“We are in a cultural crisis”, Reese Witherspoon proclaimed at Glamour’s Women of the Year awards late last year; “In every industry women are underrepresented”.

filmmakers have been left to find more creative means to depict the triumph of women, often updating and intensifying the book characters of the past to become film protagonists of the future.

Female empowerment undoubtedly lay at the core of Witherspoon’s own role in Wild. The film shows a powerful portrayal of Cheryl Strayed as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail alone in 1995. Not only is it true to the book from which its screenplay was born, but the film is also faithful to the real-life events as they occurred.

Still shot from 'Wild', starring Reese Witherspoon, 2014

Still shot from 'Wild', starring Reese Witherspoon, 2014

Other filmmakers however, have been left to find more creative means to depict the triumph of women, often updating and intensifying the book characters of the past to become film protagonists of the future.

Gone Girl’s Amy Elliott Dunne, for example, is not, in the film, made to appear weaker by the misogyny of her father-in-law, as she is in Gillian Flynn’s novel. And, while this subtle artistic license does not significantly alter Amy’s personality, one need only look to the strengthening of more historical heroines to see how the portrayal of past characters carries the potential to cause much more controversy. Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park proves a prime example of how seeking to empower women can alter the literary course of time.

One need only glance at Rozema’s past work to see that her fascination lies in the presentation of women. It is only natural therefore, that her unique take on this Austen classic glorifies the female protagonist, updating and creating a likeable character far removed from Austen’s typical blushing heroine.

Film poster for 'Mansfield Park' 1999,  directed by Patricia Rozema

Film poster for 'Mansfield Park' 1999,  directed by Patricia Rozema

One need only glance at Rozema’s past work to see that her fascination lies in the presentation of women. It is only natural therefore, that her unique take on this Austen classic glorifies the female protagonist.

This Fanny Price is what you’d get if you merged the original character with Austen and Rozema herself – a more commanding and rebellious heroine, who pens impressive work, talks directly to the camera, and whose almost homoerotic scenes with other female characters demonstrate Rozema’s contemporary influence as an openly lesbian director.

Loyalists to the novel may be left disappointed by the artistic licence Rozema exploits. While readers remember a tearful, unconfident young woman, who dreads the prospect of facing her uncle – the haughty Sir Thomas Bertram - after her rejection of an advantageous match; the audience bears witness to a stubborn protagonist, who appears to simply parry his objections.

This Fanny Price is what you’d get if you merged the original character with Austen and Rozema herself – a more commanding and rebellious heroine.

And yet, Rozema doesn’t abandon Austen’s authorship entirely. In fact, she gives sly nods to Austen throughout, for example where Fanny reads ‘her’ literary creations, which are in fact revised passages from Austen’s novel, Love and Freindship [sic]. A respectful gesture from one women to another.

Patricia Rozema on set: 'Mansfield Park' 1999

Patricia Rozema on set: 'Mansfield Park' 1999

It seems one way to address underrepresentation is in fact, through re-representation?

Rather than an attack on the character Austen creates, it is perhaps better to accept Rozema’s post-feminist take on Mansfield Park as her vision of how women would have acted if only they had had the confidence to challenge societal norms.

Her fast-paced dialogue and feisty female protagonist are just two additions that – almost two centuries later, and in a society striving for gender equality – facilitate the optimistic celebration of 19th century female authority. It seems one way to address underrepresentation is in fact, through re-representation?

Words: Alice Tuffery

Illustration: Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen (c. 1810)

Images source: Fox Searchlight Pictures / HAL Films