Whit Stillman finds the “gold mine” adaption with ‘LOVE & FRIENDSHIP,’ based on Jane Austen’s ‘LADY SUSAN’


banner_LoveAndFriendship1457115967Preston Barta // Editor

Every year, dozens of best-selling novels and works of literature are brought to the screen by filmmakers and production companies who want to capture the magic of a story and share it with a broader audience.

Adapting a book into a screenplay can be challenging in and of itself, and it can be further trying when it’s from an author as celebrated and studied as Jane Austen.

Austen has influenced writers all over the world, sparking many great books, film adaptations and remixed narratives— like 1995’s CLUELESS, which is loosely based on Austen’s EMMA.

Whit Stillman on the set of LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Whit Stillman on the set of LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

The latest Austen adaptation – coming from filmmaker Whit Stillman, titled LOVE & FRIENDSHIP – takes a new approach to cinema translation. Stillman chose to adapt LADY SUSAN, a little-known novella that was published nearly a century after Austen’s death, and re-titled it to make the story his own (and fit in with Austen’s collection).

Set in the 18th century, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP tells a deliciously mannered story about a manipulative woman named Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) who uses an unethical strategy to capture the attention of a suitor of her daughter— and herself, too, naturally.

“[LADY SUSAN] by its nature lent itself to adaptation. The comedy was there, but something had to be done to make it into a film,” said Stillman when he stopped in Dallas last month for the film’s regional premiere at the USA Film Festival.

Stillman first encountered Austen’s work when he was a sophomore in college. He was in a “total funk”— had been dumped by his girlfriend at the time and was considering dropping out when he came across Austen’s NORTHANGER ABBEY.

“I read that book and hated it,” said Stillman. “After which, I told all my friends that Austen was a bad writer. I couldn’t understand why anybody liked her. But then I realized it was the danger of starting with the wrong book at the wrong time.”

Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar, especially in the world of film.

“You can see a film or read a book in the wrong cast of mind, hate it and later decide to like it,” Stillman added.

After five years, Stillman’s sister pushed him toward good literature. Thanks to her, Stillman rediscovered Austen and read SENSE & SENSIBILITY and PRIDE & PREJUDICE. He even went back to NORTHANGER ABBEY, which had LADY SUSAN in it as part of the edition.

“I don’t like description, and Austen almost never describes. She’s so quick and unpretentious. You become very into her characters, story and worldview,” said Stillman. “There’s a moral perspective in her works that is admirable.”

LADY SUSAN was a “gold mine” opportunity for Stillman, who is primarily known for his original films (METROPOLITAN, BARCELONA, and LAST DAYS OF DISCO) that hinge on the unique personalities and behaviors of people. He described LADY SUSAN as “unfinished.” However, because of that, it allowed Stillman to shape the material to be a seamless fit for his sensibilities.

“I had no issue incorporating her material into my work. I found so much of what she wrote so funny and cleverly phrased that the problem was not using more of her material,” Stillman quipped.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, which opens today, is an exceptional film to see heading into summer. It’s one of those rare films that serves as a reading experience and excites you to pick up a book again and turn off the idiot box.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.