Pride and Prejudice was published by Jane Austen in late January, 1813, a classic romantic tale involving one of the most tantalizing, tense hate-to-love relationship I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. For those of you who don’t know, I’m reading it for my February Romance Reading Challenge. For my last reading challenge, the Middle Grade Reread Challenge, I read the Tale of Despereaux and decided to do a book-to-movie adaptation analysis; for the romance reading challenge, I knew I wanted to do the same kind of analysis, but for Pride and Prejudice.
Of course, the big question was which adaptation to watch. Apparently, there have been many, and that does not even include the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which, despite a strong dislike for horror elements, I am still half-tempted to watch just out of sheer curiosity). The major contestants were between the 1995 television show and the 2005 movie. A gold star goes to anyone who can deduce which one I ended up watching. In the end, it was really a question of timing.
A proper review of the book will be included in the rapid book review post I have planned for March 5th, but I can at least say now that, like Tale of Despereaux, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the book. It had a relatively large cast of characters, but it did not take me long to figure out who was who. Each had their own little story in addition to Elizabeth’s, and they all tied together neatly by the end.
One thing to note, though, is that the book spans well over a year, and a lot happens in that time. With four marriages to set up, and almost two dozen characters to keep track of, I knew it was going to be a lot for one movie to tackle. It might’ve chosen to somehow cut out a few key characters, thus minimizing the set-up of said marriages, or else it would have to rush through the timeline to hit as many events as it could. Thankfully, it did the latter, and we’ll discuss below the efficacy of that choice. But first, a warning: spoilers abound.
The Language of the Classics
Considering the year it was published, the language of Pride and Prejudice is unsurprisingly antiquated, and for the modern reader, it may be difficult to translate. Modern readers may also find it difficult to get attached to any of the characters’ plights now that women are not pressured to marry into a rich family in order to assure their own future, and that it’s no longer considered a scandal to have an intimate relationship with someone you’re not married to.
The point of any adaptation, though, is to reach a broader audience than the book might have. Classics are an even more poignant subject because of the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph. Having a visual representation of the events can help people understand the plot even if they found the book hard to read. Of course, as we learned in the Tale of Despereaux analysis, it’s easy for movies to take their source material and create an almost completely different story. Jane Austen’s work is not immune to this, either; there have certainly been very loose adaptations.
The 2005 version, however, is choc-full of dialogue pulled straight from the text. Through a basic understanding of language from the 1800’s and the visual cues offered by the movie, it’s a lot easier to untangle the meaning of some of the more convoluted phrases. It’s a similar thought process to Lord of the Rings, which likewise takes at least some of the dialogue from the books and puts it into the movie. You don’t need to insert dialogue from the text for it to be a good movie adaptation, and, conversely, inserting dialogue doesn’t automatically make it a good adaptation either. But when the lines of dialogue are able to align so closely with the movie’s plot progression, it means you’re doing something right. All of this is to say, even with the antiquated language of the text, the movie can still remain so close to the source material as to borrow actual lines of speech, and still be understood by the audience. It doesn’t necessarily need to be modernized to be understood.
The Perfection of the Cast
It’s one thing for an actor or actress to embody their character, and quite another when it’s clear they’re having fun doing it. It was hilarious to see Mr. Collins visually represented as less than those around him, one of the shortest men on the set (or at least, made to look so.) Mrs. Bennet’s actress embodied the nervous, fluttery gossip to such a point that wave after wave of second-hand embarrassment came through the television. Mr. Bingley was a romantic sop who was so awkward it couldn’t be anything but adorable. They added a scene towards the end where, after a failed first attempt to ask for Jane’s hand, he paced outside and practiced proposing with Mr. Darcy, and it would certainly be in my top five favorite scenes of the film.
A lot of big-name actors and actresses are part of the cast, which is always a good sign, especially if someone like me (who’s terrible with remembering them) knows what they’re from. There’s Keira Knightley from Pirates of the Caribbean, Rosemund Pike who I know will be in Wheel of Time (though I could not get it out of my head that it was Jewel Straite from Firefly), Donald Sutherland from Hunger Games, etc. I didn’t know Mr. Darcy’s actor, Matthew Macfadyen, though he kept giving me Ianto Jones from Torchwood vibes.
This is all to say that they put in a lot of effort to make sure the cast, even small roles like Mrs. Gardiner (who I know from Doctor Who as Harriet Jones, former prime minister), were played by talented and dedicated actors. Unfortunately, because of time constraints, some characters did get cut, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Philips, although they aren’t the only ones, and several others had their roles severely minimized. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were two that I understood and wasn’t angry about, though in the books they were meant to show the respectable side of Elizabeth’s family, and the true extent to which Mr. Darcy had pulled away from his snobbish habits. One character, however, did get unjustly cut back, and that is none other than Mr. Wickham.
The Venerable Mr. Wickham
The question of Mr. Wickham’s character was a major point for the novel. To paraphrase Darcy and Elizabeth, (movie version at the very least; I don’t remember for sure if it was in the novel), Mr. Wickham is really good at making friends and less good at keeping them. He uses people without any moral compunction, primarily to pay off his gambling debts. It is later revealed in the novel that Mr. Wickham has basically forced Mr. Darcy to pay off his debts out of moral obligations (Mr. Wickham having grown up like a second son to the late Mr. Darcy), had run off with Mr. Darcy’s sister (which, at that time, would have been considered an unforgivable scandal) in the hopes of marrying rich to support his gambling habits, and very nearly ruined Elizabeth’s sister’s reputation by nearly doing the same to her.
The book is neatly divided in the before-the-marriage-proposal, and the after-. The before sets up Mr. Darcy to be the worst of them, and one of the first sticking points, before even his interference with Jane and Mr. Bingley, is the question of Wickham’s character. The worst kind of charismatic, Wickham sets himself up as the poor fool whose fortunes were ripped out from under him by Darcy, and because Elizabeth has no point of reference beyond Darcy’s established snobbery, she finds the accusation easy to believe. Then Austen brings it full circle, because Wickham plays the family for a fool once again when he convinces Lydia to run with him to London, thereby proving Darcy’s innocence on that count and Wickham’s own questionable morals.
The film has to cut down on the narrative where it can, and Wickham’s storyline was perhaps the one most pared down. The extent of his courtship with Elizabeth Bennet becomes almost nonexistent, her indignation on Wickham’s behalf is little more than an excuse, and Wickham’s later wooing of Lydia Bennet is a horrible yet unprecedented incident. Fortunately, the movie did choose to make Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s romance both more central and inevitable than the book did, which means Wickham was portrayed as little more than a bump in the road, turning the film less into a social commentary and more into a forthright romance.
Pacing: Condensing Four Marriages into 2 Hrs 15 Min
I have already spoken throughout the post of the necessity of cutting back on some of the side plots. Why Mr. Wickham’s flight with Lydia was so random, unexpected, and damaging lost some of its weight in the film because of the aforementioned adjustments to his character’s role. Additionally, Charlotte Lucas’s marriage to Mr. Collins was even more abrupt than in the book; I don’t even think it showed that she was the one who initiated the courtship. Even so, with Charlotte’s visit to Lizzy right after, the film still managed to explain her actions, saying that Charlotte was almost too old to be considered marriageable, and that not everyone could afford to be a romantic.
Mrs. Bingley’s sister played a much larger role in the book, both in keeping Jane from her brother and from trying to keep Mr. Darcy from marrying Elizabeth. However, the strength of Mr. Bingley’s affection for Jane was obvious, and one can only assume that they set up his going to London as a result of Mr. Darcy telling him the feeling was unreciprocated. Additionally, as I mentioned above, wheras the book made it seem like Darcy and Elizabeth would never get their happy ending, not after she already denied his proposal the first time, the film made it abundantly clear from the beginning that the two liked each other against their better judgment, and that they just had to get over their own prejudices to get their happy ending.
Because I read the book first, I knew everything that the film had to leave out. But condensing the plot, removing elements and hurrying through others, may make those who didn’t read the book a little confused. It was hard to tell as I was watching it whether I understood everything that was going on because I read the books, or if perhaps it could still make sense to someone who hadn’t. I’m not in a position to say that everything left out was clarified by what was kept in or added, but really, that was my only main concern for the film.
Conclusion: Things Lost to Lack of Time
In my Tale of Despereaux movie analysis post, I made the point that an adaptation can certainly make whatever adjustments it needs to as a result of the different medium of storytelling, but that it should strive at least to tell the same story as the book it was adapted from. It’s clear from the cast, the outfits, the very lines that the characters speak that the intent was to create a film as dedicated to the source material as possible. While the book was certainly far more full of social commentary, I think we can forgive the film needing to cut most of that out.
Perhaps the main question for an adaptation like this is whether or not it will keep interest alive for the original work, and I think the answer to that question is, invariably, yes. The 2005 version is true enough to the original that someone who hadn’t read the books could still talk at some length about the plot and perhaps even some of the points that Austen was trying to make. Better yet, for those who tried to make it through the book but found it hard to read, the 2005 film would easily give them points of reference that might, with luck, help those very same readers try the book again.
In sum, a perfect adaptation doesn’t need to include every single minute detail of the book. Really, what it should do is consider the weaknesses of the story and try to improve upon it where needed while putting emphasis on what made it worth adapting to begin with. So, while I think some of the more subtle themes of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice got lost in translation, I still think that what the film managed to accomplish was commendable.