Friday, May 23, 2008
The Cheap Critic: Northanger Abbey
A few months ago the PBS Masterpiece series aired their adaption of Northanger Abbey. I'm sure it must have been lovely -- attractive, witty persons with authentic accents and costumes strolling around in beautifully-filmed period homes and gardens. Very fine I am sure. -- but I didn't see it and that's not what I will be writing about here. Instead, I am reviewing a free audiobook that I downloaded from LibriVox.org.
For those who don't know -- and you should know -- LibriVox is a repository of free public domain audiobooks uploaded by volunteer readers. You just browse their catalog, listen to a sample chapter or two to see if the reader is up to the task and download the book to your Ipod or other MP3 player. You won't find the latest best sellers there -- most of their selections were written at least half a century ago -- and the quality of the readings is spotty, but if you like old books and are willing to pick through their offerings there are marvels to be had there -- and Northanger Abbey (Version 2*) is one of them.
Northanger Abbey is less familiar to modern audiences than are Austen's other works because most people get their first exposure to Austen's books from film adaptations and Northanger Abbey does not lend itself to easy adaptation. For every film version of Northanger Abbey you can expect to see three or four versions of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. They are easier to adapt.
Northanger Abbey is Austen's most explicitly comic novel but almost all of the humor comes from the way it is written -- with layers of meaning and archly dry descriptions of the actions and motivations of the characters -- and almost none of the comedy is arises from the plot, what little plot there is. Our heroine is the ingenue of the piece and, where Austen could put witty words in the mouth of an Emma Woodhouse or an Elanor Dashwood, she could not do so with the simpler Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey so Miss Austen, herself, had to step into the narrative to make the comments. In Nortanger Abbey, more than in her other books, you get the sense of the author as a presence in the story, pointing out absurdities and ironies and cracking the occasional joke.
This playfulness of the prose makes for a delightful read -- and a damn fine audiobook -- but for a difficult adaptation as a dramatic presentation. Fifty years ago you could have used voice-over to maintain that sense of the author's presence but today's audiences have heard too much of it and they find that it reminds them of Walt Disney's 'nature' films (Perry the Squirrel, etc.) which can be a distraction.
* I haven't listened to version one and the fact that I am reviewing Version 2 should not be taken as a reflection on the readers of the other version. The reason I skipped the first version uploaded and went straight to the second is that, all things being equal, I usually prefer a single-reader for all chapters of a book. The other version was a team effort of some 18 distinct readers each taking a chapter or two.