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 classic novels.” Due to this continual popularity, Hollywood has adapted Pride and Prejudice for the screen numerous times.
Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five unmarried daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. We join the narrative shortly after the arrival of Mr Bingley, and eligible and wealthy bachelor. 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 serve to illustrate Austen’s various observations about matrimony.
Austen’s major theme is the importance of environment and upbringing on character and morality. In this world, social standing and wealth does not necessarily translate into success and stability. A lot of the aristocracy was land rich but cash poor, which is why a lot of daughters from “merchant” families married into titles. All the Lords needed wealthy wives to save their finances. As such, women were expected to remain untarnished until their wedding day, otherwise they would court ruin upon themselves and their family. Without a solid reputation, no woman, despite her wealth, would land an eligible and wealthy husband. This theme of reputation and upbringing 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 approach to discipline. 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. As the son of a gentleman, who descended from an aristocratic family, Darcy usually socialized with the aristocratic elite. Lizzie Bennet and her sisters, while the daughters of a gentleman, did not “measure up” in regards to social standing. 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. Since she is an “old maid”, she either has to marry Mr Collins or spend the rest of her life living off the charity of her brothers. Collins represented Charlotte’s last chance of a financially secured future. Women at this time in history had few options outside of marriage. Austen broke convention by living off her earnings from writing. However, most women only had their looks and dowries to rely upon to “catch” a husband and make a good financial match.
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 movie adaption debuted in 1940 and starred Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier. Deborah Moggach wrote the screenplay for the 2005 version and Emma Thompson did some unaccredited edits on the dialogue. Due to the short running time, a lot of the subtleties and subplots were left out of the film. This resulted in the most abridged cinematic version of the story to date.
Wright and Moggach made several drastic changes that I vehemently dislike. Their version of the story takes place in the late 18th century, while the novel occurs in the 19th century. While 18th century clothing makes more of an impact, the time period did not require changing. The societal norms amongst the Gentry and the aristocratcy changed rather drastically between the two centuries. These different societal hierarchies would definitely impact the way Darcy and Liszt interacted.
What aggravates me the most is the stark societal differences between the Bennet family and Darcy. In the book, the Bennets are landed gentry with an entailed estate, this does not mean they suffered economically. Since Mr Bennet had no sons, the estate goes to the closest male relative upon his death. As Mr Collins is the closest male relative on the paternal side, he inherits the estate. The landed gentry usually were gentleman farmers and drew most of the income from working estates. A vast majority of the Gentry were the second, third, or fourth sons of aristocratic families, but not all. Darcy is a gentleman and is directly related to a titled aristocratic family. Mr Bennet is not directly related to a titled family but comes from a long line of gentleman. Strictly speaking, the Bennet’s and the Darcy’s hold the same standing in society, Darcy just happens to be farther up the hierarchy. In the movie, the Bennet’s clothing, furnishing, and mannerisms closely resembles those of the working class instead of the landed gentry. A pig runs through the kitchen in one scene, this would never occur in a gentleman’s household. If the kitchen was in an outer house than a pig running through it might be plausible, but livestock would never appear in the main house.
One rather anachronistic scene involves Lady Catherine de Bourgh visiting Lizzy in the dead of night, unannounced, and the Bennet clan greeting 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. This behavior would shred her reputation, no matter her age. Nearly all aristocratic and Gentry 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 Lizzy 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 received a personality re-write. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s movie relationship comes across as quite affectionate, in the book they hated one another. Mr Bennet married his wife solely because of looks. Sadly, she did not possess a strong personality and over the years tended to annoy her husband. 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 Lizzy. This version of Lizzy is pouty, rude, defiant, and flighty. In one scene she and Darcy take a stroll in their nightclothes, which would not happen during this time period as it would ruin Elizabeth’s reputation. She openly mocks her family, something the “original” version of Lizzy would never condone. While she did not particularly approve of her family’s behavior, Lizzy was forcefully protective of her sisters and would never speak ill of them in public. Overall, Elizabeth comes across as bold/impatient and rather closely resembles the book version of Lydia. This radical change alters the poignancy 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 without a proper chaperone. If Jane wore appropriate clothing and Elizabeth was in the room, then it would have verged on acceptable. Elizabeth, or any women of aristocratic birth, would never wear their hair down while visiting an expensive estate like Netherfield Park. A proper lady never went out in public without an acceptable hair style, which usually meant an up-do at this point in time. 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 clipped and refined manner. The absolute worst scene in the movie occurs when Darcy declares his love for Lizzy 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 romantic comedy. 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 Lizzy. However this version only made the romance unbelievable and inexplicably downplayed the one event that caused Lizzy to put aside her prejudice and fall-in-love with Darcy. In the book Lydia is seduced by Wickham, a cavalry officer with a chequered past, and runs away with him to live in sin. He has no intention of marrying her, a socially unacceptable act at the time. Wickham grew up with Darcy and attempted to pull a similar stunt with Georgiana Darcy. Thankfully, Darcy kept Wickham away before Georgiana’s reputation was ruined. When Darcy heard that Wickham ran off with Lydia, he tracked them down and forced Wickham to do the honorable thing. Darcy only did this in order to prove to Lizzy that he truly cared about her, regardless of her mother’s social gaffes. This one subplot brings together Darcy and Lizzy in a believable manner and wipes away their preconceived pride and prejudices regarding each other. For some reason, Wickham’s manipulations barely appear in this movie version and this crippled the effectiveness of the narrative. Without this subplot, Darcy does not have a chance to show his true character to Lizzy 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 imitation of the original narrative.
Musings on Books and movies
Musings on Books and movies