I’ve been on a big Timothy Hutton kick lately, so naturally I had to go watch Ordinary People, the famous 1980 film for which a young Hutton won an Oscar. Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, etc; they’re all fantastic. Actually, Hirsch doesn’t really rock my world–I think I’ve seen better psychiatrists on screen before–but the rest of them are such deeply felt performances that I couldn’t even bring myself to scoff at the emotional tribulations and petty problems of wealthy American suburbanites. You’re rich! You have no material wants! And okay, you’re in a life-destroying emotional hell caused by severe trauma. That actually is a real problem.
If I’d read the original novel by Judith Guest, instead of watching the film version directed by Robert Redford, I could have stopped there for my contribution to the women creators roundtable, but I didn’t, so I have to go another direction. What’s sort of been on my mind is the extraordinary subtlety of Ordinary People: it’s brimming with delicate, minute observations of the interactions of people, the better to show how fragile they are, how broken the Jarrett family is. In the middle of the film, there’s a perfectly awful conversation between Moore and Hutton’s characters, a scene in which the mother and son, who have practically no relationship at all, try to reminisce; in just a few seconds, it goes horribly sour and becomes apparent that these people, who have lived in the same house for years, do not have emotionally compatible memories of the past. They can’t connect.
The delicacy of the filmmaking reminded me of the experience of reading Jane Austen novels. In popular culture, at least, Austen’s works are mainly considered in terms of their romantic appeal–and I will say now that as I love subtle, understated passion in fiction, I think Pride and Prejudice is among the most totally awesome romances I’ve ever read–but there is also the manners part of her comedies of manners.
Once, when I was enthusing about the Regency Romance queen Georgette Heyer to a fellow bookseller, I said that she was all the fun of Jane Austen, but purely fluffy. He, an aspiring horror writer, replied that he thought Jane Austen was fluffy. If you’re oriented towards Kafka-esque horror, I guess that makes sense, but if you read Austen in the right mood, she can make your skin crawl without needing any addition of fucking zombies. (I’ve been predicting for years that the next natural step after the publishing boom of sexy vampire romance porn and werewolf romance porn was zombie romance porn, but this wasn’t quite was I was expecting.)
Actually, one of the biggest differences between Heyer and Austen, aside from the fact that the former was a twentieth century writer who ruled the romance genre spawned by the nineteenth century novels written by the latter, is that Heyer likes everybody. Her books feature plenty of dumb, petty characters who screw up life for her heroes, but she treats them gently. Heyer’s work is happy, and in her romances, which are deeply pleasurable fantasies, she chuckles at human foibles and leaves it at that. Austen is more cutting, less forgiving of fault, and the constraints of social expectations bind her characters more tightly. Her novels are not narratives of rebellion, nor anthropological studies, but observations of the way people live and feel within the existing frameworks of a society. Possibly I’m just reinventing the English Lit 101 wheel here, but man, that’s huge; that’s why we still read Austen. Somewhere between the psychological freakout of The Yellow Wallpaper and the extraterrestrial thrashing ooze of Lovecraft, there is the horror of going down to have breakfast with family members who think more about flossing their teeth than about your inner emotional life. (Parts of Ordinary People remind me of parts of Persuasion. You may get out alive; you may even get out sane, but you cannot get out of these scenarios without personal damage.) In terms of their literary worth, creeping insanity and New England towns that worship tentacled alien gods certainly have their merits, but most people probably deal more with the minor and major horrors of human dealings than with those first two things.
Austen doesn’t just reflect social mores in her books; she offers harsh judgement on people and behaviors, albeit discreetly voiced. It requires relatively close reading to get all that, as her prose is both precise in meaning and complex in structure. That’s part of the modern-day fun in reading these books, of course. Elizabeth and Darcy wouldn’t be half so romantic if they communicated in simpler language; it’s all about the delicacy and the intricacy of their conversations and abbreviated meetings, right up until their restrained-but-heartfelt mutual agreement of affection in the finale. I haven’t read all of Austen’s novels, but the same restraint ruled in Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, so I think it is kind of her thing. Encounters with nineteenth-century gothic romance have made it clear to me that the emotional restraint is definitely an Austen-specific thing, too, not a period feature.
My sister makes fun of the Keira Knightley movie version of Pride and Prejudice for being so emotionally naked; personally, I liked it because it had big, smelly-looking pigs running around in the yard and there was a lot of mud. What it lacked in mannered restraint, it made up for with literal earthiness; I thought that was kind of neat. There have already been like five billion screen adaptations of that book, most of which didn’t have goddamned Colin Firth; at least the Knightley version had some sort of unique concept in that it substituted minutely observed detail of the physical reality of middle-class country life in Regency England for the novel’s minutely observed detail of the social interactions of the middle class in Regency England, which played to the strengths of the adapting medium and still left a lot of space for unsaid feeing. It’s a film; can you blame them for wanting to make it atmospheric? And I suddenly realize I’ve come round full circle and am again talking about a movie with Donald Sutherland in it.
Speaking of questionable adaptations, though, anybody see that hideous recent Marvel comics version of Pride and Prejudice? I wish they’d beaten Grahame-Smith to the zombie pastiche thing, at least, since putting zombies into everything is I think Marvel’s main sales strategy these days.