Austen on Screen

There are so many versions of Jane Austen’s books available to watch on the big and little screen, that it would take more viewing time than I currently have to do justice to all of them. But over the years, I’ve given it my best shot!

Today’s post is all about Pride and Prejudice and some of it’s screen adaptations.

My love affair with Jane on the screen began during my HSC year when our local ABC TV replayed the 1980 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. The screen play was written by Fay Weldon and consisted of five 55 minute episodes.

No Austen production can ever hope to include every single scene or nuance as written by Jane. Some choose to stay as faithful as they can to the original, while others pride themselves on their modern reinterpretation of the story.

The 1980 version of P&P is a faithful retelling with some fabulous characterisations. Perhaps because it was my first P&P, it has remained my favourite despite all attempts by newcomers to convert me to their way of thinking. Elizabeth Garvie will always be my ideal for Lizzy Bennet and Malcolm Rennie, in particular, will always be the odious, smarmy Mr Collins (although now that I’ve spotted that Matt Smith took a turn in Mr Collin’s shoes in the 2016 P&P&Zombies parody, I may have to search out that production next)!

Tom Hollander in 2005 played the role too sly and knowing for my liking, although he did make me laugh. David Bamber (1995) and Rennie captured Collins’ obsequiousness far better.
The 1980 version did have one glaring problem though. It obviously lacked the big budgets that other productions enjoyed. There were not many extras or sumptuous costumes and some of the scenes felt like an echoey stage. 
But I loved how my feelings for Mr Darcy grew and changed right along with Elizabeth’s. When David Rintoul first walked on screen, I thought, oh no, they’ve got that VERY WRONG! But by the end, I thought he was the most handsome, dashing young man EVER!
I was prepared to love Colin Firth as Darcy. What’s not to love, right? And Matthew Macfadyen – mmmmm! But both failed to replace David Rintoul as my preferred Darcy. 
Firth had the misfortune to be in my most hated version of P&P (controversial I know). I could barely sit through episode one without screaming at the screen! By halfway through the second, I gave up in disgust. I was so disappointed. I had hoped that the extra episode (it had 6) would mean they would include more of the scenes cut from previous versions due to lack of time. 
But no! 
Instead they added scenes that never ever existed in the first place (I’m looking at you Fitzwilliam in your wet t-shirt!). Andrew Davies is a highly regarded screenwriter and I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing by sexing up Pride and Prejudice, but this particular Jane Austen purist was horrified. 

And don’t get me started on how annoying Jennifer Ehle was! She rubbed me the wrong way from the opening sequence. She overdid the playful, lively wit thing. She came across as being self-conscious, rather smug and self-satisfied. Which is better (just) than the giggly girly Elizabeth that Keira Knightley went with in the 2005 movie version.

Oh dear!
What were they thinking?
Deborah Moggach (screenwriter) and Joe Wright (director) turned P&P into a YA rom-com.

Apparently (according to wikipedia) Moggach started off being faithful to the original dialogue, but Wright encouraged her to deviate from the text (because he didn’t think that people spoke like that back then!) as well as changing the family dynamics and the time period to an earlier one. I can live with that, but I cannot bare a Lizzy who titters!
Elizabeth Garvie is still the only one who has got the balance right between Lizzy’s wit, intelligence and maturity.
I viewed the 1940 movie version starring Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier after a friend told me that it was her preferred version. (I had lent her my copy of the 1980 P&P and she hated it – Greer Garson was her epitome of Lizzy and she found Garvie too dull). 
However I found the 1940 movie more like a Victorian melodrama than JA’s Regency social satire. Greer played a sophisticated, aloof, drawing room Lizzy rather than Garvie’s more nature-loving, down to earth, free-spirit.  
A two hour movie can never do full justice to the book. Too many things have to be left out or assumed. I’m hoping that one day, someone will get it all right, because so far, no-one has got Bingley right.

Bingley is meant to be Darcy’s foil, not his fool, which is how he often gets played (Simon Woods 2005 was the worst culprit). Certainly none of them have been handsome enough (except for the dashing zombie slayer Douglas Booth, although I’m not really sure that this particular version counts).

It’s also hard to get Mrs Bennet’s silliness and nerves just right. She has to be silly and nervous, but also pretty and charming enough for us to see how Mr Bennet could have fallen for her in the first place.

I liked the more moderate version of Mrs Bennet that Brenda Blethyn showed us in the 2005 movie, but she was so moderate in the end that it was hard to see the Bennet’s as an incompatible couple – which is the whole idea behind their relationship.

Wickham and Lydia are also difficult to capture on the screen.

Wickham has to be dashing and charming enough to attract Lizzy, but there also has to be something insincere and obvious about him that alerts the more suspicious viewer. Our 1980 Wickham was too innocuous and Orlando was too smarmy in 2005. No-one has got Wickham’s ability to deceive and manipulate just right. And no production has got the pairing of Wickham and Lydia right either.

The 1980 Lydia was the perfect blend of silly, bitchy and head-strong, but she would have walked all over her innocuous counterpart. Julia Sawalha was annoying enough as Lydia and Jena Malone had lots of exuberance and flirtatious ways, but no-one has mastered Lydia’s conniving side. 
The 1980 Mrs Bennet had the best relationship with her Lydia. It was obvious to see why this particular Lydia had grown up the way she did, indulged and petted by her very sympathetic mother.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s haughty, condescending snobbery was well captured by Judy Parfitt in 1980. Normally I like Judy Dench in anything, but she felt miscast in the 2005 movie. I would have loved to see her tackle Mrs Bennet instead. However, an eye patch wearing ice queen Catherine as played by Lena Headey (of Game of Thrones fame) could easily become my pick of the bunch! Without having actually seen this movie yet, I feel like I can say that it was a truly inspired casting choice! I’m intrigued.

Nobody likes Miss Bingley. I don’t believe you’re not meant to. She not’s very nice. Too brittle, too prickly and too superior. Yet curiously Marsha Fitzalan’s version of Caroline created some sympathetic touches. She played her desperation so openly and so vulnerably, that you couldn’t but help feel sorry for her. Anna Chancellor was already famous for her ‘duckface’ turn in Four Weddings and a Funeral by the time she got to Miss Bingley. A perfect, though less compassionate match. The 2005 movie Caroline was completely unmemorable.

As the eldest daughter in a large family of girls, I’ve always felt an affinity for Jane Bennet. Her ability to hide her feelings (unless you know her well, then you can read her like a book), act the patient peace-maker and trust in the goodness of others can make her seem like a sap. But she has courage, strength of purpose and a sense of responsibility that the Lydia’s of this world will never appreciate.

Our 1980 and 2005 Jane’s captured her gentleness and determination well. However, the 2005 Jane should never have fallen for that fool of a Took, Bingley and I would have preferred to see the 1995 Jane tackle Lydia instead. There was something about the way her smile suggested something different to her eyes, that made me think she could play Lydia’s manipulative ways to a tee.

(I went round and round in circles on pinterest trying to find who I could credit for putting together the P&P character collages, to no avail. If it’s you, please let me know so that I can rectify this oversight.)
There was also a 1958 BBC TV series of 6 episodes airing for half an hour each. It starred Jane Downs and Alan Badel. Sadly, it is believed that the entire series has been lost. Another production in 1967 honoured 150 years since the death of JA.

To show that I’m not a complete killjoy about adaptations and modern reinterpretations, let me rave for a minute about my love of Bridget Jones’ Diary.

It was hilarious yet poignant and oh so big-hearted from start to finish. Casting Firth as the Darcy character was one of those sublime moments of right person, right time, right everything. Taking our much loved characters into the modern world clearly meant that Mrs Bennet was always going to have an affair with some gross TV presenter, and instead of a tribe of siblings, our modern Lizzy has to have a band of best friends to be her confidants.
I’m not so much a fan of the two sequels though. I watched The Edge of Reason out of curiosity, but failed to get excited about Bridget Jones’ Baby at all.

JA has given the modern script writer the bones of such a clever, classic story, that they really have to work hard to stuff it up.

Even a fun musical version out of India in 2004 worked. The themes and characters of P&P are so universal that No Life Without Wife is the only obvious response to a ‘truth universally acknowledged‘.

I enjoyed the movie version of The Jane Austen Book Club more then the book itself, from memory. Jimmy Smits may have had something to do with that! Emily Blunt was not on my radar back then, so I’d like to re-watch this one day just to see her do her thing. This is not strictly a P&P adaptation either, as Joy Fowler’s characters are influenced by all of JA’s books over the course of the story.

The IMBd list for Pride and Prejudice adaptations suggests that I am woefully behind with my screen love of P&P – they have 32 possibilities and I’ve only viewed (or part viewed) ten.

And when I say love, I probably mean hope. No movie, TV series or adaptation has come close to doing Austen’s story justice. Some actors have done a magnificent job, some of the sets have been gorgeous but I’m always left a little flat in the end. My hope of seeing Pride and Prejudice alive on the big screen as I’ve imagined it and felt it all these years has still not been achieved. But like Jane Bennet, I’m always optimistic.

UPDATE
 8th September 2018
Last night I watched Pride & Prejudice Zombies.
It was so much fun and may even become my favourite P&P adaptation!
I’d love to see this cast of characters play their roles in a more traditional P&P – everyone nailed it.
But I particularly loved Mr Collins, Lady Catherine, Mrs Bennett and Bingley.
Darcy’s failed proposal scene to Elizabeth was an incredibly sexy ninja battle and I never got tired of seeing the Bennett sister’s unsheath their blades for battle with the undead!
As a bonus for those of us who have watched many P&P adaptations, many times, there were parodies of much loved (by some) scenes (such as Darcy diving into the lake), rooms that looked very, very familiar rooms, certain famous lines from other Austen books, a number of scenes paying homage to other well-known screen versions (the wedding scene from Ang Lee’s S&S) and a lovely cross-referencing moment when Lady Catherine (aka Cersei from Game of Thrones) arrives to threaten Elizabeth with a body guard as big and as loyal as The Mountain.
Tremendous fun; highly recommended…and much better than the book version by Seth Grahame-Smith, which I got tired of very quickly. It’s a concept that works better visually I think.

#AusteninAugust
#AllAboutAusten

11 thoughts on “Austen on Screen

  1. Excellent in-depth comparisons! I still haven't seen the 1980s or the 1940s P&P (thought I did see Elizabeth Garvie speak at my very first JASNA AGM, she was wonderful). P&P&Z is really worth watching if you don't take it too seriously. It is fun to see the different casting, Lena Heady is wonderful as Lady Catherine and Matt Smith is PERFECT as Mr. Collins! Brilliant casting. And I agree that Judi Dench was wrong for the 2005 P&P. I love her, but (whispers) she's too old! Miss DeBourgh's engagement with Darcy was planned \”from their cradles\” so they should have been fairly close in age — Darcy is supposed to be in his late 20s, but Judi was 70 when the movie was filmed! And FYI that's actually not Orlando Bloom as Wickham in the 2005 P&P, it's Rupert Friend. They do look strikingly alike though, I would love to see them play brothers in a movie someday. (Have you seen Olivia Williams and Greta Scacchi as Jane & Cassandra Austen in Miss Austen regrets? Brilliant casting, I've always thought they had a strong resemblance.) And have you seen Lost in Austen? It's a delightful fantasy, a must-see for any Austen fan. Another interpretation that doesn't take itself too seriously so I really enjoyed it. I normally dislike JA retellings, prequels, sequels, etc., but it's too good to miss. Thanks again for the great post!

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  2. Wow! Not Orlando!! I didn't even check the details as I was so positive that it was Bloom. Thanks for the heads up.I'm planning on another screen post as I still have all the other books to cover plus Lost in Austen, which I adored too. I hadn't heard of the Greta Scacchi/Olivia Williams one either. There are just so many when you start looking seriously! I also quite enjoyed Becoming Jane with Anne Hathaway.Lucky, lucky you hearing Garvie talk about her time as Elizabeth. Do you remember any of the details from that talk now?

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  3. What a marvellous roundup. I've seen at least the first three of your screen versions though not in a way that would allow me to analyze them as you have. My favourite is 1995 I'm afraid (except for Jane). Agree with your analysis of Mrs Bennet, I've written elsewhere this week that I think she (and Lydia) are usually portrayed as more vulgar than JA intended. I've watched the Bridget Jones movies, but think Bride & Prejudice is better (I took a non-reader with me and she wanted to know how come I knew the story).

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  4. I had a similar experience with a non-reading room-mate who wanted to know how I knew what would happen in Clueless (Emma) and 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew).

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  5. Ooops I meant to put that into the post – the 2013 images came from the three-part BBC TV series of Death Comes to Pemberley (based on P.D. James book) and the 2016 ones are from the Zombie movie.There are so many modern retellings of P&P now, including one from 2016 called Before the Fall where Lizzy is a man. You've Got Mail was also included in the 32 IMBd listings I mentioned above, but it's actually based on an old play by Miklós László called Parfumerie. So I don't believe the list is accurate or definitive by any means.

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  6. I loved your comparisons of the actors in the roles. My favorite (and my husband's) is the 1980 version and we like all the actors in it. Excellent article, thanks very much.

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  7. Oh, this was BRILLIANT! It must have taken you ages to put together. I remember really liking Bride & Prejudice and was hoping you'd mention it; I did this it was extremely nicely done.

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