It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is a timeless classic of literature. Since we have reached the 200th anniversary of its publication (January 28, 1813), I wanted to acknowledge the occasion. I love Pride and Prejudice, so I thought I’d take a tour through some of its various filmed incarnations over the years.
First, however, a few words about the novel itself, written by Jane Austen. In case you’re unfamiliar with the novel, it tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet, who comes from a family of five daughters. The Bennet family’s estate is entailed away from them upon the death of their father, but, for the time being, they are a fairly prominent family in a small town in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth’s sister Jane is beautiful and kind, but the rest of her sisters and her mother are all very silly women. I’ve always thought that perhaps their father took more of an interest in the first two girls than the others, leaving his ridiculous wife to raise the other girls without any involvement from him. The main focus of the plot is the relationship between Elizabeth and the incredibly rich (and eligible) Mr. Darcy. It starts out an antagonistic one, but gradually develops throughout the novel as they learn more about one another.
I know that Jane Austen has been adopted by the chick lit genre, where there is a similar focus on finding “Mr. Right” (who always happens to be rich and handsome and will love the independent heroines without wanting to change them), but I think there’s so much more to Jane Austen. She is a very witty writer who works a lot of social commentary into her novels. Jane Austen was a keen observer of people and all of her characters seem to have a life beyond the page (even the minor ones). She has a rather sarcastic voice at times, which peppers her novels (and especially Pride and Prejudice) with clever, perceptive quotes. One of my favorite lines from Pride and Prejudice has always been, “There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well.” Very true for Elizabeth, who speaks it, and probably true of most people, they’ve just never come up with such a clear way of expressing it.
The first film adaptation was made in 1940, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. It was based on the stage adaptation by Helen Jerome, instead of the novel, so some plot points and characters are quite different. Most noticeably the character of Lady Catherine is quite altered for her final confrontation with Elizabeth, there is no visit to Pemberly, and, thanks to the costumes, the period setting is later than the original regency setting. There are also many supporting character who are missing from the story, such as the Gardiners and Darcy’s sister Georgiana (of course, they were all connected with the visit to Pemberly, so it’s not surprising). However, I still enjoy this film. I love Greer Garson’s Elizabeth (even if she really was too old for the part). She does a great job of showing Elizabeth’s intelligence and wit, while also showcasing her vivacious and lively personality. You really can’t help but understand why Olivier’s rather stuffy Darcy would be drawn to her. The comedy is played up to the expense of the social commentary and the more serious aspects of the plot, but it all makes for a lighthearted romp through the novel. However, if you’re looking for fidelity to the novel, this is not for you.
The 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle is, in my opinion, the best adaptation of Pride and Prejudice ever. The two leads have a great chemistry, that really is required to understand how two people who are at odds could still be drawn to each other. You can’t help but notice that Colin Firth really perfected the art of impassioned brooding in this, since Darcy is often off on the sidelines watching Elizabeth. The supporting cast is all excellent too, especially Benjamin Whitrow and Allison Steadman as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. This adaptation is 5 hours long, so it has the time to do justice to all of Austen’s secondary characters. The extra time also allows time for Elizabeth and Darcy to very gradually warm to each other, making the ending much more satisfying. It is very faithful to the novel, so this movie has a lot of the carefully observed details about life in the regency period, as well as the underlying social commentary. Jane Austen’s witty tone remains intact, but the comedy is a part of the story, not the dominant feature of the story.
I think the only version of Pride and Prejudice that I did not enjoy was the 2005 version starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden. I know many people love this version, but I found little to enjoy. I felt that in an attempt to make the characters appeal to younger viewers, the filmakers emphasized the youth of the characters too much. They acted as if they were giggling schoolgirls, which is not how a woman of 21 would act; to be a teenager then was not the same as being a teenager now. The characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were also changed from the biting wit of Austen’s original characterization. Instead of Mr. Bennet being a man who married a beauty only to discover she was an idiot, they are now a couple who may have their differences, but are a loving couple. This was typical of the movie. I felt like much of Austen’s tone and rich characterizations were lost in this teen romance. The setting was also moved to an earlier period (the late 18th century), because the filmmakers did not want the glamour of the regency period and they wanted a different visual style from the other adaptations. Overall, I felt like I couldn’t recognize the characters that I knew and loved in this version.
There are, of course, several modern versions of Pride and Prejudice. These versions preserve the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth, but eliminate the social commentary aspect along with the regency setting. The best of the modern versions is Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was both a novel (written by Helen Fielding) and a movie (staring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant). It does a good job of taking the romance of Jane Austen’s novel and putting it in modern-day England (with the Wickham role expanded to make use of Hugh Grant). It actually is very clever in the ways that it weaves familiar characters and events through the story, all the while giving them a modern twist. It is not completely bound to the original novel, so there are many changes to the story and characters, but it all works to make an entertaining, funny film. The performances are also excellent with Renee Zelleger giving an academy award nominated performance, Colin Firth playing his second Mr. Darcy (and being just as appealing), and Hugh Grant relishing the role of the charming cad.
There are two other modern Pride and Prejudice films: Bride and Prejudice and Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy. Bride is a Bollywood musical version of the story staring Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson. I thought that this was actually a good fit for the story because the Indian setting allowed for a fresh take on the story. The second film is a Mormon, yes that’s right, a Mormon version, of the story, which is a better fit than you’d think; they were able to work in the church through Mr. Collin’s character. It’s set in modern-day Utah at Brigham Young University. I actually saw it without knowing it was a Mormon version (the “latter-day comedy” subtitle wasn’t used), and it didn’t really offer anything new or clever, but it was okay. Of course I didn’t really understand the Mormon references and jokes, but I didn’t really need to to understand the movie.
I had to amend this post, because after I finished I realized that I really should have mentioned Lost in Austen, a 2008 British miniseries in which Amanda, a modern day woman, changes places with Elizabeth Bennet. It’s a clever look at what it would be like to actually live as Elizabeth Bennet did (something that many readers have imagined, I’m sure). The period adjustment provides some humor, as well as Amanda knowing where the story has to go and trying to keep it on track now that it’s heroine has disappeared. My complaint was that I wished I could have seen more of Elizabeth’s life in modern England. Instead, that’s glossed over to focus on Amanda’s time inside the world of the novel.
I believe a movie version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is eventually being made, and there is a 1980 miniseries that I didn’t talk about here as well, but that covers all the various incarnations of Pride and Prejudice on the screen.