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  • Textual Fidelity
  • Laurence Raw
Jennifer M. Jeffers Britain Colonized: Hollywood’s Appropriation of British Literature. Palgrave, 2006. 282 pages; $69.00.

Britain Colonized makes uncomfortable reading for anyone interested in contemporary British culture and its representation in recent Hollywood movies. Jeffers argues that, when faced with the task of bringing a British literary text (or British icon) to the screen, directors inevitably resort to accepted Hollywood formulae and American cultural standards. The reasons for this are mostly commercial: in the pursuit of maximum profit, no one cares about textual fidelity. Consequently, filmmakers reshape texts according to “American middle-class expectation” (112). Jeffers concludes that “capitalist Hollywood is now the only global model” for adaptation (206)—which has expedited the destruction of British culture by Americanization (221).

Jeffers included several case studies of individual adaptations to prove her point. In Merchant-Ivory’s Remains of the Day (1993), the focus is on Christopher Reeve’s Lewis, who is seen alone in Dartington Hall in the concluding scenes of the film. The sequence demonstrates how “America has arrived and England is receding” (75). Neil Labute rewrites A.S.Byatt’s Possession (2002) as a western with three standard characters—the hero, the society, and the villain. As in Remains, the central character, Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), is an American who eventually forges a new order in English society, this time in academic and literary circles by marrying Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and thereby combining, in Jeffers’s view, “the line of the great [English] poets with Roland’s heroic American bloodline” (92).

Sharon Maguire’s version of Bridget Jones Diary (2001) transforms the eponymous heroine (Renee Zellweger) into a Lucille Ball figure, whose “Emersonian self-reliance renders her a winner as a career woman and heterosexual” (171). Stephen Frears’ version of High Fidelity (2000) goes even further and eliminates the British content altogether, transforming Nick Hornby’s portrayal of a 90s “lad” into “an American male fantasy.” At one point Bruce Springsteen is brought in to give the central character, Rob ( John Cusack), advice about his love life; this cultural transplanting proves that “we are in an all-male, all-American fantasy world (202).

Jeffers concludes her study with an analysis of John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1999), wherein the immortal Bard has been re-territorialized into “a hip, sexy, but, at heart, all-around average film guy” (226). Madden invests British history with an American spin by showing how an upwardly mobile Shakespeare learned to scheme his way into bettering his situation.

These strategies are nothing new; since the earliest days of cinema, British literary texts have continually been reshaped to suit changing tastes. Shakespeare’s plays were transformed into one- and two-reelers in the early part of last century, while the western formula has been successfully introduced into adaptations as diverse as The Four Feathers (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and How Green Was My [End Page 83] Valley (1942). What is perhaps more interesting is to ascertain whether the process of adapting texts has changed over time. Jeffers herself is in no doubt that recent adapters have responded to seismic shifts within the education system as teachers place less and less emphasis on textual study, preferring to show the film versions instead in the belief that this medium seems more suitable for tele-literate learners. In turn, this approach has created an even greater demand for Americanized adaptations incorporating familiar characters, plots, and situations.

While Jeffers’s claim has its merits, it does not necessarily represent a cause for concern. Any response to a cinematic text is inevitably shaped by the socio-economic conditions in which the act of viewing takes place. Just as those conditions are limitless, so too are the possibilities for new constructions of “British” or “American” culture or for a combination of both. The original text will, in this sense, never be reproduced. Jeffers’s use of collective terms such as “the American audience” might suit her overall argument, but it underestimates this eternal variation—by each society, each studio, each individual—on the original text. The task of evaluating audience responses to a particular genre—the heritage film, for instance—is...


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