Once I started looking at whether human rights were recognized in different parts of the world, the next question that came up was: had the perception of human rights evolved over the centuries?
In the same way, the Amnesty International campaign was questioning the perception of what constitutes a human rights violation in differents parts of the world, I was intrigued at how the modern concept of basic human rights had been perceived at different periods in time, and how this may be reflected today.
A good example was the 1999 movie Mansfield Park, an adaptation of the 19th century novel by Jane Austen. As was the case in most recent adaptations of the famous writer’s novels, a great attention had been paid to period details, with intensive research being done to ensure accuracy of sets, costumes, and dialogues.
The Canadian director, Patricia Rozema, decided to go beyond the actual text of the novel, and updated the plot to make it more relevant to a late 20th century audience. The novel takes place in 1806, and while references to an Antigua plantation are made, nowhere in the novel is the theme of slavery mentioned. In her adaptation, Rozema makes it a recurrent theme and one of the plot’s determining moments. As a child, on her way to a new home, a long sequence shows Fanny Price looking at a slave ship, while as a young woman, her discovery of a sketchbook describing with lurid details the fate of slaves employed by her uncle becomes a pivotal moment in the plot.
Rozema’s decision to modernize the novel created quite a bit of debate and controversy among Jane Austen’s many followers. Was she right to introduce a dimension that may have been likely, but was certainly not even suggested as a main point of the novel. While the slave trade was abolished in England in 1807, following an almost twenty-year battle led among others by William Wilberforce, political developments are seldom mentioned in Austen’s works.
One wonders then whether the director - rather than being period-accurate - was not trying to be 20th century-PC. By making slavery such a leit-motiv of the movie, and endowing Fanny with strong abolitionist convictions, she made a similar type of transposition - in time - as that used by Amnesty international. With this PC approach, Fanny Price and the movie were becoming more interesting to Rozema’s modern audience, in the same way as Vanity Fair’s readership would be more likely to react to Protestant American victims.