One night while I was in Belgium, Matt, Leo and I went to see the most recent adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at the Torsion d'Or (aka the Golden Fleece) in downtown Brussels. The novel is, of course, one of the greatest masterpieces ever composed in any language, and my favorite novel. I've read it at least a dozen times, taught it several times, hope to teach it again. (One of the best courses I ever taught was "All of Austen" at the U of Iowa--it was a blast.)
This adaptation is also titled Pride and Prejudice, but I think this is inappropriate. It should be called prd & prjdc, because it is an abbreviated, overly simplified affair, relying on the hard consonants of major plot points while forfeiting the vowel-like softness of nuance and complexity provided by character development, human growth and discovery.
There are reasons why Austen's novel remains a best seller almost 200 years after it was originally published, why it is read and understood easily even by modern high school students (I first read and loved it as a 15-year-old junior), why it is so often adapted into contemporary works. Bridget Jones's Diary, after all, is based on Pride and Prejudice, and BJD as novel, at least, does a good job of retaining major elements of the plot (not so much in the movie). Then there was Bride and Prejudice, a contemporary retelling set in India, LA and London. It includes a few great Bollywood dance numbers, and is loads of fun--as well as fairly loyal to the plot.
One reason for Jane's continued popularity is the fact that her language has aged very well. Austen's prose, while intellectually and syntactically complex, precise in vocabulary and laden with humor both understated and overt, is spare on similes and metaphors. S&M are, of course, evocative, and make for richness and beauty, but they only work if you understand both the literal and connotative meanings of the objects on each side of the comparison--otherwise, they inhibit rather than augment one's understanding of what's being evoked--"ox-eyed Athena" springs to mind.
But of course the main reason Austen remains popular is that she's a fabulous storyteller with keen insight into human psychology. And that keen insight is precisely what this new adaptation lacks.
In the original novel, Fitzwilliam Darcy, a haughty, disagreeable and exceedingly rich young gentleman of 28 discovers to his mortification that he is smitten with Elizabeth Bennet, a good-natured, intelligent, relatively poor 20-year-old gentlewoman with a bunch of boorish relatives. She's not conventionally pretty enough to appeal his tastes at first (a fact he announces loudly enough for her to overhear him), and she's too willing to express unconventional opinions to suit his sense of what a woman should be. But later he finds himself for some reason captivated by her "fine eyes," resolves to learn more of her, and as he observes firsthand her intelligence, her generosity, her courage, he falls head over heels in love with her.
Meanwhile Elizabeth has developed a fervid fancy for a ne'er-do-well named George Wickham, a hot young thing who drives all the ladies mad with his gallant manners and the sad, sad tales of how he was wronged by the nasty, dishonorable Mr. Darcy. Given how smitten she is with Georgy-Porgy, given how Darcy insulted her looks, given how taciturn and unpleasant Darcy invariably is, Elizabeth has to work even to maintain basic civility in her dealings with him.
But Darcy, reading her brittle politeness as interest in him because it flatters his vanity to do so, eventually proposes marriage to her, telling her that she must put him out of his misery and agree to marry him, even though she is decidedly inferior to him in status and connexions, and that he loves her against his will, his reason and his character. Even after she refuses this less-than-flattering offer of his hand, he believes that she rejects him primarily because he has wounded her vanity "by [his] honest confession of the scruples that long prevented [his] forming any serious" design on her.
Elizabeth struggles to retain her composure and her temper as she replies, "You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner...You could not have made me the offer of you hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it."
Darcy is mortified and astonished that anyone would dare to FORM such an opinion of him, let alone express it, but he remains silent as Elizabeth continues:
From the very beginning, from the first moment I may almost say, of my acquaintance with you, your manners impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that ground-work of disapprobation, on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.
But this abhorrence of Darcy is softened and abridged, if not outright removed from the new adaptation, having been replaced with what my friends both pointed out was an "undeniable sexual attraction" between Darcy and Elizabeth. Furthermore, instead of taking place in the drawing room of the Collins' home, as it does in the book, the proposal scene in the movie occurs outside in the rain, with Darcy and Elizabeth so moved by each other's physical presence that they very nearly kiss, even after insulting each other.
Make no mistake: the novel Pride and Prejudice is full of sexual attraction, and Austen makes it clear that a good marriage needs to have a healthy dose of it to succeed. But Elizabeth is not the least bit sexually attracted to Darcy at that point: she has the hots for Wickham, and her attraction for that sexy little bad boy was one reason she is so repulsed--physically, emotionally and intellectually--by Darcy. But oh yeah, Elizabeth's crush on Wickham has been deleted from the new movie too.
Austen also makes clear that in her view of things, sexual attraction must be supported and maintained by a healthy intellectual and emotional attraction: Mr. Bennet, after all, married a girl he was sexually attracted to, only to discover that she was an idiot with whom he could never have a meaningful conversation. And so that marriage could give no lasting pleasure to either partner in it--in fact, it becomes a source of great unhappiness, not only to the two spouses, but to the children it produced.
One of the reasons the novel is so satisfying is that both of the main characters change; both discover their weaknesses and become better people by interacting with the other. John Stuart Mill describes marriage as a relation where "there exists that best kind of equality, similarity of powers and capacities with reciprocal superiority in them--so that each can enjoy the luxury of looking up to the other, and can have alternately the pleasure of leading and of being led in the path of development." That's what you get in the novel Jane Austen wrote, and it occurs precisely because the two partners in the (eventual) marriage are able to recognize and act upon valid critiques of their behavior from the other.
For instance, Darcy's letter, in which he explains his dealings with Wickham and his interferences in Bingley's intentions towards Jane, allows Elizabeth to admit to herself that
Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. --Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.
After inadvertently encountering Darcy at Pemberly and seeing how he has changed because of her, Elizabeth begins "to comprehend that he was exactly the man, who, in dispositions and talents, would most suit her." Months later, when Darcy finally manages to make Elizabeth the offer of his hand in a way she is willing to accept, he says, of his earlier attempt,
The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you believe in a more gentleman-like manner.' Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;--though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.... I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle.... I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit....I was spoiled by my parents, who...allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared to my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You have taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.
BUT THAT'S GONE FROM THE FREAKIN' LOUSY NEW MOVIE! In it, Darcy never owns up to making any mistakes; he's always just this great guy this skinny impertinent girl doesn't have the sense to appreciate. His "pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased" were never insufficient, and Elizabeth's final conversation with her father makes that clear: she goes on and on about how she misunderstood him, how they all misunderstood him! She learns nothing about herself, aside from the fact that she's really lucky to have this fabulous hunky rich guy in love with her. I could scarce keep my countenance....wait a minute: I didn't even bother to TRY to keep my countenance: at that point I scowled fiercely and flipped off the screen.
I admit that I preferred Brenda Blethyn's performance as Mrs. Bennet to Alison Steadman's horrible rendering of the character--Mrs. Bennet is supposed to be a ditzy, annoying airhead, but I couldn't stand how shrill and brittle she was in the 1995 mini-series, especially when contrasted to Benjamin Whitrow's witty, dry, understated performance as Mr. Bennet. (I don't consider the performance of Mr. Bennet in the new version interesting enough to warrant mentioning the name of the actor who played him.) Judi Dench was something to behold as Lady Catherine de Bourgh: the audience gasped when she first appeared on screen. But there was so little to the role as it was written--I would bet Ms. Dench spent longer in hair and make-up than she did learning the lines or preparing for the role, because an actress of her caliber could master that particular part in her sleep.
And in my opinion, there is not praise enough in the world to do justice to Julia Sawalha's energetic, rollicking, scene-stealing performance as Lydia in the 1995 version! Wan little Jena Malone, who managed to do just fine as the pregnant Christian in Saved!, provides a Lydia who is overwhelmingly forgettable and insipid. (which I guess doesn't matter since Wickham's part is so stunted and curtailed that her elopement with him doesn't have the force or significance it should.)
I suppose I should say something about the principals.... Keira Knightley bugs--at least, she bugs me. I admit I was glad when I heard she was named Britain's Sexiest Woman, (even sexier than Sienna Miller) because she's not exactly big-breasted, and as someone else whose assets aren't all on her chest, I am happy when women are recognized as devastatingly sexy even when they lack gigantic mammary glands. But Knightley, to borrow the criticism Darcy offers of Jane, "smiles too much." And she doesn's just smile: she does these weird things to her mouth: bites her lip; starts to smile, stops, then goes ahead and smiles; smirks. She can be charming, sure: but she lacks the obvious intelligence and thoughtfulness of someone like Claire Danes, which I think are necessary to play Elizabeth. (Claire Danes is who I would have liked to see in the part--if it had been better written, that is.)
As for Matthew MacFadyen, I liked him well enough in MI5 (known as Spooks in the UK), but I didn't think he was a good Darcy. (I admit I watched MI5--and everything else MacFadyen has been in--about a year ago so I could speculate about what kind of Darcy he might make.) He seemed to think he was playing Heathcliff.... He never commanded my attention on the screen. I could say to myself, "Oh, yeah, the heroine's love interest is back; I should probably pay attention to this interaction," but I would have been just as happy to look at something else.
Then there's the matter of the ending. The version I saw in Brussels ended with Mr. Bennet's command that "If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure." But I've been told that the version released in the US ends with some cheesy post-nuptial discussion about what Darcy should call Elizabeth, a discussion culminating in her declaration that he should address her as "Mrs. Darcy" only when she is at her happiest. I cannot but be grateful that I was spared seeing that.... I shudder to think of it.
In my opinion, credit for the fabulousness of the 1995 version goes to Andrew Davies, who wrote the screenplay. I would gladly drink this guy's bathwater... I'll watch anything he signs his name to. He has written plenty of adaptations of meaty British novels, including truly amazing versions of Middlemarch and Moll Flanders. His adaptations are always LONG, as in four or five or six hours: he devotes the time and care necessary to translate a 300-page novel into a fairly faithful film.
However, Deborah Moggach, the writer of the new version, should have her computer taken from her until she promises not to write any more trite, superficial shit.
For more analysis of the movie, check out two posts by FrankenGirl: Pride and Prejudice Publicity: Gender, Glamor, Sex and Film: Pride & Prejudice 2005 (I’m not proud. I’m just misunderstood.)
If you're a Janeite, you should see this movie, because Janeites want to know how Jane's work lives in the modern world. The movie isn't vile, exactly, just profoundly inferior to the source material. If you're not a Janeite, you might want to see this movie because you might not care how inferior it is to the original, and I have heard from enough people who don't know the original well and liked this a lot to believe that it might be OK in and of itself--and I readily admit I can't watch it that way, because I'm far too invested in the novel. But don't buy it, or anything like that: buy the 1995 (UK release date) mini-series, and Bride and Prejudice, and oh yeah, the book! Don't forget the book.