Utopia: A Northanger Abbey Film Pitch

This video on Northanger Abbey was made by Nikolas Kerbers, a graduate of Texas A&M University. 


Critical Introduction

Hollywood is built on adaptations. For decades Hollywood has been using other sources of media as inspiration for its films. From classics such as Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird, to the more recent Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, to every… Nicholas Sparks book ever. There’s no shortage of inspiration for directors to pull from. But there is one resource that has been underutilized by directors for years that would make for a refreshing, entertaining, and intelligent film, and that is Jane Austen’s classic novel Northanger Abbey.

What makes Northanger Abbey a brilliant novel is the way in which it successfully satires one of the most popular literary genres at the time, while at the same time using the storytelling elements of that genre to enhance its own story. Northanger Abbey is constantly calling out tropes of this genre throughout the entire duration of the novel, while also abusing these traits to build its own narrative. Miriam Fuller discusses how the satirical traits each of the characters in Northanger Abbey actually creates an opportunity for them to have depth in their personalities. She calls brings up characters such as Mrs. Allen, who has been set up by the narrator as a foolish character (Fuller 92). Other characters in the novel “take nothing she says seriously,” this facade disguises her actual purpose, which is to be some of the wisest counsel that Catherine gets throughout the entire novel. Amidst making fun of Gothic novels through Mrs. Allen, Austen is hiding gems of dialogue that are actually important messages that readers and other characters use to get a more complete understanding of Jane Austen’s subliminal messages littered throughout Northanger Abbey. The Narrator is another element to what makes the satire of Northanger Abbey work so well. It is the primary way that Austen communicates her claims about Gothic novels, and through which she makes her arguments as to why her satire makes sense. The humor that the narrator uses not only builds its own credibility to the audience and entertains them at the same time, but also backs up the claims that Austen makes throughout the novel (Niebuhr 151).

In order for this film to work, but still be considered an adaptation of Northanger Abbey, it has to have the same type of satire at its core. Because Northanger Abbey in itself was a Gothic novel of sorts, it seems appropriate for a film adaptation of the story to satire a popular film genre. Since Gothic novels were very popular with women at the time of their height, it seems appropriate to satirize a genre that for decades has been popular for women, and that is the romantic comedy. Despite research saying that romantic comedies are becoming less popular to women in recent years (Fandango reports Action movies becoming the new favorite genre for women in recent years), this film itself will be a refreshing take on that genre (BUSINESS INSIDER). If executed with the same strategies that are implemented when the original novel satirized Gothic novels, one of the aspects of this film will be how it satirizes a once-popular genre amongst its audience. What will make the audience enjoy it more and more are the nods it makes to the genre itself while at the same time going against the conventions of the romantic comedy genre as a whole. The film will not only make the audiences think more than a normal romantic comedy does, but audiences will enjoy being in on the jokes that are made about romantic comedies as a genre. This inclusion will enhance the audience experience, as well as the plentiful amount of satire that will be present in the film, will keep the spirit of Northanger Abbey within a film that brings the themes and ideas of this story into the modern day through a modern medium.

Before any adaptation of a classic story is done, it is important to look back and see what has already been done; discover what works, what doesn’t, and use this information to influence how this adaptation will work. There are two adaptations of Northanger Abbey that have taken the novel and made it for either film or television. Both are television films, both titled Northanger Abbey. The first was broadcast on A&E and the BBC in 1986. This film was not very well received, only holding a 5.4 out of 10 on IMDB currently. According the Jane Austen Centre, the film missed many marks when it came to capturing the essence of the original tale. They claimed that the cast of the main couple, Catherine and Henry, were not the right people for their roles. Peter Firth, the actor who played Henry, was “too old and too blonde for his role,” and Katherine Schlesinger, who played Catherine, was almost too innocent, unintentionally creating a “frightening atmosphere” for her character throughout the film. The film didn’t commit on the music choice, mixing new age music with music for the period. The only plusses that they point out are that the filming of the entire film in Bath was quite beautiful, and the costume design was an excellent, calling the “lavishing and appealing” (Boyle).

The second, and more recent, film adaptation was released in 2007 by the BBC. This film is much more received by the public, currently holding and 7.3 out of 10 on IMDB. This film, unlike the previous adaptation of Austen’s work, was praised by critics for capturing the essence of the story without sacrificing quality. Ray Bennett, critic for The Hollywood Reporter, praised the film not only for wonderful casting and a well-written adaptation, but also for its cinematography and musical score. Similar praise was given from other reviewers. When all of these pieces were put together, it created a film that was able to capture the story well in its original context. Based on these observations, there are a few important notes to take into consideration when bringing these stories to the modern day; find actors who are close to their respective characters in age while still exhibiting the same characteristics that as the characters in the novel, dress everyone appropriately for where and when the story is being told, pick music that fits the time and setting, and make good cinematography a priority.

Now, in order to manipulate and satirize a romantic comedy’s tropes, it is important to identify the tropes that have been utilized by the genre throughout its existence. Leger Grindon in his book The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies created a list of the most common conventions used within the genre, as well as what is usually done to do the opposite of these traits, while still keeping the film within the romantic comedy genre:

  1. “Mainstream romantic comedies feature glamour leads, stars like Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, and Andie MacDowell. Comedies on the margin favor common, odd-looking characters played by the likes of Paul Giamatti, Miranda July, or Emily Watson.
  2. The mainstream uses the familiar classical or intensified continuity style, emphasizing the natural instincts and desires driving romance. On the margin artifice, innovation and a self-conscious style emphasize the unnatural social manners governing romance.
  3. Mainstream comedies typically portray young, unmarried couples whereas the comedy on the margins tends toward older couples and infidelity plots that acknowledge a culture of divorce and the instability of romance.
  4. In mainstream romantic comedies the obstacles between the lovers are externalized in parents, rivals, or differences in class, age, careers, ethnic heritage, etc. On the margin, obstacles are more internalized and represented as neurosis in one or both members of the couple.
  5. The mainstream endorses romantic hopes and dreams. On the margin, realism deflates romantic sentiment and ideals.
  6. The mainstream portrays destined soulmates, “the one true love,” and has the couple live “happily ever after.” On the margin, chance, circumstance, uncertainty, and limitations shape romance.
  7. Women in mainstream films seek the economic security of marriage; men resist, guarding their freedom. On the margin, men seek emotional stability in marriage; women resist, guarding their freedom.
  8. In the mainstream film self-sacrifice for the beloved invests the union with a redeeming grace, sparks a transformation, and prepares the couple for parenting. On the margin a relationship often serves as a means for self-exploration and the discovery of a new identity which may result in the separation of the couple.
  9. In the mainstream comedy divergent gender cultures are overcome in the unity of the couple. On the margin divergent gender cultures remain an obstacle, and tension over shifting gender roles continues.
  10. In the mainstream the couple delay sex until the conclusion and their final embrace confirms their union. On the margins sex plays a conspicuous role in the courtship and often manifests neurosis, becomes a source of tension, and serves as an obstacle between the lovers.
  11. The mainstream comedy leaves the couple united and happy. On the margin the endings are uncertain, ambivalent, and unresolved; often the couple parts.
  12. Mainstream comedies are typical of the screwball era and the “reaffirmation of romance” cycle. The art comedy is conspicuous in the “nervous romance” cycle” (Grindon 81-82).

Based on this list, the best tropes to satirize through this film are the fourth, fifth, and sixth tropes on that list. All of the people surrounding Catherine in Northanger Abbey are perfect people to use to satirize the roles people have in being obstacles and wisdom-givers in her life throughout this film. The film can be written in a way that has Catherine overthinking every interaction she has with John Thorpe and Henry, making fun of her grand expectations that come from romantic gestures. In fact, most of the gestures that she will be a part of won’t even be romantic gestures at all. That is where the overactive imagination present in Austen’s version of the character comes into play; it’s all about using her naivety and innocence to enhance the satire of grand romantic gestures. Lastly, her relationship with Henry can be used to call out expectations by Catherine of him being her one true love. These elements of romantic comedies can easily be utilized by this film to accomplish its goal of satirizing romantic comedies, while at the same time maintaining the same spirit and combination of satire and humor of the original Jane Austen novel.

This film, unlike the previous adaptation discussed, will be set in the modern day. In this version, instead of having Catherine being obsessed with Gothic novels and having read all of them, she’s instead seen every romantic comedy known to man. Why? Because she’s from Hollywood itself! Put her family in the middle of the movie capital of the world, make her parents work for one of the giant movie studios out there, and she’s bound to constantly be exposed to these movies all of the time, whether it be from her own choosing or through watching her parents work. How does she retain the same innocence as the original Catherine? Easy; she was home-schooled her entire life, and decently sheltered by her parents, only getting her ideas about love and romance from the movies she watched.

Instead of pulling a young girl from her home to a different, slightly fancier town, we pull an innocent city girl and put her smack-dab in the middle of the country life. Mr. and Mrs. Allen can still remain family friends that house her for the summer too. She’ll still be able to fall in love with Henry, befriend Isabella and then Eleanor, dissuade John Thorpe from falling for her, and go off on a retreat with the Tilney’s near then end of the film. Instead of her becoming paranoid about Mrs. Tilney being the victim of a murder plot, she will suspect General Tilney of one of the most common reasons that relationships crumble in Rom Coms; a giant scandal involving him cheating on his wife (which will prove to be untrue, but General Tilney will still be seen as a crappy husband as he was in the book).

Catherine will continuously overreact and misread how Henry is communicating to her throughout their relationship as well as her interactions with other men throughout the film, all to come to a climax at the end where she realizes how skewed her reality is, but Henry decides to remain with her, just like in the novel. Through this plot, you have the same major themes, ideas, plot points, and characters traits of the original story, without making everything seem out of date and out of place. 

Now we’ll briefly touch on setting. As stated before, Catherine and her family will be from LA, but she will spend the majority of her time in the film with the Allens in beautiful Utopia, Texas. As seen in the film “7 Days in Utopia,” this town is the perfect place to have the small community feel of Bath, but will be different enough for her to feel like an outsider like she did in the novel. A country club and town market can replace the Upper Room and Pump Room respectively as the places to go for social interaction and late-night dancing and partying. Utopia is also close enough to San Antonio for this to be where she retreat to with the Tilney’s instead of the Abbey. These locations will have the same effect as their counterparts did in the novel, without seeming random in nature. 

Once all of these elements are combined, you create an adaptation that will be powerful, authentic, and impactful to all audiences. It will be accessible to new viewers of Jane Austen inspired work, but can clearly be seen as influenced by her work. This adaptation will be a wonderful addition to films inspired by Jane Austen. This is Utopia.


<div class="sqs-video-wrapper" data-provider-name="YouTube" data-html="


Works Cited

  1. Bennett, Ray. Northanger Abbey Bottom Line: Lust and Adventure in a First-Rate Austen Adaptation. Mar. 2007, https://web.archive.org/web/20090309031720/http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/television/reviews/article_display.jsp?&rid=8957.
  2. Boyle, LAura. Northanger Abbey: 1986. Jan. 2001, https://www.janeausten.co.uk/northanger-abbey-1986/.
  3. Grindon, Leger. The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies. 2012.
  4. “Northanger Abbey.” IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091649/.
  5. —. IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0844794/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_37.

Copyright 2018 Nikolas Kerbers