It’s a truth universally acknowledged that boys are just better in books. Period. Add to that, boys in Jane Austen books are just better. Period. As I talked about in February, moving Pride and Prejudice from book to screen was a good thing, although some scenes were a bit loosey-goosey and muddled in translation. However, the opportunity to see Fitzwilliam Darcy come to life on the screen will always capture my attention, so I turn from the movies of last month to the television adaptions for this month’s challenge. Specifically I wondered if the television versions of Pride and Prejudice from 1980 and 1995 represented the book well, and was one better than the other? Secretly I searched for the answer to the elusive question: who were the better Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy?
I’ll tackle the 1995 A&E adaptation first because it is obviously the better-known. For many, Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are Lizzie and Darcy, and for the most part, I agree. Jennifer Ehle evinced the facial expressions and droll delivery that I always pictured for Elizabeth. She also walked the fine line between being spirited without overreaching. She portrayed Elizabeth’s poise (when nursing Jane at Netherfield), naivete (when being charmed and flattered by Wickham), temper (when turning down Darcy’s first proposal), and wit and intelligence (when conversing with Lady Catherine and Col. Fitzwilliam at Rosings). Most striking for me was Ehle’s “fine eyes,” the much remarked upon feature of Elizabeth that the actress brought to life as almost a second character. With the cut of a glance, a raising of the brow, or a widening of her eyes, Ehle drew attention time and again to Elizabeth’s supposed most striking feature. I have heard the 1995 Elizabeth Bennet characterized as too feisty but any reader of the original would be hard pressed to deny that Lizzie was exactly that, and Ehle brought that vivacity and expressiveness to the small screen very effectively.
Mr. Darcy, aka Colin Firth (insert sigh here). What more need be said? Surprisingly, plenty, in my opinion. I always pictured Mr. Darcy as aloof and arrogant – prideful – but all with a foundation built from discomfort: he is a man of many responsibilities thrust on him through the death of his father, and that seriousness weighs heavily on him, so why would he be comfortable at dances, afternoon teas, and society functions? Life became very real to him and compared to others his age he is more serious, which translates as pompous. Firth’s portrayal seems to lack the backstory for the apparent distance, leaving Darcy a more one-sided character of simple superiority just waiting to be set down and reformed by Elizabeth. The common criticism that Firth is too often wet (the bath at Netherfield, sweaty from fencing, swimming in ponds) is easily written off with a hastily uttered “who cares?” (again, insert sigh here), but I will agree that it was unnecessary editorializing. We know Darcy is thinking of Elizabeth from his surreptitious glances and smoldering looks; if the director felt the audience needed to see his lead actor plastered with a wet shirt in an attempt to purge his lusty Lizzie thoughts, who am I to argue with the creative muse?
I watched the 1980 BBC adaptation for the first time ever this month, and fifteen minutes into it I was not impressed. The lighting was strange – more like a stage than screen – the segues between scenes were nonexistent, and the actors looked decidedly 1970s dressed up like 1790s. I pressed paused and rethought my focus for this month’s challenge entry but quickly brought myself back to task: think less about staging and more about adaptation. Thus focused, I watched all five episodes with barely a bathroom break in the middle. What hooked me was David Rintoul’s portrayal of Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Darcy looked uncomfortable and ill at ease from his first appearance onscreen at the Meryton Assembly and then later at the dinner at Lucas Lodge, just as I had always pictured he would. Darcy’s famous disparagement of Elizabeth at the assembly even sounded more like a “leave me alone” to Bingley than a purposeful cut to Elizabeth. Each scene with Elizabeth brought the cool mask to Darcy’s features that could be misinterpreted as pride, although without a look of smugness or superiority. He was dour with a hint of sadness, that somewhat helpless puppy look that makes you want to scoop him up and promise to take good care of him and Pemberley. At the end, however, when love is confessed between our leads, the transformation on Rintoul’s face is perfection. He has confirmation of Elizabeth’s love and he looks every bit the ardent and admiring gentleman we know him to be. Bewitched body and soul, indeed!
Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet was good, and would have ranked much better with me if I did not immediately compare her to Jennifer Ehle’s portrayal. This Elizabeth was a little too quiet and docile for me; her character seemed to be one of the ensemble rather than the lead. Elizabeth needed more spark, more life – more Lizzie! I confess I did not care for the too-frequent narration from Elizabeth to give us insight into her feelings. I felt like someone was reading the book to me then stopping to explain what they read. I understand why it was used, in effort to explain why and where the pride and prejudice had occurred during the course of the story, but was just unnecessary and tiresome after a bit.
So, what of the rest of the cast of characters and the adaptations as a whole? And which one wins?
Pride and Prejudice (1995) made me fall in love with Colin Firth. Pride and Prejudice (1980) reminded me why I fell in love with Mr. Darcy.
Pride and Prejudice (1995) was a triumph of casting with the superb Jennifer Ehle embodying Elizabeth Bennet, the perfectly obsequious David Bamber as Mr. Collins, and the spot-on ridiculously flighty Julia Sawalha as Lydia Bennet. Adrian Lukis brought the right amount of charm and smarm (shudder) to George Wickham. And I cannot mention “fine eyes” without remarking on those of Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh: slightly buggy, narrowing and widening with every other remark she let zing. Mr. Hurst could also be relied upon for a well-timed belch or stirring to require more spirits for some comic relief as well.
Other strengths of the 1995 adaptation were its pace and scene selections. Few “integral” scenes from the novel were omitted, and certainly none that altered the flow of the story. I could have done without the occasional disembodied heads of Darcy and Elizabeth floating in each others mirrors and windows as the effect was a little bit cheesy, but it didn’t ruin the continuity. Despite being nearly six hours in length, the series flowed and never lagged.
Pride and Prejudice (1980) was a triumph of casting David Rintoul as Fitzwilliam Darcy. It was also a triumph of putting all the main scenes from a novel on the screen in chronological order, omitting very little from said novel. Several things were altered, however, and that did wear on me after a while. As mentioned before, Elizabeth’s near-constant scene narration was just unnecessary, and I think Mrs. Bennet was given far too much sense in this adaptation. This was very much an ensemble miniseries, and I think that led to watering down Elizabeth’s character too much while elevating others, especially her mother and sisters. Kitty and Lydia are still immature but they draw far less indelicate attention to themselves when in company. Mr. Bennet also seems to vacillate between being harsh and even verbally cruel at times before reverting again to indifference toward his family. This adaptation seemed to be one of skimming the cream off the top and serving it rather than letting us have the milk and butter as well. Don’t give us too much and not enough to offend.
I complained about it in my review of the movies last month and I’ll complain about it again in my review of the television adaptations: why must something be added to a story when brought from novel to screen? I can understand when things are omitted, for time, casting, and staging constraints, but why make something up that was not in the original? Have Darcy jump in a pond (1995) or have Elizabeth explain chapters 31-33 by narrating as she stares out her bedroom window (1980) – not a big deal, although unnecessary. But don’t turn Lady Catherine into a Georgian Martha Stewart spouting off household tips in nearly all her scenes (1980), or Mrs. Gardiner into “Dear Abby” (1980). It’s just a pet peeve of mine. Adapt, but please don’t rewrite.
So my winner is…A&E’s Pride and Prejudice (1995)…hands down. To quote Mr. Darcy, “”I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”