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A most modern sensibility

How to sell 'Jane Austen' beyond the book club crowd? First, ramp up the pace. (And a 'hot' cast doesn't hurt.)

September 23, 2007|Swati Pandey | Times Staff Writer

You could be forgiven for thinking the title of writer-director Robin Swicord's upcoming movie, "The Jane Austen Book Club," gives it all away.

It is a movie about a book club. And the book club is reading "all Jane Austen, all the time," as its members are fond of saying.

Swicord, 54, is the first to admit that the premise of her directorial debut sounds, well, boring. "Doesn't that sound like the deadliest movie you've ever seen? Let's watch six people in a room talking about books," she said over tea and cake at her Santa Monica home, where she lives with her husband and fellow screenwriter Nick Kazan (their daughters have moved eastward to pursue film and acting).

The house would be a perfect setting for a book club meeting. It's a blue cottage brimming with history and homeyness -- the rusted Underwood typewriter on the front porch, the wall full of family photographs in the hall -- where tea is served from a pot tucked under a cozy. The many photographs include one of Swicord's father-in-law, Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan, as an infant.

But Swicord isn't a member of a book club -- she just felt drawn, she said, to adapt Karen Joy Fowler's bestselling novel for the screen. "It's a deceptive title," Swicord said. "Yes, it is a Jane Austen book club. But it's about contemporary lives."

Swicord's film could even be called a non-literary movie about literature. It's a Jane Austen film without being an adaptation of her work, and without containing any corsets or curricles ("the Porsche of the Austen era," Swicord is quick to explain). The idea was not to hit the bookish notes too hard, but instead to take the romantic confusion, misunderstood men and cautiously happy endings of an Austen novel and drop it all into present-day Sacramento. Swicord even recruited an action-movie editor to help put the film together in a fast-paced style. "I wanted that sense of looks flying, people not commenting when they want to comment. It had to clip along," she said.

Still, when Swicord tried to get her cast into the spirit by hosting a book club meeting to discuss "Emma," she was a little surprised at the response.

"Maggie Grace was the only one who'd done her homework," Swicord said, citing the actress who plays book clubber Allegra. "Everyone else had pulled stuff off the Internet. But as we talked, people began to say, 'I wish I'd read the book.' It was so funny to watch their interest in Austen ignite."

Grace, last seen on ABC's "Lost," admitted she was "a little thrown" that other cast members hadn't read the book. But, she said, "The group just came together immediately, and it felt more like doing a play."

Grace said she started reading Austen when she was 13 and considers herself a true Janeite, but even she has never been in any kind of book club. "It's an added bonus if you can catch the Austen details, but really it's a very identifiable film," Grace said. "It's a movie about trying to find a sense of community in chaotic modern life, and finding an urban family."

The book as springboard

Indeed, everyone involved in the movie seemed to gravitate more to the idea of group therapy as a model for what goes on in the movie. Much of the discussion in the film's book club meetings is thinly veiled talk of members' love lives. "It does feel like group therapy," Swicord said. Producer and former Sony Pictures studio head John Calley echoed that sentiment. "The 'Jane Austen Book Club' is a metaphor for group analysis," Calley said, "and it deals with many of the problems of domestic living that we're all experiencing."

A mother and daughter fight about whether to give in to romantic passion just like the Dashwood sisters of "Sense and Sensibility." Matchmaker Jocelyn is an updated Emma -- she recruits Grigg, the male of the group, in hopes that he'll mate with a recently separated fellow book clubber. That intrepid man, in turn, recalls the swoon-worthy Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice," thanks to the women's slow-to-change prejudice against his sci-fi fanaticism and thanks to an adaptive twist by Swicord. She granted him a Silicon Valley IT pedigree, and with it, possession of a good fortune.

Swicord is no stranger to such tricks of adaptation -- rounding out a character, giving his or her internal life an external representation for the screen, adding what she calls "the expanded dimension of spectacle and sound." After pursuing theater and producing television news and educational films earlier in her career, Swicord began to write for film. The South Carolina native has since adapted the revered "Little Women" and the kids' classic "Matilda," among others.

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