Adapting Jane Austen's Mansfield Park for the screen was never a life's ambition for filmmaker Patricia Rozema. "It would never have crossed my mind," she says. The project came her way as a commission, in the midst of the Austen fever that still held Hollywood in its grip a couple of years ago. "It was a proposal by [Miramax honcho] Harvey Weinstein, and I immediately said no," Rozema recalls. "I mean, this is well-trod territory, so how do I make it fresh and new and beautiful, which is supposedly my job? But I didn't know the novel then, and as soon as read it, I thought, 'Oh, this is something different.'"
By phone from Toronto, the tirelessly polite and diplomatic director, previously best known for her uneven but often enchanting 1987 debut feature I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, explains the approach she took in her rather free adaptation of Mansfield: "The main character is notorious among Austenites for being not very well fleshed out, and sort of self-righteous. But the novel is very interesting, and I'd have hated to see it not get an adaptation for that reason."
She therefore borrowed on the letters and diaries of Austen herself to enrich the character of Fanny Price. "It was mostly addition," says the director. "Wherever I could, I used the description that was in the novel. When that didn't work, I used her letters. And when that didn't work, I wrote my own dialogue."
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The result of this method has stirred up some controversy among Austen purists. "The Jane-ites are all atwitter over it," says Rozema, but then, ever tactful, she adds, "Or, not atwitter; it's a legitimate concern how someone adapts a work. But the changes are actually much less extreme than some adaptations. I would sometimes pass my draft versions to various Jane scholars and they would send it back with passages marked 'modern English, modern English.' And it wasn't modern, it was Jane's; I just chose the freshest parts."
Rozema has done well rethinking classic works for the screen. After a "spectacularly unwell-received" second feature, The White Room, her better-received second feature, the Sapphic love story When Night Is Falling, was a modern twist on the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Rozema then won an Emmy for her 1997 TV short Bach Cello Suite #: Six Gestures, made in collaboration with Yo Yo Ma.
Another strand of Mansfield Park that Rozema emphasized was the novel's guilty undercurrent of awareness of the slave trade, which supports the family at the title estate. Although this may sound like a modernist spin, Rozema's research led her to a different conclusion: "She [Austen] wouldn't have had to be very progressive to be an abolitionist. The slave trade was ended the following year, 1807. It was generally, collectively believed that the slave trade was inhumane and horrible and had to be stopped. Especially by the young."