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Jane Austen for best screenplay?

There is a lot in the media these days about the winners and losers in the competition for awards at the OSCARS, the BAFTAs et al. Someone who is never seen as a contender, primarily because she has never been in or made a film  – and never will, having been dead over two hundred years – is Jane Austen. Nonetheless her books have regularly been made into popular films and television series because there is something about the characters and story lines that film-makers and viewers find re-assuring and enjoyable.

Her novels are sometimes criticised for being safe. Rich, or at least comfortably placed, man meets similarly situated woman, a series of obstacles to have to be overcome before the book ends happily with the sound of wedding bells. The Napoleonic wars, slavery, poverty, crime, and domestic abuse in the world around her rarely, if ever, get a mention. She herself describes her writing as like working with a fine brush “on a little bit (not two inches wide) of ivory.”

So why does the latest ambassador for the Jane Austen museum, David Baddiel, rate her so highly as an author, and link her work to the arts of film direction and writing screenplays?

Firstly he sees her as a fine story-teller – an early, if not the first, proponent of romantic comedy. Second he admires her sense of perspective and how she keeps herself out of the books (no ‘Reader I married him’ (Jane Eyre) for Miss Austen). Instead she imparts information through her characters and action. Lady Catherine de Burgh’s visit to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice to frighten her off, indirectly gives her, and us, the information that Darcy is in love with her. When Mr Knightley tries to warn Emma (in Emma) that the man she thinks she is in love with has an understanding with another woman, the readers, as Baddiel puts it, get a different camera angle.

As well as the to-ing and fro-ing of her plots (typical Hollywood!) Baddiel also sees the realistic devices she uses when constructing her novels as techniques used in modern screenplays: “ironic narration, controlled point of view, ensemble characterisation, fixed arenas of time and place, [and] the notion that art should represent life as it is actually lived …”

Next time you read a book by Jane Austen, just pause a little to think how readily she would have adapted it for the screen if she’d had the chance.

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