A time of restraint

Remaining true to Jane Austen means revealing the hardships of the period.

pride and prejiduce 88 2 (photo credit: )
pride and prejiduce 88 2
(photo credit: )
It's not easy for British novelist and screenwriter to explain the choices she made writing her screenplay for the movie version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the opening attraction of the British Film Festival here, to an audience of students at the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television in Jerusalem. Most of the students have not seen the film yet, but an even bigger problem is that many of them have not read the book and are not familiar with Jane Austen. But Moggach is gentle and unflappable as she gives the students a quick introduction to Jane Austen. "It sounds trivial when you explain it, but it really isn't," she says of the classic story of Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters, which, like most literature of its time, revolves around whom they will marry. Breaking with the tradition of more genteel costume dramas of the past, both on film and television, Moggach has chosen to create what she calls a "muddy-hem version," in which the realities of life during the period are not glossed over. The Bennet family, although it has a few servants, is financially strapped and their farm animals mill around the untended yard. The house is worn and cluttered and the Bennet girls wear attractive clothes, to be sure, but not elaborate period gowns. "I wanted to show the real pain and economic tragedy of that world," says the London-based Moggach, author of 15 novels, in an interview. Her bestselling novel, Tulip Fever, is in the process of being adapted for the screen. "Jane Austen never wrote a scene of men alone in a room. She had a canny eye for economics and the plight of women, but of men as well." She has chosen to tell the story completely through the eyes of Elizabeth (played by Keira Knightley), and has minimized or cut other story lines. Although many Austen purists might wish the book could be brought to the screen with no changes whatsoever, "in a two-hour version you can't have everything....I had to pull a comb through Jane Austen's dialogue, which is of course very clotted and wonderful." Although she is candid about many visual touches the director added to her script to make it more cinematic that she feels improved it, she was not happy with the most controversial addition - a passionate kiss between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy at the very end. British audiences were so incensed by this scene that it was cut from the British version, although it will be seen in America because "apparently they thought American audiences have a bit of a sweeter tooth." According to Moggach, who wrote an alternative scene to establish the intimacy between Elizabeth and Darcy at the end, "the kiss is so not Jane Austen. They were very powerfully attracted to each other, we certainly understand that. But it was a time of restraint and constriction." The kiss controversy notwithstanding, she is very pleased with the film and enjoys writing for movies and television. "I had written four novels when I began to write for television," she says. "I like sitting around a table and discussing scenes with a bunch of people. Working at home [on a novel] you don't meet anybody. Scripts are very collaborative." MOGGACH, 57, began writing novels over 30 years ago, when she was a young mother living with her then husband in Pakistan. "It can be very liberating to leave your country, to leave everything that's familiar...It can help you make sense of your past." Her latest novel, These Foolish Things, is a look at a future in which taking care of the elderly will be outsourced to the Third World. Tom Stoppard worked on a recent version of the script for Tulip Fever, a story set against the background of the mania for tulips that swept Europe in the 1630s. Moggach doesn't know when production will start. This is her first trip to Israel and she finds it fascinating. "I've learned so much here," she says. A visit to the Nazareth Cinematheque particularly impressed her. She described a program in which young children are shown films that promote tolerance between Jews and Arabs. "They get to them very young," she says. The sophistication of the Sam Spiegel Film School also made an impression and she is eager to see some recent Israeli films that haven't made it to London yet. Hearing about Israeli and Palestinian films, she says, "It just shows that art is everything, isn't it? It's not just the icing on the cake. It is the cake." As for the future, Moggach says she will continue to juggle screenwriting and novels. "There's the public world of writing scripts and the private world of writing novels. I love doing both," she says.