Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2012


"Trans-culturing Jane Austen: The Mollywood Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice" by Irén Annus

Irén Annus is Associate Professor of American Studies and member of the Gender Studies Research Group at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her research interests include the construction and representation of social identities with a focus on gender, religion and race/ethnicity. Email:

This study explores a 2003 Mollywood adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), an adaptation originally entitled Pride and Prejudice – A Latter-day Comedy which was the first feature film by Latter-day director Andrew Black. Drawing on Joy Sperling’s proposition that in our globally connected world “cultural meaning is located … in transactions among (trans)cultures” (27), the paper investigates the ways in which this film can be interpreted as an example of trans-culturation. The investigation is carried out within Arjun Appadurai’s framework of global cultural flows and proposes that: (1) through the appropriation of Austen’s novel and its various adaptations, Black was able to connect to global mediascapes; (2) the director’s attempt to make a Latter-day – but then also a Christian – comedy located the film within global ideoscapes; and (3) his efforts to introduce a multi-ethnic context and to tailor this production to the currently fashionable chick flick genre lent the film important dimensions within ideologically positioned ethnoscapes.

1. Trans-culturation and Global Cultural Flows

The notion of globalization seems inescapable in a description of the complexities of our contemporary realities. Sperling argues that in “a global economy in which language differences frequently inhibit communication, visual images appear to facilitate communication across language and cultural borders” (27). In fact, as Nicholas Mirzoeff proposes, visual culture has become the foremost postmodern space for cultural interaction and transaction; it thus offers the most dynamic global platform for the constitution, negotiation and contestation of the plurality of meanings and cultures, since for him, visual culture “is now the locus of cultural and historical change.”

Sperling develops Mirzoeff’s proposition further by arguing that the study of visual culture, therefore, should acknowledge that the visual has emerged as a site of trans-cultural space, where cultural transactions and subsequent transformations take place. American Visual Studies, she proposes, should consider the transformative power that images have on a global scale, as well as the fact that images function trans-culturally, within a multiplicity of cultures and interpretations. As a result, “there is no single metanarrative of Americanness, … but rather multiple intersecting fragments of refracting, unstable, and contingent identity(ies)” (32). In fact, as Mirzoeff also concludes, “it no longer makes sense to locate cultural activity solely within national or geographic boundaries, as in terms of Western culture;” rather, one should approach cultural productions through the global cultural economy.

This term was borrowed from Appadurai, who finds that the “central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization” (32). In order to overcome this tension, he suggests that “the new global cultural economy has to be seen as a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order” (ibid) that can be most successfully explored through “the relationship between five dimensions of global cultural flows that can be termed (a) ethnoscapes, (b) mediascapes, © technoscapes, (d) financescapes, and (e) ideoscapes” (33). Of these areas, he singles out mediascapes, along with ideoscapes, as being prominently connected to the “landscape of images” (35) and rooted in narratives, through which segments of realities and identities can be represented. This approach to understanding the cultural realm as a global trans-cultural space with specific aspects or scapes within which to work offers an interpretative framework that makes it possible to conceptualize and explain the adaptation of an early nineteenth-century English novel to a contemporary American Latter-day film for a broader, Christian audience.

2. Appropriating Austen: Current Mediascapes

Appadurai defines mediascapes as referring “both to the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information … and to the images of the world created by these media” (35). He maintains that mediascapes produce complex sets of elaborate images and narratives, often overlapping and intricately interconnected and thus can be regarded as scapes within which dynamic trans-cultural transactions may take place.

The last century witnessed the unprecedented development of various forms of media, which has resulted not only in the advancement and expansion of technologies, leading up to the digital age, but also the specialization of production companies and facilities. Within the film industry, the initial emergence of Hollywood and the later development of other specific production industries, such as Mollywood, reflect this tendency of specialization or particularization.

As an umbrella term, Mollywood refers to relatively low-budget Latter-day films of various genres, created by Mormon directors and companies, addressed either to the Latter-day population and thus distributed within limited geographical areas with a high density of Mormons, or to a wider audience with the purpose of educating it on Mormonism. Mollywood productions share the feature of concentrating on issues specific to the Mormon faith, church and community: their beliefs, history, distinct practices, unique experiences, specific concerns, etc. All of these are quite particular as Mormonism is often considered to be a unique religion with specific American features, constituting a “peculiar people” (O’Dea 53) who, at times, have even been described as comprising a separate “ethnicity” (Hammond and Warner 59) or “a people” (Bloom 83).

It may come as a surprise, then, that Black decided to make a modernized version of an old English novel as his first Mollywood feature film: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Within mediascapes, his choice may be explained by the wide success of the author and the novel. Austen’s name nowadays seems to guarantee immediate success: within the last two decades, she has emerged as one of the few iconic English-speaking authors to have dominated both the printed and the filmic worlds of the global mediascape. Her unprecedented cultural revival is marked not only by a renewed interest in the publication of her original novels as well as in their adaptations for television and film but also by the appearance of a series of modernized versions of her stories, both in literature – such as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason as well as Debrah White Smith’s adaptations published within her Austen series – and on screen – such as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless and Sharon Maguire’s adaptation of Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. More recent instances of visual re-writes of Austen’s ultimately most acclaimed novel are Bride and Prejudice and Pride and Prejudice – A Latter-day Comedy.

Black’s film tells a contemporary story of a 26-year old American woman named Elizabeth Bennet achieving success in her studies at the university and in her career as a writer, as well as finding true love and the prospect of a happy marriage to a wealthy Englishman, Mr. Darcy. As noted by Mary Chan, Jennifer Woolston and Juliette Wells (2008), the adaptations are always in a unique dialogue with the novel and other adaptations. In this film, in addition to the names and a series of other references to Austen and her novel, both in the storyline and in actual images (including a picture of Austen herself, for example), the film also integrates the actual text of the novel with lines quoted from it and printed in stylized letters on screen between various sections of the film. In this way, the original novel and printed medium structure the visual experience created by Black in his adaptation.

The film develops an elaborate series of underlying connections between the printed and the visual scapes through the figure of Elizabeth, who embodies not only Elizabeth Bennet, as made obvious numerous times throughout the story, but also Jane Austen herself. In the film, Elizabeth is a graduate student and an up-and-coming author working on her first book – referred to by many as a romance, a classification that she immediately rejects each time. She continually puts her work through substantial re-writes, but, in spite of this, she experiences difficulty finding a publisher. The novel on which she is working is set in 1813, as we can see from a quick glimpse at her computer screen, the year Pride and Prejudice was first published. This time frame is also confirmed by a short dream Elizabeth has of her novel as she falls asleep in the mountains: in it, the audience sees Elizabeth as the main character of her novel, dressed in Regency period costume, running through a dark forest on a rainy night and then rescued by a strong man who emerges from the mist on horseback, a figure who happens to be Darcy.

Another readily noticeable feature in the film is its intertextuality in terms of its apparent parallels with other Austen adaptations. The primary settings of the film are, for example, the home and the educational environment of the heroine, as is the case in Clueless. When Elizabeth and Jane feel depressed because of their experiences of failure, they launch into a destructive lifestyle, overeating unhealthy food, staring at the TV screen day and night, never straying from their untidy and malodorous room – in much the same way as Bridget Jones does. This ends with the regulation of the female body through various technologies of the self: turning to a healthy diet, doing exercise, cleaning the house, re-channeling energies to normalize their professional life – just as happens with Jones. And, ultimately, all of this leads to accomplishments in both their professional and love lives. In addition, the last scene of the film is evocative of the BBC series made from the novel in 1995, as the spectators approach the mansion in Lyme Park (Disley, Chesire, England), which was used as Pemberley in the series, and see it from the same angle from which Elizabeth Bennet saw it then. The building is integrated into Black’s storyline as a place where Elizabeth happily re-unites with Darcy, as she is enjoying a tour of the building – which also integrates into the film the fashionable Jane Austen tours – so popular among cultural tourists.

3. Austen and Mormonism: Ideoscapes Defined

Appadurai associates ideoscapes with images that reflect various cultures of politics, typically “oriented to capturing state power or a piece of it” (36). While he confines ideoscapes to “a loosely structured synopticon of politics” (ibid), I argue for the expansion of this scape by including religion. Although understandings of ideology and religion have been highly debated, as illustrated by John Gerring’s and Slavoj Žižek’s studies, religions may be regarded within ideoscapes based on the definition of ideology ‘in-itself’ offered by Žižek. He maintains that ideology should be conceptualized as “a doctrine, a composite of ideas, beliefs, concepts, and so on, destined to convince us of its ‘truth’, yet actually serving some unavowed particular power interest” (10). This definition is applicable to religions as well, and thus would allow for the inclusion not only of secular but also of sacred composite mental frameworks within the realm of ideoscapes. In fact, Louis Althusser also regards religious organizations and political formations as two kinds of ideological state apparatuses (110), indicating that religion and politics represent two types of ideologies.

The potential inclusion of religions within ideoscapes would allow for a quest for parallels between the ideologically positioned nature of Austen’s writing and of Black’s film. Actually, this may operate as the platform for previous investigations that have explored possible reasons behind recent appropriations of Austen. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, for example, find that the positive global response to Austen’s novels owes to her eloquent analysis of family life in the Regency era, which carries a meaningful message for today’s readers as well. Paradoxically, they conclude, it is the highly particular and locally specific analysis of early nineteenth-century rural English social life that “allows Austen … to go global.”

Wells (2008) investigates Austen’s presence within a more specific, ideologically positioned genre, charting her impact in the field of Christian literature in the US between 2004 and 2008. Her careful study of the appropriation of Austen both in novels, such as the Christian re-writings of Austen’s works by Debra White Smith, and in advice books on proper social conduct and personal behavior, such as Sarah Arthur’s Dating Mr. Darcy: A Smart Girl’s Guide to Sensible Romance, concludes that Austen’s writings lend themselves to such appropriations as (1) the “anticipated readers are English-speaking Christian women partial to love plots,” just as Austen’s readers were in her age, and (2) the figures in these re-makes, much like Austen’s figures, represent “engaging, trustworthy models for Christian behavior in today’s world.”

The idealized view of Austen’s women, however, has been disputed in recent scholarship. Zsófia Anna Tóth has surveyed these debates and suggested that Austen’s female characters often fail to comply with the social expectations that were held of pure women in the Regency period – which then later developed into the notion of proper womanhood during the Victorian era. Instead, Tóth notes, by employing unique humor, Austen challenges the contemporary dichotomy of pure versus fallen women by depicting female characters as “aggressive and/or lewd … often manipulative, competitive ‘husband hunters’ and ‘greedy schemers’, whose hearts are only concerned with their own monetary and sexual interests (Looser 169)” (185). One may well wonder if the brief cut in the film in which Elizabeth is giving an animated presentation on “lust/love,” as the words on the board behind her indicate, is related to similar concerns.

Still, the overall popularity of Austen among an American, Christian audience prevails, as signified by the numerous volumes published in recent years. This suggests that the particular time and space dimensions that represent a particular socio-cultural reality in Meryton in Regency England in fact corresponds to today’s Western, Christian culture, which tends to be quite traditional and often conservative; to convey an apparent and unified world view; and to expect and promote values and behavior patterns reflective of this. It advocates a patriarchal social order based on gender differences, which are substantiated through biblical interpretations and therefore implied as a set of final, indisputable, invincible positions.

In fact, initially Black aimed to create a more particular appropriation of the novel: the film, as the original title suggests, was intended to be a specifically Mormon film. However, during the final editing, particular Mormon features were eliminated in order to attract a broader, Christian audience (Higson 166). Nevertheless, the film still offers a unique experience for an audience with a Latter-day Saints interest through a number of characters and situations that can be detected in the film.

The story mainly takes place in Utah, as we learn from Wickham, the homeland and hub of Mormonism, a religion that emerged in New York State in the 1820s and was officially established in 1830 – not very much after Austen wrote her novels in the 1810s. Although a religion that allows for change in church policy and practice through the institution of presidential revelations, Mormonism is still known for insisting on observing its traditional values and morals. This is conveyed throughout the film, from ways of dressing through ways of behaving to ways of speaking. Recurring Mormon expectations commonly held, character types and individual motifs widely observed, and certain practices shared all reflect the matrix of LDS realities throughout the film. At the same time, a delicate undercurrent of humor and self-criticism, such as in the characters of Mary and Mr. Collins, establish a context that may in fact not be appreciated by certain staunchly devout members of the faith.

4. Austen and the Social Realm: Mollywood Ethnoscapes

According to Appadurai, “[w]hat is most important about these mediascapes is that they provide (especially in their television, film and cassette forms) large and complex repertoires of images, narratives, and ethnoscapes to viewers throughout the world” (35). It seems to me that mediascapes may, in fact, contribute to the constitution of ethnoscapes, connecting and uniting people, establishing communal cohesion, making an imagined community – to use Benedict Anderson’s term – seem real, especially if it is indeed a global community, as is that of the Latter-day Saints. Mollywood films, moreover, may also act on the potential of homogenizing LDS believers by finding a way to them as part of global cultural flows.

In this sense, for Black, exploiting an already globally embedded cultural capital with the brand name of Jane Austen presented a winning formula. Moreover, in re-framing the story, argues Woolston, Black “grounds his film version in the quintessential chick lit framework of style, setting and character,” another winning formula today. This may not be so unexpected since, as Vivien Jones proposes, Austen may be regarded as a representative of chick lit during the Regency era insofar as her novels were structured around the theme of the experience of womanhood, the boundaries of which she tested through the heroines she created. Similarly, argues Caroline Smith, chick lit today also “seeks to challenge cultural expectations about women” (674).

Moreover, indicates Deborah Baker, the chick flick has also been able to create an artistic environment in which traditional boundaries, both in terms of genre and theme, have become fluid. Pamela Butler and Jigna Desai view this genre as one that produces “middle-class neo-liberal subjects” (2), thus overcoming former understandings of “femininity and gender [that] are often articulated through questions of race, nation, ethnicity, and socio-economic class” (4). Based on these, chick flick may be regarded as constitutive of possible global trans-cultural spaces, where former group boundaries, such as those of ethnicity or nation, may be challenged. Consequently, new ethnoscapes may be initiated, within which Black’s Elizabeth Bennet may emerge as “the new global woman … represented in localized context” (Troost and Greenfield).

In the world of moving pictures, as Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young assert, chick flicks provide the “prime postfeminist media texts” (3) that

raise questions about women’s place – their prescribed social and sexual roles … [through] the cultural characteristics associated with the chick postfeminist aesthetic: a return to femininity, the primacy of romantic attachments, girl power, a focus on female pleasure and pleasures, and the value of consumer culture and girlie goods (4).

They discuss further hallmarks of the genre, including the retro, colorful setting and style, with young women as heroines – the protagonist maintaining a powerful friendship with her girlfriends and surrounded by similar young characters in the movie – who embody the desires of modern, energetic, smart women: the importance of pursuing a career, placing one’s successful professional performance in balance with a happy private life, and re-framing traditional gender roles, such as domesticity (as discussed in further detail by Smith), among other desires.

Mormon culture is depicted in this film as one that “offers space for such very different characters as Collins, Mary and Elizabeth to become the best and happiest versions of themselves” (Wells 2010, 176). This image, argues Wells, presented the possibility of mainstreaming Mormonism by depicting its Christian values, openness and ability to adjust to changing realities (165-169). Moreover, adds Wells, this film also may have operated as a means of popularizing the Mormon faith, as if proselytizing (164, 178).

At the same time, the film may have emerged as a means of connecting Latter-day Saints in various parts of the world. In fact, the film also maintains an unusual multi-ethnic character that to some extent matches the multi-ethnic character of this global religion. The LDS Church maintains probably one of the most extensive and effective missionary systems all over the world. The plurality of cultures within this group – otherwise characterized by ideological homogeneity – is reflected in the ethnic composition of the characters as well as the real actors, who are American, English and Argentine, with the Scottish director adding to this variety. The places integrated into the storyline which is mainly set in Provo, Utah, and Las Vegas, Nevada, include other parts of the US, England and South America. The multicultural character of the LDS milieu is emphasized further by ethnic cuisine that appears in various parts of the film.

5. Conclusion

This film, although reflecting the life of a particular cultural group in a particular location, could have reached a global audience, as have Austen’s novels, despite the localism it represents. The fact that this was a Mollywood film that could have delivered meaningful messages to a worldwide audience of LDS viewers would have supported the possibility of a wide viewership, in addition to the fact that in the end, the film was aimed at a broader, Christian audience. However, it was only shown in limited areas of Mormon America, and even there, has only achieved modest success (Wells 2010, 163). There must have been a number of reasons for this, from occasional weaknesses in the storyline and acting, through low budget and inexperienced staff, to a lack of aggressive marketing strategy and drive for financial success. And, although the film has ultimately failed to integrate into the global cultural economy, it is a fine example of global trans-culturation in terms of cultural production – reflecting the multi-faceted process presented by Appadurai.

 

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