November 16, 2020
I’ve just seen the 2007 version of “Northanger Abbey”, and maybe my expectations were too high, but it was disappointing. Everything is too broad and obvious. We know, for example, who are the bad apples because they are clearly, ominously bad as soon as we see them. All mystery, ambiguity, and uncertainty thrown out right from the start.
General Tilney is forbidding in his manner, from first to last; he later turns into a shouting villain, and never appears to give his consent to the marriage, as he does in the novel.
When James Morland and John Thorpe first appear in the movie, John is telegraphed as a villain — he’s ugly, and even has facial warts. John is handsome, whereas Austen said that he was not even good-looking.
Captain Tilney in the movie has “bad boy” written all over him, and he’s turned into an out-and-out seducer, which I really didn’t think he was in the book — at least not in Isabella’s case. The movie makes her as stupid as Lydia Bennet in her eagerness to jump into bed with Tilney, but I never thought of her as that desperate or foolish. And in the novel Henry doesn’t seem to perceive that his brother is doing anything that bad; he describes the whole affair as due to Frederick having “his vanities,” which implies only flirting. In Austen’s time, that was scandal enough, and could do real damage. But seduction-and-abandonment, such as you might have in Wickham, I didn’t see in this novel.
Catherine’s Gothic-dream sequences are unnecessary, and they make Gothic romances seem like utter trash, which again is not really what Austen was saying. Austen actually admired Radcliffe and was influenced by her; Radcliffe was one of the more-moderate Gothic writers and had her own criticisms of the conventions of Gothic novels, so Austen’s satire of her is subtle. She has Henry Tilney praise Radcliffe’s works as good novels that he’s read “with great pleasure,” particularly “Udolpho.” Yet at the end of this movie we see Catherine tossing her copy of “Udolpho” into the fire.
The screenplay is by Andrew Davies, and I’ve loved his adaptations of “Middlemarch,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “War and Peace.” But those were 6-hour works; “Northanger Abbey” has been given a mere 90 minutes. Yet the novel is not that much shorter than “Pride and Prejudice.” So it could perhaps have benefited from a slightly longer treatment, in which characters needn’t be made so obvious, leaving a little space for uncertainty and mystery; and the great theme of human imagination could be explored more fully.