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The sexy side of Jane Austen

In his film adaptations, Andrew Davies looks beneath the surface of classic British literature and finds the smoldering appeal.

January 30, 2008|Frazier Moore | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Andrew Davies is talking about sex. He is also talking about Jane Austen, beloved chronicler of early 19th century English manners.

Her work, Davies argues, "is not just social comedy. It's about money, struggle for individualism, sex -- all the kinds of things that interest us now. People sometimes misinterpret that. Jane Austen is regarded as such a prim writer. Well, she's not, really. The engine of her plot is often sexual desire."

Davies is in a position to know.

At 71, he reigns as the King of Adapters. His long list of Emmy- and Peabody-winning projects includes adaptations of modern fiction such as the splendid British miniseries "House of Cards" (and two sequels) as well as the Pierce Brosnan-starring thriller "The Tailor of Panama" and the two "Bridget Jones" films.

But what has clinched his reputation are robust TV retellings of literary classics by Dickens ("Bleak House"), Thackeray ("Vanity Fair"), Defoe ("Moll Flanders"), George Eliot ("Middlemarch") . . . and Jane Austen.

He is well represented in the current festival of six Austen adaptations airing on PBS' "Masterpiece" (the renamed "Masterpiece Theatre"). Four are from his hand. Encores from the mid-1990s are "Emma" and "Pride and Prejudice," the latter being memorable (among other reasons) for Colin Firth's body-clinging, sopping-wet shirt as Mr. Darcy.

Davies' other contributions to "The Complete Jane Austen" are new productions of "Sense and Sensibility," with David Morrissey, and the recent charming parody of gothic fiction, "Northanger Abbey," whose virginal teen heroine, Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones), displays a penchant for romantic, even erotic fantasies.

"Characters can't have sex until after they're married in this kind of story," says Davies. "But one can remind the audience in various subtle, and less subtle, ways that sex is in the air." And he beckons the audience to take a deep breath.

The Welsh-born former academic, who didn't turn to full-time writing until he was 50, has also written children's books, novels and original screenplays.

But during a recent interview, he presents himself as a snowy-haired, pink-faced fireplug of erudition and good cheer. He makes no secret he's delighted to find himself in high demand. "I have quite a little queue of things waiting to do next," he says.

"Sometimes it makes me feel a little guilty that I don't seem to be doing any original work these days," he adds with no sign of guilt. "All my creativity seems to go into freshening up those great works."

"Freshening" is one word for it. But Davies has become noted for literary accomplishment in his own right. He commands a level of respect and even star value that translate into drawing power for the programs he's associated with -- and can even jolt sales of the books that serve as his source material.

His writing breakthrough, he says, was "Pride and Prejudice," where viewers recognized "we were clearly taking an attitude, and they started thinking, 'Yes, he's not just copying it out. He's taking a view on a book and making a statement.' "

Davies relishes driving home the idea that a long-ago author's message is relevant to the modern audience, while also taking a contrary tack from the traditional interpretation of the book.

This calls for a certain measure of invention on his part.

"Quite often I'll find that I'm writing scenes that aren't exactly in the book," he says. "All these novelists choose the scenes that they're going to write, and imply the scenes that they don't write -- and quite often I think the scenes they don't write are the scenes I want to see."

In "Sense and Sensibility," he points out, "There's a reference to a duel, but it's very much offstage in the novel. I thought, 'Bloody hell! If there's a duel, let's see it!' So we do."

And then there's the carnal component.

"My mother was a difficult and unfathomable woman," declares Davies, "and I started trying to understand women at an early age."

And while he has been married to Diana, an artist, for a half-century, he seems to look to many others of her gender -- both present and past -- for inspiration as well.

Hear him lovingly survey the young women in a typical Austen novel: "Their bodies are quite a substantial part of what they bring to the whole sexual equation. Their hair and their shoulders and their necks and their breasts" -- ripe in decolletage -- "are all on show, part of the whole deal.

"And the men too," he goes on. "I have men on horseback riding very fast, working up a sweat, in boots and tight breeches, all that kind of thing.

"I try to find ways in which -- without outraging the conventions of the time -- one can emphasize the physicality of the characters. I'm just trying to bring out the sexual motive, which is so strong in those stories."

But does this sort of treasure hunt gratify him as much as creating characters and stories from scratch?

"Perhaps not quite, perhaps not quite," he replies with a chuckle. "On the other hand, these shows are often rather better than the original work I've done: You start off with a masterpiece!" And laughing again, Davies leaves no doubt that whatever he does, he is an original.

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