Northanger Abbey 1987 – Movie Discussion

When we read our favorite novels, we bring our own imagination to the experience. Film adaptations, however, leave less room for interpretation. We have all, at one time or another, been disappointed in the casting, not inherently evident to us at the time, of a particular actor in a role.

There have been only two film adaptations of Northanger Abbey. I chose the one from 1987, a BBC/A&E production, because I thought many of you might be less familiar with it, and my blog visitors would want to add it to their studies of all things Jane Austen.

Hopefully, our Austen Authors fans will comment on the costumes, the music and sound effects, the sites used in the film, and even some film errors (i.e., The film is set in 1794, but John Thorpe speaks of reading The Monk, which was published in 1796.). I would also love to hear your opinions of the 2007 version within this discussion. Northanger Abbey(1987) starred Katherine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland and Peter Firth ( not Colin’s brother) as Henry Tilney.

Published, along with Persuasion in December 1818, Northanger Abbey takes a satiric look at the Gothic novel. In reality, Northanger Abbey has never been a popular choice for modern readers, as Catherine Morland, the 17-year-old heroine, lacks the development we find in Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood. Austen even says that Catherine is “in training for a heroine.” The 1987 cinematic adaptation of Austen’s novel serves as a bridge between those earlier cheaply-made Austen offerings and those of the 1990s. Although both Sense and Sensibility andMansfield Park were also released in the 1980s, they mimicked the style of the earlier works, especially lacking on location filming. Northanger Abbey (1987) was one of the first to use on-location settings effectively.

This particular adaptation takes a number of liberties with the original text, most obviously the opening scene. Austen’s novel introduces us to Catherine Morland, chronicling her short life and her lack of accomplishments. The film, however, begins with a feeling of sexual awakening in the young Catherine. The viewer sees the girl reclining on a tree limb while reading a Gothic novel. We see Catherine’s “scandalous” white stocking-clad leg. We hear the female voice over reading aloud from the book: “the horrors of that evil chamber.” Sketches from the novel show us a dead body on the stairs and a male figure carrying a supinated woman’s body. Add the eerie sound effects and choral chanting, and we make the assumption that Austen discussed these Gothic images in her book, which is not true.

So, what else do we see in this adaptation that is not found in Austen’s novel?
* the character of the Marchioness de Thierry, General Tilney’s friend and confidant – Her back story of a husband being guillotined reminds us of Austen’s cousin’s story. The lady is the general’s source of gossip.

* a soft criticism of Ann Radcliffe and the Gothic premise for its sexual pandering – As opposed to the movie, in the novel, Austen seems more likely to be criticizing poorly “educated” readers of Mrs. Radcliffe. “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

*In Austen’s novel, we only become aware of Eleanor’s attachment to a young man in the last chapter. Note in the film, upon her arrival at the Abbey, Catherine finds the message sent to Eleanor from Thomas arranging a secret meeting. “The same day at 3:00. You and I beside the unknown woman.”

*In Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine visits the Tilney residence in town twice to apologize for not walking out with Henry and Eleanor. The novel includes a scene at the opera, where Catherine gushes her apologies to Henry. The film combines these visits and omits the opera scene.

*Catherine burns her copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho in the film.

*The general and the Marchioness are seen in the background at the Upper Rooms and also entering the same building when Catherine and Mrs. Allen first arrive in Bath. In the novel, the general is not mentioned until after Catherine rides out with John Thorpe.

*The Tilney brothers enjoy taking snuff together in the film.

*In the adaptation, the general encourages Catherine’s acquaintance from the beginning (assumably based on information from the Marchioness). In the novel, he only encourages Catherine’s relationship with the Tilneys after Thorpe misleads him regarding Catherine’s wealth.

*Catherine in the film is discovered in Mrs. Tilney’s room in flagrante delicto. In Austen’s novel, she leaves the room “and a shortly succeeding ray of common sense added some bitter emotions of shame.” In addition, Mrs. Tilney’s forbidden bedroom is hideous and sinister in the film, where in the novel is sports bright and modern decor (for that time period).

*The film combines the evening entertainments when Mrs. Allen and Catherine visit the Upper Rooms with their later visit to the Lower Rooms into one scene.

*The film allows the Abbey to keep the element of mystery with dark corridors, high windows, winding stairs, etc. In the novel, Catherine is disappointed by how modern the Abbey is.

*Catherine, Eleanor, and the general visit Henry at Woodston in the novel, but the film does little to establish him as a clergyman (presumably because modern audiences would not see this as a desirable occupation for a potential husband).

*In the novel, Catherine recognizes Isabella’s deviousness in the letter when Isabella begs for the return of James’s affections. In this TV version, there is no such letter.

*In the adaptation, Henry chastises Catherine by saying, “Dearest Miss Morland, has reading one silly novel unbalanced your judgment so completely?” The novel has Henry saying, “Dearest Miss Morland what ideas have you been admitting?” Henry no longer prods Catherine to think for herself in the film version.

*Austen tells the reader that Catherine has not read any Gothic novels before meeting Isabella Thorpe. “It is so odd to me, that you should never have read Udolpho before.” The film begins with Catherine’s Gothic fantasies.

*In the film, James Morland introduces Catherine to Isabella after he comes to Bath.

*Henry rebels against his father in a scene where the predatory-like General Tilney ironically trains a hawk. Also in this scene, the general accepts the fact that a dowry of 400 pounds per year is adequate, after all.

I am ready to hear what you think of this adaptation. Please leave your comments, and I will check in regularly to hold our discussion.

P.S. – One might wish to check out Ashley Judd’s 1992 film Ruby in Paradise, which is considered by many as homage to Northanger Abbey


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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1 Response to Northanger Abbey 1987 – Movie Discussion

  1. Lucy says:

    “*In the novel, Catherine recognizes Isabella’s deviousness in the letter when Isabella begs for the return of James’s affections. In this TV version, there is no such letter.”

    Actually there is a scene of this letter at the end of the movie. After Henry finds Catherine in his mother’s room, she goes out of the abbey and cries in the garden. During this scene, Eleanor comes with a letter, gives it to Catherine.

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