Jane Austen: pride and prejudice in movieland in “The Jane Austen Book Club”

The Jane Austen Book Club DVD directed by Robin Swicord at AmazonIn Drivelry’s continuing mission to convert the obscure into ‘scure’,  it is remarkable how some movies do so well at the box office and others do so undeservedly badly.

A great case in point is the film “The Jane Austen Book Club”. Despite the title you really don’t have to know anything about Austen to appreciate this film.

Written and directed by Robin Swicord its dialog sparkles along at a pace that it makes typical action pics look slow. With more layers than wedding cake you could watch it half a dozen times and still not pick up on all the jokes and nuances.

Ok it is a romantic comedy but it’s also a labor of love because behind a lot of the excellent jokes and gags are some serious and subtle points about relationships.

Labelled a ‘chick flick’ any man would enjoy the byplay in this film – there are a raft of muscular characters here and not just Sylvia’s gay daughter Allegra.  It is also full of surprise twists and shocks – you’d defy anyone to come up with anything so true-to-life awful as one of the opening scenes with Daniel and Sylvia in the restaurant.

Great film – terrible box office takings

Four Weddings and a Funeral DVD on Amazon But the thing that is really most shocking about “The Jane Austen Book Club is how such a good film did so relatively badly at the box office taking only $7 million in revenue.

“Four Weddings and a Funeral” (which is a veritable pastiche compared to “Book Club”) took $245 million….  Even Swicord’s previous film “Little Women” took $50 million.

Narrow it down to Austen literary territory and the comparisons look equally bad:

  • “Bride and Prejudice” took $24 million
  • Keira Knightley’s 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” took $121 million
  • Emma Thomson’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility” took $134 million
  • and the  recent biopic about Austen herself “Becoming Jane” took $37 million

Perhaps one could argue that Austen fans like their adaptations as close as possible to the original based on the above but it is still interesting to ask why ‘Book Club’ did so comparatively badly (unless you think all of the above are so much better than it is).

What went wrong with this movie?

Here are a couple of guesses which have more to do with marketing than anything else:

  •  why-oh-why did they call it “Jane Austen Book Club”? It’s like holding up a large sign to say “don’t come to this unless you are a) a woman and b) you ‘read’ with a capital R. Well, that’s 3/4ths of the filmgoing population gone then… What about Truths Not Universally Acknowledged? Read My Lips? The Club? Anything would have been better. Was Swicord so shocked when a producer said yes to her pitch (“I have this idea about a film about a book club…”) that she felt she had to stick with it?
  • nobody seems to have really liked Fowler’s book amongst my acquaintances although I appreciate that somebody liked it in order for it to end up on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 13 weeks.  Was the film too closely tied to the Fowler book but actually aimed at a different demographic?
  • did it need a more bankable star – would it have been the same movie with someone else as the female lead Jocelyn? It seems thoroughly unfair to even suggest this as Maria Bello played the role so well but would a Cameron Diaz or Michelle Pfeiffer have had more drawing power?  Would a better known male lead in the place of Hugh Dancy have delivered better box office returns – and again Hugh Dancy played Grigg’s role to perfection so it is unreasonable to suggest this on anything more than marketing grounds.
  • did it need to be rewritten to appeal to a slightly younger audience? As a 16 year old said the other day “it didn’t speak to me” – with it’s acutely drawn portraits of middle age as delineated in the Daniel sub-plot did it just leave a younger audience too much in the cold?

We’ll never know the answer of course but someone should look beyond the box office results above and give Robin Swicord more money to make another film, this time with a better marketing plan.

The only strangely Austen-ish happy ending outcome of all of this was that the film was nominated for the Gladd Media Award and lost to another greatly unappreciated film which Drivelry has also reviewed, Stardust. The co-stars of the two films, Hugh Dancy and Claire Danes, announced their engagement this year.

This article filed under the following 'Interest' categories (click category for more) Kewl, Reviews, Unanswerable questions

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Article posted by @Drivelry on August 18, 2009

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