Books into Movies: Pride and Prejudice, part I

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice so often I know it too well to read anymore. I’ve seen all of the PBS adaptations (more than twice), because they kept to the original dialogue and included every bit of the story – they treated the book as holy writ instead of idiotizing it, like the 1940s version where Greer Garson says to Laurence Olivier, “You’re so proud!” and he replies, “You’re so prejudiced!” Although my cousin (who is the real Austen fan; she understands satire) loved the Colin Firth-as-Darcy version, where he goes into a pond fully clothed and comes out with his white shirt soaking wet and clinging to him (yowza), I wasn’t entirely convinced by the updated, passionate Darcy. But maybe that bit of updating prepared me for the 2005 film version that changes and rearranges the book, moving dialogue from one chapter to another, and even from one character’s mouth to another’s. I nearly didn’t go see it because I was so sure Keira Knightley would bomb out (an anorexic, square-jawed Lizzy? Nah.). But the whole ensemble cast was brilliant, and screenwriter Deborah Mogguch (and Emma Thompson, who wrote additional dialogue) added bits to the movie that finally ‘fixed’ the problems I’d always had with the book.

And I still don’t want to say the movie was better, because the movie wouldn’t exist without the book, without those characters and their story being brought to life in print first. But the movie was the best-ever adaptation, and satisfying in a way the book was not.

P & P filmPride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, screenplay by Deborah Mogguch, with additional dialogue by Emma Thompson.

Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice when she was 21, which is maybe why she seems to want to make Elizabeth Bennet a somewhat idealized character. At the first ball Austen presents Elizabeth as a romantic – Lizzy tells her friend Charlotte that she will only marry for love, even though in this society a ‘good’ marriage (to a man of her own class or higher, with enough money to support a wife who has none) is what she must aim for. Lizzy is supposed to be only slightly interested in a wealthy aristocrat, Mr. Darcy. But even if she doesn’t care about his wealth, Darcy is tall, dark, remote; and he’s the new guy in town. To a romantic this should be a pretty strong draw. At the ball where they meet Lizzy overhears Darcy telling his friend Bingley that she is not pretty enough to dance with; and she laughs it off.

This is played straight in the book, as proof of Lizzy’s ‘sense of the absurd’, and her delight in human ‘follies and inconsistencies’ coming to her aid, so that she is able to detach from any feelings she might have about Darcy’s insult. Supposedly she is hurt (although the only evidence we have as readers is in retrospect, and is only trace evidence). In the book she now sees him as ridiculous, therefore inconsequential, and is able to laugh about him. And the BBC versions of Pride and Prejudice strive to sustain this version.

But Keira Knightley’s Lizzy is laughing to cover hurt and humiliation in front of her friend Charlotte. In this film Lizzy has been snubbed once already by Darcy, when she asked if he danced and he said not if he could help it (in the book, this was a conversation between Darcy and Sir William Lucas). A little later, after she jokes about how poetry can drive away love, Darcy asks her what she recommends, then, “to encourage affection.” And she replies: “Dancing. Even if one’s partner is only barely tolerable.” Here she scores a direct hit (and no, it wasn’t in the book), by letting him know she overheard his boorish remark. What makes her comment especially satisfying is that no one else will pick up on the undercurrent: she’s still being ‘proper’ and well-bred even as she calls him a boor, topping his insult with one of her own. She zings him in public with a private zing – and in this way it’s also intimate. Having silenced him, she smiles a very little, turns on her heel, and walks away. The smile is not because she sees the absurdity of the situation; it is clearly a smile of satisfied revenge. That Lizzy can be hurt and then intelligently vengeful makes sense to the person she is supposed to be. It shows that she is not above the fray. She is not above being interested in Darcy, feeling humiliated, and wanting revenge; she is not detached.

This evidence of Elizabeth’s initial interest in Darcy, and her mortification at his snub, makes the rest of the story work better, too. In the book there is a hint of the gold-digger about Lizzy that Austen tackles directly by having Lizzy joke about it to her sister Jane, saying she fell in love with Darcy as soon as she saw Pemberley, his showplace of an estate. In the book when Lizzy first sees Pemberley, she admits feeling “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” and it is only by “lucky recollection” that as Mrs. Darcy she wouldn’t be able to see her aunt and uncle that she is saved “from something like regret.” But in the movie, her first sight of Pemberley makes her stare, and then laugh, as in – are you kidding me? She had no idea what she was turning down. She is awed by the place, which seems beautiful to her; and her reaction when Darcy shows up is to feel shame. She apologizes profusely not because of some antiquated point of etiquette, but because she feels like a stalker, ogling his estate and touring his house after she turned down the man.

According to the book Lizzy’s feelings towards Darcy change because of his letter, which reveals the truth of events she knew of only through Wickham. By matching the letter to her knowledge of both men and using hindsight, Lizzy realizes that Darcy can’t be the villain she had thought him, and that Wickham must be more villain than victim. In the book she struggles to take responsibility for accepting Wickham’s lies; over time, her feelings of guilt about misreading Darcy, and her discovery of his sterling character (first through others, like his housekeeper, then in person, when she meets him at Pemberley and he is attentive to her aunt and uncle), turn to love.

I suppose that Austen’s explanation is in sync with the detached, rational person Lizzy is supposed to be, but even as a naïve pre-teen I thought this was a bit much. As I got older I wondered if Lizzy professed to believe in love because it was nicer than looking for a wealthy husband, when marriage to someone with ‘enough’ money was the only respectable gig in town? Her changes of heart are so convenient! (Maybe because they are changes of mind.)

Austen does like protagonists who are ‘sensible’ and respectable, who value reason over emotion. (The setup in Sense and Sensibility is the story of two sisters, rational Eleanor, who holds the family together through every crisis, and emotional Marianne, drama queen and fool.) The problem with Austen’s predilection for reason is that when it comes to emotion she can drop the ball. At the denouement of Pride and Prejudice we have to take her word for it that Darcy declares himself ‘as warmly as a man in love’ can, and that Lizzy responds in kind, because the book doesn’t give us a word of it. Instead we get Lizzy asking Darcy how he ever managed to fall in love with her, and supposing it was because she was rude to him instead of being a sycophant; she goes on to joke that he knew no actual good of her, but “who thinks of that when they fall in love.” (This after an entire book about Lizzy falling in love with Darcy because she discovers that he is a good man, because his housekeeper and tenants can vouch for him.) The problem with the book, and with Lizzy as a super-rational heroine, is that she can’t really be a romantic heroine as well. Her ‘romantic’ desire for Darcy seems to run behind her reason, like a carriage pulled by a perfectly trained horse – an awkward metaphor for an awkward idea, for surely desire should be the horse, and reason the carriage, instead of the other way around?