February – Pride and Prejudice, The Movie(s)

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For my second review in the year-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice , I chose to watch the two film adaptations of the novel: the 1940 version starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, and the 2005 version starring Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightly.  Two more different adaptations could scarcely be found.  First let me say that there is no truly word-for-word adaption of P&P, nor does any version completely cast Austen’s characters exactly per her descriptions, but I am strangely okay with that.  For brevity and continuity alone the movie versions have to condense a novel in three volumes down to two hours worth of film.  Let’s face it: much of what we love about P&P comes from Austen’s descriptions of people, situations, and locations.  That can only be heard on film by narration, as if Austen’s voice were guiding us, or by character revelation, which eats up screen time.  It can also be seen with set design and costuming, but you only have to watch the two movies to see how each version made free with their interpretations of these aspects.

But Sir Laurence Olivier is a most diverting Mr. Darcy.

But Sir Laurence Olivier is a most diverting Mr. Darcy.

I actually saw the 1940 movie Pride and Prejudice before I ever read the book and was surprised to discover how far the film deviated from the novel in several key areas.   Most notably the film portrayed the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy as one of flirtatious amiability occasionally interrupted by a hurt feeling or misunderstood gossip.  We do not get to see two very different people observe each other and grow to appreciate their similarities and differences, which I think is one of the most fascinating and important aspects of the novel.  It also eliminated Jane’s trip to London (not too upsetting) and Elizabeth’s trip to Derbyshire, et. al.  The latter omission prevents the viewer from seeing the change in Darcy’s behavior after Elizabeth’s set down in Kent, and we do not meet nor hear of Georgiana at all.  Lastly, the penultimate meeting between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine occurs in the drawing room of Longbourne and ends up being a confrontation surreptitiously arranged by Darcy to ascertain Elizabeth’s feelings for him.  Lady Catherine is portrayed as a willing accomplice, going so far as to tell Darcy that Elizabeth will be good for him.  No predictions of polluted shades or societal ostracizing in this movie, which is one of my favorite moments of dialog in the novel.  The costuming is more Victorian than Georgian as well, most likely a cost-saving convenience of the producers being able to borrow from the storehouses of recently made movies like Gone With the Wind and Stagecoach.

I confess to a mad crush on Sir Laurence, and I think he has the aloof arrogance of Darcy represented well.  He is just too much in pursuit of Elizabeth for the entirety of the film.  In addition, the actors are all of a certain age and that age is not close to the “not yet one and twenty” that Elizabeth allows to in the novel.  The plot is too much altered from its inspiration to enable my recommendation as a great movie.  On its own, the 1940 adaptation is entertaining and enjoyable, but a better descriptor would be to say it is based on the characters created by Jane Austen.  Too much poetic license and deviation from the main characters and story lines was taken to allow the film to be called faithful to the story.

The literary chicken and the egg.

The literary chicken and the egg.

The 2005 film Pride and Prejudice is beautiful to look at, a showcase of pastoral farmlands and majestic peaks (after all, “what are men when to rocks and mountains?”).  Music is also used well to set the mood and further illustrate the differences between the Bennets and Darcys; witness the distinctly inferior and almost painful playing of Elizabeth at Rosings compared to the effortless grace of Georgiana at Pemberley.  I shudder to think of the musical selection should Lady Catherine have been as proficient as she professed she could be.  All the well-known scenes from the novel are included but for some reason a few arguably small changes really drew my attention.  A few inelegant lines offered by Miss Bingley in her efforts to subvert Elizabeth during her stay with a sick Jane at Netherfield are given to a breathlessly ridiculous Kitty and morose Mary when the Misses Bennet visit with their mother.  It has the desired effect of making the Bennets seem more absurd and the residents of Netherfield more dignified when in actuality Miss Bingley is just as grasping and laughable in her own way as the youngest Bennets.  From the novel we know it is Miss Bingley who decries the irrationality of balls as a way to toady up to Darcy and his dislike of the same and Charles chides her for it.   I guess I just hate to see Miss Bingley get in any unchallenged zingers. Also, Charlotte Lucas’ explanation/justification for marrying Mr. Collins was rewritten for the movie to suggest Charlotte was in control of her decision and her life despite her circumstances, almost a nod to future girl power.  While she definitely made the choice to marry I think Austen had the correct vision for Charlotte in that she was realistic yet resigned to her lot, where the movie suggests a more 21st century “empowered woman” view that she will take her situation and shape it rather than endure.  In the novel this decision separated the friends and Elizabeth could not comprehend any justification for Charlotte’s marriage choice.  It takes time to mend the breach, which is not evident in the movie simply by the passing of the seasons as Elizabeth swings, nor in the friends’ enthusiastic greetings when reunited months later. It was a decision that changed their relationship forever.

Of course, the scene in the rain where Darcy issues his first proposal I must call a cinematic masterpiece, fraught with tension, frustration, anger, and sensuality.  It is not the staid sitting room at the Collins’ home from the novel, and instead of only a wet Colin Firth we now have both Darcy and Elizabeth completely drenched.  As they spar and trade verbal jabs you can practically see the steam rising off them, their fiery tempers drying their soaked clothes.  I admit I love the scene, especially the flitting of Darcy’s stare between Elizabeth’s eyes and lips, and the way he nearly kisses her several times.  It is great film, but it is not Austen on film.  Likewise, the whole end of the movie just rankled me.  The movie up to this point felt well-edited and condensed from the novel.  Upon the arrival of Lady Catherine in the dead of night the movie began to feel rushed and forced, as if the director saw the 2-hour time mark and felt pressure to keep near it.  There is no way Lady Catherine would have traveled at night, vulnerable to the dangers of darkness and brigands, no matter how important she felt her cause.  In the novel we know Darcy was in London, so he could not have me Elizabeth out in the foggy pasture the next morning, either.  The dialog in the novel between Darcy and Elizabeth as she thanked him and he renewed his proposal was just too good to omit, so full of recrimination and love on both their parts.  In the movie it is turned into a single line from Darcy, that while lovely and romantic, only prompts Elizabeth to reply that his hands are cold.  What??!!  You’ve bewitched him body and soul and he loves you so much he stutters – I think you owe him more than that!  If you are going to deviate so far from the novel you might as well go for the romantic kill of mutual declarations. On the upside, at least the director was able to get another long, time-consuming camera shot of the pasture both before and after this odd “love scene.”

This brings me to the much-lamented and much-loved final scene at Pemberley, added for the American audience, with Darcy and Elizabeth on the terrace. This would be a good scene to begin a movie for a sequel or continuation of Pride and Prejudice but I just do not see the value of its addition to the original story. Of course the movie needed an ending; the previous action ended with Darcy pacing in the dirt outside the Bennet house while Elizabeth pleaded her case inside. And I loved the sappiness on the terrace, and gave that wistful, girly sigh when Elizabeth was called “Mrs. Darcy” so reverently as Darcy kissed her cheek, nose, and lips. Then I shook off my silly grin and sighed instead over the pandering nature of the ending. I would have rather seen some flashes of the future written by Austen – the dissipation and dissatisfaction of the Wickham marriage, the indignation of Lady Catherine as she fumed while she stewed at Rosings. These musings seem somewhat familiar to me, like something I may have witnesses before, say in the 1995 BBC adaptation of this novel. Hmmm…I think I shall have to consider those thoughts next month.

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