Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Jane Austen Book Club Deserves More Than a Quick Glance

One of the film critics who reviewed the 2007 movie The Jane Austen Book Club expressed concern that it might be dumbing down the books of Jane Austen. Granted, I am not really sure what dumbing down means in a world where director Paul Verhoeven's not-exactly-as-highbrow-as-the-original versions of Hitchcock and Heinlein regularly receive critical praise and the most commonly read author by most literate English-speaking adults on the Net seems to be not Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy or even John Steinbeck but rather J. K. Rowling. I will, however, admit that I liked this movie despite my not being a big fan of Jane Austen and that it actually made me more interested in reading her books than the usual sermons about my duty to read great books.

Then again, I have found that the surest way to kill one's interest in reading a particular book is to treat the act of reading it like a holy act of obligation. After all, no one particularly likes reading a book because he or she has to read it; instead, even the most intellectual among us tend to gravitate toward books that we want to read. No doubt this is a habit that drives literary critics up the wall but then most writers whose work is worth reading don't necessarily write for literary critics; they read for people.

Anyway, I was not happy about every plot twist in this movie. Moreover, when I read the original novel soon after seeing the movie, I found more than a few of the movie's embellishments on the original plot to be a bit disappointing. Even some of the "improvements" left a bit to be desired. As nice as it was to see actor Jimmy Smits on the big screen again, I could have done without another version of the old "unfaithful Latino husband" stereotype. Indeed, I found it a bit ironic that the movie not only switched the ethnic backgrounds of two main characters but also played down the bilingualism of those two characters and their daughter. Even the movie's attempts to show the universal appeal of Ms. Austen's books by including in the storyline the type of people (for example, gays, Asians, Hispanics) who are not normally associated with Jane Austen left me feeling more than a little sorry for members of the one minority group associated with Southern California that was consciously left out of the movie.

Then again I did like the way literary science fiction got treated in a respectful way for once and how the movie avoided the usual jokes about Star Trek fans and Star Wars aficionados. Given some of the recent developments in actress Maria Bello's personal life, I found the movie's focus on her character's failure to marry to be a bit ironic if not unintentionally humorous but at least that character received a more respectful treatment from the script than most middle-aged female movie characters normally receive nowadays. I even liked the way the movie depicted the act of reading as a pleasurable activity -- though given my status as a hardcore reader, I am understandably biased.

The Jane Austen Book Club is not exactly a movie I would recommend for everyone but it was not a movie that made me sorry to have seen it. Since I can't say that about every movie I have seen as of late, I would like to think that constitutes a bit of a compliment right there.

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