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Diane Sadoff. Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0816660926. Price: US$75.00

  • Daniel Siegel

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  • Daniel Siegel
    University of Alabama at Birmingham

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British heritage film, the decades-old genre that adapts prestigious literary works and summons echoes of a stable national past, has by now achieved its own stature and solidity, its own brand. Dianne Sadoff’s study interrogates this genre—not, as other critics have done, to offer a wholesale critique of the ideological project of heritage, but rather to describe and account for the type of historical consciousness that heritage culture presents. She makes two primary claims, the first of which, if unsurprising in the abstract, is often disregarded: that heritage film is historically embedded, that it tells a story about its own moment. Beyond this, Sadoff claims that heritage cinema is intrinsically self-reflexive about its own styles of retrospection. As a “hypermediated” form (49), repurposing texts that are themselves mediations, heritage film tends, according to Sadoff, to forego the sense of immediacy and immersion central to mainstream Hollywood film and to thematize its own distance from its subject matter. Therefore, far from having any uniform ideological tendency, heritage film lends itself well to political contest, remediating source texts in ways that are sometimes conservative and sometimes oppositional, and often reinflecting the very political debates that gripped the culture from which the source texts emerged. Throughout this study, Sadoff is insistently materialist, looking not only at the broader cultural situations of both nineteenth-century fiction and twentieth-century heritage, but also at the changes in the film industry that made heritage a saleable commodity and even a hot property.

Acutely self-aware, heritage films read their source texts with an eye to their own aesthetic and commercial situation. As a result, the stories they tell are implicitly allegorical, refashioning nineteenth-century novels into commentaries on the value of modern-day heritage culture. Sadoff’s allegorical readings are ingenious. In Jane Austen’s “taste-capable lesser-gentry female” (19), heritage filmmakers find a fit emblem for their own professional-managerial middle-class consumer, managing her status anxiety through the conspicuous consumption of high-cultural art. Similarly, heritage adaptations of Henry James, pursuing crossover popularity, invite middlebrow spectators to identify with James’s American girls who go to Europe in search of acculturation and sophistication. Sadoff’s other allegorical claims focus on the aesthetics of heritage film. She sees questions of sexual fidelity, particularly in the Austen and Brontë sisters films, as bearing on the debate over fidelity aesthetics which recurs in discussions of film adaptation. In heritage cinema’s gothic stories of technological reproduction, Sadoff finds an analogue to the heritage aesthetics of citation and mediation. And Sadoff argues for an affinity between the specularity of the gay sentimental look, centered on the figure of Oscar Wilde and best represented in The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890), and the cinematic specularity foregrounded in films like Gods and Monsters (1998) and Orlando (1992).

Beyond these broader allegorical claims, Sadoff shows a host of specific ways in which films and serials appropriate and remediate nineteenth-century novels in relation to present concerns. While Robert Leonard’s 1940 Pride and Prejudice evokes and tries to sooth status anxiety during the uncertain war years, Fay Weldon’s 1979 dramatization suggests “liberalism’s social and political impasse” at the end of a decade when many women were entering the workplace (31). In the 1990s, the sudden destabilization of conventional sexual arrangements found expression in Austen’s courtship plots, while the extramarital couplings of Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (1996) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (1998) (echoing the “twisted passion” of the 40s Brontë films) reimagine “romance as hookup” (83, 89). The late-century vampire film “excites and soothes fears about communication-technological explosion, sexually transmitted disease pandemics, and a sensed impending global and national financial panic” (114), while the Frankenstein franchise blossoms in the face of new reproductive technologies. The conspicuously middlebrow pleasures offered in several of the James adaptations are a response to a fragmentation in the art-house market; the gay heritage film adopts the period look as a way of allowing a quick shift from identification to distance, thus both inviting homosexual community and making sympathy safe for heterosexual viewers.

Sadoff’s research casts a wide net, covering a hugely eclectic set of cultural developments. I was stunned by a four-page review of courtship and dating rituals in the twentieth century; the passage, like many others, presents a packed synopsis of a complex cultural history. Here is just a smattering of the many topics that Sadoff touches on in her argument: Margaret Thatcher’s Heritage Acts, 1920s and 1930s debates about ectogenesis, the transformation of the publishing industry in the nineteenth century, the role of horror under the regime of the Motion Picture Production Code, the nineteenth-century divorce controversy in England and America, the history and function of the multiplex, the successive waves of country-house demolition and renovation, and the rise of the middlebrow market and the “general reader.” Sadoff’s methodology, too, is diverse. In her visual analysis, she focuses on camera technique and editing, on the stylistic conventions of media products like MTV and soft-core pornography, and on recurrent image patterns. In her theoretical discourse, she takes an essentially Marxist approach to material culture, but comfortably enlists concepts from narratology and psychoanalysis.

As a study of late twentieth-century heritage film, Sadoff’s book is remarkably thorough, and all the richer for the attention she gives to certain precursor films like the 1940s productions of Pride and Prejudice (1940), Wuthering Heights (1939), and Jane Eyre (1944), along with the pre-Code horror flicks Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). But I find myself wondering about the place of other important adaptations that Sadoff might not consider a part of the “heritage” cultural formation. On the back cover, Jay Clayton calls this book “the definitive work on film adaptations of nineteenth-century fiction,” but the book itself has a more narrow agenda, and seems deliberately to pass over so many of the most significant, ambitious adaptations of nineteenth-century British novels—George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935), William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), Rouben Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde (1931), David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948), and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), to name just a few. Some of these films may be excluded because for whatever reasons they haven’t been embraced by the niche market that Sadoff is interested in, a niche she describes as “gay men, bookish men, and women” (166) and to which presumably she, you, and I belong; but surely they engage in a similar kind of situated retrospection, and it would be interesting to hear more about the provenance and significance of these adaptations that fall outside the umbrella of heritage culture.

At times, Sadoff makes her own admiration of heritage film clear, and claims that heritage cinema, alongside a shrinking and besieged independent film sector, is still capable of “crucial cultural work at the millennium” (194). She calls on critics to help “disseminate high-cultural products to larger audiences while preserving and circulating them via school and other institutions” (xvi). My response to this call is mixed. I admire the book’s honest urgency and its attempt to address the role that scholars play in the cultural marketplace, and I too worry about the fate of art and culture in a period when vertical reintegration and corporate mergers have returned control of film production and distribution to the hands of a few major studios. But I question the broader assumption that indie and heritage cinema are inherently more profound, interesting, or even in any meaningful way independent than the mainstream. Sadoff has shown in wonderful detail the type of “situated retrospection” (xi) that heritage film offers, but this is just one kind of culture-work, and it is less clear what the unique contribution of indie and heritage film is. Perhaps the book’s main claim in this regard is that indie and heritage cinema serve an international audience and engage in crossnational production, and Sadoff gives an extended example of this kind of cultural exchange in her discussion of Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004) and the Bollywood musicals Bride and Prejudice (2004) and Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000) (an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility), the latter which exhibit what Sadoff calls “Hindi-heritage’s masala aesthetic” (258). But notwithstanding the particular attraction that British heritage holds for Indian audiences, it’s hard to see independent cinema or heritage film as uniquely international.

Whatever one’s opinion of heritage film, it certainly, if the daily traffic on the VICTORIA listserv is any guide, plays a major role in the undergraduate classroom, where it is used routinely to stage discussions of the politics and aesthetics of novels by Austen and others. And part of the culture-work of Victorian Vogue, I think, is to remind us how inadequate and potentially misleading—as anything other than a starting point—is a question like, “What parts of the novel does the adaptation keep and what parts does it change?” The meaning of a film-text is of course inscribed not just in its plot but in its visual style, its narrative method, and its material context, and the supposed comparison between novel and film can too easily gloss over these aspects entirely; but less obviously, and more centrally to Sadoff’s argument, we can’t only think of a movie like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as rewriting a nineteenth-century classic, but must simultaneously look at the ways in which it rewrites a famous horror movie, an Aldous Huxley novel, and an NIH report. If heritage adaptations, as Sadoff convincingly argues, are self-conscious about the manner and purposes of their own retrospection, then they open up windows not only onto the fictional worlds they represent or even the modern cultural context from which they emerge, but also onto the classrooms in which they are discussed.