So, my last but one post on this blog was a summary of what was coming up in 2022 (I nearly wrote ‘coming up in 2020’ because I still think of 2020 as fairly recent, rather than two years ago, which I choose to attribute to the pandemic rather than my age) in which I outlined several projects that I have singularly failed to start. This post marks the start of a new project that I didn’t even consider at the time.
A little while ago, I did the Grantathon, a chronical watch-through of every film Hugh Grant has ever been in barring those I couldn’t find or couldn’t be bothered with. Retrospectively, I don’t quite know why I did that, but I’m glad I did. And then I did a watch-through of Star Trek: TNG but, in many ways, that’s much longer than Hugh Grant’s entire filmography and much more repetitious and then I cancelled my Netflix subscription. I’ve been vaguely thinking of doing a replacement for a while, and I did consider doing Alan Rickman, partly because I thought it would be interesting to re-watch the films he did with Hugh Grant with my Alan Rickman goggles on, rather than my Hugh Grant goggles on, but it did genuinely strike me that then I’d have been doing two long-running, high-effort blog series dedicated to the creative works of … well … two dudes.
So instead I’m going to do every Jane Austen adaption I can reasonably track down/watch/be arsed with.
Just to answer some of the obvious questions first: yes, this will include tangential things and spin-offs such as Clueless, Death Comes to Pemberley and possibly even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It won’t necessarily include every single hallmark movie to have a Jane Austen allusion in the title because those are sometimes not even tangentially related to the source material. Like I watched one a year or so ago where the connection was “the hero’s name is Darcy and literally that’s it”. Similarly, I won’t be including Bridget Jones because, again, it’s more “alludes to” than “is directly inspired by”. Obviously there is a huge grey area around “is an adaption of”, “is a riff on” and “references” but, what can I say, my rewatch, my rules.
The other thing to get out of the way upfront is that I won’t be doing a goodness versus grantiness equivalent because I don’t think it would be as funny and I don’t want to reinforce that fidelity to the original source material is the primary metric by which adaptations should be judged. I will, instead, be giving them a rating from zero to twelve in terms of “thousands a year.” For what it’s worth, the reason it goes from zero to twelve, rather than zero to ten, is that Mr Rushworth in Mansfield Park has twelve thousand a year. My current vague intent is to try and make sure that ratings correspond to the exact net worth of Austen heroes but I might give that up as a bad job.
For what it’s worth the list I’m running off, and I reserve the right to add to or take way from this list at any point, looks like this (and I will add that, some of these, I have no clue what they are or how to source, but I’ll do my best)
- Pride and Prejudice (1940)
- Sense and Sensibility (1971)
- Persuasion (1971)
- Emma (1972)
- Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980)
- Pride and Prejudice (1980)
- Sense and Sensibility (1980)
- Mansfield Park (1983)
- Northanger Abbey (1987)
- Sense and Sensibility (1995)
- Persuasion (1995)
- Pride and Prejudice (1995)
- Clueless (1995)
- Emma (1996)
- Emma (1996)
- Mansfield Park (1999)
- Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It) (2000)
- Pride and Prejudice (2003)
- Bride and Prejudice (2004)
- Pride & Prejudice (2005)
- Becoming Jane (2007)
- The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
- Persuasion (2007)
- Northanger Abbey (2007)
- Mansfield Park (2007)
- Sense and Sensibility (2008)
- Miss Austen Regrets (2008)
- Lost in Austen (2008)
- Emma (2009)
- Aisha (2010)
- From Prada to Nada (2011)
- Scents and Sensibility (2011)
- The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2013)
- Austenland (2013)
- Welcome to Sanditon (2013)
- Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)
- Emma Approved (2014)
- Unleashing Mr. Darcy (2016)
- Love & Friendship (2016)
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
- Sanditon (2019)
- Emma. (2020)
- (Pride and prejudice – musical) ??? – I spotted this randomly on Amazon prime,
All written out in a list, it’s simultaneously a huge amount and not very much. It’s less than the Grantathon but it does include a bunch of actual mini-series … mini-serieses … mini-serii?
So. Let’s get started.
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
This one stars Laurence Oliver as Darcy, Greer Garson as Elizabeth and, most importantly, Marsha Hunt as the most adorable Mary Bennet I have ever seen. Seriously, check her out. She is legitimately adorkable. I might have a raging crush.
And, actually, I’m going to go on a massive sidebar here because Adorkable Mary Bennet is amazing. Or more precisely the woman who played Adorkable Mary Bennet is amazing: and I say is because she’s still alive. She’s104, she is—at time of writing—the oldest living member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and also the last surviving member of the Committee for the First Amendment, a group of Hollywood actors who came out in defence of the Hollywood Ten. She was blacklisted for refusing to denounce other actors accused of being communists, and just didn’t back down.
Like, it genuinely gives me a bit of an existential crisis because old Hollywood feels so distant and otherworldly (party, at least, because of the deliberately distant and otherworldly image it cultivated) and the notion that there are people who lived in that world who are still around today, and that I can be here, watching a film from 1940 on a streaming service that utilises technology that people in 1940 not only could not imagine but could not imagine imagining, and then I could write a blog post about that film that someone who was in that film could technically read eighty years later. And I know, theoretically, somebody who wrote a book could read a review written decades after the book was published but it feels different when it’s a visual medium. Rightly or wrongly, there’s something almost intuitive about the idea that printed words are static and permanent, but when you’re watching someone give a performance on screen it’s like that person is there. And being confronted with the fact that they are also a real person who is still really around in the real world, and that they are going to do and experience a huge amount of remarkable things, between being the them that they are on the screen and the them that you’ve just Googled genuinely fucks with my head.
Sorry. That got long and was probably a bit trite.
Anyway, this movie was better than I expected. I did kind of shit a brick going in because the title card is “It Happened In Old England” as if everything that’s gone down in this country between the Roman Invasion and the First World War was basically all going on at once. And then when I saw the costumes I shit another brick because … what? I mean, seriously what? They’re dressed in the kind of wide-hooped skirt crinolines that were popular in the mid to late Victorian era before the silhouette narrowed again. Except with bonnets that you can see FROM SPACE. And don’t even get me started on the fabric choices: I know they were probably going for highly textured because there’s no colour but what is going on with, like, … any … of … this.
I did eventually come to the conclusion that it looked a bit like Gone With The Wind, which was actually a made a year earlier so maybe they just had job lot of huge skirts lying around. And I do sometimes wonder if American audiences instinctively default to that era of American history as their visual reference for the Regency because some media seem to portray them quite similarly, although I’m not completely certain that’s a rabbit hole I want to go down.
So, yeah, back to the movie.
If you set aside the superficial elements like the dresses, the dresses, oh my God the dresses, and focus on the actual film, it’s—initially at least—a pretty straightforward adaptation. I might even go as far as to call it “faithful”, in spirit at least, to the original. Sure it cuts and compresses a lot of things for the sake of time, and seems to have decided that having two ball scenes would be unacceptable so it replaces the ball at Netherfield with a garden party where Elizabeth impresses Darcy with her ability to shoot a bow and arrow, but it all felt surprisingly un-jarring. And given the limitations of the medium it did a good job of conveying a lot of character information quickly (although in the case of Mr Collins it does this primarily by giving him a very 1940s Hollywood “this is a comedy character” musical theme that always felt about two bars away from turning into Yakety Sax).
Towards the end, though, it gets a lot more…not like that?
I do appreciate that the plot of Pride and Prejudice involves a lot of people standing around in drawing rooms talking to each other but at some point it feels the film makers decided to save time by having the entire last third of the book take place in single scene with characters shuffling in and out like a 1970s farce with less low-key nudity.
So Lydia and Wickham come back to Longbourn after Darcy bribes/horsewhips Wickham into being marginally less of a cad, and then the moment that’s finished Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes in (while Lydia is basically in the other room still showing off her ring) to give the whole “don’t you dare marry my nephew” speech and then she goes immediately outside where she straight-up meets Darcy and, like, there’s a twist where she was just testing Lizzie to see if she really liked him or not, and then Darcy bounces in and does Proposal Mark 2, during which we have to pause in order to watch Bingley, who has kind of been absent from the film for the last twenty minutes, arrive independently and propose to Jane in front of a conspicuous nude statue, before we can cut back to Lizzie and Darcy having an obligatory Hollywood make-out. At which point we return to Mr and Mrs Bennet who are watching two other dudes we’ve barely seen hitting on their remaining daughters.
This is all incredibly weird.
I can see some of it for pacing reasons. Trying to create the sense of time passing when you’re constrained by 1940s cinematic technology is probably quite difficult and I can even see why cutting the trip to Pemberley makes a certain amount of sense from a structural / story compression perspective. But why the hell did the film feel the need to face turn Catherine de Bourgh?
Part of me wonders if this is a Hays Code thing. I did notice that Mr Collins is a librarian in the film rather than a clergyman and having looked into it, it does seem that portraying a clergyman as a subject of ridicule would have been a genuine taboo in Hollywood at the time. And while the whole “never portray authority figures as anything other than completely right and justified” thing was more of a big deal in the Comics Code Authority I do get similar vibes from Actually Nice All Along Catherine de Bourgh. It feels uncomfortably like the studio just genuinely wouldn’t accept an ending in which Lizzie is actually rewarded for standing up to an authority figure, so they had to make the authority figure secretly in on it all along in order to maintain social harmony. (This gets tangential but it reminds me a little of the way the studio insisted the Wizard of Oz end with it all being a dream so little girls wouldn’t be encouraged to have aspirations that went beyond their own doorstep).
Anyway, Secretly A Goodie Catherine de Bourgh aside, the characters in the film are mostly pretty recognisable as their book counterparts. Obviously Mary is far more adorkable than she is in other adaptations but otherwise the Bennet sisters are quite well-articulated, given the space. Like, you actually tell the difference between Lydia and Kitty, Jane is genuinely sweet and—unusually—prettier (or at least more conventionally attractive) than Elizabeth. Elizabeth herself comes across as … broadly Elizabeth-like. She’s slightly, um, ruder than she is in the book, both in terms of her put-downs and her behaviour: for example she flatly refuses to dance with Darcy, which you really couldn’t do in the Regency as a unmarried woman unless you’d opted out of dancing entirely.
Darcy, however, comes across as a total prick. This is not Olivier’s fault because he’s … well, he’s Olivier. He’s got some interesting sideburns but he’s gorgeous and magnetic, and he manages to bring both coldness and warmth to the character. But because they’ve compressed a lot of things he just comes across like, well, like a flighty bench? Basically his relationship with Elizabeth goes:
- I definitely wouldn’t dance with her she sucks
- I really do in fact want to dance with her for some reason
- Chicks who read are hot
- Wow you shoot a bow real good
- ACTUAL TITLE DROP
- Fuck off I hate you
- Will you marry me?
- Wickham’s a bad
- Will you marry me again? PS – my aunt is nice now
- Let’s French on this bench
It makes Darcy look legitimately worse than he does in the book, especially because they have a non-book based bit (after she’s shot a bow real good) where they’re both like, oh I misjudged you, let’s be friends (and, yes, that is genuinely expressed, and I’m paraphrasing, as “wow, I used to think you were really proud” / “yes, I used to think you were really prejudiced”) and then he overhears Mrs Bennet being vulgar (to be fair, she’s also more vulgar than she is in the book and is super explicitly, “I definitely deliberately made my own daughter ill to manipulate Bingley”) and immediately goes all like, no fuck off. Only to propose two scenes later. And, then, as if this Katy Perry hot ‘n’ cold shit isn’t bad enough, at the end he very, very directly need his aunt to ask a girl out for him. I mean, I’m not here for toxic masculinity but dude, are you fucking twelve?
The other thing I think is interesting about this adaptation, and I’ve saved it for last because it’s kind of about all adaptations, is that I think it softens the Bennets in ways that are different from but not necessarily worse than the ways I find other adaptations characterise their relationship. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Mrs Bennet is still shrill and vulgar, and “ooh my nerves”-ey and Mr Bennet is still long-suffering and inclined to tease her for his own amusement, but it feels a lot more consensual than it does either in the book or in other adaptations (with the possible exception for the 2005 film). Like there’s a bit where she’s all “do be serious, Mr Bennet” in a way that implies she can genuinely tell he’s being sarcastic rather than a way that implies she’s overreacting and can’t understand why he isn’t overreacting. And when Jane catches a cold, Mr Bennet makes a little joke about how they should send all the girls the Netherfield in search of husbands, but he does it in a way that suggests he genuinely understand who his daughters are and what they’re into, for example he mentions someone who likes reading for Mary and a dashing officer for Kitty. Which is more than you ever get from book!Mr Bennet, who mostly comes across like doesn’t give a single solitary fuck about his daughters(with the possible exception of Lizzie).
One of the things I find a little bit difficult about adaptions of and reactions to Pride and Prejudice in general is that they very often allow Mr Bennet to get away with being a really, really bad dad in ways that go unexamined. Especially compared to Mrs Bennet whose flaws as a mother—with her silliness and vulgarity—are constantly under a microscope. Like, I get Mrs Bennet is unattractive as a character because she’s annoying and not very well educated, but I sometimes think we lose sight of the context she’s operating in. Because of the status of Longbourn, Mr Bennet is fine. A huge part of the deal of Pride and Prejudice is that nothing is going to go badly for the Bennets until Mr Bennet is literally dead. So, in many ways, Mr Bennet’s detached and ironic attitude to the family’s predicament is a massive incarnation of male privilege. But from Mrs Bennet’s perspective she, and her five daughters, are completely fucked if anything happens to Mr Bennet and Mr Bennet just straight DGAF. If I was Mrs Bennet, I would act like Mrs Bennet and my nerves would be shot. Yes, she’s loud, yes she’s crass, yes she’s transparently manipulative and off-putting, but pretty much everything she says 100% completely correct.
And, actually, if you unravel the plot of the book, if she hadn’t cynically forced her daughter to get a cold, not only would Jane have had no opportunity to get to know Bingley better, but Lizzie would have had no opportunity to get to know Darcy, which means Lydia would be ruined, Jane would have to marry Mr Collins (and she would say yes, unlike Lizzie she’s nothing if not dutiful) and Lizzie, Kitty and Mary would be unmarriageable because Lydia would have ruined the family. On top of which, Mrs Bennet being publicly loud and fixated on wealth (as well you might be if you didn’t have any) doesn’t really hurt her daughters’ marriage prospects. In his first bad proposal Darcy explicitly says that while he’s not Mrs Bennet’s biggest fan, she alone wasn’t the reason he warned Bingley off Jane. He warned Bingley off Jane because he thought she wasn’t into him. And then allowed himself to propose to Elizabeth, annoying mother be damned.
tl;dr I sometimes get the sense that some Pride and Prejudice adaptations are under the impression that Mrs Bennet is simply a bad mother and Mr Bennet is a good father who happens to not get on well with his wife. And in a lot of ways the reverse is true. Mr Bennet has a tendency to come across as the classic cool dad and it’s hard not to respond positively to him, both in the text and on screen, because he’s genuinely funny. Although the fact that we’re so conditioned to see a man putting down his wife (and frequently his daughters—in this movie, when he calls them silly it’s clearly in play, but in the book and in a lot of adaptations it’s not) as evidence of what a great guy he is … well … that’s something we, as a culture, should probably examine.
I’m not quite sure how to do ratings for this movie because it’s the first adaption I’ve watched and I feel like I should establish a baseline. So on the assumption that the 1940s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is slightly below average due to its going completely off the rails at the end, I’m going to give it five thousand a year (out of, you may recall, a potential twelve thousand a year). BUT I’m also going to give it an extra thousand a year for including a hilariously clangy title drop. Obviously this won’t be a formal policy for all adaptations because it doesn’t really work for, say, Emma.
Pride and Prejduice (1940): six thousand a year. Quite marriageable, although it is terribly silly and all its servants will cheat it.