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Gender Aspects of Screen Adaptations of the British Nineteenth-Century Female Literary Canon

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - GASAC (Gender Aspects of Screen Adaptations of the British Nineteenth-Century Female Literary Canon)

Reporting period: 2017-10-02 to 2019-10-01

"Gender Aspects of Screen Adaptations of the British Nineteenth-Century Female Literary Canon

Contemporary popular culture is increasingly reliant on adaptation and other derivative types of cultural texts such as sequels, retellings, and pastiche. It seems therefore especially vital to study the continued appeal of canonical literature and analyse the ways in which canonical texts render themselves to adaptation, reimagining and reinvention.

The overall aim of the project is to analyse the gendered aspects of British and American screen adaptations of selected nineteenth century novels written by women. The project aims to study screen adaptations of novels by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, released between 1990 and 2010, which are internationally known and became parts of the collective cultural experience, influencing the popular perception of European nineteenth-century culture and the position of women within that culture.

The project studies the motivations of the adaptation authors (directors, screen writers etc.) and their perceptions of the original writers, revealed in interviews, DVD commentaries and other ancillary materials. It also analyses the nature of ""novel to film"" changes, paying special attention to the portrayal of female characters and the issues of women's agency and empowerment. Furthermore it studies the role of the visual elements, e.g. costumes, production design, cinematography and editing in the portrayal of female characters. Finally, it looks into the reception of the selected adaptations and into the ways in which the adaptations function in the cultural debate.

The project is interdisciplinary in nature, aiming to use in a complementary way the perspectives of adaptation studies, gender studies, reception studies and film studies. Its expected impact is to offer a comprehensive analysis of the issues of women's agency and empowerment in the selected adaptations and to study the influence of these adaptations on the audiences' perception of the nineteenth-century culture.

The project is based at Linnaeus University's Institute of Transmedial and Multimodal Studies, where it is supervised by Professor Lars Elleström, and also includes a secondment at the Institute of Screen Industries Research at the University of Nottingham. The secondment supervisor is Professor Roberta Pearson."
After a period of preliminary research and making decisions regarding the selection of novels and adaptations, the work on the project was divided into three areas of interest:

- Heritage adaptations (i.e. classic, relatively faithful adaptations of the nineteenth century novels released in 1990s and early 2000s) – e.g. the BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995), Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005)
- Post-heritage adaptations (later adaptations whose approach was overt or covert criticism of the heritage adaptations, and which added focus on present-day issues such as gender and race, not present in the originals) e.g. Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2003), Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011)
- Mash-ups and appropriations – e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), and television appropriations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Penny Dreadful and The Frankenstein Chronicles.

The results of the research were communicated to the academic community via publications (forthcoming - details in Publications and Technical Report sections) and conference presentations. During the time of the project, I have given presentations at 11 conferences (8 individual presentations and 3 co-written - details in Technical Report).


1. Dissemination of the project results among the public was achieved through the following activities:
2. Recorded talk about the typology of Jane Austen adaptations, available on the LNU video platform, it will be used as a teaching resource at the LNU. ( talk recorded in November 2019)
3. Co-organization of a conference/popular science event titled: Jane Austen and Co: the enduring popularity of women writers of the past,. Co-organised with Prof. Maria Nilson. Two-day conference for approx. 30 participants. I hosted a Q&A session about Jane Austen’s afterlives with the keynote speaker, Prof. Juliette Wells. (April 2019)
4. Two popular science talks as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein (Frankenweek) – a talk at the LNU library (recorded and available as a video resource at the LNU) and a skype lecture for students of the University of Kielce.(November 2018)
5. Organisation of a European Researchers’ Night event (the first ERN event at the LNU) and short presentation focusing on the female gaze in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. (September 2018)
6. Review of a biographical film about Mary Shelley for a Polish current affairs website called Krytyka Polityczna (July 2018).
"The goals of the project fit into a broader subject of today’s public debate, that of representation of female characters and women’s experience in contemporary culture. The continued existence of a substantial gender gap in terms of gender representation has been reported and studied by many researchers and confirmed by the annual reports published by the pioneering Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at the University of San Diego.

My research confirms that the portrayal of women in the recent adaptations of the canonical nineteenth-century novels either follows the general tendencies related to female representation in film and television (as in the case of heritage adaptations), or can be construed as self-conscious rebellion against the existing stereotypes (as in the case of post-heritage and appropriations).

My overview of existing publications on female representation on screen shows that while the issue has attracted a lot of scholarly attention in the field of feminist film studies and cultural studies, there is a dearth of analyses which focus specifically on adaptations and thus on the transmediation of female characters (usually from novel to screen).

The issue of gender representation in culture (and especially in mainstream films, television and video games that reach mass audiences) has in recent years been discussed not only by scholars but also by women’s rights activists, LGBT activists and educators, and it seems that, especially in the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there is an increased push towards greater equality and better female representation. My research fits into that broader trend while focusing on adaptations of nineteenth-century novels, the vast majority of which are costume films.

In terms of perspectives for the future, my conference attendance and networking allowed me meet other early and mid-careeer researchers whose research interests are similar to mine. After organizing three joint panels, we are now planning to start a research network which will focus on the investigation the intersections of gender and Neo-Victorianism."
Anna Gutowska speaking at a public science event