The Definitive Pride and Prejudice Adaptation

The Definitive Pride and Prejudice Adaptation | Lexie WinslowIn 1995, Austen in film became trendier than ever, with filmmakers flocking to adapt her novels with more originality and better production values. In that year, director Roger Michell’s Persuasion (based on the 1818 novel) and director Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a modern update of Emma (1816), were both released, and director Doug McGrath’s historical major motion picture adaptation Emma, Diarmuid Lawrence’s similar miniseries adaptation of Emma, and screenwriter/actress Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1811) were filming at that time. Besides the what’s-old-is-new Hollywood-driven trend, the Austen content resonated with an adult female audience. The novels combine sharp socioeconomic insights with rewarding love stories. The books had not been adapted for over a decade, and viewers embraced the highbrow content. While all of these films met success, none surpassed the frenzy induced by the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton.
The 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice, running time five hours, was an instant phenomenon, and has only continued to gain popularity in the US through DVD sales and repeat airings on the A&E and PBS channels. The miniseries stars Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, in a spunky, lovable performance, and Colin Firth as the brooding hero. Pride and Prejudice’s appeal comes from many facets of the production. The cast is talented; the sets are authentic and beautiful; the Regency costumes are spot-on. Film adaptation of this sort is a very purposeful reader interpretation, and in this incarnation the focus is the love story. Everything revolves around Elizabeth and Darcy’s blossoming affection for and understanding of each other. Even the irony of the novel’s narrator is mellowed, appearing mostly in the personal hypocrisy of characters such as Lady Catherine. That element becomes less about social commentary, and more about the fact that Elizabeth and Darcy both have relatives that act inappropriately: each is embarrassed by association at some point, but both are able to accept each other’s familial baggage. The tension builds, as Elizabeth and Darcy feel their initial mutual repulsion turn into attraction, and as one obstacle after another stands in the way of their union. In the end, both partners must be humbled before deserving, and attaining, the other.
The credit for Pride and Prejudice’s unprecedented success goes in large part to Andrew Davies’ screenplay. He respects Austen’s writing, and considers it a particular pleasure to adapt her work. In an interview with Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan for the Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (2007), Andrew Davies stated that Austen’s plotting is “so good, you just stick pretty close to it” (Cartmell 244). The greatest omission in the 1995 screenplay is the short period of betrothal at the end of the novel, when Darcy and Elizabeth playfully banter, and the Bennets and their neighbors scrutinize the new couple as the wedding approaches. Davies’ new additions to the plot are much more remarkable. Austen famously refused to write any scenes of men by themselves, since she could never actually witness such an event first-hand. Davies felt no compunction about filling in such all-male gaps in the plot. His perspective favors a “pro-Darcy adaptation” (Cartmell 244), since the novel runs the risk of forcing him into brooding one-dimensionality. In the interview, Davies explains that by witnessing Darcy “doing something very physical [such as in the fencing scene], the audience would treat him more like a real person, and not just have Elizabeth’s view, where she only sees him when he’s in a bad mood all dressed up in evening dress” (Cartmell 244).
Linda Troost, who contributes the essay “The nineteenth-century novel on film: Jane Austen” to Cartmell and Whelehan’s anthology, takes issue with Davies’ embellishments. Generally, she disapproves of the preference for visual complexity over fidelity to Austen’s “chatty” text, noting for example that twelve separate shots comprise the “first 120 seconds” of the film (Troost 84). More specifically, the camera’s propensity to focus on Colin Firth’s Darcy draws Troost’s scrutiny. Her analysis concentrates on the “gaze” in Pride and Prejudice:
Davies brought to the surface Darcy’s smoldering passion for Elizabeth, always kept in the background of the novel itself. The camera often lingers on Darcy, now the object of the gaze – standing on a staircase, by a window, in a bathtub, pulling off his neckcloth – and we sense the sexual frustration he feels. His emotion climaxes in the most famous invented scene in the serial, when Darcy dives into a pond at Pemberley as if to cool his ardor. (Troost 84)

Troost illustrates the objectification of Darcy in this adaptation, which she pejoratively associates with “the tradition of looser links to fidelity [to Austen’s text]” (Troost 84). The sexual tension, the physicality, and even the extra attention on Darcy in itself strike her as decisions contradictory to Austen.
Troost voices valid insights about the simmering “sexual frustration” in this adaptation, but her distaste for it is a minority opinion, and her accusation of infidelity to Austen is unduly harsh. Her analysis is colored by entertainment preference: she writes about the 1980 BBC Pride and Prejudice with notable affection, and with the added information that she was in her mid-twenties at that time, the reader might assume that Troost considers that version the definitive adaptation. The remarkable thing about the 1995 Pride and Prejudice is that Davies’ screenplay follows Darcy into the world of men, a fact that Austen purists appear to find distasteful. The majority of viewers clearly disagree. Young women of the 1990s and twenty-first century have no objection to dispensing with Austen’s famous taboo against portraying men alone, especially in this adaptation, since it provides very beneficial insight into Darcy. As his character gains complexity, so does his relationship with Elizabeth, and by association the viewer can understand her better and esteem her more as well.
Furthermore, these viewers embrace the sex appeal that Troost condemns. Audiences of the 1990s were desensitized to explicit sexual content in film and television, and the erotic content of Pride and Prejudice stands in stark contrast to the norm: Darcy is objectified, rather than a female character. The women of the story remain completely clothed, while Darcy repeatedly strips down in bathing, changing or swimming scenes. Moreover, Darcy’s “sexual frustration” is not forceful or intimidating. His “gaze” does linger with loaded emotion, but there is not sense of menace to it. He has no intention of dominating Elizabeth, of using her for his own sexual gratification, or of hurting her in anyway. His “smoldering passion” for her is born out of love and respect. That atypical portrayal of male sexuality becomes incredibly appealing to viewers, as evidenced by the highly sexual nature of the many post-1995 fan fiction novels. Darcy’s physical attraction to Elizabeth has a comforting emotional leaven, and by the same token the realm of Pride and Prejudice fan fiction becomes a safe place for modern women to explore sexual desires.
Davies deliberately taps into that non-aggressive seductive element when crafting the screenplay, understanding that, for the modern female viewer, such an underlying sense of physical gratification would enhance the emotional climax of the film. He explains that his guiding axiom as a screenwriter is that “a good book is about [the reader’s] secondary interior feelings, but film is visual” (Cartmell 246). Davies drives towards that objectified, physical, scene-stealing Darcy at every opportunity. Indeed, he considers his creation of for the infamous wet-shirt Darcy in particular one of the highlights of his career. Jovially talking about the scene, he admits that he originally wished for an even racier moment:
I wanted him to dive in totally naked, which was part of my scheme for getting the leading characters out of their posh tight restrictive clothes as often as possible, but for some reason, perhaps because it would have been a very tedious and elaborate strip tease anyway, he didn’t dive in naked, he dived in with his shirt on, and so gave us this scene. (Cartmell 246)

Davies’ desire to bring a dash of scandal to Pride and Prejudice certainly paid off with viewers, who appreciated the very modern sex appeal, to put it mildly. Besides simply taking advantage of a handsome lead actor, however, Davies’ choices are very telling about the interests of his audience. By “getting the leading characters out of their…clothes as often as possible” through many toilette and nighttime scenes, Davies reminds the audience of the commonalities between Regency and modern-day young men and women. Some of the most important emotions of the story are expressed in the bathing or bedclothes scenes: longing, frustration, lust, jealousy, disappointment. Despite the differences in speech and dress, those emotions hold true in any time period, a fact that Davies adeptly portrays.
Critics like Troost have a point that a “pro-Darcy” script, as Davies calls it, distracts from other elements of Austen’s novel. In many ways, Darcy is a peripheral figure in Elizabeth’s world, as she attends parties, travels, passes time with her family, and especially while she awaits the outcome of her sister Lydia’s tragic elopement/abduction. Splitting the action between Elizabeth and Darcy means detracting from Elizabeth’s monopoly of the story. Some may find that Darcy even eclipses Elizabeth in this adaptation, especially considering the cover of the DVD, which displays a close-up of Darcy with Jane and Elizabeth sitting in the background. However, the increased focus on Darcy aids the viewer in realizing subtleties from the novel. Through Davies’ added scenes, it becomes clear how powerful Darcy is, how extraordinarily deep his affection for Elizabeth is, and how much he is willing to humble himself to earn her love and respect.
In the UK, the premier of Pride and Prejudice sparked the ‘Darcymania’ phenomenon, which mainly entailed a widespread habit of women spending more time watching select scenes from the miniseries over and over during weekends. The miniseries became a smash-hit, Colin Firth rocketed to stardom, and new viewers became fans of Austen’s novels. Darcy references flooded pop culture, Darcy posters sold out, and everyone demanded more. The frenzy spawned Helen Fielding’s Darcy-obsessed newspaper column that later became Bridge Jones’s Diary (1996). From the compilation Janespotting and Beyond (2004), Monika Seidl’s essay “Pedagogical Approaches to Visualizing the Past and Literary Classics” discusses “the fanatic devotion that people show when it comes to …the immensely popular BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from 1995” (Seidl 188), noting the staggering number of Colin Firth/Mr. Darcy fan web sites. She summarizes the phenomenon by noting the two-way street between the audience and Mr. Darcy’s famous gaze: “Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy is fashioned into a compulsive spectator for compulsive spectators” (Seidl 191). The compulsion for repeated viewings of Pride and Prejudice slowly spread to the US, although never with the full fury of British Darcymania. The miniseries still airs regularly on cable and public broadcasting channels. Despite the nearly fifteen years that have passed, the popularity of this adaptation is steady, if not growing. The BBC still maintains a web site for the program. On, Pride and Prejudice ranks #294 in all movie sales, and is the #1 television miniseries – figures that are not determined by all-time sales, but sales within the last 60 minutes. Even more remarkably, the frenzy over the miniseries and revitalized love of the original novel spawned a new demographic of authors.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1996.
Bridget Jones’s Diary. dir. Sharon Maguire. Los Angeles CA: Working Title Films, 2001.
Cartmell, Deborah; Whelehan, Imelda. Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Clueless. dir. Amy Heckerling. Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures, 1995.
Emma. dir. Douglas McGrath. Los Angeles, CA: Miramax Films, 1996.
Emma. dir. Diarmuid Lawrence. London, UK: BBC Films, 1996.
Fielding, Helen. Bridget Jones’s Diary. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Persuasion. dir. Roger Michell. London, UK: BBC Films, 1995.
Pride and Prejudice. dir. Simon Langton. London, UK: BBC Films, 1995.
Seidl, Monika. “Pedagogical Approaches to Visualizing the Past and Literary Classics”. Janespotting. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2004.
Sense and Sensibility. dir. Ang Lee. Los Angeles, CA: Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1996.
Troost, Linda. “The nineteeth-century novel on film: Jane Austen”. Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Image via Entertainment Weekly

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