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Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (2005) by Sheryl Craig

Is Pride and Prejudice primarily a Cinderella story? How you answer that question may well determine whether you enjoy or detest the 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen film.

When spending quality time with Jane Austen’s novel, gentle reader, do you imagine paint peeling from the Bennet family home or picture Longbourn’s back garden as a filthy barnyard? Does Mr. Bennet potter about the house unwashed, unshorn and unshaven? Does his beloved library resemble the leftovers of a jumble sale? One might assume that the Bennets could do better with an estate that is lawfully their own and two thousand a year. However, this appears to be Director Joe Wright’s interpretation of the novel as “social realist drama.” Dear me! And what would Jane Austen make of that?

The poverty, grime and crumbling gentility adds what Wright refers to as “a bit more street,” if this is considered desirable. But what is “street” about Mr. Darcy trudging through a foggy field, white shirt front agape, looking for all the world like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? Or was it an attempt to offer up Matthew Macfadyen as a wet shirted substitute for Colin Firth? Other choices seem to defy any analysis. Why turn Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) into a giggling idiot, someone not safe to be let out unattended? Why would Darcy befriend such a man, and what could possibly induce Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike) to shackle herself to him for life? Charlotte Lucas (Claudie Blakley) appears fortunate by comparison. Charlotte’s fear of poverty and her resulting acceptance of Mr. Wrong is well done, if a bit overly dramatic, but the film’s actors are not to be blamed for its faults. Indeed, the casting seems nearly flawless.

Knightley delivers a credible performance as a spirited Elizabeth, and Macfadyen need not be ashamed of his Darcy. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Donald Sutherland & Brenda Blethyn) are given sympathetic makeovers. A kinder, gentler Mr. Bennet proves to be a compassionate father and an amorous husband not entirely indifferent to his frowzy, careworn wife, and Mrs. Bennet’s poor nerves actually merit some compassion.

Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) is not given enough screen time for one of the greatest comic characters ever created. Lady Catherine fares a bit better, perhaps common decency demanded it, as the role is absolutely perfect for Dame Judi Dench, but when Lady Catherine descends on Longbourn with a vengeance, her tirade is over all too soon, and this scene illustrates one of the film’s glaring weaknesses. The pace is much too rapid. Characters burst onto the screen, hurry through their lines and rush off with alarming rapidity. One fears that a great deal of talent was laid waste in the cutting room.

The rousing dance scene was enjoyable, but awkward attempts to add sexuality were annoying. The novel’s witty repartee and the chemistry between Knightley and Macfayden already suggest enough, thank you. In a film so obviously at war with its time constraints, Elizabeth’s fascination with a collection of nude statues at Pemberley wasted valuable minutes and added nothing, though a group of twelve year old boys might disagree. But was this the imagined audience? And one wonders why it was deemed necessary for the camera to linger on a pig. A pig? You well may ask.

Comparisons to the 1995 Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth television adaptation are inevitable. Granted, the six hour BBC time frame opened up a great many opportunities to unfold the story and to develop the characters in keeping with the “light, bright and sparkling” authorial intent. When it was first announced that there would be a new, Hollywood film of Pride and Prejudice, your humble servant was immediately skeptical. To quote Mr. Bennet in the novel, “what is there of good to be expected?” My own prejudices firmly in place, I never-the-less entered the cinema agog with curiosity, and, to give myself credit, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2004 Bollywood Bride and Prejudice, so I was not entirely without hope.

Pride and Prejudice played to a full house, and some members of the audience appeared to enjoy the film. Others, like myself, found it a bit of a disappointment, yet I may well go to see it a second time and will probably purchase the DVD in the fullness of time. I do such things; God help me. I can only conclude that the viewer must ultimately judge for him or herself, so this review will end with some words of wisdom from Mr. Bennet: “Perhaps you would like to [see] it. I dislike it very much. but it must be done.”

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

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Lost in Austen

If you enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary, it is more than probable that you will find the new ITV British television series Lost in Austen excessively diverting. Lost in Austen aired in the UK in September and in Canada on the new Canadian channel Viva in November. As actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays Mr. Bennet, asserts, “rest assured, it’s a very affectionate tribute.” But the tribute is more to the modern fans of Pride and Prejudice than it is to Jane Austen or to her novel.

At the beginning of the four part series, our twenty-first century heroine Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) declares “it is a truth generally acknowledged that we are all longing to escape.” In Amanda’s case, she wishes to evade her dead end job, her depressed mother, her dreary flat and her oafish boyfriend. Escape she does by obsessively re-reading Pride and Prejudice and by overdosing on the Colin Firth film. Just when it seems that Amanda’s life could not possibly become anymore unromantic and grim, she is offered the alternative of her dreams.

A time travel swap leaves Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) in Amanda’s flat in Hammersmith and our thoroughly modern Amanda in the Bennets’ home at Longbourn where the Bennet family is all abuzz with the news that Netherfield Park is let at last. Amanda is delighted to meet all and sundry characters, but she finds that her twenty-first century social skills make her quite an oddity in Regency society. The amusing Mr. Bennet and kindly Jane Bennet (Morven Christie) befriend Amanda, but Charlotte Lucas (Michelle Duncan) proves a harder nut to crack. Mrs. Bennet (Alex Kingston) quickly concludes that their guest is no better than a cat among the pigeons, creating a great deal of mischief and doing absolutely no good, and then the game is afoot.

Jemima Rooper and the cast of Lost in Austen

When the plot of Pride and Prejudice begins to go all wrong, Amanda’s well intended but bumbling attempts to keep the characters on track provide unpredictable twists and turns. Amanda soon comes to realize that Regency life wasn’t all balls and carriage rides and taking a few turns round the garden, and there was no shortage of oafs and depressing mothers. Mr. Collins (Guy Henry), Miss Bingley (Christina Cole) and Lady Catherine (Lindsay Duncan) are just as loathsome and repugnant as in the novel, but they all have surprises up their sleeves. Meanwhile, George Wickham (Tom Riley) and Mr. Bingley (Tom Mison) prove unpredictable if not baffling. The real estate is, however, a vast improvement on modern, urban sprawl, and then there is Mr. Darcy (Elliot Cowan).

So there you have it. Lost in Austen is available on DVD in Britain, but only in region 2 format, meaning that it will not play on most DVD players in the United States which are programmed for region 1. When will Lost in Austen appear on television in the States or on DVD in the stores? Stay tuned.

Sheryl Craig is a respected authority on Jane Austen. A sought after speaker on several continents, she is currently an Instructor at the University of Central Missouri while pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

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Sense and Sensibility Goes Gothic

Sir Walter Scott confessed that, although he could write action adventure novels “like any now going,” he lacked Jane Austen’s genius, “the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting.” Filmmakers should take note. Infusing an Austen novel with testosterone does not make it better, and the 2008 BBC Sense and Sensibility seems to prove the point.

The made for TV Sense and Sensibility develops the story of the male characters and emphasizes the building antagonism between Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) and John Willoughby (Dominic Cooper). Granted, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility alludes to the sad fate of Eliza Williams and mentions a duel, presumably with pistols, but Austen dwells on neither event, as they do not forward her main story, the plight of the Dashwoods. However, Eliza (Caroline Hayes) and the duel feature prominently in the three hour film as Colonel Brandon takes center stage. So much refocusing on Sense and Sensibility’s male characters requires the invention of new scenes and a great deal of dialogue that Jane Austen never wrote, such as the “a word with you in private, Mr. Willoughby” scene early in the film, which clearly identifies Brandon as a stricken, Byronic hero and Willoughby as a dyed in the wool villain. But why give away so much so soon?

Jane Austen’s Willoughby is a charm merchant, simultaneously deceiving Marianne, the other characters and the first time reader with his winning ways. We are puzzled by his odd behavior, shocked to learn of his duplicity and surprised by his confession. In complete contrast, the film’s Willoughby oozes onto the screen, slides about like Edmund Blackadder and then exits leaving a slug trail behind. The clear delineation between Brandon and Willoughby reduces the plot to a standard contest between good and evil with Eliza Williams and Marianne Dashwood as pawns to be won or lost by the contending males. When Willoughby snubs Marianne in London, the Dashwood sisters fade from the screen as the camera lingers on Brandon’s glare of seething hatred. The scene is clearly Brandon’s, but, in Austen’s novel, Brandon is not even present at the ball. When the Brandon/Willoughby feud finally builds up to the sword fight, yes, sword fight, it feels more like watching Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander than an adaptation of an Austen novel. But in the midst of all of this swashbuckling and male bravado, we must not lose track of Edward Ferrars, who has transformed beyond recognition from the Edward of Austen’s book.

Austen’s Edward is shy, socially awkward and “not handsome.” Additionally, “his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.” But there’s none of that in Dan Stevens’ Edward Ferrars. From his first appearance in the invented carpet beating scene, Edward is witty, articulate, confident and flashing a charming smile. Edward’s depression and “want of spirits” in the novel are replaced with anger which he unleashes on the Dashwoods’ wood pile, in the rain. It is an odd business.

No doubt, the BBC filmmakers felt the pressure of adapting Austen’s novel in the wake of the tremendous success of Emma Thompson’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility and attempted to create something different. Thus, it appears a bit strange that Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) seems to have borrowed Emma Thompson’s voice, and Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield) has Kate Winslet’s hair. As in Thompson’s film, we see the courtship of Elinor through Edward’s winning over of an adorable Margaret (in this case Lucy Boynton), and Colonel Brandons in both films seem inclined to rescue their Mariannes from torrential rainstorms and carry them about, none of which takes place in Austen’s novel. One has to feel sympathy for Morahan and Wakefield, following in the footsteps as they do of BAFTA and Academy Award winning actresses in the same roles. And the women’s parts have changed very little, so it sometimes seems that we are watching the Thompson film with stand-ins. However, both actresses perform admirably.

The first half of the film doesn’t quite make it to the end of Austen’s first volume, one third of the story, which probably explains why most of Austen’s other characters have been cut to the bone. Janet McTeer is particularly sympathetic as Mrs. Dashwood. The shameless John Dashwood (Mark Gatiss) and his appalling wife Fanny (Claire Skinner) are appropriately odious, and their gluttonous son (Morgan Overton) is the perfect embodiment of his parents’ insatiable greed. Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett) is little more than a plot device, and Lucy Steele (Anna Madeley) is also reduced to necessity. Sir John Middleton (Mark Williams), Lady Middleton (Rosanna Lavelle), Robert Ferrars (Leo Bill), Mr. Palmer (Tim McMullan) and the garrulous Charlotte (Tabitha Wady) are given cameo appearances and a very few lines. Jean Marsh is perfect as the obnoxious Mrs. Ferrars, and Daisy Haggard was an unexpected treat as the dimwitted Nancy Steele. Alas, their screen time is all too short, and when Austen’s minor characters go, they take their humour with them.

The windswept scenery is dramatic and beautiful, though more Bronte’s Wuthering Heights than Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and nature seems to be yet another dangerous character. In the novel, Marianne’s illness is brought on from walking in tall grass and sitting in her wet shoes and stockings. In the film, Marianne has a death wish and deliberately exposes herself to the elements in an open field during a thunder storm where she is lashed by rain, soaked to the skin and possibly struck by lightning. A seduction, a rescue, a sword fight, jealousy, betrayal, obsession, hatred, revenge, it’s all a bit over the top, but no doubt Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland would have enjoyed it.

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor at the University of Central Missouri. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

Sense and Sensibility is available in DVD format from our online giftshop!

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The Jane Austen Book Club

The Jane Austen Book Club is a motley crew of eccentrics such as California specializes in. The five women and one man who comprise the membership of the reading group are a diverse bunch, different ages, backgrounds, marital status, sexual orientations, beginning readers of Jane Austen and those who have been re-reading Austen for decades. Their common bond is that their lives are scattered, fractured and lonely. The 21st century provides them with no set of values to tell them which behaviors are right or wrong, which relationships acceptable or unacceptable. Their highest aim is to please themselves, though they seem to have no idea how to best go about it, and their personal relationships are subject to change. They are fumbling in the dark.

It seems highly improbable that such a reading group would find relevance in nineteenth century, English novels, as the club’s members are light years away from Jane Austen’s proper ladies and gentlemen who repress their emotions, delay their gratifications, maintain their dignity, conform to their society and marry, for better or for worse, till death did them part. How can ultra-modern Americans relate to characters who find divorce shocking but consider dueling with pistols to be a rational response to provocation? The book club might as well be reading about life on another planet, and yet they read Jane Austen. But their interest in Austen’s characters is perhaps no more unlikely than the viewer’s interest in the Californians’ messy lives and the viewer’s hope that the book club members will find love and happiness, and yet that happens as well.

The film begins with a well constructed reminder of the harried lives we lead in the 21st century, constantly harassed by buzzers and beepers, tones and timers, pre-recorded messages and malfunctioning machinery. It’s all so impersonal, frustrating and numbingly lonely, and yet the modern world has links to Jane Austen’s, the irresistible appeal of falling in love (Pride and Prejudice), the comfort of supportive relatives (Sense and Sensibility), the pain of dysfunctional families (Mansfield Park), the freshness of youth (Northanger Abbey), our lifelong ability to surprise ourselves (Emma) and the endurance and regenerative power of love (Persuasion). Each member of the club assumes responsibility for leading the discussion of a different book, a novel whose main character bears an uncanny resemblance to… Well, you get the picture.

With an affinity for science fiction and horror novels, Grigg (Hugh Dancy) is sweet, young and ready to fall in love at first sight. Allegra (Maggie Grace) is a risk taker who sets propriety at nought and throws herself, full throttle, at life. Light, bright and sparkling Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has turned meeting Mr. Darcy into her life’s work. Prudie (Emily Blunt) is an awkward, shy, uptight survivor, carefully maneuvering her way through relationships. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is independent, self confident and controlling, but she doesn’t know herself as well as she thinks she does. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) watches helplessly as the love of her life (Jimmy Smits) pursues another woman. Does all of this sound familiar?

The Book Club is a must see for Austen fans who are bound to appreciate the references to well-loved novels and characters, but it is not necessary to have read any of Austen’s books to understand the film. Like Austen’s novels, the film’s emotional turmoil is balanced by a good deal of humour, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable film that ends too soon. There is an improbable, feel-good conclusion, but then Jane Austen was not entirely opposed to happy endings, even admittedly contrived ones, and, as Austen might have said herself, let other films dwell on guilt and misery.

Additionally, The Jane Austen Book Club is a film with a message. The Book Club reminds us of the power of literature to inspire us, to challenge us, to suggest solutions to our problems, to offer us hope and, yes, to change our lives. Although few of us would dare to recommend Persuasion as a how-to handbook for patching up troubled relationships, we must agree with Bernadette in the film who declares, if you need advice, you could do worse than Jane Austen. And, whatever else one may say about the book club, they have impeccable taste in reading material.

The Jane Austen Book Club is based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler.

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor at the University of Central Missouri. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

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Almost Persuaded: ITV’s Persuasion

Persuasion 2007

The game is afoot in ITV’s Persuasion as Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) speed walks down a maze of hallways in Kellynch and jogs down the streets of Bath in what was, presumably, the film makers’ attempt to add action and energy to Jane Austen’s posthumously published 1817 classic. No doubt, the film’s creators felt challenged by a novel with more substance than could possibly be squeezed into a 90 minute time frame and by the precedent of the critically acclaimed 1995 Persuasion which set the standard for Jane Austen film adaptations very high indeed. Screenplay writer Simon Burke and director Adrian Shergold resorted to some rather desperate maneuvers to make this version unpredictable and a bit surprising, but their stratagems were not always successful. Some of the camera work is dizzying, and, at the conclusion of the film, when the compressed plot finally implodes, the viewer may well be left confused as to what just happened and why. If you are searching for an adaptation that is accurate to Jane Austen’s novel, this is not it, but, standing alone as a film, Persuasion has much to recommend it.

Sally Hawkins has a sweet, open face, and, like Amanda Root, those large, liquid eyes inspire the viewer to sympathize with her. Ms. Hawkins cries very convincingly. As she is in nearly every scene and has a great many close-up shots, the film proves something of a showcase for Hawkins, who held up remarkably well, not only as an actor but as an athlete. Eventually, the viewer forgives the ITV Captain Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) for not being Ciaran Hinds, but it’s difficult to imagine a pretty boy like Penry-Jones commanding a battleship of hardened seamen in the Napoleonic Wars.

The sets and scenery are splendid, one can never grow tired of Bath, the costumes charming, and the supporting cast talented, but Jane Austen’s sense of humour appears to have been lost somewhere along the way, a damning criticism to be sure, and following hard on the heels of ITV’s clever and witty Northanger Abbey, one was encouraged to hope for better. And more’s the pity, as Austen supplied plenty of humour in the novel. In this film, Sir Walter (Anthony Head), Elizabeth Elliot (Julia Davis) and Mary Musgrove (Amanda Hale) are more appalling than funny, and some of their best lines were cut, such as Mary Musgrove’s immortal whine: “If there is anything disagreeable going on men are always sure to get out of it.” Who is responsible for such an omission?

Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove (Nicholas Farrell & Stella Gonet), Charles (Sam Hazeldine), Louisa (Jennifer Higham), Henrietta (Rosamund Stephen) and the Crofts (Peter Wight & Marion Bailey) are given minimal dialogue, and perhaps the time constraints demanded some neglect of their characters, but there are other inexplicable changes. While Captain Benwick (Finlay Robertson) is reduced to little more than a plot device, if you blink you may miss him entirely, Captain Harville (Joseph Mawle) becomes a matchmaker. Mr. Elliot (Tobias Menzies) is an obvious cad from the start, an arrogant, impudent puppy of the highest order, and yet the otherwise prudent and overly cautious Lady Russell (Alice Krige) recommends him to Anne. Why? Unfortunately, Lady Russell’s judgment is not the only lapse of common sense in this film.

What about the invalid Mrs. Smith’s (Maisie Dimbleby) unexplained and miraculous cure which not only allows her to rise from her bed and walk but to sprint down the street calling out the latest gossip like the town crier? And how did Kellynch Hall, an entailed estate under lease to a tenant, suddenly become available for purchase? But, apparently, these are minor details and should arouse neither curiosity nor interest. We are merely the viewers. Ours is not to question why, or to question at all. We are, presumably, to be bowled over by the love story, to care about nothing else and to sit back and enjoy a painfully prolonged build up to a kiss and an impromptu waltz on the lawn. The good news is that the ITV Persuasion seems to improve on subsequent viewings. The trick is in forgiving it for being neither Jane Austen’s novel nor the 1995 film. Aye, there’s the rub.

Persuasion was filmed on location in Bath and Lyme Regis. The film was shown in March on ITV in Britain and is available at our online giftshop. Click here.

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.

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Austen as a Hot Property

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

(But Not Available for Book Signings)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of a good book must be in want of a producer.

However little known the feelings or views of such an author may be on her first writing a best seller, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding film companies, that she is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their directors.

Although that is not exactly the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, it is what Jane Austen might have written had she been alive in the 1990s to experience what literary critic John Maurice Ford has termed the Austen phenomenon (12), which came as something of a surprise even to the movie industry itself. In 1994, an American film company was interested in investing in the new BBC Pride and Prejudice series, but the Americans did not realize that Pride and Prejudice was a novel, did not know who the author was, nor, having been told, know that Jane Austen was deceased, and had been since 1817: So she wouldn’t be available for book signings? (Birtwistle & Conklin viii). When Columbia began filming Sense and Sensibility, a studio executive suggested a ‘novelisation’ of Emma Thompson’s screenplay, paying a novelist to convert the script into book form and then marketing the new book as Sense and Sensibility, apparently not realizing that the screenplay was itself already based on a novel by that name. Emma Thompson’s reaction was “I will hang myself” (215). The American film industry was learning.

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet

Emma Thompson gave her Academy Awards acceptance speech as Jane Austen, and Jennifer Ehle won a BAFTA award for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet. Entertainment Weekly chose Jane Austen “Entertainer of the Year,” and People magazine declared her “one of the most intriguing people” of 1995 (Brownstein 19). In 1996, Vanity Fair proclaimed “the hottest writer in show business is not John Grisham or Michael Crichton, but Jane Austen” (Jacobs 74). Austen’s books were on the best sellers lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Published as paperbacks by Penguin and Signet, the covers of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility featured the television publicity shot and film poster and included page insets of movie stills. The number of visitors to Austen’s Hampshire home were up 250%. A Valentine’s Day segment of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer was devoted to Austen; the panel of experts speculated on the question: Why Austen, and why now? They were not the first. The London Times, The New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, and Variety were among those who had already run similar articles. The big question seemed to be: How did an English novelist who had been dead for more than 175 years suddenly become the darling of the entertainment industry? The answer, of course, was that there was nothing surprising nor even new in adapting Jane Austen; the only difference was in the number of adaptations in a short period of time and in their popularity.

Austen was originally adapted for the stage in a 1906 version of Pride and Prejudice by Mary MacKaye. Helen Jerome adapted it again in 1935 for the New York stage where it was one of the most successful plays on Broadway. A.A. Milne, of Winnie the Pooh fame, wrote a 1936 version, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, for the London theatres. There were also two musical versions of Pride and Prejudice produced just after World War II (Lane 134). Between 1900 and 1975, there were more than sixty radio, television, and stage productions of Austen novels (Troost & Greenfield 2), but the first film adaptation was in 1940.

The Play’s the Thing: A Beginning

Harpo Marx and Jane Austen would seem to have very little in common, but the idea of adapting an Austen novel to film first occurred to Harpo on October 28, 1935. After seeing the hit stage play production of Pride and Prejudice, Harpo sent a telegram to Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg, and five years later, the 1940 MGM production of Pride and Prejudice was released on an unsuspecting world.

Pride and PrejudiceBy Hollywood standards, MGM went all out for the film, but it showed absolutely no mercy for the novel. Director Robert Leonard’s goal was “to keep it light, bright, and pleasant.” The first change the studio made was to shift the story to the Victorian era. Hollywood had a penchant for Victorian dresses after the phenomenal success of Gone With the Wind in the previous year. MGM used over five hundred Victorian gowns by Adrian in filming Pride and Prejudice, and there were plenty of men’s costumes, carriages, sets, and props already on hand. The sets, though ostensibly “OLD ENGLAND,” were pure Hollywood, what Laura Jacobs in Vanity Fair called “Austen in Oz” (76). Laurence Olivier, the first choice for Mr. Darcy, was already under contract and had just made two successful literary dramas,Wuthering Heights and RebeccaGone With the Wind star Vivien Leigh was intended to play Elizabeth, but due to their scandalous off screen relationship, the studio was reluctant to cast her and Olivier in a picture together, so they used Greer Garson instead. Fresh from a Tarzan movie, Maureen O’Sullivan traded her animal skin mini dress for a corset and crinoline to play Jane Bennet. As Natalie Tyler has noted, in spite of the bonnets and hoop skirts, the actresses maintained the look of 1940 Hollywood: “The Bennet girls all sport very thick mascara and appear to be well into their thirties”(261).

As MGM envisioned it, Pride and Prejudice fit within “the woman’s film” genre. Rachael Brownstein notes that the timing was right for a character like Elizabeth Bennet: “[T]he snappy dialogue and the smart, sassy heroine were stylish, standard in screen comedies of the time,” but Austen’s Elizabeth “was not quite what Hollywood wanted” (14). Feisty was fine, but Elizabeth was thought to be too independent, playing too hard to get. They wanted their Elizabeth Bennet to be smitten with Mr. Darcy from the beginning and flaunting her charms in order to entice him. MGM used this predatory characterization to market the film: “Five charming sisters on the gayest, merriest manhunt that ever snared a bewildered bachelor! Girls! Take a lesson from these husband hunters!” (Tyler 261). The banter between Elizabeth and Darcy had to be modernized, and the plot would have to be updated to fit the studio’s 1940 version of politically correct.

The breech between Mr. Darcy and his aunt troubled the studio who feared their antagonism would be offensively anti-family, so MGM’s Lady Catherine not only approves of her nephew’s choice of Elizabeth, she actually promotes the match. Additionally, the studio changed Mr. Collins from a priest into a librarian, to avoid potentially offending members of the clergy. Librarians and Austen purists were on their own.

MGM's AttemptBritish author Aldous Huxley collaborated with screenwriter Jane Murfin on the script, but Huxley had difficulty as he was reluctant to make changes to Austen’s plot and to rewrite or cut her lines, but the studio and director were determined and made numerous changes. Huxley was particularly distressed by the loss of Austen’s irony. Nora Nachumi has also identified this challenge in converting Austen: “[T]here is a crucial problem in translating Austen’s novels to film: what happens to the ironic, third person narrative voice when Austen’s novels are made into movies?” (130). In this case, Austen’s wit was sacrificed for Hollywood’s snappy comeback.

Another problem was the length. Rebecca Dickson reminds us that “while Austen takes some 300 to 450 pages to unfold her story, the typical screenplay is only about 100 pages long” (44). MGM’s Pride and Prejudice was to be a feature length film; the completed movie is just under two hours. Natalie Tyler has commented on the result: “Because the second half of the book is telescoped into the last ten minutes or so of this film, the outcomes do not seem to make much sense” (261). Although MGM made sure the movie was given good reviews at the time, Maggie Lane reflects the opinions of most modern critics when she calls the film “a travesty of the novel” (134), and Huxley himself considered the script “a major falsification of Miss Austen” (Tyler 259). MGM, however, remained untroubled.

The film made enough money to be considered successful, but not enough to tempt the studio to adapt another Austen novel, so it was back to the stage or the page for Jane Austen. A.A. Milne adapted Pride and Prejudice once again, this time into a 1959 stage musical, Miss Elizabeth Bennet: A PlayFirst Impressions: A Musical Comedy, starring Hermoine Gringold and Polly Bergan enjoyed a Broadway run of eighty-four performances (Tyler 250). Austen was not to be adapted by American producers for another 35 years, but the British Broadcasting Corporation was just beginning. In 1965, Dane Peggy Ashcroft read Persuasion on BBC radio, and in 1967 Derek Jacobi read the part of Mr. Darcy in the BBC radio performance of Pride and Prejudice. The next logical step was film adaptation.

Nothing But the Truth: Fidelity with the Brits

1986 Cover for Northanger AbbeyThe BBC adapted all six of Austen’s novels for television over a fifteen year period, Persuasion(1971), Emma (1972), Pride and Prejudice (1982),Mansfield Park (1983), Sense and Sensibility (1985), and Northanger Abbey (1987). The unifying thread that ties the first five films together is their zealous adherence to the novels. They tend to be long productions, averaging more than 235 minutes per novel, no doubt due to their reluctance to cut characters, scenes, or dialogue. The last novel filmed, Northanger Abbey, was the shortest, 90 minutes, and received the worst reviews. The early BBC television productions appear to be filmed stage plays with stage sets and formal acting. Most of the emphasis is on diction and getting the lines right. Gradually the actors began to speak and move more naturally, and scenes were occasionally shot outdoors or on location.

According to Simon Langton, who directed Upstairs, Downstairs before directing the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, the problems were the result of filming in the studio on a very tight schedule, using several cameras for each shot, and splicing the films together later: “We used to work this ridiculous system in the Seventies when you had eight days rehearsal and then you had two hours in which to record the entire thing. The result of this studio-based filming was everything I didn’t like about classic drama. It always looked slightly forced” (14). The 1982 Pride and Prejudice was considered the best of the BBC adaptations, but that was before they decided to remake the novel in 1995. The resulting production was an unprecedented television event.

Pride and PrejudiceFrom the beginning, the BBC was committed to getting it right, devoting as much air time as was needed in order to film the entire novel. The result was a six hour production as opposed to Huxley’s two hour MGM limitation. As Rebecca Dickson has noted, the BBC film “sticks to Austen’s plot like glue” (45). According to the screenwriter, Andrew Davies, this was a necessity: “Because the book is so tight – her plot works just like a Swiss clock and doesn’t have any flabby bits in it – everything counts” (Birtwistle & Conklin 1). Davies compared it to adapting George Elliot’s Middlemarch, “which was like trying to get an elephant into a suitcase.” Like Huxley before him, Davies found transferring Austen’s wit to the screen to be a challenge. Many of Austen’s best lines come from the omniscient narrator. Davies tried “capturing something of the ironic tone without using a JA voiceover – pointed visuals can help, also a few of the characters (Lizzie B, her father) are clever enough to voice JA thoughts.” Thus, the novel’s famous opening line is spoken by Elizabeth Bennet.

The time and attention lavished on this film were remarkable, including carefully researched sets with period furniture and wall paper, historically accurate music, choreography, and hairstyles. Location filming involved the use of five Regency era houses, a coaching inn, and appropriating the entire village of Lacock for the month of October. No detail seemed beneath their notice; even the food on the tables and the flowers in the gardens were checked for historical authenticity. The women’s dresses were lower cut than was actually acceptable or fashionable at the time, and the bright lighting was another inaccuracy, but the film certainly went to extraordinary lengths to recreate the look of another time period. Simon Langton took particular care with the dance scenes: “I decided to use a Steadicam (a camera mounted on the body of the operator), so it could move with them at the same pace; it was like another dancer and was much more spontaneous than a mounted camera could be” (72). It took the combined efforts and creativity of a small army of people to bring the film to life, and the public responded appreciatively.

Colin Firth as Mr. DarcyOver eleven million television viewers (the entire population of the United Kingdom in Austen’s day) tuned in to watch the trials and tribulations of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, setting a new British television record. Cracker, the most popular police detective show on British television, lost two out of three of its regular viewers to Pride and Prejudice. Britain was seized by Darcymania, or what John Maurice Ford describes as “the emergence of actor Colin Firth as a sex symbol of epic proportions” (13). As The London Times put it, “He smoldered, he was master of the moody silence, and he wore trousers so tight that you could count the small change in his pocket” (Tyler 263). On the final night of the series, there were traffic jams in London as commuters hurried to get home before the show began. When the videotapes were released, 50,000 of them, they were sold out in two hours. Within a year, over 200,000 copies of the tapes had been sold. As Ford has noted, Austen movies, “films with no nudity, no sex scenes, no swearing, no gunfights, where love and respectability are achieved with nary the rattling of a teacup” (13), are not standard Hollywood fare, yet American filmmakers, no doubt heartened by the British success, had already committed themselves to Austen projects of their own.

Part Two:
It Had to Be You: Hollywood Comes Courting 1995-96

Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas and is preparing to teach a course on Austen in film and literature. A full bibliography for this article is available upon request.

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The Cost of Keeping a Horse in Jane Austen’s Day

Ladies in Morning Carriage Dress, from the Gallery of Fashion, August, 1794. The ladies are shown in a high-perch pheaton. The high-perch phaeton was extremely dangerous--no doubt one reason why it was so fashionable! It was also very expensive to keep, so only the most wealthy and daring lady would be seen out in a London park tooling in such a vehicle. Thank you Cathy Decker, for letting us use this fashion plate!

In Jane Austen’s day, walking was the most common method of travel, and the
vast majority of Britains could never afford to own a horse. Horses
were extremely expensive, luxury items, and, in a society led by the Prince
Regent whose passion for fast horses was legendary, ownership of a smart
horse or team of horses gave one considerable and instant social prestige. Continue reading The Cost of Keeping a Horse in Jane Austen’s Day