Mansfield Park is sometimes called Jane Austen's "problem" novel, the problem being that its moral vision is so very different from ours, and its heroine seems so much less like our contemporary than Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet do. Austen herself admitted that Fanny Price was a heroine that no one but she would like, but she also said Mansfield Park was the favorite of her novels.
Still, it's not so problematic a book that adapting it for the movies or TV should result in such terrible hashes as the two versions I've seen: The 1999 film written and directed by Patricia Rozema and the British TV version that aired on PBS Sunday night. The movie is better: Frances O'Connor is a good choice as Fanny, and the film at least follows something that resembles an outline of the novel. The chief difficulty with the film is that Rozema tries to interpolate into it a contemporary New Historical view of the book, pointing out that its wealthy idlers are wealthy and idle because of the exploitation of slaves in the West Indies. It's an intellectual premise that Rozema fails to translate into dramatic sense.
In this scene from the film, Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter) returns home to interrupt the theatricals. Jonny Lee Miller is Edmund, Embeth Davidtz Mary Crawford and Alessandro Nivola Henry Crawford. The conversation about breeding mulattos is, of course, not in the novel:
But at least the film version provokes you into thinking about something. The TV version allows for no thought. It's as if the adapter, one Maggie Wadey, was embarrassed by Fanny Price -- whom admittedly some readers regard as merely a prude, a prig and a wimp -- and is determined to turn her into a Harlequin romance heroine, with cleavage enough to catch any man's eye. Billie Piper, so wonderful as Rose on "Doctor Who," is miserably miscast in the role. She's made into a boisterous little child-woman, with a mad crush on her cousin Edmund (who is at least attractively embodied by Blake Ritson). She's supposed to be the conscience of the household, but when it comes to the amateur theatricals that are the moral crux of the novel, in the TV version she doesn't hold out against them as obdurately as Austen's Fanny Price did. And with this, the TV version crumbles into pointlessness.
Moreover, Wadey utterly botches one of Austen's greatest characters, the poisonous Mrs. Norris (Maggie O'Neil), reducing her to a figure sitting to one side doing her needlework and making the occasional mildly anti-Fanny remark. So when she gets her final comeuppance -- one of the novel's most satisfying moments -- we hardly even notice. A Mansfield Park without a Mrs. Norris is like a Snow White without a wicked stepmother.
Mary Crawford (Hayley Atwell) is another of Austen's great creations. In the novel, she's the embodiment of cleverness and wit -- an Elizabeth Bennet without a soul. Here, she's only a rather attractive woman twirling a parasol and being mildly snippy about Edmund's plans to be a clergyman.
This version also omits Fanny's journey -- her banishment -- home to Portsmouth: a key episode for the character, who discovers in the squalor of her old home how much she values Mansfield Park and all it represents. It's an essential contrast that no amount of flowery talk about how beautiful Mansfield is can compensate for.
In short, I don't think I've seen a worse travesty of a great novel. (Well ... maybe Demi Moore's version of The Scarlet Letter.)