Jane Austen’s single most famous novel is, of course, Pride and Prejudice. All six of her novels are famous, but there’s something about P&P that puts it above the others. It’s been adapted more than any other Austen novel, that’s for sure.
I toyed with the idea of asking the Twitterverse which versions of Pride and Prejudice were their favorites, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted another deluge, fun as it was. Instead, I’m doing things backwards: Present first, poll later. People, and women in particular, tend to be very protective of this story.
Pride and Prejudice was Austen’s second novel. Originally titled First Impressions, it was published anonymously in 1813 and a smashing success. It’s hard to pin down what exactly inspired Austen to write the story, but some of the characters were named after her family members, and she also poked sly and subtle fun at the mores and quirks of her day.
For those who aren’t familiar with the basic plot, it follows the Bennet family, who are looking to get their five daughters married off to good husbands and thus ensure prosperous (or at least happy) futures. English primogenture law of the time dictated property passed to the oldest legitimate son, and since there are no sons in the family, the Bennets won’t be able to stay in their own home. Hence the drive to see the daughters married.
The Bennets are a loving family, and the five sisters couldn’t be more different. Eldest daughter, Jane, is sweet and loving. Elizabeth is the energetic, vital wit. Lydia loves men in uniform. Kitty lives to have fun. Then there’s Mary, the plainer sister who prides herself on her musical prowess (she’s more cringeworthy than she thinks). The ladies’ mother, Mrs. Bennet, is all in a tizzy because a nearby estate has been rented by the wealthy, eligible Mr. Bingley, and she’s gonna do whatever she can to get one of her daughters married off.
The Bennets meet Mr. Bingley one night at a party. He makes a great sensation when he shows up with his sister and his inscrutable friend, Mr. Darcy, the latter of whom Elizabeth isn’t so impressed with. She thinks Mr. Darcy is a jerk.
The bulk of the story deals with what it takes for Elizabeth to change her mind about Darcy. Another major part involves cousin Mr. Collins, who hangs over the family like an amiable, name-dropping bird of prey, as he waits to inherit the Bennet property. He casts his eye on Elizabeth, and one guess as to how that goes. There’s also an intriguing soldier, Wickham, who befriends Elizabeth and feeds her first impressions of Darcy. Spoiler alert: Wickham is a liar and a scalawag.
It might seem amazing to us today, but Pride and Prejudice wasn’t a hit with everyone when it was first published. According to Austen biographer, Catherine Reef, author and Austen contemporary Mary Russell Mitford thought Elizabeth was a smart mouth who deserved Wickham. Mark Twain wasn’t a fan either, saying Pride and Prejudice made him want to dig Austen up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone. However, Twain also acknowledged that maybe others could see something in Austen’s writing that he couldn’t.
The novel hasn’t been adapted for the screen all that much compared to other works of fiction. Well, not for the big screen, anyway. As the story builds a bit more slowly, P&P seems to lend itself to the miniseries format as opposed to features, and so far there have been six of them. Here’s a partial list of the times the novel has been dramatized (see a full list here), and since the title is usually the same every time, I’ll mostly give years of release:
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
This version has Elizabeth Bennet as a martial arts expert who trades barbs with Darcy in between taking out the undead. Yeah, in Regency costume. I’m guessing the women aren’t wearing corsets.
Anyway, the film is based on Seth Graham-Smith’s parody novel, and its Darcy, Sam Riley, likes to claim Austen would have preferred the Zombies version.
Ummmm, I kinda doubt that. Audiences didn’t care for this movie, and chances are excellent that Austen wouldn’t have, either.
Red Dwarf: Series 7, Episode 6: “Beyond A Joke” (1997)
Co-written by Robert Llewellyn, aka Kryten, this episode of Red Dwarf was yet another weak attempt at making up for Chris Barrie’s (temporary) exit as a regular cast member. Chloë Annett as Kristine Kochanski stepped in to fill the void, and her character is overjoyed to discover a copy of a video game called Jane Austen World. She proposes a trip to Pride and Prejudice Land, which her male counterparts aren’t too jazzed about, but they’re good sports. Well, all except for Kryten, who has a lobster dinner ready.
Kristy, Lister, and Cat hang out with the giggly Bennet ladies, walking around a forest and having tea in Mr. Bingley’s gazebo. Unfortunately, the fantasy is short-lived, as an annoyed Kryten sabotages the proceedings.
Peter Cushing got to play Mr. Darcy opposite Daphne Slater’s Elizabeth Bennett. Cushing fans, rejoice!
Actually…not so fast. Cushing was probably excellent in the role, but all six episodes are presumed lost. Rejoice that we can see a still, at least.
Peter Cushing wasn’t TV’s first Darcy. That distinction goes to John Baragrey, who played the character on the Repertory Theatre. The episode was broadcast on January 23, and like the majority of very early TV, is probably lost. This still is all I can find.
Readily available on Amazon Prime, the 1980 BBC version of P&P is a fun and competent telling, although it feels like the filmmakers wanted to get every page of the novel onscreen or die trying. Elizabeth Garvie is a great Elizabeth and brings a lot of warmth to her role. David Rintoul as Mr. Darcy, however, is robotic at first, firing off his lines as if it’s painful for him to have a camera in his face. Thankfully, he warms up as time goes on.
Colin Firth. Jennifer Ehle. Need I say more? Sigh…
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Colin Firth, of course, has the distinction of playing Darcy not once, but four times, and three of them were in the Bridget Jones franchise. The first film sticks the closest to the book in that Bridget is annoyed by Darcy and Daniel Cleaver as the Wickham character lies about his history with Darcy’s wife. This movie’s definitely not for everyone, especially those who aren’t keen on R-rated movies, but it’s not without its charms.
This graceful film feature has a wonderful cast and great visuals, many of them delivered after Keira Knightly as Elizabeth drops a zinger on Darcy (Matthew Mcfayden). What I like about this movie is that it seems to allow the viewer time to discover Austen’s world, plus the cameraderie between the Bennet family members is wonderful to watch. Director Joe Wright had the actors hang out together and get to know each other during pre-production, and it pays off in the finished film.
I’ve grown up on this version. It boasts a stellar cast of Greer Garson, Maureen O’Sullivan, Marsha Hunt, Edmund Gwynn, Mary Boland, Ann Rutherford, and Laurence Olivier, among others. The film sticks pretty close to the book as far as plot, and it’s hilarious that every time Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins enters a scene, the music evokes a fussy mother hen. The only fly in the proverbial ointment is the costuming. No woman in Jane Austen’s time wore leg o’ mutton sleeves, and certainly not Victorian corsets and petticoats. I didn’t notice it as a kid, but as an adult who’s somewhat familiar with Victorian dress, it’s all I see, and it bugs me. Argh, why, MGM?
My guess is that MGM didn’t do a lot of movies set in the Regency era but plenty in the Victorian, so going with the latter’s costumes was probably a cost-cutting measure. Or maybe just laziness. Who really knows. In the end, who really cares, either–I still love this movie.
Bride and Prejudice (2004)
Gurinder Chadha’s retelling is one of my absolute favorite Austen iterations. A musical mixture of a modern setting with straight-up Austen and a heavy dash of Bollywood, Bride and Prejudice is fizzy and colorful. It goes from Amritsar to London to Los Angeles and back again, and even though many principal characters have been Indian-ized and American-ized, it still follows the familiar plotline and retains Austen’s distinctive wit. Aishwayra Rai is an excellent Lalita (Elizabeth) who gives a rather green Darcy (Martin Henderson) what-for.
The only big difference is that there are four Bhakti (Bennet) sisters instead of five, and one of them doesn’t turn up married at a crucial point in the story. However, Darcy does belt Wickham in a London movie house, which is pretty satisfying because Wickham is a slimedog.
It’s a cliché, but Austen is evergreen, and her themes are timeless. There’s not much doubt Pride and Prejudice will continue to be remade and adapted for the screen.
Crystal’s Rosalind Russell Blogathon is on the morrow, and I hope everyone will check it out. Thanks for reading, all…
Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
Reef, Catherine. Jane Austen: A Life Revealed. New York: Clarion Books, 2011.