Home > TV and anime > Lost in Austen (2008)

Lost in Austen (2008)

Lost in Austen (2008) is yet another television version of a fairly respectable literary idea, namely that a human being can transition into the pages of a book and become involved in the action. One of the most interesting and inventive versions of this trope are the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde in which, through the use of a Prose Portal, characters can enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. The first is called The Eyre Affair and, not surprisingly involves Jane Eyre, some of Wordsworth’s poetry and Poe’s “The Raven”. If you enjoy literary fantasy, the six novels in this series are well worth reading (with another due in a couple of months). The thematic opposite is represented by books like the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke. In these books, fictional characters are released from their books into “our” world. Handled well, such books, films and television episodes are entertaining because they allow a completely different view of well-known texts. The problem comes with a phenomenon now called Mary Sue or Gary Stu stories.

Darcy (Elliot Cowan) and Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) finally get it together

Many writers of what’s pejoratively known as “fan-fiction” imagine what it would be like to meet and interact with the characters in their favorite movie, TV show, book, comic, or video game. The trap most fall into is to make their treasured character so perfect, he or she becomes a figure of fun. Hence all the other characters are in awe of Mary Sue, believing everything she says or does yet further examples of her brilliance. She’s brave and never outfaced in difficult situations. On occasion, this will make her appear stubborn, but she never pays a price for failing to live up to everyone’s expectations. She just wins the day (again) and goes on as if nothing untoward has happened. Fortunately, the heroine in this serial comes with warts.

Let’s meet Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) a modern fan of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She smokes, drinks, has a lover and generally acts like a contemporary woman. Her fairly mundane life is disrupted when a doorway opens in her bathroom. Much to her surprise Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) steps through. After some discussion, Amanda steps back through into the Bennet household, circa 1813. Even though she’s not been formally introduced, she’s accepted as Elizabeth’s friend just as Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) arrives next door. This gives her the chance to experience Jane Austen’s story from the ground up, as it were.

Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) as an almost complete nonentity

There are occasional moments when the humour works as our fish-out-of-water runs into mere incomprehension or actual hostility from the prevailing culture. But the jokes are repetitive. The first time our heroine blurts out some naff contemporary slang, we can smile at the incongruity. But the desperation with which jumbo jet jokes keep flying round the ballroom grows rapidly tiresome. The real problem is Guy Andrews, the scriptwriter, can’t decide what point is to be made. It could be a rewrite of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in which satire prevails on both sides of reality to amuse and divert us. Or it could be an entirely serious affair in which a character suddenly finds herself in an incongruous position and has to decide exactly how to survive. For, make no mistake about it, if the Bennets were real, they would throw Amanda out and watch her die without contemporary money or friends to rescue her. This approach most often comes in time-travel stories like “The Man Who Came Early” by Poul Anderson where a modern man is transported back to a 10th century Viking village and quickly killed in a blood feud because he has no idea how to behave. This serial offers us an entirely contrived situation in which our heroine is allowed to rewrite the book by her inappropriate behaviour.

Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful

That said, Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful and Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) is delightfully knowing and rather likeable. Mr Bingham is even more craven than anyone could have imagined and Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan) is nicely snooty. The tendency of our heroine to drown her sorrows in too much alcohol, grab a fag when things go badly and rescue Jane Bennet with a quick paracetamol are very much of our time.

Now let’s get to the meat of the problem. What’s happening to the book in the “real world”? As our heroine is inserted into the story and begins to distort events, does this change all the words on the pages of already published books? Logic must be carried through. If the printed pages are not changing, why is this a purely personal experience? This is not the same question of how the exchange takes place, but limited to its consequences. To add to this problem, we then get the ultimate metafictional event. Having carried a copy of the book with her into the book, she throws it out of a window and Mr Darcy reads a part of it. He makes no mention of the fact the binding and paper quality is radically different to what would be achieved at that time. He simply accuses our hero of being Jane Austen who has apparently written a book about people without their consent. This makes absolutely no sense. Is he assuming our heroine wrote this before they met, i.e. it is fiction using their names? If so, how does it come to contain details of events only after they have met and where did she get the information about everyone’s income and background history? If it was only written after their first meeting, how has the book been written, typeset using the old hot lead system, printed and distributed in mass market paperback format within the space of a few weeks? This kind of sloppy writing just annoys.

Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) repairs Mr Bennet’s (Hugh Bonneville) broken head

It then gets even worse as first our heroine and then Darcy cross into modern London, then pick up Elizabeth who seems to have adapted well, and all three drop back into the Bennet home. Frankly, this is growing progressively more bizarre. I was prepared to accept a random door opening between Amanda’s bathroom and the Bennet home. It’s just a case of the right pair of women being in the right place at the right time for it to work. But a second door opening from one of those blue portacabin loos you see on street corners into a fictional world is just too much to stomach. Just what are the rules for these portals to keep appearing? Who can use them? Does their use show up in the published book? Frankly, what little possible logic might be suggested is completely abandoned for effect. This is just treating the audience with contempt. In fact, the Bennet story had grown more interesting with Bingham spending the night with Lydia (Perdita Weeks) in the bedroom of an inn and Mr Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) injuring himself in a duel to defend his family’s besmirched honour. It was all lining up to be an interesting mayhem when it all dies down. Elizabeth goes back to her new life in London (although how she will survive without a documented identity is anyone’s guess), Jane (Morven Christie) will get her marriage with Mr Collins annulled and elope with Mr Bingley to America, our heroine gets Darcy but, presumably, is left to honour all the promises she made to rescue the Bennets from the entail trap, and Mr Wickham is left to pursue Caroline Bingley (Christina Cole).

So Lost in Austen ends up neither science fiction nor fantasy. Worse, it avoids any real attempt at satire. It’s a weak-kneed collection of jokes that don’t mesh together into a coherent narrative. Austen purists will be outraged their favourite book has been pillaged. I was deeply disappointed and not a little annoyed as the serial progressed because Guy Andrews refuses to show any logic or self-discipline in the screenplay. Frankly, I can’t see anyone getting much enjoyment out of this.

  1. May 28, 2012 at 2:42 am

    Being a fan of Thursday Next, when I spotted this show on Netflix I settled down to enjoy it also, expecting a fun piece of metafiction. Unfortunately the writer/director couldn’t seem to decide what he wanted out of it; the one thing that worked for me was his use of the fact that readers of Pride and Prejudice really know very little about the characters involved–they are seen only through Elizabeth Bennet’s eye and she knows only what she sees herself and hears secondhand. So the people we meet are in many cases very different from the characters in the book (Mr. Wickham being the best case of this)–a very clever device. Unfortunately, this was the only thing the show really had going for it.

    • May 28, 2012 at 3:44 am

      Obviously yet another example of great minds think alike both on the Ffordes and the Austen! It’s interesting to see a similar idea in Austenland which is in postproduction and due for release later this year, while Lost in Austen itself is supposedly being adapted by Nora Ephron.

      • May 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm

        I’m glad to hear it–the idea is cool enough I’d like to see somebody take another stab at it.

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