I was making small talk with a co-worker this summer when my eyes latched on to the title on the spine of the book she was reading, Pride and Prejudice.
“Oh yeah,” she explained, “it’s this movie with Keira Knightley, and it was pretty romantic so when I saw the book version I thought I’d check it out for summer.” She proceeded to flip the book around, the front of which featured a glossy picture of Keira on the English moors with her dress blowing decoratively around her. If you squinted and looked at the fine print on the bottom, overshadowed by the huge block letters ‘Focus Features’, you could somewhat make out ‘Jane Austen.’
This episode disturbed me at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Would this girl have passed up The Undomestic Goddess to read Pride and Prejudice if it had not borne Keira on the cover? And why was the thought of Pride and Prejudice as light summer reading so shocking to begin with? It is a romance novel, after all.
Turns out, movie remakes of books are the best thing for the advancement of modern culture and one of the smartest economic success stories of our time. Movies repackage culture for the masses. How else would lazy high school English teachers interest their kids in Romeo & Juliet without showing Westside Story – excuse me, I stand corrected, rather Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet? Especially significant to education seem to be the teen versions. A variety of past examples have already proven them to be a true recipe for success. Austen got her popular cover in Clueless, but Shakespeare has shown himself to be the most adaptable to teen movie format with such movies as 10 Things I Hate About You, O, and the newest addition She’s the Man, an Amanda Bynes Twelfth Night lighter than the feather quill the Bard penned his plays with – just the way kids like ’em.
The movie industry is only doing what our mothers used to do: hiding brussel sprouts in something cheesy and delicious. We can grumble and fuss from below, but we will thank them later. Not only are the books themselves being touted in the public arena due to movie versions of them, but so are whole cultural interests and movements. Movies induce huge resurgences of interest in the subject matter of the books. Interest in Shakespeare, interest in Sylvia Plath. These movies provoke cultural change, cultural insight, cultural interest. After a successful version of Pride and Prejudice, I would be surprised if there wasn’t a biopic released in the near future on Jane Austen with all sorts of fleshed out, heretofore unknown controversies in what was seemingly a quiet and lonely life.
Economically speaking, it takes only a simpleton to realize that the field of books-turned-movies is a profit paradise. Case in point: when I went to Chapters, the new editions of books with movie posters were always more expensive than the similar quality Penguin edition paperbacks. It’s a privilege to have Keira on your book cover. Also, with most classics, the profit-makers of a movie version will never have to concern themselves with author settlements. They are conveniently dead. Maybe a little percentage to the Jane Austen foundation to purchase rights, and you’re set. And since you know how the book itself fared, you don’t even have to enlist brainpower into figuring out your target audience for marketing. People love a good, old revival: the books – new and improved! Renditions of books have even shot past their book counterparts in many cases. Think Maltese Falcon or Jurassic Park.
So, the pretentious lot of us who cringe when Macfayden’s, Firth’s and Olivier’s Darcy says “I have struggled in vain” instead of “in vain have I struggled,” as God and Austen intended, just don’t realize how truly crucial these seemingly second-rate versions are. Movie deals are what every good writer wants, after all. J.K. Rowling loves hers, and I’m sure Austen would have too.
A cover of a song is usually seen as a nod of respect to the original artist, since imitation is after all the best form of flattery. So maybe a cover of a book smeared with Keira Knightley’s face isn’t such a bad thing after all. Books are the perfect fodder for movies; really, books are the stuff movies (and dreams) are made of. With such a never ending bank of ideas within reach of producers, who even needs books? Maybe it’s a dead art form. We should just enlist emerging authors and scoop them up to write directly for the screen, skip this middle stuff. Nobody ever has to be creative again, when one can just repackage old classics over and over.