Messing with Austen is not for faint of heart

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Emmy and BAFTA award-winning writer Andrew Davies claims not to be overly concerned about the police. A monthslong storm of "cop" communiques on the Web about the British writer's recent works was probably to be expected. We're talking here about Davies' adaptations of Jane Austen's classics "Northanger Abbey," "Sense and Sensibility," "Emma" and "Pride and Prejudice." As a result, he's under the scrutiny of "the Austen police."

Apparently there's an enormously vocal army of Jane Austen fans out there who are anxiously awaiting the January launch of "The Complete Jane Austen" on PBS' "Masterpiece Theater." The series is being touted as the first time on television that all six of Austen's classics will be presented as a complete collection. Davies has adapted four of these.

The mastermind behind the TV coup is Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of "Masterpiece Theater." It was Eaton who revealed the presence of who she describes as "the Jane Austen police" in an interview last week in Los Angeles. The reference was actually a respectful nod because Eaton is thrilled that the series already has a groundswell of genuinely interested Austen fans.

But they do tend to make one very aware that every nuance or deviation from the text of the original novels will come under intense scrutiny, Eaton concedes.

Davies, who is accompanying Eaton on a multi-city tour to support the series and to chat up sponsors, makes no bones about the fact that he has confidently put some very individual fingerprints on the works. "Adapting Austen was pure pleasure in that it entailed copying out the best bits. But what gave me most pleasure was exploring scenes that she herself didn't get around to actually writing, the back stories of various characters," he says.

Davies, a trim, 60-something, gray-haired, Welsh-born writer and former university lecturer, exudes intellectual self-assurance as the word "flawed" trips off his tongue without hesitation. Yes, he's talking about THE Jane Austen, the early 19th century English author who was described by Virginia Woolf as "the most perfect artist among women."

Davies unearthed some gaping new opportunities for dramatization -- at least as far as television drama is concerned. He notes that scenes are sometimes suggested but never fully explored in the novels, such as the affair between Isabella and Captain Tilney in "Northanger Abbey." "Did Isabella really believe that Tilney would actually marry her? I mean, it was preposterous." The affair, hinted at in the novel, becomes a nasty little bedroom scene in the television version with Tilney dismissing the devastated Isabella like a whore.

Davies says he found countless areas in which to offer the reader new encounters with Austen's characters, particularly the men, because Austen held back from following her male characters into their own worlds, leaving much room for speculative interpretation. Additionally, Austen wrote "Sense and Sensibility" a decade prior to its publication but never updated it to address new trends and poets of the day, including Lord Byron. Davies fixes that.

He professes nothing but respect for Austen's works while conceding the point that to create a masterpiece in a modern medium clearly requires a revisionist's touch.

Austen police be aware: "The Complete Jane Austen" debuts Jan. 13.
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