Adaptations: Values Dissonance

What is values dissonance? This article from TV Tropes does a great job explaining it in long form (really long form if you wind up wiki walking) but the short version is, values dissonance is what happens when the structure and/or aesthetic choices of a work are presenting themes that fight against each other. It doesn’t always mean that values are directly opposed, but there’s only so much space in a given work (and the mind of the audience) for each story. When the themes of a story are too many or just don’t work well together it creates values dissonance.

The phenomena of values dissonance occurs most often when a story is a collaboration or an adaptation and the various parties involved don’t agree on what the major theme or purpose of the work should be. This doesn’t always have to be an open disagreement, they may just be trying to fit all their shared ideas into a package that isn’t equipped to deal with them or, as is often the case in adaptations, they may just have too much respect for the original work to want to change “sacred writ” and just try and shoehorn their own ideas into a story. And, of course, it can be any possible combination of those things plus any other number of circumstances such as studio/publisher interference or just not having enough time to work everything out.

What I want to talk about today is not values dissonance per se as it is adaptations and what makes them so difficult. It just so happens that the number one killer of adaptations in my personal opinion is values dissonance.

But wait! You say that I recently did another post on adaptations where I explicitly said thematic material was changed resulting in an adapted work that was just as good as the original, if not better? You’re right, I did. Edge of Tomorrow made huge thematic shifts to the story of All You Need is Kill. But more importantly, it then carefully extrapolated those thematic shifts to every aspect of the film, transforming characters, dialog, situations and plot to fit while, at the same time, producing a visually arresting film with a solid plot that would be more comprehensible than the original to it’s target audience.

Reread that sentence a few times. It boils down what the scriptwriting and production team did over the course of a year or so to it’s bare basics, the execution was much more complex – and that was not a simple sentence to begin with. Edge of Tomorrow was a phenomenal success in adapting a book to screen in part because it was so conscious of the changes it was making and their impact on the work as a whole.

Let’s look at two adaptations of the same famous work that strive to be faithful to the original work. My original urge here was to go with Shakespeare, since he’s pretty well known and his stuff has been translated to screen more than once. Problem is, I’ve only read a few of his plays and I’ve only ever seen them on the stage. Plus, theater translates more readily to film than books, so it might not be the best choice for this purpose. And I didn’t want to bring modern day reinterpretations into the mix, as good as I’m sure West Side Story is.

The solution? Do a work by a different author that has been reinterpreted for the screen more than once which I’m already familiar with in all forms! So today we’re going to be talking about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The two most well known adaptations of Pride and Prejudice are probably the 1995 A&E TV miniseries staring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and the 2005 film version staring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden. For purposes of clarity, since both share the same title, we’ll use their years of release to differentiate them.

This is not a review of Pride and Prejudice so I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the work – and I’ll wait if you need to go out and read/watch it before we continue. It really is worth your time, as all Austen’s work is, although I think my favorite adaptation of her work will always be Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. (Yes, even though there’s no Colin Firth. Though Mr. Darcy is still my favorite male character of hers, largely due to Firth’s superior performance.)

Most of the caveats of my last post apply here as well – this isn’t about actors or costuming or any of that other stuff, just the way the story is presented.

So let’s get down to brass tacks! There’s three categories where I feel the 2005 version suffers from values dissonance which results in the film being slightly weaker than the 1995 miniseries. And they are:

Elizabeth Bennet 

Our main character. In both versions and the book Lizzie is a woman of solid upbringing, good character and strange family. With four sisters and eccentric parents Lizzie is bound to be something of a character herself but fortunately it manifests in nothing more damaging than strong opinions and the guts to stick by them, generally admirable character traits. But Lizzie’s strengths are often her weaknesses and her tendency in the story to make snap judgments about a person and then carry them forward causes her to misjudge the characters of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham in spite of mounting evidence that contradicts her opinions.

Elizabeth is the perfect flawed protagonist for a morality play. She’s a great person, much better than many people we know, in just bout every respect but one – her tendency towards prejudice. This, much like Mr. Darcy’s high regard for his own station in life, leads her to bad behavior that causes her grief, first in failing to recognize Mr. Darcy’s good qualities beneath his antisocial behavior and second in failing to recognize Mr. Wickham’s caddishness under his guise of geniality.

Austen very carefully shows Lizzie’s brilliance in a number of ways. She spars with the dour and acerbic Catherine de Bourgh in a way that is both meticulously formal and correct but still slyly irreverent and witty. We can tell she isn’t intimidated by this so-called personage before her but rather confident in her own position and more than capable to use the mores of the times as both shield from Lady Catherine’s attacks and sword to prod the lady back into place.

While the 1995 version largely keeps this dynamic (something of a theme for this version) the 2005 version chooses to have Lizzie react in a more defiant fashion, more directly putting Lady Catherine in her place. While this is a very modern and fully understandable reaction it’s very modernity puts Lizzie at odds with the rest of the story. It creates values dissonance between her and the rest of the characters, including her own romantic interest and, at times, her own character.

Worse, the 2005 version chooses to focus on the reaction Elizabeth and her family have towards Mr. Darcy’s handling of Lydia’s elopement as the catalyst for their changing opinions of him when, in truth, it was Lizzie’s realization that she had misjudged Wickham that caused her to reevaluate all her other snap judgments in Austen’s book. Only when confronted with her own character flaw could she begin adjusting her understanding to take it into account. (In Lizzie’s own words, “Until that moment I never knew myself.”) Where the 2005 Lizzie is carried away by an emotion of gratitude the 1995 Lizzie can say that she has come to know and appreciate Darcy’s character better. One of these is engaging character growth the other is pure sentiment.

(That’s not a contrast, by the way. Engaging character growth creates sentiment, the reverse is only true at times – and those times are pretty rare. When sentiment from character growth and plain old sentiment compete, the former always wins out because it’s founded on something solid.)

Themes of Class Warfare 

This is one of modern Hollyweird’s favorite themes and at first glance it seems a natural fit. After all, there is a sort of class difference between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, isn’t there? Well, sort of.

As Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine, “He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman’s daughter.” Or, in other words, the difference is one of degree rather than one of kind. Darcy’s own feelings of superiority to the Bennets come from his feeling that he is better behaved than they are when Lizzie serves to show that he is just as offputting in his own way. The problem is not that there is a difference in wealth but rather in how people react to one another, difference in wealth being just one aspect of that (embodied not by the main protagonists but by the relatively minor character Catherine de Bourgh.)

This isn’t to say that class conflict never occurs or that it has no place at the storyteller’s table. Neither is true. But it wasn’t the story Austen was trying to tell nor is it something that seems to have even been on her radar. Pride and Prejudice was a story of self discovery amidst social mores with romance as the result of the journey. Romance was not the cause of self discovery nor did the process cut across the standards of the time (much). This was in part because that was the time and in part because Austen was writing about the life she knew, a strong trait in an author. The introduction of class warfare as a theme creates values dissonance between Austen’s original work and the 2005 version that is sidestepped in the 1995 version by, again, hewing to the original story. Granted it’s not much, but both works were of good quality and so ever little shortcoming shows.

Treatment of the Bennet Family 

Let’s be honest – this is not a fully functional family in any version of the story. However Austen’s version and the 1995 version portray this largely as a result of the parents being less than ideal. While funny and intellectual, Mr. Bennet is also condescending and a little mean to his younger three daughters. He feels they lack sense but never seems to try and teach it to them, even though it is clearly his opinion (and that of most everyone else who knows her) that they will not learn sense from their mother.

And Mrs. Bennet… lacks sense. Sense of people, sense of propriety, sense of the moment, just about every kind of sense it’s possible for a person to have, Mrs. Bennet is without.

Never the less, the Bennets are a whole unit, supporting one another as best they can in all eventualities and forming a tightly knit family that stands in stark contrast to the nearly-solitary Mr. Darcy who, although born to excellent parents, now has no family to speak of save a much younger sister who he is in no position to confide in. It is in part the contrast between this family with its grudging solidarity and Mr. Darcy’s aloofness that leads to his own process of self discovery.

In praise of the 2005 version almost all of these family dynamics are left in place… except one. As Lizzie’s relationships with Wickham and Darcy become more twisted she lets the secrets pile up as well, rather than confiding in her sister Jane and thus giving herself an impartial mirror to view herself, in as well as cutting herself off from the support that so mystifies Mr. Darcy. In short, she behaves like a teenager of the modern day, once again creating values dissonance between the supportive Elizabeth, who fights for Jane’s happiness as well as her own, and the much more self absorbed character portrayed by Keira Knightly. On top of that, it runs counter to the original them of self discovery that permeates Austen’s original work, as Lizzie has fewer ways to see herself clearly since she has no one she can trust to give her an outside view of herself.

Now it’s not my intention to sit here and bash on the work of Deborah Moggach and Joe Wright in creating the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. What they did was very impressive from beginning to end. The things I’ve pointed out aren’t the most important details of the story. But at the same time the difference between good and great, a strong impression and just vaguely memorable, is frequently in those details. Adapting a work, particularly a well known and popular work, only adds to the difficulty of getting all those details right because there’s an added layer of complexity, namely audiences already expecting certain things from your adaptation.

Where Edge of Tomorrow prospered was in completely reimagining the original premise, whereas the 2005 Pride and Prejudice (and so many other similar movies) stumbled when it tried to shoehorn in viewpoints that didn’t mesh with the story they originally set out to tell without that level of reimagining to make the new material work.

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3 responses to “Adaptations: Values Dissonance

  1. To me, one of the most egregious instances of values dissonance is the handling of Elizabeth and Darcy’s encounter at Pemberly. Directors of period pieces are too often oblivious to the cultural mores governing the times. Lizzie wandering his house on her own? Scampering back to the inn by herself–and her aunt and uncle not even worried? No, no, no. Worse still, the climactic declaration scene: Lizzie wandering across a field at dawn in her nightie to meet Darcy? NO! NO! NO!
    Austen’s novels live in a world which is very propriety-conscious, when a young woman’s reputation was vital to her future security. Lizzie lives in a provincial society at a time when solitude is very hard to come by, especially for a female. The 2005 version chooses to use the themes of the Romantic era–solitude, individualism and love of nature–which is an interesting visual choice: Lizzie alone on a cliff, Lizzie wandering alone amidst statues, or swinging in the barnyard. But it is entirely inconsistent with the world Austen created. Even Lady Catherine arriving at dead of night seemed wildly improbable. No matter how rude or upset she might be, Lady C would observe social conventions, wouldn’t she?
    One thing I did appreciate about the 2005 version was the relationship between Mr. And Mrs. Bennett, which was less caracatured than Austen’s depiction.

    • Sometimes I wonder if the directors are actually oblivious or just want to “make the piece more believable to modern audiences” and just fail to consider the wider implications of their attempts at verisimilitude, which actually tend to work against their stated goals, at least from the critical perspective. This leads me to believe that many guilty of values dissonance just neglect to, or don’t want to, think about their work critically.

      • I would agree…certainly in the case of the director of the 2005 version, my understanding was that he had little actual familiarity with Jane Austen; so I’d put it down to ignorance. Which isn’t really an excuse, is it? When you’re developing a multi-million dollar project, SOMEONE has to be doing their homework! The “modern audience” issue (i.e., TEEN audience?) may also be part of it, as well as a determination to be different from the iconic previous adaptation. Still, those aspects of the 2005 version set my teeth on edge to such a degree that I cannot watch it any more. Ah well. I’m old.

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