Synopsis: Sparks fly when spirited Elizabeth Bennet meets single, rich, and proud Mr. Darcy. But Mr. Darcy reluctantly finds himself falling in love with a woman beneath his class. Can each overcome their own pride and prejudice? (Synopsis from IMDb)
Review: Jane Austen’s books represent the epitome of romantic narratives. Originally published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice,a novel about manners, deals with the issues of upbringing, morality, education, and marriage amongst the landed gentry of Regency Britain. While the narrative occurs during the turn of the 19th century, the novel manages to hold generations of reader in a thrall. The book remains one of the most popular English language novels, with over 20 million copies sold. Given that most of Austen’s contemporaries faded from popularity, the endurance of this tale remains astonishing. Even today Pride & Prejudice consistently appears on lists of “most loved books” and “best books”. Due to this continual popularity, Pride and Prejudice has received a cinematic adaptation numerous times.
Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five unmarried daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. The story begins immediately after the eligible and wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley rents the large estate in the area. Bingley brings his two sisters and his status-obsessed friend, Mr. Darcy, along with him. Austen uses these characters to explore five different types of relationships: Mr. Bingley and the idealistic Jane; the prideful Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth; the flighty Lydia and the conniving Wickham; the obsequious Mr. Collins and the unlucky Charlotte; the hysterical Mrs. Bennet and caustic Mr. Bennet. All these relationships illustrate what a marriage should and should not resemble.
Austen’s major theme is the importance of environment and upbringing on character and morality. In this world, social standing and wealth do not necessarily translate into success and stability. The theme emerges through Austen’s examination of the ineffectiveness of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s parenting. For instance, Lydia’s lack of morality resulted from her parents’ lackadaisical parenting. Kitty’s character only improves after Lydia leaves, thus forcing her to spend time in her other sisters’ superior company. Darcy attempts to always act in a principled and honorable manner, but he comes across as proud and overbearing. Charlotte Lucas’ behavior arises due to economical and societal pressures. Her parents will not live forever and an unmarried woman is a burden on familial resources.
I grew up watching the 1995 A&E mini-series adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. The mini-series is a direct adaption of the novel, nearly all the dialogue comes straight from the book. In 2005, director Joe Wright decided to bring Pride and Prejudice to the big screen. The last straight movie adaption was the 1940 version starring Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier. The 2005 version was adapted by Deborah Moggach and Emma Thompson did some uncredited edits on the dialogue. This resulted in the most abridged cinematic version ever produced.
Wright made several drastic changes that I vehemently dislike. This version takes place in the late 18th century, while the novel occurs in the 19th century. While 18th century clothing makes more an impact, the time period did not require changing. What aggravates me the most is the stark societal differences between the Bennet family and Darcy. In the book, the Bennet family is landed gentry with an entailed estate, this did not mean they suffered economically. Since the Bennet’s had no sons, the estate goes to the closest male relative. But in the movie the clothing, furnishing, and mannerisms of the Bennet clan borders upon the peasant class. In one scene a pig runs through the kitchen, this would never occur in an aristocratic family’s household.
One rather anachronistic scene involves Lady Catherine de Bourgh dropping by in the dead of night and the Bennet clan meets her in their sleepwear. Neither of these things would have occurred in either 18th or 19th century Britain. No self-respecting Lady would pay a visit in the middle of night to a virtual stranger’s home. Nearly all aristocratic families employed butlers, the family would never answer the door themselves. The societal differences, as depicted in the movie, are so stark that Darcy actually marrying Elizabeth borders on unbelievable. Austen probably would have cringed at the first proposal scene where Darcy was portrayed as a doe-eyed stuttering school boy.
Other characters besides Darcy received a personality re-write for the film. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s movie relationship comes across as quite affectionate, in the book they hated one another. Mr. Bingley comes across as a bumbling fool without a single original thought. Mr. Darcy would never befriend such an empty-headed individual. Perhaps the gravest mistake lies in the portrayal of Elizabeth. This version of Elizabeth borders on pouty, rude, defiant, and flighty. In one scene Elizabeth and Darcy take a stroll in their nightclothes, which would never have happened during this time period. Furthermore, Elizabeth becomes slightly estranged from Jane and continually keeps secrets from her sisters. She openly mocks her family, something the original Elizabeth would never do. Overall, Elizabeth comes across as bold/impatient and resembles the book version of Lydia. This radical change completely ruins the point of the narrative.
The movie places most of the characters in unbelievable situations. Mr. Bingley would not visit Jane in her room while she recuperated from her cold, especially without a proper chaperone. If Jane wore appropriate clothing and Elizabeth was in the room, then it might have verged on acceptable. Elizabeth, or any women of aristocratic birth, would never her hair down while visiting Netherfield Park. A proper lady never went out in public without an acceptable hair style, which usually meant an up-do. In the book Elizabeth acutely knows the social rules and strives to uphold them at all times. Wearing her hair down while in public qualifies as “conceited independence”.
Lastly, Matthew Macfayden (Darcy) spoke too quickly and in a droning monotone the entire time. Darcy controls a vast estate and moves in exalted circles. He would speak in a more clipped and refined manner. The absolute worst scene in the movie occurs when Darcy declares his love to Elizabeth with a fake stutter. Little to no emotion shows in his voice and the effect is not romantic. While MacFayden certainly possesses the looks to play Mr Darcy, his delivery did not do the role justice. Part of this fault lies in the hands of the screenwriter who managed to take a thought provoking romance and turn it into a historical costumed rom-com. This version of Darcy felt too modern and lacked the reservedness depicted in the book.
Wright justified the major changes to the narrative because he wanted to focus on the “romance” between Darcy and Elizabeth. However this version only made the romance entirely unbelievable and inexplicably downplayed the one event that caused Elizabeth to fall-in-love with Darcy. In the book Lydia runs away with Wickham, a calvalry officer with a chequered past. Wickham grew up with Darcy and attempted to pull a similar stunt with his sister Georgiana. When Darcy heard that Wickham ran off with Lydia with no intention of marrying her, he took off to find them and force Wickham to do the honorable thing. Darcy only did this in order to prove to Elizabeth that he truly cared about her. This one subplot brings together Darcy and Elizabeth in a believable manner and wipes away their preconceived notion about each other. For some reason, Wickham’s manipulations barely appear in this version of the movie and this crippled the effectiveness of the narrative. Without this subplot, Darcy does not have a chance to show his true character to Elizbeth and she does not get to see him in a new light. I could have forgiven all the other changes if Wright left this one plot point in the film. Without it, the movie is a pale version of the original narrative.