Sex, money, and physicality

Amanda mentioned in her post about JASNA that one of the highlights was Andrew Davies’ presentation in which he talked about his Austen screenplays. He’s such a good speaker that I found myself writing notes–oh my gosh, I must tell the Riskies about this!–and so I thought I’d share what he said about his various screenplays, and also about the cast and crew comments that prompted changes and rewrites (as well as the inside jokes). First, he has a huge oeuvre–minds out of the gutter ladies, although he’d probably appreciate it–check it out. He’s got a lot of projects on the boil including a novel based on his childhood as well as other screenplays. I asked him if he’d tackle Mansfield Park because I think he could do amazing things with it and he said he was asked that fairly often. (I also told him I was chaperoning Amanda and not to squeeze her too tightly when we were photographed together.)

Talking of photos, mine were abysmal, so I borrowed this one from Austenprose (thanks, Laurel Ann!). This was taken on the grand parade in Sundance Square. Now I do have to admit that some things about the conference were a bit weird, like running into people who wore their regency stuff all the time even outside the hotel. But on Sunday night when we were all dressed up we had an official parade outside where people took our pics and seemed entertained/bemused. Mr. Davies, as guest of honor, was escorted by two lovely tall blonde Texans who were dressed up in their western gear (and honest, in Texas you do get dressed up in a stetson and cowboy boots. It can look very chic). You can’t see it in the pic but their Stetsons featured flashing jewels and they claimed to be the Blingley Sisters.

The conference was about Sense & Sensibility and Mr. Davies explained that he started his screenplay with Willoughby seducing Eliza because this–not the Dashwood deaths with which the book begins–for him is the real start of the story. It was very much an anti-Willoughby interpretation–he described him as “a glamorous shit”–but like many of us he had problems with this novel. It’s too much “about girls filling in their time waiting by the phone for unsatisfactory men who don’t respond in the right way.”

And then there’s Edward–how do you explain a hero who’s too scared to break off an engagement to a woman he no longer loves, and lies to and deceives both her and the woman he really does love? So he inserted a scene in which Edward pours out his heart to Elinor about his family’s expectations and how he wants to be a simple country parson–heck, they virtually do each others’ nails–which naturally led the women involved in the production to complain that now he wasn’t butch enough. Hence the woodchopping scene (ooh, wet shirt), inspired by a woodcutting scene in Davies’ favorite movie, Shane. Incidentally, if you are familiar with English slang you’ll appreciate the hilarity of the cast when Fanny[‘s] hair was mentioned.

I also loved what he had to say about Emma, which was the underappreciated version starring Kate Beckinsale. There’s a very long and funny story about the scene with Emma, Knightley and the baby which I won’t relate here, but he had these extremely perceptive comments about the novel:

She’s a fearful snob with no insight whatsoever who treats other people as though they were dolls or toys. Either she’s very young and a slow developer, or she’s an artist, a creator, a novelist who’s too lazy to write… Austen always has a girl or two who are disadvantaged and succeed despite the efforts of a rich bitch…

in this case the rich bitch is our heroine Emma and the disadvantaged girl Jane Fairfax:

Jane Fairfax is possessed of a deep and passionate nature. She’s had the misfortune to fall in love with a handsome psychopath; she’s sexually in thrall to a man she has little respect for.

He believes Frank did seduce her in Weymouth and he also mused on Mr. Knightley visiting the Woodhouses every day for years. Why? Not to visit Mr. Woodhouse, surely. He proposed a Tennessee Williams-like scenario in which the young Mr. Knightley visited Mrs. Woodhouse and then transferred his affections to her daughter (hopefully after Emma was 16 or so). Yikes.

And, oh yes, P&P, wet shirt and all, and the title of this post is what Davies saw as the governing idea behind the book–sex, money, and physicality. It explains why he saw the beginning of the story, not with the famous quote, but with Bingley leasing Netherfield, hence masculine guys galloping around on big horses (with Elizabeth being “strangely excited” when she sees them from a distance).

After that it was a question of finding as many opportunities as possible for undressing. The film crew referred to his frequent scenes where Lizzy and Jane exchange confidences in their nightgowns as “hair and shoulders shots.”

He decided to bring Georgianna much more into the story, originally to show “Darcy being tender with girls.” As he pointed out, until Georgianna shows up we’re not even sure Darcy likes women. But I was surprised to learn that his favorite scene is with Georgianna, Elizabeth, Darcy and the Bingleys and as it opens Elizabeth sings an aria from The Marriage of Figaro. As Georgianna plays next, Miss Bingley makes snide comments about the regiment moving to Brighton and brings up Wickham’s name. Georgianna stumbles on a note at the piano and Elizabeth moves in to protect her, apologizing that she should have realized the music was too difficult to play without someone to turn the pages. She and Darcy exchange one of those long, significant glances (ooh).

What’s your favorite Davies’ screenplay? And do you agree or disagree with what he said about the novels?

Alert! Last day to enter the contest on my website (yes I know it says October 26 but it’s still up so go for it) and you have a chance to win a copy of Jane Austen: Blood Persuasion at My Jane Austen Book Club.

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Cara King
10 years ago

Thanks for sharing all that interesting info, Janet. And now I see one strong reason why I’ve never liked the Beckinsale “Emma” — I have very different ideas about the novel. To me, Emma isn’t a “rich bitch” along with Fanny Dashwood and Miss Bingley — the latter two are malicious and ill-natured (and not too intelligent). Emma is spoiled but loving. (Can you imagine Miss Bingley patiently humoring a crotchety father?)


Sophia Rose
10 years ago

I enjoyed your post about Andrew Davies’ workshop. I enjoyed the movies, but always wondered what was behind the differences from the original novels.
I don’t share some of his interpretations of the characters, but I can appreciate where he was coming from.

Thanks for posting!

Janet Mullany
10 years ago

Cara, our Regency movie gal has dropped by! I can’t figure Emma out–every time I read the novel she comes over differently but that’s the beauty of Austen.

Sophia, I think Davies is brilliant and not everyone will agree, or even like, what he does. There was a tremendous uproar in England from keepers of the Austen purity flame when it was rumored that P&P would have full frontal nudity in the Darcy bathtub scene!!!!! (Sadly it never happened.)

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

We missed getting some full frontal nudity??? Waah! 🙂

I am so glad you took notes, Janet. It was such a great talk, and I just sat listening and then couldn’t remember the high points…

Janet Mullany
10 years ago

, I don’t think Colin Firth in all his glory was ever intended–it was overreaction! I wish I could remember what he said about Northanger Abbey other than he again made a point of a seduction (Isabella and Captain Tilney).

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

I don’t think he actually did say a lot about NA…that section was so short…

10 years ago


This sounds such an interesting talk! I’m sure that one one reason AD’s screenplays are so successful is that he thinks so much about what is behind the scenes and about the characters and their impetus, rather than merely transferring the descriptions and dialogue to the screen. The example of his musings about Mr Knightley’s motivation is brilliant – I had never thought about those daily visits… I like AD’s version of Emma (partly because I like Kate Bekinsale) but I still struggle with even that. I doubt if I would ever have read beyond the first couple of chapters of Emma if it hadn’t been by Jane Austen!

Elena Greene
10 years ago

I liked the older Emma Thompson version of S&S but preferred the AD version in many ways. I appreciate his insights into Emma but feel he’s unduly harsh. But then I like flawed characters who learn from their mistakes. As to the theories about Knightley, maybe. I think Jane Austen chose to come up with a strong and mature hero to deal with Emma’s spoilt and immature behavior, which if I recall correctly, JA lays to the lack of strong motherly influence.

10 years ago

Interesting post today. Mr. Davies sounds like quite a character. I think the only one I have seen that he did the screenplay for was Pride and Prejudice. No complaints there. I can’t say that I see P & P the way he does — sex, money, and physicality. Yes the money and social standing is of major importance, but the story isn’t that shallow. There is much more being said about society and human nature.
It sounds like you had a great time. Thanks so much for sharing with us.

Interesting guest post on My Jane Austen Book Club. It is kind of weird, but it is plausible that Jane would react to the Damned just the way she seems to in your books.