I’m going to say something VERY controversial, which, for those of you who have been following me for any amount of time, will probably not come as a surprise. I just can’t seem to do anything the conventional way. But that’s okay. It’s one of the things I love most about the JAFF community. Most of us use the beautiful medium of Jane Austen’s characters, settings, and emotional journeys then convert them into something new. At its core, I believe that fandom communities are perfectly built to allow people to experience the world of their favorite artworks through the lens of their own lives, and in so doing, we extend those works of art and communities to other people who may or may not feel represented elsewhere.
So, now for that VERY CONTROVERSIAL thing:
The movie is ALWAYS better than the book … or at least always has the potential to be better than the book.
Please don’t threaten my family, they have done nothing wrong here.
Let’s back-up for a moment and acknowledge it’s June, which has special meaning for a number of communities. Among the month-long celebrations held in June, some include PTSD Awareness Month, Gun Violence Awareness Month, Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, Immigrant Heritage Month, and, perhaps most prominently, LGBTQ+ Pride Month.
I am a person who identifies with the Queer community, both with close family & friends who are in queer relationships and personally in my own identity, though I enjoy the privilege of being in a heteronormative marriage. So, LGBTQ+ Pride is my personal June celebrations. For a lot of marginalized communities, fandoms and fanfiction plays a huge part in how those communities relate to each other and carve out a place for themselves in a world where their stories are not often centered or told without nuance and empathy.
Austen’s stories have endured for over 200 years because they are fundamental to the human experience. We can each find something of ourselves and our personal stories in the Austen-verse. The pain of Darcy’s unrequited love. Anne Elliot pinning for years and years and years after the one that got away. Catherine not knowing if her feelings are reciprocated. Elinore knowing her love is returned but also knowing that Edmond is not free. Knightly realizing all of a sudden that he loves Emma and having a full on freak out. I can’t think of a single person who’s achieved drinking age (in the US) and not experienced at least one of these emotions. The teenager who escapes the hell that is high school and doesn’t have at least one fruitless crush is a lucky person indeed.
These emotions and experiences are definitely not limited to heterosexual relationships. In fact, the difficulties faced by navigating relationship and romantic feelings are only multiplied for people who experience the world from a queer lens. Historically, stories which center stories about queer people, their relationships and experiences, have only appeared on the fringes of media or been presented in a harmful way that reinforced stereotypes instead of breaking down barriers.
The widely accepted first representation of homosexuality in film media was Edison Short’s silent film The Gay Brothers, released in 1895. Until the 1970’s, portrayals of homosexuality in film or TV were uncommon, often used strictly as a comic device, or contained negative sub-contexts, such as in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, where many villains were queer coded specifically to deepen their evilness and alienation. There’s still a lot of negative queer coding to villains even in some of the most beloved children’s media – Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Ratcliffe (Pocahontas), Jafar (Aladdin), Scar (The Lion King), Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), & Captain Hook (Peter Pan) to name a few.
So, what did we do? We made our own stories, centering out own experiences, and telling the narratives that are about more than hardships. Queer artists and story tellers started telling stories of their own joy, imaging themselves in the place of their favorite hero or heroine.
And fanfiction has a very big part to play in that storytelling.
Now, this blog post started with a very different premise. I promised you a super controversial discussion about my opinion that the movie is always better than the book. So it’s probably time to get back to that.
If you have made it this far, I love you with all my heart pieces <3<3<3
For my regular readers, you already know that I believe in listening to diverse creators and seeking out opportunities to learn from as many people as I can. Taking time to read about other human lives is very grounding and validating for my own journey on Spaceship Earth. I especially like hearing about people who have wholly different experiences and life stories from my own. It has become such a large part of me that during a recent computer personality evaluation (you know the ones you do for work that tells you what kind of information you like to consume and the “color” of your emotions) I got this statement back in the summary:
“EM finds the diversity of the world immensely appealing.”
I have never more believed that our world has already been taken over by Skynet, but also the AI overlords clearly see me for who I really am, so I guess it’s okay.
There are lots of opportunities all year to focus on different communities. Most months in the US, there is a specific community sharing their heritage and history, looking to provide education to people outside their community. While it is not the job of any individual member of a particular minority community to education you about their community, there are lots of organizations who spend their whole mission on communication and education.
And now for my main argument in support of the TOTALLY RIDICULOUS, CONTROVERSIAL AND PROBABLY INSULTING PREMISE THAT THE MOVIE IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN THE BOOK.
Books are written (usually) from the singular perspective and imagination of the one and only author. One person. With only one life. And only one life’s worth of feelings, experiences, and cultural influences. That one person can do amazing things. Authors can create whole worlds and share them with the rest of us. But it will still always, only, be fully developed from the limited perspective of one person.
Most movies, television shows, and other visual media are written and told with a group of people in the writers’ room. This has the potential to be fuller, richer, and more diverse than any book. The characters can come from a variety of life experiences with a roundness to them that is near impossible to create by oneself. This diversity in the writers’ room can bring to life stories that show so much more of the universal human experience and bring in new audiences for the original piece of literature.
Bringing this back around to the Jane Austen space and Regency romance, one of the biggest examples of introducing diversity into the Regency Era drama is Netflix’s Bridgerton. The series used race, British colonialism, and discrimination as central themes of both the first and second season. And the new spin-off for Queen Charlotte is beautiful, even though we know it is not historically accurate. The world Shonda Rhimes created is an alternative historical universe where people of color were accepted, elevated and regularly introduced into the highest echelons of Regency British society. However, this was used to great effect in the show. It provided the show writers, producers, and cast a platform to bring in authentic diverse experiences which are relevant to marginalized communities today. It also, in my opinion, gave the character of Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, a deeper motivation for his hatred of his father, which drives the main conflict in the first season.
There has only been limited representation of queer relationships in Bridgerton so far, but I’m hopeful that later seasons will provide more room to explore that segment of Regency society.
Even though the show made it clear that they were rewriting history for this new narrative, internet critics and trolls came out in droves to let us all know that they thought it was inappropriate, not true to life, historically inaccurate, and overly forced for the sake of diversity. Many people also said that it was a corruption of the original author’s work, even though Julia Quinn is heavily involved in the production of the show and has said on many occasions that she loves how they have woven diverse narratives into her stories and characters. Specifically, Quinn has been excited to collaborate with Rhimes and her team, which Quinn credits to making her original stories even better. Quinn and Rhimes have even co-written a new novel based on the Queen Charlotte show timeline which is out now in hardback and Kindle.
From my personal experience, as someone who liked most of the books before the show came out (I’ve never been a huge fan of how the Benedict story plays out, but we don’t have the space or time to discuss that specific violation of consent), I believe that the richness of the Netflix adaptation is vastly superior to the books. That doesn’t mean I don’t still love the books and I will regularly re-read my favorite (Colin & Pen). It just means that I cannot wait for the next season to drop.
Finally, I’ll make an argument (observation?) to try and appeal to the hard core Janeites out there who love to watch this community grow. As we look to bring in another generation to the Austenesque fold, Millennials, Gen Z, and the oldest Alphas (who are starting middle school this fall) are demanding more thoughtful engagement and safe spaces for everyone in their communities. They want to see themselves, as well as their neighbors, classmates, and friends represented in the media they consume.
I personally feel a duty to create those safe spaces that include and encourage everyone to come in and enjoy. Hopefully my spaces, both in real life and on the internet, are accessible to anyone who wants to engage with me. I am sure I’ve made mistakes in the past and will make more in the future. But I want to continue to embrace the immensely appealing diversity of the world so that I grow everyday into the kind of person who leads with empathy first, open ears and a closed mouth. That is how I learn and do better tomorrow than I did today.