Helen Fielding's two Bridget Jones novels showed the right way to re-imagine classics like Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. But there's no hint yet that the next installment will do the same.
Helen Fielding recently revealed that she would be giving us a third book of Bridget Jones's adventures. There's also another movie in the works. It's unclear how old Bridget will be, or even whether admirers Mark Darcy and Daniel Cleaver will still be in her universe. But the most pressing—and so far overlooked—question is not whether or not she'll get pregnant, or marry Mark, or any of the other issues raised after Fielding's interview.
It's this: What Jane Austen book will this new story be based on, if any? Fielding is entitled to send Bridget in any direction she chooses, but it'd be a shame one of the few people capable of parodying Austen well should leave tradition behind.
Many people noticed that Bridget Jones Diary was based on Pride & Prejudice. The parallels and the in-joke of casting Colin Firth as Mark Darcy made it obvious even to casual observers. Far fewer seemed to notice how Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason followed the plotline of Austen's Persuasion—the awkward silences and misunderstandings between Bridget and Mark threatening their future in a way that mirrored the story of shy Anne Elliot and confused Frederick Wentworth.
This probably went unnoticed because the film version of Edge of Reason went so far off the rails. For instance: Instead of Rebecca being presented as the schemer whom Fielding's readers know her to be (conversing with her, Bridget says, is like swimming with a jellyfish—"all will be going along perfectly pleasantly then suddenly you get a painful lashing, destroying confidence at stroke"), she was turned into an earnest lesbian whose unrequited crush on Bridget was played for laughs. Here's Rebecca attempting to snare the unsuspecting Mr. Darcy, after he expresses frustration with Bridget's self-help book collection:
"Oh, I quite agree," she gushed. "I have no time for all that stuff. If I decide I love someone then nothing will stand in my way. Nothing. Not friends, not theories. I just follow my instincts, follow my heart," she said in a new, simpery voice, like a flower girl-child of nature. "I respect you for that," said Mark quietly.
Here's the original conversation between Captain Wentworth and his admirer Louisa Musgrove, regarding an inseparable couple of their acquaintance:
"I should do just the same in her place. If I loved a man as she loves the Admiral, I would be always with him, nothing should ever separate us ...." "Had you?" cried he, catching the same tone: "I honor you!"
Okay, maybe not the most exciting stuff—and certainly nothing to Bridget's imprisonment in Thailand (a storyline that has no Austen precedent that I'm aware of). But to a true Austen fan, it's hilarious, spot-on parody that both updates and celebrates the original. Anne and Frederick are initially separated after a friend advises Anne to reconsider his proposal—much like Mark begins to drift away from Bridget after her similarly self-help-addicted friends persuade her that he is, among other things, "a Martian rubber-band" (from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus).
Too many people use the same source material for the wrong reasons—taking advantage of Austen's renewed popularity and the fact that her books are in the public domain. They terrorize the Bennet sisters with attacks from the undead, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. They use her to elevate their own muddled romantic comedy storylines by highlighting faint parallels between modern characters and Austen heroines, as in The Jane Austen Book Club.
A good update of Austen can stand on its own. You don't have to know that hapless Giles Benwick—whom Bridget converts to the self-help religion—is today's answer to James Benwick, the tragic naval officer mourning for his dead fiancée and whom only Anne can comfort. When you watch Clueless, you don't have to know that the good-natured stoner Travis is too-hastily dismissed by Cher in a way that echoes humble farmer Robert Martin and Emma Woodhouse. The situation is funny and entertaining regardless.
Good updates of Austen reflect a truth not always universally acknowledged: that a story needs a compelling conflict to be engaging. One can't just write a modern Elizabeth Bennet who is poorer than her Mr. Darcy—in this day and age, when princes are marrying commoners (and even divorcees and single mothers), it's simply not enough. The rigid social hierarchy of a ritzy high school was an excellent choice for a modern Emma Woodhouse. And Bridget Jones wouldn't be nearly as sympathetic if she wasn't a little ditzy and slightly confused about where Germany is. I wish I could point to more excellent updates and parodies, but the pickings are slim. Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood-inspired movie from the director of Bend it Like Beckham, comes close; the scene in which heroine Lalita righteously schools newcomer Will Darcy on his misconceptions about India is a worthy heir to Elizabeth Bennet's many redirections of misguided Mr. Darcy—and a good choice of a modern conflict.
I searched in vain for a hint of Austen in the press coverage that heralded Bridget's return. Unfortunately, most of the rumors focus on the possibility of Renee Zellweger wearing a fat suit to play a 130-pound character. Whatever happens to Bridget next, I hope Fielding's smart writing will win the day. Maybe she'll recall Austen's maxim from Emma: "Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations that a young person who either marries or dies is sure of being kindly spoken of."