Tuesday 3 March 2015

Northanger Abbey Adaptation – 1987

DVD cover: Northanger Abbey 1987
I had been putting off watching this adaptation for a while, because the only other version of Northanger Abbey that I’ve seen, the 2007 version, I really loved, so I thought this one would suffer by comparison. Also, the cover of the DVD put me off. Our hero, Henry Tilney, is supposed to be aged 24 but the actor playing him is a fair bit older, and Catherine’s hair looks like it’s had a tonne of hair mousse applied, so I wasn’t enticed. However, now I’m stuck in a chair recuperating it seems like a good time to tackle my ‘To Be Watched’ list.

This version of Northanger Abbey starts out with one of Catherine’s imaginings as she reads one of her lurid romances, so the gothic romance idea is introduced from the first and it’s very strong throughout the story. Some of her imaginings are ridiculous, while others are a bit disturbing. I don’t think the adaptation conveyed the right sense of these books being ridiculous and over the top, as the book is clearly poking fun at the genre. The setting was also a little disappointing in this regard. Northanger Abbey is pretty creepy here, which could fuel even a less active imagination, whereas it should be disappointingly comfortable and modern, thereby highlighting how absurd Catherine’s flight of fancy is. General Tilney is also more sinister in this adaptation than in the book.

The Thorpes, particularly Isabella Thorpe, are presented quite straightforwardly as who they are rather than more subtly which I thought was a missed opportunity as one of the things I liked about the novel is the juxtaposition of Catherine’s imagination seeing more than it should when there is no basis and her naivety causing her to miss a real life deception being played out in front of her eyes.

Peter Firth as Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey 1987 and Colin Baker, Doctor Who
Peter Firth - Henry Tilney (L) / Colin Baker - Doctor Who (R)
As regards casting, this adaptation has Henry Tilney played by Peter Firth, who apparently is most famous for the ‘Spooks’ TV series (called ‘MI-5’ in some countries), but I thought I recognised him as Doctor Who from the Sci-fi series of the same name. The series is long running, and has different actors playing the title role. I thought Peter Firth was the Doctor back in the 1980s. Actually he didn’t play Doctor Who, I was mixing him up with Colin Baker, who was almost his doppelganger back in those days!

I wasn’t keen on him as Henry. He came across as really quite cold and humourless, and when you consider how funny some of Henry’s dialogue is that doesn’t seem right at all. I didn’t find him charming either, and I couldn’t really see what Catherine saw in him.

Northanger Abbey 1987: Catherine Morland played by Katherine Schlesinger
I quite liked Katheine Schlesigner’s portrayal of Catherine, though I don’t think Catherine’s extreme youth (she was only 17, remember) really came across, and since that is what excuses her behaviour such naivety is harder to comprehend. I also didn’t feel that the leads had much chemistry between them. You couldn’t really see what drew them to each other. The ending scene was so out of nowhere that I thought Catherine was imagining it!

Another thing about this adaptation that struck me was the background music, at times, was really bad, particularly during the gothic imaginings scenes. It was quite synthesised, and I think there was even a bit of saxophone at one point. It was just far too modern.

You may feel from reading all this that I didn’t enjoy the adaptation but you’d be wrong, because I enjoyed it despite all the above! It’s actually pretty amusing. If you’ve read the book you can fill in the gaps. If you hadn’t read the book already, I’m not sure somebody watching would get the joke. I think the main shame for me with this version, is that I thought it was almost like ‘Northanger Abbey Lite’. I know this is true of all adaptations, to an extent, as to get the story in full you’d be better off reading the book, but I felt that particularly with this adaptation, it didn’t do anything in much depth. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to ‘Northanger Abbey’, you’d be better off reading the book (obviously!) but if you didn’t fancy starting with the book, start with the more recent adaptation, which I plan to watch next. This version gets 3 stars from me.

3 star watch


  1. I agree about the casting! I really don't think that the people who made this adaptation realised that Jane Austen was poking fun at the Gothic novels. they seemed to play it dead straight! I haven't watched it for some years, perhaps it's time to revisit.My favourite work of Peter Firth was a play on TV called 'The Flipside of Dominick Hyde' that also had a sequel in the early 80s, where he played a timetraveller.

    1. I think you might well be right Hazel, I don't think they understood she was poking fun at the novels! The visions in this one were a little disturbing too. I still enjoyed it though :)


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