Jane Austen
Ask Andrew

Known for his artful and sometimes controversial costume drama adaptations, it's not surprising that screenwriter Andrew Davies is equally as playful and outspoken explaining his work as he is doing it.

When Masterpiece gave fans an opportunity to ask Davies (screenwriter of Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility) anything, hundreds of questions poured in, from the matter-of-fact ("What do you think Jane Austen thought of card playing?") to the highly amusing ("Do you know if Jennifer Ehle has an e-mail address?"). We culled ten of our favorite questions and posed them to an eager Davies.

Being an observer in one Austen novel?
If you could be an observer in one of Jane Austen's books, which one would you chose to be in?
— M. Shatto

An interesting question, and one I've never been asked before. I think I'd like to be a participant observer in Emma, observing how the mystery of Jane Fairfax's piano and Frank Churchill's haircut — and I'd be tempted to intervene and dissuade Jane from what I think is a bad choice of husband.

Austen finding true love
Do you think Jane never found an enduring romantic relationship because she was so very judgmental of the society she lived in? That she "scared off" potential suitors?
— K. Puchek

She certainly had a sharp tongue and didn't suffer fools gladly, but she was very attractive in her youth, and very flirty. Her real trouble was shat she had no money, so Tom Lefroy (with whom she did have a love affair) couldn't afford to marry her (no doubt the same for other young men). She was made an offer by one wealthy chap, and she accepted, only to change her mind the next day.

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Approach to beginning an adaptation
I am a screenwriter and a huge admirer of your work. When first sit to write a scene, looking to carry Austen's prose to screenplay, what is the first thing you think of? Is it an overall shape to the scene? A feeling? Do you have a series of questions you ask yourself to keep focused? Or does each book ask for its own style, rhythm and approach?
— J. Fox

Generally I'm thinking: how does this scene advance the story? What does it reveal about the characters? Is there an essential "key line" in it? And as this is a visual medium, I'm often looking for ways in which the feeling or the meaning can be carried by a look, or an action, rather than the spoken word. But yes, different books, even by the same author, have different moods and rhythms. Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice are very speedy and sparky, while Persuasion is much more sedate, almost melancholy.

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Deciding which scenes to include in an adaptation
When you are writing a teleplay with time constrictions, how do determine which scenes to exclude from it and which ones are most essential? Do you ever worry that fans of Austen's works may be angry at their favorite little moment being missing from the adaptation?
— S. Kowalski

There are a number of scenes which are essential if the story is to make sense and make an impact. And then I tend to choose my own favorite little moments, and not worry about other people's favorite bits. They can always read the book again! Selfish, I know, but there you go.

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Anything you wish you'd done differently?
Is there anything, in any adaptation, that you wished you had done differently? Maybe you had an "ah ha" moment long after the project was over or maybe with unlimited funding and time you would have "tweaked" the adaptation a bit?
— C. Yancy

The only one I can think of at the moment is Darcy's second and successful proposal in Pride and Prejudice. Too much walking, not enough tender looks, not enough passion.

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Adapting other works by or about Austen
Do you believe Lady Susan, The Watsons or Sanditon could ever be adapted? You could pull it off — and the Austenites might even let you.
— H. Veistinen

It's a tempting thought...maybe I will one day!

What do you think of all the prequel and sequel books to Jane Austen's novels, and would you ever consider writing an adaptation of one of them?
— S. Hawkins

I have read a lot of them now and there isn't one that comes near to capturing Jane Austen's style, way with character, and expertise with plot. But I live in hope!

Have you ever thought of taking up pen, and writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice?
— R. Crader

Not seriously, but if I did, I'd take them a generation later, as parents of a rather wild and rebellious son, and two daughters, one romantic and the other sensible.

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Screenwriter role in casting?
When you are writing your screenplay, do you have a particular actor in mind for a role and make suggestions to the casting director? Or, do you tweak the script to better fit the actor once they've been cast? So many actors in your projects seem tailor-made for the roles.
— D. Kallgren

I don't usually think about particular actors when I'm writing a script, though I have a clear visual picture in my mind. I generally start thinking about casting when the script is complete, and I do make suggestions, and some but not all of them are successful. One of the nice things about Jane Austen is that her heroines are so young (around 20, most of them) that we can cast fresh talent, straight out of drama school, and I love being able to launch careers like that.

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Fate of characters after the books end
Have you ever pondered what happens to the characters after the novel's end? I especially would like to know if Pride and Prejudice's Lizzie Bennett truly lives happily ever after with her Mr. Darcy. She would have Lady Catherine as a disapproving relation. Darcy would have the detested Wickham as his brother-in-law, and he still would be involved with Lizzie's mother and foolish sisters.
— J. Perrin

I think Austen foresaw a happy marriage — lots of clever, active children. Pemberley is a long way from Hertfordshire, so they wouldn't need to see too much of the Bennett family. Ditto Lady Catherine. Darcy would probably have to bail Wickham out financially at least once more.

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Ending of Pride and Prejudice
In the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the movie seems to follow the book pretty closely until the end, when the tension of Elizabeth telling her mother about her engagement and her beginning life at Pemberly was left out. Was this a conscious decision to leave out these parts?
— C. Smith

Absolutely. There is pleasure in reading a novel and seeing how all the little details get worked out, but in a drama, once the audience can sense the ending coming, I like to wrap it all up pretty quickly.

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Influenced by Sense and Sensibility theatrical movie?
Did you find it difficult not to be influenced by Emma Thompson's 1995 Oscar-winning screenplay of Sense and Sensibility? How did you get it out of your head and go with your own version?
— P. Ellison-Pierce

I liked the movie, but I thought that it (and indeed the book) had weaknesses, particularly to do with the men who get the girls. Edward is dull in the book, and weedy and ineffectual and silly in the film. And Colonel Brandon is so underwritten in the book and such a shadowy presence in the film that it's hard to see how Marianne would turn from Willoughby and come to love Colonel Brandon. So I did a lot of work on the men. Also, Emma Thompson junked the back story in which Willoughby seduces Brandon's ward and gets her pregnant, so I thought, "We have to foreground this." Apart from that, I looked at the movie several times to make sure that there was nothing in my script that was in the movie, but not in the book.

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