Strange as it may sound, of all Austen’s novels, Pride & Prejudice, although probably the most famous, is the only one I had known next to nothing about prior to reading it this January. I had no idea whatsoever about what the plot was, which made for some delicious surprises, and I felt no certainty that it would end well, unlike with the others, where there was a constant awareness that a happy ending is practically guaranteed. Needless to say, I did like the book immensely; much more than Sense and Sensibility, though probably not as much as Emma, and I wasn’t really hit immediately after finishing. It took me a few days of going over it in my mind almost in spite of myself to realize the extent of the impressions.
And then I gave in and started looking for more. First I watched the movie from 2005, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, and was positively enraptured. Some two weeks later, I had a flashback and looked for the other recent adaptation, the BBC’s mini-series from 1995, with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. I have little to say about the book – not because it was uninspiring or anything like that, of course; merely because I can’t presume to add any substance to the immense body of critique, commentary and analysis that must accompany such a classic; however I am in the mood for talking about the two movie adaptations and how they compare.
I’ll go about it in the order I consumed them.
My first impressions about the 2005 movie (from now on, just “the movie”) were as follows. I thought that Elizabeth was portrayed as younger and more boyish than the character from the book; that Longburn was represented as a rather chaotic place, which wasn’t what I’d imagined while reading about it; and that the Bennet ladies seemed careless of their every-day appearances and attire, which stroke me as unusual, at least in the context of the many presentations of the period I had the opportunity to see on TV, including the adaptations of other Austen’s novels. I was also never under the impression that the Bennets were so much below the two rich families they get mixed up with as the film puts it, making sure that their poverty is very obvious at all times.
But these initial remarks are by no means to be understood as some serious critique; I was most pleased by the rendering of all characters and I thought the acting was supreme. Some support characters who I didn’t pay much attention to in the book, like the quiet, resigned character of Mr. Bennet, obtained their third dimension and came to life in the most wonderful way through the talent of the actors. Many people consider Austen’s novels to be primarily comic and very funny, an aspect that I only had some sense of in Emma, and none whatsoever while reading P&P, but the film brought them up with skill and subtlety in a way that makes me believe I’ll have double the pleasure in reading the book again because I’ll have such vivid visualizations to recall.
For those reasons I was puzzled by the claims found in the Wikipedia articles, that the audience considered the film a lesser work when compared to the 1995 mini-series, which was said to have established very firm imagery of how the characters ought to look and behave, and that C. Firth’s rendering of Mr. Darcy was in general thought of as very superior. It was difficult for me to believe that it was at all possible to have anything much superior to the 2005 movie, and I made it my business to procure the mini-series (from now on, just “the series”) and watch it all to see for myself.
With the total length of some six hours, the series definitely follows the book more closely than the film, and shows what seem to be all the scenes Austen described, with some welcome additions which offer insight into situations that Elizabeth, the implied narrator, could not have witnessed. None of the little critical remarks I had about the film are present in the series, which hits much more closer to what my intuition had made me expect.
In the way of nitpicking, I was somewhat disappointed with the lead actors, as both appeared to be much older than their characters; and while I didn’t mind that Mr. Darcy was endowed with an air of a more experienced man, I was hard pressed to buy the liveliness and vivacity of Elizabeth, and in spite of her running about and jumping and walking through greenery, I had a persistent impressions that she’s actually rather heavy and sedentary. One of the critiques laid down on the choice of cast for the movie was that the lead actress was too good-looking for Elizabeth, which perhaps has some merit; but in the same sense, the series could be criticized for having a very unremarkable Jane, a very old Lydia, and a Miss Bingley who looked nothing like her brother. As for their acting, I am definitely of the opinion that it was in no way superior to the acting in the movie. I can’t say I thought the leads inadequate. But I didn’t think them all that spectacular either. The transformation of Mr. Darcy in particular was totally missed on me in the series, while the movie pulled it off expertly; the exaggerated rendering of Mrs. Bennet was certainly inferior to the sincere portrayal of a fundamentally silly woman seen in the movie; and the reclusive character of Mr. Bennet was as bland in the series as it was in the book, which was perhaps the desired effect, but it can be scarcely even compared to the performance of D. Sutherland in the movie.
Several important scenes deserve a more specific address.
The country ball where Elizabeth and Darcy first meet was, as everything else, more faithfully represented in the series, with almost all the dialog from the book, making me all the more surprised that the most interesting part, about poetry and dancing, was omitted. What a strange choice. The movie makes the most of it, as it’s an excellent, strong dialog that reflects the differences and hints at the similarities of the two lead characters in a very decisive way, pushing the story farther than the entire scene in the series does. I regret that there wasn’t enough time in the movie to show the scene after Elizabeth’s long walk to Netherfield, and Darcy’s commentary; again, the bare length of the series is its only material advantage. Darcy from the movie betrays his feelings much more and much earlier than the Darcy of the series; in the context of following the atmosphere from the book as closely as possible, this is a deviation, but one I prefer to accuracy because it endears the character in a manner that isn’t all related to looks, as I suspect is the case with C. Firth’s rendering.
Skipping forward to the time in Rosings, I must admit that the series nailed down the atmosphere of the awkward proposal with a greater fidelity than the movie. But the same scene in the movie offers a depth of feeling that makes the notion of fidelity to the original a very pale praise in comparison. It is perhaps the moment where the acting of the young leads in the movie most decidedly soars above the average performance of their television counterparts. Every word, every attack seems to come directly from the two conflicted hearts, and the unwelcome attraction is unmistakable, tangible, and absolutely bewildering.
Then there’s the scene of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley, which is again in my opinion done with more subtlety and… shear beauty, I suppose, in the movie. You see a new aspect of Elizabeth, her admiration of art and harmony between nature and architecture, and the excellent soundtrack makes her lonely contemplation wonderfully complete. The soundtrack is enchanting in general, light and fluttering as the wings of a butterfly, and then in moments of reckoning as heavy and serious as a thunderstorm.
In the series, this is followed by the famous “lake scene”.
This is an addition by the authors of the show, and not present in the book. Namely, Darcy is shown swimming in a lake on his estate, dressed in a long shirt and underpants. It’s such a silly piece of work that I have no choice but to loath it. The idea that he would bathe in clothes is really quite ridiculous; to make things worse, the whole thing was very obviously contrived as the cheapest sort of fan service, showing the so-very-handsome C. Firth in a wet shirt, supposedly confused by Elizabeth’s appearance. Their sudden meeting is devoid of any feeling, even of a sense of awkwardness; there’s just nothing to be had. I can’t for the life of me see why it’s such a beloved moment – it does nothing for the story and characters, and the clumsy realization makes it the lowest part of the series for me. The movie, on the other side, never goes out of character; instead we’re shown a Darcy who Elizabeth never had the occasion to see: how he is when he is at home, when he is relaxed, when he is around his sister. Here again the movie succeeds to create a more dramatic situation through a much more subtle approach.
The ending was a bit too quick in the movie; I wished to see more, always more, but in truth, had there been more, it would have been fan service and I’m glad the authors didn’t give into that temptation. Of course the series offers more, but it’s not really that satisfying, as much of the final episode revolves around marginal events and shows little of those characters you really wish to follow around. It follows the book in hiding the moment of Bingley’s proposal, but then diverges at last to show the wedding. Despite more material, it doesn’t make the story feel any more complete than the movie or the book do.
In conclusion – perhaps needless to say – I liked the movie much, much better than the series. I shall watch it at least three or four more times before my obsession subsides, and I don’t think I’ll even consider watching the series again. Is it because I saw the movie first? Perhaps. But then, perhaps it was judged as inferior to the series because the audience saw the series first. For the movie and its magnificent soundtrack I extend my warmest recommendations; for those curious enough to contemplate watching the series: probably not worth it.