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Britain Colonized: Hollywood’s Appropriation of British Literature by Jennifer M. Jeffers offers a new take on the familiar territory of film adaptation. As a term, “adaptation” is too gentle to convey what happens [End Page 448] to texts that find second life on the silver screen, as it seems to suggest a mutual, almost organic, coexistence and a process of “getting along.” Jeffers’s preferred term, appropriation, nothing less than the “colonization” of British culture by its American offspring (12), more aptly describes the hostile takeover that is under discussion in this book. Looking carefully at American films from the 1990s to the early 2000s such as Remains of the Day, The English Patient, Possession, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, Jeffers explores Hollywood’s wholesale liquidation of British culture and history. If this sounds like a fire sale, it should. There is a tone of urgency in Jeffers’s prose. A guidepost of how drastically cinema has distorted and replaced its cultural pretext can be found in Abel Gance’s statement from 1912 that some day on Juliet’s dying face, we will read a collection of great Will’s lines. Gance’s faith that “Will’s” text could be faithfully transcribed into the physiognomy of the silent film should be read against Jeffers’s concluding chapter on Shakespeare in Love. This film cuts and pastes fragments of Shakespeare’s texts and, in Jeffers’s words, “puts them into a mythological framework . . . and into a different context of meaning (in order to satisfy a mass-market audience)” (227). The friendly informality that Gance displays towards “Will” becomes, in Jeffers’s study, the after effect of the entertainment industry, capitalism’s effort to make recognizable and predictable products. “Hollywood” and “America” are Jeffers’s shorthand for this process, as in the phrase, “This film Americanizes Shakespeare.” “In the end, Oedipalized, castrated, insipid ‘Will’ Shakespeare deterritorializes nicely from the stiff, unreadable, Elizabethan poet we encountered in school; this ‘Will’ is reterritorialized into a hip, sexy, but at heart, all-around average film guy” (226). From the unreadable to the hip: the movement of culture from a space of challenge, on the outskirts of sense, into the predigested phenomenon of an attitude, is one of the many aspects of the trajectory of literary adaptation so effectively documented in Britain Colonized.
Britain Colonized focuses not on the inevitable formal discrepancies between text and film but rather on the cultural and political implications of these erasures, gaps, and reinscriptions. These distortions assume many interesting guises in Jeffers’s analysis. For example, in the chapter “American Cowboy in England” Jeffers explores how the film version of Possession breaks with the Victorian focus and challenging shifts in temporality of the novel. The linchpin of her discussion is the way in which the film Americanizes the character of Roland Mitchell, who is an Englishman in the novel. She demonstrates how the film conforms to the sixteen structural characteristics of the western as defined by critic Will Wright. In similar fashion she traces the success of The English Patient and its several academy awards to director Anthony Minghella’s changes to the character of Almasy that [End Page 449] “make the film fit comfortably into the historical, empire adventure genre” (115). In the novel, the efforts to map the desert force the English patient to an awareness that “gradually we became nationless” and that the desert “could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by the winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names” (112). The film by contrast “invites the viewer to share in and enjoy the colonizing discourse and . . . became a ‘blockbuster’ because the viewer was allowed to maintain the privileged white eye of the Western camera” (230).
Mapmaking and cartography seem to serve Jeffers as a kind of allegory for the process of re- and deterritorialization, terms that she uses after Deleuze and Guattari. She devotes a chapter to the incisive relation between these terms (and those of iteration and illocutionary from...