Every once in a while, when I am out of money and don’t have any new books to read, I’m going to post about my favorite tidbits of British culture. This is one of those days, and I’m going to do a two-fer today, because I can’t talk about the brilliant Jane Austen work without also talking about the sublime Colin Firth. I may also talk about why the Keira Knightley version is such crap.
For those who haven’t read it, and don’t get what the fuss is all about, let me explain briefly.
Regarding the book: Jane Austen, admittedly, doesn’t tackle huge world problems, though massive changes were going on during her time and other works of the period (notably Charles Dickens, who came a bit later) show a much dirtier and more decrepit picture of British society. What Jane Austen does tackle is the issues of an average privileged young woman in early 19th century Britain. Though she is not tackling the plight of the young and poor, Austen is incredibly good at what she focuses on. Her writing is sharp, engaging, enchanting, and lively. This story in particular has created a pair of characters so enduring and endearing, that they have been reworked into countless sequels, mashups, and redesigns. There are the sequels, showing a married Darcy and Lizzy, the ones with vampires, and quite a few with zombies, and most recently, a murder mystery. Plus, there are tons of movie and tv adaptations, which include faithful adaptations like the Colin Firth miniseries, but also branch out into the strange and absurd. There was Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood take on the story, P&P: A Latter Day Comedy, with a Mormon spin, and Lost in Austen, which took a modern day reader and planted her in the middle of the 19th century action. Plus all the movie versions of all the zombie and alien and vampire books. Obviously, also stories loosely based on P&P, like Bridget Jones’ Diary. The point is, only a truly universal concept, like marriage (and your parents embarrassing you in front of a guy) could create so much fodder for so many different interpretations.
Regarding the Colin Firth miniseries: Why is it the best ever? Well, I’ll preface this by saying I haven’t seen all of the adaptations, specifically the older ones. But I have seen a lot, almost everything in the last twenty years that is related to P&P, I have seen. And this is the most faithful to the book, and when it diverts from the book (lake scene!) it does so for a reason. And Colin Firth is the perfect Mr. Darcy because he can be haughty and rude, but you can at the same time believe he is a good person. He is sexy, but never because he is trying to be, and you truly believe his respect and love is something truly worth earning. Jennifer Ehle is also charming, intelligent, clever without being sarcastic or tiresome, and capable of conveying a million emotions with one glance.
So, why do I love P&P so much? I think that there are a lot of novels with more breadth, meaning they try to capture every type of life at any given time in history (Middlemarch is a good example). But those novels aren’t necessarily better. I think Austen should be praised for maintaining a tight focus on this particular set of people. P&P captures so much about love and about family, and she has created two spectacular characters. Rather than trying to include every walk of life, she takes a specific group of people and represents universal issues, eternal problems. That is the key to longevity in your work.Where works like Jane Eyre (still wonderful, don’t get me wrong) can seem somewhat outdated now, with the discussions about being God-fearing, and all the missionary work that would probably have done more harm than good to some sort of ‘savage’ population in a far off land. Austen never seems outdated, even though the society is of course entirely different. And, Darcy is pretty dreamy, let’s be honest.
It’s also quite funny, something rarely to be found with the Bronte sisters. Lydia is ridiculous, Mr. Collins a fool, and Mr and Mrs. Bennet play off one another like a comedy duo. A very abstract comedy duo, perhaps, but it is still funny once you are sort of familiar with the time period and the social norms.
That’s why I think the mini-series is so important. There were aspects about the novel that I don’t think I understood the first time, because concepts foreign to me were taken for granted in that time period. The mini-series does a fantastic job of making those things clear, without having to explicitly explain them. Any high-schooler who blunders through their first Shakespeare play can empathize with that feeling of comprehension when you watch the movie. Pride & Prejudice can be that way sometimes, because it was written about 200 years ago, and not everything is easily understood.
So the two work as a pair, in my opinion. As soon as I read the book, I went out and got the mini-series that day. They are companion pieces that create one great experience.
Which brings me, unfortunately, to the dreadful truth of that damn Keira Knightley version. First, just to get it off my chest, I need to list the many many anachronisms that make me absolutely insane because they present a very different picture of the story than is told in the books:
–Lizzy would not have had bangs/fringe!!!! This is not important, but it drives me nuts. She also wouldn’t have worn her hair down–women over the age of maybe 13 always wore their hair up. If they were married, they always had their hair covered. To someone without that knowledge, perhaps it makes no difference, but to someone who knows a little about Regency-era England, it makes Lizzy seem either completely inappropriate and ill-bred, or childish.
–Mr. Bennet’s estate is not a mud-infested farmhouse with pigs wandering around inside. He was a wealthy landowner with a large house and lots of land. It is only because he hasn’t had a son to inherit his property that the girls are considered ‘poor’ in terms of what they can bring to a marriage. For more info on this, watch season 1 of Downton Abbey. Similarly, though Mr. Bennet is set in his ways and not invested in the society he inhabits, he is not a hoarder, lazy, or some sort of proto-hippie. This makes a big difference in the way the film comes across; this 2005 version makes it seem as if the entire family is dirt-poor, ill-educated, and borderline disgusting and Darcy has every reason to see them as inferior.
–Lizzy is not a tomboy, a radical feminist, or socially graceless. I’m not sure whether I am more irritated at the writers, directors, or Knightley for portraying her that way. Lizzy is smart, funny, lively, pleasant. She can be cynical, she can be headstrong, she can be rude when left with no other alternative. But she is not full of impropriety, she still respects social norms in a way her youngest sisters do not. She is just not…that creature that Keira Knightley inhabited. I found another blog that did a review of the movie, and I’m stealing her quote: “Elizabeth in this movie is not Elizabeth. She is Lydia in disguise.”
–Mr. Bingley would never ever come into Jane’s bedroom to see how she is doing when ill. It is sweet to think that sort of thing happened, but it didn’t. It would have been really improper in every way for anyone to see her in her bedclothes. Consider how Mary reacts when Mr. Pamuk appears in her bedroom. This was 100 years later!
Having that scene in there, along with all the scenes where two non-related opposite sex characters are thrown into situations on their own and unsupervised, makes me think that the writers had no idea about social mores of the time. Obviously the costume and hair people didn’t, but the writers should have at least! This scene, and the normalcy with which it is played, lessens the severity of Lydia’s crime in running off with Wickham without being married.
Ok, now are all these things that important? (YES!) No, perhaps not. If you don’t know anything about Regency norms and mores, and you don’t know anything about the book, then I’m sure it’s a fine movie about a headstrong girl and a guy who learns to love her. But it’s not Pride & Prejudice. It’s something more akin to Pretty Woman. Poor young woman of ill-repute saved by the rich prince charming type. It’s just not the same book that they’re working from to make that movie. So I don’t like to consider it an adaptation.
In summary, Pride & Prejudice is amazing and wonderful, and if you haven’t read it you should, and if you haven’t seen the Colin Firth miniseries, you should. And if you think that the Keira Knightley version is tolerable, please tell me why so I can begin to comprehend why it’s so damn popular.