“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Can you believe that Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice has just celebrated its 200th birthday? 200 years of reading the above quote that begins this classic of world literature. Unless it is the screen adaptations that they are more familiar with.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that film and television makers like nothing more than to grab our attention with beautiful adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular. Over the last 70 years they’ve helped us fall in love with the words Austen so carefully wove together all those years ago. As such, we’d like to pay tribute to the woman who’s social commentaries on her own time have shaped so many generations of women long after her passing, not to mention the television and film adaptations, which have all helped make Pride and Prejudice so beloved the world over.
Starting in the world of movies, did you know that up until the Millennium, there was only one known film adaptation? Every other telling had been a television series. I suppose remakes weren’t quite as common until recently, and film makers seemed much more interested in creating their own versions of Austen’s other novels; Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Emma.
The period films
The original film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released in 1940. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard and adapted by Aldous Huxley, Helen Jerome and Jane Murfin for the screen, the film starred Laurence Olivier as Darcy, Greer Garson as our heroine Elizabeth Bennet and Mary Boland as Mrs Bennet. The film was extremely well received. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times gushed about its being “the most deliciously pert comedy of old manners, the most crisp and crackling satire in costume that we in this corner can remember ever having seen on the screen.”
The lack of follow up film adaptations may well be due to the success of this film. What director would want to take on the story and risk being compared to the masterpiece starring Laurence Olivier? Nevertheless, it didn’t stop the material being reinterpreted on our television screens, but we’ll get to that later.
A new Millennium brought new prospects and optimism to the film industry. And with 63 years since the release of the original film, it seemed about time for there to be a brand new adaptation. The trouble was, several different filmmakers had the same idea at once. There were no less than three movies based on the novel Pride and Prejudice between the years 2003 and 2005.
The most famous of these is the beautiful adaptation starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, as the quarrelling future Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. The director Joe Wright is a fascinating fellow, having agreed to make the film after only reading the script and not the novel. Regardless, he turned the movie into a worldwide hit which garnered itself four Oscar nominations, including Best Actress in a Starring Role, Original Score and Costume Design. It didn’t win, but Joe did receive the Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer at BAFTA for his directing. Of all the adaptations I have ever seen, Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice is by far the prettiest. If you want an example of stunning cinematography, a beautiful score and top class acting, this is the one to watch.
You know how Hollywood likes to make teen comedies which are loosely based on Shakespeare plays (I’m looking at you 10 Things I Hate About You)? Well, in 2003 they decided that setting Jane Austen’s stories in their original setting (gloomy England with bonnets) was a bit dull. So in 2003 they transported Elizabeth and co to a university in modern-day Utah, America. Elizabeth is an aspiring writer focusing on her career, picking fights with haughty businessman, Will Darcy whenever she can and wondering why he irritates her so. Directed by Andrew Black and called Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy, I suspect you’ve never heard of it.
A much more pleasing retelling of the story was a charming comedy musical adaptation called Bride And Prejudice. Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) gave Austen’s novel the Bollywood treatment in 2004. The idea tempted many cinema goers into theatres, which grossed the film a very respectable $25 million worldwide (it only cost $7 million to make). It’s got lots of singing, lots of dancing, and is actually charmingly funny.
Pride and Prejudice is beloved all over the world, and its status as a classic might be in part due to the sheer magnitude of television adaptations it’s been given over the last century. It’s difficult to pick just a few to talk about, but we’ll start by acknowledging the existence of adaptations dating back to 1952, when a six-episode series featured the rather unlikely casting of Peter Cushing (of Hammer Horror fame) as Mr Darcy, and Shakespearean actress Daphne Slater playing Elizabeth Bennet.
The miniseries set a precedent for future tellings of the tale, including the 1980 mini-series which aimed to bring a fresh audience to the material with Elizabeth Garvie in main role. The most famous televisual version of Pride and Prejudice came later on though, and it was this one which sent Austen’s profile into the stratosphere.
Pride and Prejudice – 1995
Considering the BBC’s back catalogue of period dramas, it is fair to say the corporation has made its fair share of literary adaptations of famous period novels. Jane Eyre and Lark Rise to Candleford are just two of their greatest achievements. But to this day, it is 1995’s miniseries of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle which is the most beloved adaptation across the world.
Some say it is the quality and the writing which made this particular version a crowd favourite. Others would suggest it was the gorgeous soundtrack. The vast majority know the defining factor which solidified its status in Austen’s television history is intimately connected to something which also saw Colin Firth become a household name. It was a moment of blatant exploitation of its vastly female audience (and Firth’s dashing good looks). Elizabeth Bennet is touring Darcy’s humble abode, and spots him exiting a lake, dripping wet, jacket slung casually over one shoulder, with his shirt and breeches clinging to his body. No such moment is in the book, and yet it is the most referenced and remembered scene by most Austen lovers.
Of course there were other reasons to watch the mini-series (the soundtrack really is wonderful), but the most intriguing thing I find about the Darcy fanaticism which ensued from 1995 onwards, is that even 20 years on it still hasn’t died down. It would probably be a fruitless effort to attempt to top 1995’s success by creating another period drama, so television has gone the other way in recent years.
Oh yes, they’ve instead modernised the source material in a bid to make it accessible to those who dislike reading or television shows set any further in the past than the 1960s. An example is the 2008 miniseries Lost in Austen. Having its début on ITV in the UK, the story revolves around Amanda (Jemima Rooper), an ardent Jane Austen fan who lives in present day London. By chance she finds herself swapping places with Austen’s fictional creation Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton). What did it achieve?
Well, you could call it a social commentary on Elizabeth Bennet, specifically how she was clearly born in the wrong era, fitting into modern society far better than 18th century England. In reality though, most people saw the show for what it was: A way for Darcy fans to kick Elizabeth to the curb and fantasize about taking her place. They lived through Amanda as she won Darcy’s heart and lived the dream. And oh do we dream.
The most recent retelling of Ms Bennet’s (or Mrs Darcy’s) eventful love life has brought the story to the internet generation. And it comes in the form of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Making its début on YouTube, the story is told in a vlog-style. Lizzie (Ashley Clements) narrates the trials and tribulations of her everyday life, with the help of her best friend Charlotte Lu and her two sisters Lydia and Jane. With 84 episodes so far, which are around three minutes in duration each, it’s a genuinely funny, engaging and accessible take on the novel.
From film to television to the web, if the media has proved one thing, it’s that there will always be new ways to tell Jane Austen’s stories and introduce them to the next generation. For now though, we can look back on the gems we’ve already seen, and wish Pride a Prejudice another prosperous 200 years.