2008 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: Masterpiece Theatre Adaptations
A filmed version of a novel is an adaptation—an interpretation—of the book, in which dialogue, setting, plot elements, characters, and so forth may be changed or omitted. With reference to one of the following Austen adaptations aired on Masterpiece Theatre in 2008, discuss how such a change or omission affects element(s) or aspect(s) of the novel portrayed: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, or Mansfield Park.
Colonel Brandon: Hero in a Flannel Waistcoat
By Mary E. Chiapetta
On a peaceful day in the heart of England the tranquil quietude of a golden afternoon is rent, with startling abruptness, by the strident cry of a soaring falcon. The magnificence and haughty independence of this great bird, seems, by its very ferocity, to declare the impossibility of his ever submitting to the will of another. Yet in the height of his glory this arrogant creature falters in his course, and with talons poised and wings outspread, he alights on the arm of the man whose call induced his descent, as, with flushing cheek and sparkling eyes aglow, a pretty damsel looks admiringly on. Colonel Brandon, so powerful and yet so gentle, strokes the falcon, and Marianne begins to realize that he alone can call her down from the haughty flight of her romantic prejudices; and that by him alone can the ruffled feathers of her injured spirits be soothed. 1
This stunningly powerful character is a far cry from the flannel waistcoat and quiet demeanor of Jane Austen’s Colonel Brandon. His strong yet gentle courting of Marianne in the film stands in stark opposition to the cool and aloof disinterest of his novel counterpart, whose eventual happiness is due almost entirely to the persuasion of Marianne’s family in inducing her to wed a man for whom she felt “no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship”(259). In this film, the seeds of heroism which Jane Austen so abundantly sowed in her novel have grown to fruition in Colonel Brandon’s character, and in the physical manifestations of his inner strength he has finally emerged from his former insignificance as the hero in a world of heroines. His emotions too, which in the novel were concealed beneath his delicacy and stoic reserve have at last found fitting expression in this film. This latter change in the representation of his character is perhaps the most significant to his emerging heroism, for in making him more human, this film has at last enabled its audience to sympathize in his concerns and thereby to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for his character. Even the focus of the tale itself is shifted by this change, for by giving him an air of romance, Marianne’s reasonable transformation is no longer so essential to the plot, and his conquest of her heart is free to assume center stage.
Although in the novel Colonel Brandon has always epitomized the qualities of nobility, integrity, and justice, his studied reserve and grave countenance would surely do nothing towards the establishment of his screen presence. The initial impression which one receives of him in the novel is rather of a recessive and elderly personage, of one “whom everyone speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see and nobody remembers to talk to” (33). Yet it is through no lack either of heroism, interest or character that he did not develop into the hero he might have been, for his intrinsic character and tragic history comprise all of the elements which are necessary to turn him into an awe- inspiring and romantic champion. Rather, the difficulty lies in the novel’s presentation of his character, and the natural reluctance of an eighteenth-century woman to threaten the establishments of propriety by seeking to fully develop his masculinity. Having never witnessed the behavior of a gentleman when he was not in the presence of a lady, it assuredly would have been an arduous task for Jane Austen to continue her general realism and authenticity of narration in such a situation. (Interview with screenwriter Andrew Davies, clip two, PBS.org)
With this difficulty presenting the only obstacle to Colonel Brandon’s emergence as the hero of the tale, the film has easily remedied the situation by providing him with the emotional expression and eager gallantry which alone were wanting in his character. Indeed, the film has done an excellent job of picking up where Jane Austen left off, and by dramatizing those episodes which the novel had deemed insignificant, it has permitted us to gain a deeper realization of the hidden facets in Colonel Brandon’s character.
In illustration of this, one may envision the clammy cold of a damp morning in the chill hour before dawn. The scene is a quiet glade, and all nature seems to await with bated breath the gory scene which will soon unfold there. The two combatants come into view, the face of one seeking to conceal his as yet unacknowledged guilt, and the trepidation he experiences upon facing so fearsome an adversary. The countenance of the other expresses his wrath, confidence, and anger against the perpetrator of injustice. Suddenly the battle begins, and with astonishing vehemence the contenders duel for supremacy. 2 This scene does much towards the establishment of Colonel Brandon’s heroic qualities—of his courage in staunchly opposing the heinous conduct of Willoughby to Miss Williams, and of his determined love of justice. This duel also is the first to fully establish that manly virility which gives to his character a new dimension, for by the acquirement of this physical prowess he has become a much more redoubtable advocate of justice than Jane Austen had created him to be. Indeed, this scene which so well enhances our knowledge of Colonel Brandon’s heroism is present only as a passing reference in the novel, for by it we’re informed only that, “one meeting was unavoidable” and as “we returned unwounded…the meeting…never got abroad” (142). Such a glib mention of this epic sequence is barely formulated even to engage our notice. Ironically, however, the film takes advantage of this scene in a still more significant way; for while it confirms our belief in Colonel Brandon’s integrity, it also arouses our sympathy for him by reminding us of his hopeless love for Marianne. The startling impetuosity and passion of the duelers is just one aspect of this scene which suggests a secondary motive to their animosity; namely, Willoughby’s dishonorable treatment of Marianne. The frequent cuts between Marianne and the duel can leave little doubt as to her being the real foundation of the hatred and enmity which subsists between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby. No mention of this motive is made in the novel, however, for there it is explicitly stated that Miss Williams’ loss of her honor is Colonel Brandon’s sole inducement to engage Willoughby in battle. In the novel, Colonel Brandon was not even aware of Marianne’s similar injury until after he had avenged his ward (142, 122). This implication is a useful one, for it redirects the course of the film, and by focusing our attention exclusively on Colonel Brandon’s love of Marianne, it sets the stage for the further development of his romance with her.
By virtue of its newly established relation to Marianne, this scene is prevented from sinking into its former insignificance. It now acts as an emotional vent in relieving the tension of rivalry which had continually accrued between them from the onset of their acquaintance, and adds a further flair of romance to Colonel Brandon’s heroism. In the film, it is this rivalry which demonstrates what an active part Colonel Brandon has assumed in Marianne’s affairs, for even when his hopes as a suitor are dashed he continues to play a significant role as her protector. His duel with Willoughby seems to imply a culmination of this rivalry, in which Colonel Brandon’s deep dislike and envy of the man are aggravated beyond enduring by his wanton abandonment of the girls who loved him, both of whom are so intimately connected with Colonel Brandon himself. However, we can gather nothing of this elucidating rivalry from the novel, for even Colonel Brandon’s love of Marianne is expressed only in general terms of sadness, and the jealous passions which contribute so much to the interests of the film are completely subdued beneath his stoic and icy exterior. He realizes how little an older gentleman like himself would appeal to the romance of a seventeen year old, and he accepts his lot, yet the perfect composure with which he does so may well lead us to question the sincerity of his affections (36-37). Willoughby, also, is completely free from the throes of jealousy, and seems to regard Colonel Brandon with scorn rather than as a potential rival (33-34).
In the aftermath of the duel Willoughby is so completely sunken in our esteem that he has forfeited the heroic position he had, for a time, usurped from Colonel Brandon; and the severe moral ineptitude of the younger man has caused us to look with greater praise upon the constancy and true heroism of the Colonel. With the manifestation of his heroism and romance complete, the duel marks the point of the film’s divergence from the novel; for, with the themes of romance now inherent in Colonel Brandon’s character, Marianne’s transition from excessive sensibility to mature good sense is rendered unnecessary to the fulfillment of her desires, and from this point on our hero’s conquest of her heart assumes center stage.
The goodness and generosity of Colonel Brandon are universally praised in the novel, yet for all of his excellent qualities it cannot be denied that he made a rather dull and uninteresting suitor. Indeed, no mention is made of his courting Marianne at all, and her eventual decision to marry him is founded wholly on its being the desire of her family and the “rational” thing to do (259). In the film, however, the romance which so early on was introduced into Colonel Brandon’s character does not disappoint us, and we are at last enabled to view his courtship of Marianne as it should have been. It is truly a beautiful sequence, for where his courageous duel with Willoughby inspired our admiration, his kindly compassion and gentle wooing are sure to warm the heart. During the time of Marianne’s infatuation with the villainous Willoughby, Colonel Brandon’s pure and disinterested love for her had made him her protector; and when that danger was removed, it took the form of her comforter.
With offers of access to his library and invitations to play on his pianoforte he seeks to beguile her lonely hours, and to the best of his abilities he strives to fill the vacant place in her heart. These delicate attentions are not wholly original, for in the novel we hear that Colonel Brandon did indeed promise Marianne the use of his library (235). However, in the novel, the action implied little more than his inherent generosity, and so it accomplished nothing towards the revelation of Colonel Brandon’s character or sentiments. Yet even in the midst of his gentle sympathies Colonel Brandon’s heroism and strength of character are not forgotten, and by his falconry and other athletic activities the film reminds us of his strong virility.
It is therefore no wonder that Marianne should fall in love with this hero; for his vigorous strength and gentle compassion, his goodness and generosity, could not but inspire her admiration. His constancy both to herself, and before her to his lost but beloved Eliza, and his considerate attentions must in turn enkindle her love; while his tragic history and her own similar suffering from the inconstancy of Willoughby must necessarily appeal to the full force of her romantic sensibilities. Marianne at last realizes that Colonel Brandon is everything she could have wished for in her husband, and like the falcon her restless nature is attracted to his serenity and strength. Yet her romance is not compromised, for just as the falcon is not tamed by its descent to the Colonel, neither must Marianne’s disposition be transformed. Thus it is evident that while Marianne’s acquirement of the maturity to control her emotions would contribute materially to her happiness, it is no longer a necessity in regards to her marriage. For where the focus of the novel is on Marianne’s abandonment of romance, the attention of the film is fixed rather on Colonel Brandon’s acquirement of it.
1 Since the Masterpiece Theater Sense & Sensibility is a recent release the screenplay was not accessible, thus creating difficulty in properly citing the scenes. I sought advice from an English doctoral candidate at LSU and he recommended that I acknowledge the movie with this endnote.