Reader, it's unfeasible

Star casting and chasing after ratings neuter a complex Jane Austen story

<strong>Mansfield Park</

I have a high tolerance for men in breeches. The other day, I went to see Becoming Jane, the new film about Jane Austen's life, although my husband, a film critic, had warned me that it was terrible. "How bad can it be? There'll be quadrilles, won't there?" I said, slamming the door. So as I settled down to watch the ITV adaptation of Mansfield Park, part of its Jane Austen Season (Sundays, 9pm), with a sense that it might not be that great - Billie Piper's breasts on the cover of the Radio Times hinted as much - I believed that I would, nevertheless, pass the evening in a state of mild contentment. The pathetic truth is that the sight of a shiny coach galloping towards a good Queen Anne house anaesthetises my critical faculties to quite a terrifying degree.

Besides, I was curious to see how they'd pull it off. Austen's genius is a boon for desperate producers everywhere, but ITV could not cash in on the delights of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma; all three have been adapted too recently, or too well, for the producers to have got away with it. So it was left with the tricky books: Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. Of these, Mansfield Park is the most difficult, not least because of its heroine.

Kingsley Amis called Fanny Price a "monster of complacency and pride", which pretty much gets it. She is an infallible prig. If Fanny mistrusts a man, he will turn out to be a bad lot. If Fanny thinks a plan is morally dubious, it will end in chaos. And if someone is mean to her, her best response is to offer to help them with their needlepoint.

So how did they pull if off? Badly. They sorted the problem of Fanny by making her likeable: wise rather than righteous, energetic rather than limp. In the novel, she is so weedy that she has to be lifted on to her horse. Here, she whizzed about like a bagatelle ball. Then again, having cast Billie Piper as Fanny - a shameless fig for ratings - they could hardly have written her any other way.

Piper is a decent actress, but with her blonde hair, chipmunk mouth and feisty eyebrows - they have a script all of their own - she is as far from most people's idea of Fanny as Posh Spice is from Kirsty Wark. Even playing Fanny as Lizzie Bennet-lite, she looked out of place. Perhaps this was because she was surrounded by a cast that seemed to be in a different, better film: Douglas Hodge as Sir Thomas Bertram had, despite a script that tried to neuter him, real menace, and Maggie O'Neill was a deliciously spiteful Aunt Norris.

But none of this would have mattered if the film had worked. To get on with Fanny at all, you need to know where she comes from; this redeems her. Mansfield Park is about keeping disorder at bay, and Fanny, in spite of her faults, is a beacon of immutability in a time of flux. In the novel, she goes back to visit her family in Portsmouth: to poverty and confusion. In the film, all we knew of her humble beginnings came from an initial voice-over, where she informed us that she had been sent to live with relatives because her mother was too poor to keep her.

The writer of this version of Mansfield Park had reduced a complex, political tale to a mere country-house drama. Which was fine, if all you cared about was whether Fanny was going to get off with spoony old Edmund, her coz. But it rendered everything else that happened completely mystifying - from the question Fanny suddenly asks her uncle about the abolition of slavery, to the entertainments put on by those devilish visitors from London, the Crawfords. I wonder why the writer bothered to keep such things in at all.

Presumably, they were there to salve her literary conscience. Because turn Fanny Price into a buxom goer, and where do you stop? At the nearest branch of Pronuptia, to judge by the dress our heroine wore as she finally bagged her unfeasibly dishy clergyman husband.

Pick of the week

Northanger Abbey
25 March, 9pm, ITV1
More Austen - this one's scripted by the great Andrew Davies.

27 March, 9pm, BBC2
Can the cosmetics industry's claims be scientifically proven?

The Apprentice
28 March, 9pm, BBC1
Alan Sugar is back, with an even tougher set of business tasks.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?