Some Thoughts on the Sanditon Screen Adaptation

Books & Mags, Movies & TV, Stunt Double

As a Jane Austen fan, I’ve followed the birth of the screen adaptation of Sanditon in this blog. Having seen the series and allowed my brain to properly chew it for a couple of months, now it’s time to share some of my throughts.

Note: Spoiler warning is in effect!

According to IMDB, the main writing credits for this miniseries belong to Andrew Davies, with assists from Justin Young (episodes 3, 4, 6 and 7) and Andrea Gibb (episode 5). I haven’t seen any of Young’s writing, but I have seen Gibb’s Call the Midwife episodes and as far as I can remember, I liked them. In the past I’ve had mixed feelings of Davies’s work, but I’d assumed it was due to the material he was adapting (Dickens just doesn’t do it for me).

I may now have to adjust my opinion of Davis’s writing. Although I should like to know how big of a say the producers and/or financial backers had, for his earlier adaptations were much more internally consistent.

The best I can say about the writing in Sanditon is that it was very uneven throughout, which hurt both the characters, plot and pacing. Moreover, the ending was left open, clearly fishing for season 2, but since this first season didn’t give us much to recommend itself, the intended cliffhanger feels rather insulting instead.

Guest blogger Yosa Addiss critiqued the costuming at Frock Flicks. I don’t have much to add except to say that for a fantasy story set in the regency (or regency-like) period the choices would’ve been more acceptable.

The same goes for the sets. Indeed, some of the interior scenes, specifically at the masqued ball, remind me of the 1986 movie Labyrinth. Just compare these two photos below, the first from Sanditon and the second from Labyrinth:

Ethical Hedonist Magazine The Dance Sanditon

Sanditon (2019) via Ethical Hedonist Magazine

Basement Rejects Labyrinth Ball Scene

Labyrinth (1986) via Basement Rejects

There were other sets that looked more period-appropriate, but I don’t know enough of the details of period architecture and interior design to really say. For instance, the Parkers’ house had a room or two with multiple faux framed paintings that were literally painted directly onto the wall (or wallpaper?). That was a very interesting choice.

Frock Flicks Sanditon Ep1 Faux Paintings on Wall

Sanditon (2019) via Frock Flicks

Overall the sets and photography looked gorgeous, and the lighting was just lovely; I just don’t know how well the design choices represented regency in general.

All of the faults would be more tolerable, however, if the adaptation cast of characters equalled that of Austen’s writing. Sadly, it does not.

The best thing about Jane Austen’s characters is that even when they’re superficially the same, they’re all different. They remain their own people. Every single Bennet daughter, for instance, has their own individual personas, habits and characteristics. Poor Jane Fairfax is different from poor Fanny Price. Notable men in their thirties like Colonel Brandon and Mr. Knightley are very different indeed from each other.

In addition, even the most odious of Austen’s characters often have one or more redeeming qualities. The Sanditon adaptation lacks in this respect, too. Our supposed hero, Mr. Sidney Parker, is initially barely distinguishable from his two foppish drinking buddies he drags to Sanditon for a change of scenery, and it looks like we were supposed to fall for the forced, artificially drawn-out, unconvincing hate-love tug-of-war between him and Miss Heywood a la Pride & Prejudice.

(Incidentally, one of Mr. S. Parker’s London buddies surprisingly turns out one of the best invented characters of the series, but I’ll return to him later.)

Miss Brereton and Miss Denham both come across as bickering sour bitches, with the only difference that Clara is a sexually abused gold digger and Esther a lovelorn gold digger. Miss Lambe reminds me of Lydia Bennet, apart from having a fortune, and the young ladies she lodges with are completely bland. The rich Lady Denham is simply a copy of Lady Catherine, only with an ailment and sans a daughter. Mr. Denham’s a slimy git who resembles Mr. Wickham; of him I have very little to say and none of it good.

Young Mr. Stringer, a builder and aspiring architect, was an enjoyable addition, but sadly he wasn’t given much to do besides complain about not being paid, pine after Miss Heywood and eye moodily at his competition, Mr. S. Parker.

Mr. Parker is defined by his monomania over Sanditon and his irresponsibility, but at least he genuinely loves his wife. I liked the little we were given of Mrs. Parker, but, again, her character fell quite flat; apart from the role of supporting wife and devoted mother, she was good-natured and that was all.

The hypochondriac comic relief characters, Miss Parker and Mr. Arthur Parker, perhaps stay truest to the kind of characters Austen had a habit of writing, and they remain simply delightful throughout.

As I said, it was quite a surprise to find Lord Babbington rise to the level of an Austen hero. He accidentally meets with the pining Miss Denham, falls for and attempts to pay court to her. As we learn more about him, Lord Babbington starts to redeem himself in our eyes and to display quite a different set of characteristics than his drinking buddies (one of whom’s a drunk git and should never have been given as many lines as he was).

Babbington was looking better and better, and the we hit episode 7 where Mr. Denham bursts into a ball and makes a final plea for Miss Denham’s affections despite her obvious disinterest. Mr. Sidney Parker and Lord Babbington physically stop him from getting close to Esther. Later Babbington tells her: “Your brother is not going to make a victim out of you. I’ll not allow it.”

Seriously, crushing hard here! He’d become attractive before, but this kind of determination and caring? Romance novel stuff. Jane Austen romance stuff! This here, right here, is exactly how Austen heroes behave. So why the everloving fork is it that the whiny Mr. S. Parker is the protagonist of the adaptation and Lord Babbington is not?!?

In fact, Lord Babbington and Esther Denham’s story is more compelling to me than that of Miss Heywood and Mr. S. Parker. Babbington and Esther even get the gorgeous wedding at the end:

Ethical Hedonist Magazine Babbington Denham Wedding

Sanditon (2019) via Ethical Hedonist Magazine

I seriously suspect I have a headcanon coming…!

I still need to watch Sanditon again to be sure, but it seems I’m leaning into the direction of not considering it a Jane Austen work, but a more generic (fantasy) regency drama.

Have you seen Sanditon? What did you think of it?

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Sanditon Screen Adaptation

  1. Haven’t got round to watching Sanditon yet but it sounds as if I could probably give it a miss! Didn’t think I’d ever hear an Austen adaptation compared to Labyrinth, haha! I can’t say I’m entirely surprised, in that several people writing for TV would never be able to reach the depth and nuance of Austen herself, but it sounds like even by those standards they didn’t do a very good job!

    1. Thanks for the visit & comments! 🙂

      Well, there are good things in it; it’s not a total failure EXCEPT as a Jane Austen adaptation. I really need to watch it again to be sure, perhaps after re-reading Austen’s remnant again. I didn’t really go into it at length because I know so little of the actual balancing of decisions between the writers’ room and producers, but so many of the weirder choices kinda feel like the writers might have been pressured to take the story into a more “dramatic” direction for reasons something something.

      Heh, I actually didn’t realize the Labyrinth connection before sitting down to write this post; then it hit me like a lightning bolt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.