right at the start of a Jane Austen novel, so that, you know, the Jane Austen faithful can be a little shocked.

NEARY: And purists have criticized Davies for his tendency to add some overt passion to the stories of repressed love that Austen made so famous. Jane Austen couldn't write such scenes at the time, Davies says, but the consequences of such passion were very much a part of her stories, take "Sense and Sensibility," for example.

Mr. DAVIES: One of the main characters in the story seduces a 15-year-old girl and abandons her, leaves her pregnant. She has a baby afterwards. And the results are important to the plot. But people forget about that girl because she isn't in any of the actual scenes in the book. We just hear about her.

And so, I invented her as a character, and once you can see a character, then you notice or then you get involved with her, then you think how shocking, then, you think poor girl, what's going to happen to her?

NEARY: In "Northanger Abbey," the young heroine, Catherine, loves to read Gothic fiction, which was very much like romance novels of today. Her overactive imagination gets her into trouble and almost ruins her chances with the man she loves. But Catherine's reading habits proved to be a golden opportunity for Davies.

Mr. DAVIES: It was great, fun to just make up little scenes that Catherine makes up for herself, which she is being sort of kidnapped by highway men or tied up in some dungeon by villain.

NEARY: Yeah. It was sort of a natural opportunity for bodice-ripping.

Mr. DAVIES: Oh, yes. Well, I've never been against a bit of bodice-ripping.

(Soundbite of movie, "Northanger Abbey")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actress): (As Character) He was interrupted by a noise in the passage leading to the room. It approached. The door was unlocked. A man entered, forcibly dragging behind him a beautiful girl. Her features bathed in tears and suffering utmost distress.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Character) Take her where she'll never see anymore(ph).

NEARY: Davies attributes Jane Austen's enduring popularity to her ability to create appealing heroines who overcome huge obstacles in order to find, not just true love, but a happy marriage or, at the very least, a very nice wedding. And, of course, the true love always happens to be, not just good-looking, but extremely rich. All this might just be the stuff of your average romance novel were it not, says Davies, for Jane Austen's formidable talent as a writer.

Mr. DAVIES: Jane Austen manages to combine all this wisdom: there are real three-dimensional characters and lots of wit, beautifully organized plots in which there's always an element of suspense. You can never guess exactly what's going to happen. Although, of course, you hope for the happy ending and she usually supplies it.

NEARY: Perhaps the most famous of Austen's novels is "Pride and Prejudice." It's been adapted many times, most recently in the film version starring Keira Knightley as the beautiful proud and witty Elizabeth Bennet.

Although Davies did not write that screenplay, he did collaborate in writing a modern version of the story, "Bridget Jones' Diary." And his 1996 adaption of the novel for the BBC helped spark the renewed interest in Austen's work. Starring Colin Firth as the haughty Mr. Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, the BBC production brings Austen's quick-witted dialogue to life.

As in this scene with the fiery Ms. Bennet turns down Mr. Darcy's proposal of marriage in no uncertain terms.

(Soundbite of TV Mini-Series, "Pride and Prejudice")

Ms. JENNIFER EHLE (Actress): (As Elizabeth Bennet) The mode of your declaration has spared me any concern I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner. You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.

From the very beginning, your manners impressed me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others. I had not known you a month before I felt you were the last man in the world whom I could ever marry.

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As Fitzwilliam Darcy) You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings.

NEARY: Davies, once a professor of English literature, says his work as a screenwriter is not so different from what he did when he was teaching and giving seminars on the work of Jane Austen.

Mr. DAVIES: The whole time I'd be trying to say, look, it's like this, it's not some dull old text. It's about real people, like you and me and all that kind of thing. And, now - it's like I'm giving these lectures but I've got millions of pounds worth of visual effects and wonderful actors and actresses to support it all.

NEARY: Davies says he hopes the TV productions of the Austen novels will convince more people to read her books. Reading classic literature remains his favorite pastime. But when Davies does watch TV, he admits he's a fan of reality shows - the "Dog Whisperer" being one of his current favorites.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Andrew Davies' adaptation of Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey" premiers this Sunday on PBS, and the Austen series continues until April.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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