I watched this series on a DVD that I had to import from the Netherlands and because I haven’t watched a DVD in literal years I couldn’t quite work out how to turn the subtitles off, which meant I wound up restarting the DVD and watching its mandatory intro reel about ten times. As a result, my memories of this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice are inextricably bound up with a series of tiny trailers for 1980s BBC productions that include in, I want to stress, this exact order: a lesbian costume drama, a serious documentary about Auschwitz, and an adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia. Honestly, by the end, it was kind of a headfuck, not least because you get a little audio clip from each one which means it goes seamlessly from a fairly explicit statement about deaths in the camps to “And how did you get into Narnia?”
I was confused for the first half of this adaption because they didn’t include the line “Netherfield Hall is let at last” which meant I had no idea where Mr Bingley was living. Or, indeed, that I was watched an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.
This one’s genuinely interesting, although before I go into detail about what makes it interesting I’m going to play true to form and go on a massive aside about something irrelevant. Every time I watch one of these adaptations, without fail I feel like the hair is really typical of the decade they’re in. And I spent far longer than I should have exploring theories for why this is the case. It might, honestly, just be confirmation bias. That is, it might just be that because I know that these series were made in the 1970s/80s/whatever that I attribute a certain 1970s/80s/whateverness to any visual marker I can find and hair is usually the most obvious. But then part of me wonders if it’s bias on the part of the stylists rather than, well, me. Because it’s also possible that what happens is that 1980s hair stylists attempting to re-create period hair styles just naturally filter them through a 1980s lens. Like, curls were definitely in during the Regency but that was more “classical inspired” than Siouxsie Sioux. The third theory because, obviously, I had several is that hair is unusual in that it’s part of the actor’s body but it’s a part of the actor’s body that the actor is likely to have themselves styled in a manner appropriate to the era in which they live. And I get that actors will go through a lot for a role but presumably you can’t just … unperm your hair?
In any case, tl;dr, just as the 1970s Persuasion had everyone rocking a touch of beehive, this has everyone looking just a shade more glam rock than perhaps Austen intended.
I’ll often open these … whatever these are by talking about the establishing shots that they use to signal “this is a costume drama.” Like the 1970s Sense and Sensibility that just kicked off by making some poor bastard point a camera at a lake for 5 minutes. Each episode of this series starts with a bespoke little cartoon thing drawn in a period style and loosely illustrating the events of the episode. They’re really cute and characterful. Although, y’know, SPOILERS.
There’s been a jump in production values since the 1970s – they have outdoor shots now that aren’t fuzzy and the costumes hardly ever look like they’re made of nylon. Every so often, when watching these series, I do find myself wondering when the Steadicam was invented because there’s still a staticness to some of the framing and every so often the camera will zoom in for a closeup and it’ll be kind of a big moment and the camera will wobble slightly.
In a lot of ways this feels like a bit of a lost adaptation. The 1995 version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle was so iconic that it’s sort of become “canon” ever since. And obviously this is partly because it’s the most recent really big adaptation but it also (and I’ll talk about this more when I get to it) caught the public imagination in ways that other adaptations never quite did. Like it was very much the Bridgerton of its day, being mostly famous for Darcy and Elizabeth eye-fucking each other over a pianoforte (plus the famous lake scene which has been echoed a million times since). Hell it managed to turn Colin Firth into a sex symbol and when you actually think about it he’s a lot more … the guy who winds up writing alone in France because his fiancée cheated on him with his brother than he is the ultra-brooding romance hero. Like he is definitely a man who would wear a fuzzy Christmas jumper.
Point being, the 1995 adaptation really doubled down on Pride and Prejudice as primarily a romance and that’s kind of what it’s been (and to an extent what Austen’s been) ever since. As I think I’ve mentioned before in this series, I find this … complicated. As somebody who writes within romance myself I think the mainstream tendency to shit all over it and its audience (while still happily making tons of money out of both) needs to die in a fire. And I think it’s important to recognise that there are genre romance writers writing genre romance within the romance genre who are producing books every bit as valuable and complex and full of Themes™ as you’d get in any other genre. On the other hand I also think retrojecting modern genre labels onto historical works is kind of pointless and I think the tendency of modern adaptations to treat Austen’s books as if they are the same as a modern romance novel can lead to other elements of the books being missed.
Because this is the least romancey adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I have ever seen. And I am at the same time totally here for it and ever so slightly disappointed.
The thing this adaptation does well, probably better than any other adaptation I’ve seen, is “the Bennet family”. Like it meaningfully distinguishes between Lydia and Kitty, that’s how much attention this one pays to the Bennet girls. There are multiple domestic scenes in which every single Bennet sister contributes, uniquely, in a way that characterises them and goes beyond “Kitty is the one who coughs, Mary is the one with the book”. It’s particularly noticeable after the last (genuinely lost) adaptation which seemed to have cut Mary as a character completely.
It’s also the adaptation that doubles down most strongly on the “Mr Bennet is a dick” reading. And I approve of this reading. The dynamic between Mr and Mrs Bennet in the 1980 adaptation is almost the polar opposite of the one they’d have fifteen years later, the one where he’s just great and she’s one step shy of pantomime dame. He’s consistently severe throughout and the framing and his delivery makes his humour land as genuinely cruel. There’s a scene they’ve added where all the Bennets are doing Bennet stuff in the evenings (one of the things I really enjoyed about this production is just how busy the Bennet sisters seem to be, they’re always doing something—writing, embroidering, practising on the pianoforte) and Kitty starts coughing (because it’s not Kitty unless she coughs) and Mr Bennet demands that Mary share some wisdom on the subject of coughing. Visibly flustered, she manages “one coughs when one must, does not one?” which Mr Bennet ruthlessly takes the piss out of. And where another adaptation might play this as gentle ribbing or the necessary puncturing of an overinflated ego (when you think about it, it’s a bit weird how much modern adaptations tend to present the younger Bennet girls as deserving or indeed needing to get negged by their own father) this just makes him come across as… kind of a prick?
And in a lot of ways I really admire this adaptation’s unwillingness to present men being dicks to women as cool. Aside time again—one of my least favourite bits about my nation’s tendency to unthinkingly hero-worship Winston Churchill is that anecdote about how a woman once said to him “Mr Churchill you are drunk” and he responded with “Ah, but the morning I will be sober, whereas you will still be ugly”. Like dudes, this is a drunk guy insulting a woman’s appearance because she objects to his behaviour. That’s not cool, and it’s not something that should make you a celebrated wit for the best part of a century.
Where “being a dick to women isn’t cool” slightly causes problems is that it does make Elizabeth/Darcy come across very differently from what you’d get in basically every other adaptation. This is a particularly cold and opaque version of Darcy. He’s played by David Rintoul who these days mostly does voice work although he did, bizarrely, also play Aerys Targaryen in one flashback in Game of Thrones (he’s “burn them all” guy). And honestly—and I really don’t mean this in a shady way—I can see why he mostly does voice work because he has a great voice and can do a lot with it. But his performance as Darcy is so reserved that, unlike other adaptations, it gives you no hints about his feelings at all.
And in some ways, I really like that. Because most adaptations have Darcy constantly doing some version of what I might tenuously call “torment face”, when Elizabeth finally meets him outside the context of Netherfield and sees that he is capable of being warm and generous when he isn’t in a specific social context that makes him be … the opposite of that, our reaction is “at last, Lizzie is seeing Darcy as he really is”. Here it’s more “who the fuck is this guy, why is he smiling, where did that come from”. And the thing is, that’s… kind of what Lizzie sees as well.
One of the things I mentioned about book-to-TV differences in my recent post about Bridgerton is that books can play the PoV game a lot more freely than visual media can. But on some level, this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is kind of a counterpoint. Because we do sort of see Darcy as Elizabeth sees him (even in scenes where she isn’t physically present). This comes across particularly strongly in the proposal scene. I’ve said “most adaptations” a lot and I’m going to say it again: most adaptations, in the proposal scene, bend over backwards to make you not hate Darcy even though, when you get right down to it, he’s being a complete shit here. Like even if what he’s saying is true, that just makes him one of those “telling it like it is” wankers who try to pass of rudeness as honesty.
Proposal tips for boys #3: don’t open by straight-up dissing her mom.
Indeed this whole adaptation seems far more interested in Lizzie’s psychological interiority than I’m used to from adaptations. Sometimes this leads to very … 1980s creative choices, like having a lot of voiceovers where Lizzie just sits around looking melancholy while her feelings are exposited in the background. She says “I am mortified” in voiceover at least three times and I kept half expecting her to break into “they don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper”. But, for all its heavy-handedness, this does lead to a more interesting interpretation of the character than I’m used to.
Something I keep flirting with in these posts and will probably come back to a couple of times is what I tend to think of as the “not like other girls” interpretation of Lizzie. One of the things I appreciated about the way Eloise was characterised in Bridgerton is that they mostly avoided the trap of having her advocate for her own rights by shitting on the rest of her sex. The rest of the show slightly undermines this by making it pretty clear that actually all the other women in that universe really are basically only interested in gowns and parties and marriages, but at least it was a contradiction rather than the whole thesis. Because there is an awkward tendency in historically-set fiction with a primary female lead to present said female lead as, well, “not like other girls” in a way that inadvertently frames historically restrictive gender roles as existing only because women in the era were too stupid to just realise they didn’t need husbands. It’s tangential (even more tangential than the Bridgerton example) but my most iconic example of this is actually the Halloween episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy gets all “oh I wish I could be an 18th century woman and wear pretty dresses” and then at the end Angel is all “women in that time were shit because they were all shallow and just cared about dresses.” Like fuck off, Liam.
Hell you even get the “women in this society suck except this one protagonist character” in actual fiction from the era. Dracula is full of people going on about how much better than other women Mina is because she … doesn’t a have bunch of traits that Victorian society demanded that women have, punished them for not having, and often assumed them to have whether they did or not? Abraham my dude, this is a problem you created.
Also I’ve just noticed that Bram Stoker named his cool vampire hunter guy after himself? Was Abraham Van Helsing his Totally Original Character Do Not Steal? Why have we not been taking the piss out of this for centuries?
Anyway, the thing is, Austen didn’t write like this. Because, for a start, she wasn’t a Victorian man or Joss Whedon. A lot of modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice take Mr Bennet’s—I repeat—straight-up negging his own daughters as a factual statement about what both they and regency women in general are like, and treat Lizzie as a rare and special exception.
The 1980 adaptation doesn’t. Because we spend so much time in Lizzie’s head we get a very strong sense that her preoccupations are, when you get right down to it, the same as her sisters’ and mother’s preoccupation: the very real need for herself and her sisters to marry well so they don’t, you know, fucking starve. Because we hear her thoughts we hear her being uncertain and self-recriminating and regretful, instead of just being one-note-spunky like she often comes across in other versions. Also, because the adaptation goes out of its way to characterise all of the Bennet girls as individuals with unique personalities and contexts, it doesn’t fall into the “Lydia = ALL WOMEN” trap that so many other adaptations do.
It is, in essence, a fully realised story about a fully realised family of fully realised people. And thinking about it, it’s weird that so many other adaptations aren’t that.
The thing is, though, I can see why they aren’t that, because making Lizzie into a realistic portrait of an early 19th-century woman (right down to creating a strong impression that a desire to be mistress of Pemberly is a non-trivial factor in her accepting Darcy, rather than an ironic throwaway) makes her less effective as a placeholder character in a love story.
Where I think that a lot of other adaptations over-emphasise the “romance-like” nature of Austen’s work, I do ultimately think that this adaptation under-emphasises it. And in a lot of ways that’s a necessary balance. We don’t need every single version of Pride and Prejudice to be heaving bosoms and wet shirts. But it does mean that when Lizzie and Darcy get together at the end my feeling was less “hooray, I’ve been rooting for them all this time” and more “oh good, Lizzie has secured a decent man with ten thousand a year.”
I could probably end there but I’ve suddenly realised that I’ve talked a lot about the fact that this adaptation does a really good job with its supporting cast but have, ironically, only talked about how that reflects on Lizzie and Darcy.
I’m not going to talk about every single supporting character because a lot of them are portrayed pretty much as they always are (we’re still in the era of “Mr Collins gets his own funny theme tune”). Jane, for example, is fine in this adaptation but she’s essentially the same as she is in other adaptations. Caroline Bingley and Charlotte Lucas similarly (we see more of Charlotte, even getting to see Mr Collins’s proposal, but she’s not that different from any other version).
This adaptation’s Mrs Bennet is fairly standard too but because the Bennets’ overall relationship is characterised differently, that has a knock-on effect. It’s clear in this production (and by clear, I mean Lizzie just straight-up says it in a voiceover) that Mrs B was basically Lydia when she was younger and Mr B was drawn in by her youth and vivacity and then just grew to resent her as they both got older. Which is fucking sad. Like really fucking sad. And also really feeds into the “Mr Bennet is a dick” theory.
I was weirdly impressed with Kitty in this adaptation because they, umm, they had the guts to cast somebody notably older and, well, less conventionally attractive than the person they cast as Lydia. Because when you think about it the implied dynamic of Kiddia is really fascinating and, again, a little bit tragic. Particularly at their age, two years is a huge age gap, and it really makes you wonder what Kitty was doing until Lydia got old enough to, well, go full Lydia. Because their relationship is very much an older-sister-younger-sister relationship except the ages are reversed and that actually implies some slightly—I’m going to say sad a lot but actually this is quite a melancholy book when you think about it—sad things about Kitty’s life. Because she must have spent her whole life wanting to be Lydia even before Lydia existed.
On the subject of Lydia, I like that this version feels more historical and less “teenage girls be like that” than you get in a lot of adaptations. I think one of the things that often gets lost in translation of Pride and Prejudice is that the way Lydia and Kitty behave codes as extremely expected and conventional to a modern audience because they’re almost the exact stereotype of the boy-crazy teenager. But at the time they’d actually have been quite atypical, because in any household where your dad isn’t an arsehole who hates his wife and gets off on insulting his kids and your mum isn’t having an actual nervous breakdown over the very real risk of you all being made destitute, they’d have been raised with very different values.
Then there’s Mary. And while nothing will ever quite displace Adorkable Mary Bennet from my heart, I did also really enjoy this portrayal, who I’ve dubbed “Can’t Read the Room Mary Bennet”. Although honestly an equally fitting moniker might be “Just Not a Nice Person Mary Bennet”. Because in some ways Mary, even more than Lydia and Kitty, is affected by the very specific coding that her primary character traits have in modern fiction. When you have a girl who is quiet and wears glasses and reads a lot in a modern story with strong romantic elements, you have a pretty good idea of what that person is like. For a start, she’s probably actually mega fit if she gets her hair done and takes her glasses off. But she’s also just kind of gentle and witty and, well, Not Like Other Girls. Even more than Lizzie, Mary has quintessentially placeholder protagonist traits because, well, a person who is reading a book is probably going to identify with the character who reads books.
The thing is, though, Mary isn’t like that at all. Mary is, when you get right down to it, a fucking terrible person. She doesn’t read a lot because she’s deep. She reads a lot because she’s genuinely unattractive by the standards of her day, and so has doubled down on “accomplishment” as a backup strategy, and so that she can feel superior to a society that looks down on her. She’s not a girl who reads for pleasure, she’s a girl who reads so she can own the libs with facts and logic. Like she’s the only Bennet who agrees with Mr Collins’ sentiment that the family would have been better off if Lydia had died. Lydia, let’s remember, is her actual fucking sister.
In a lot of ways, Mary Bennet is the worst and I kind of like that this adaptation lets her be the worst.
In general I think what’s interesting about this adaptation’s portrayal of the Bennet family is that it really highlights how much the Bennet sisters have been damaged by the fact that (a) they are totally fucked if they don’t get married (b) their mother has zero chill about this fact and (c) their father has far too much chill about this fact.
Jane plays the perfect regency lady so much that she convinces Bingley she’s indifferent to him, almost ruining her chances of a good match. Lizzie takes after her father so much that it takes her half the book to realise that her preconceptions might, in fact, not be the same as facts and that there’s more to life than being the smartest person in the room. Lydia and Kitty are desperate to attract a husband at all costs even to the point of gambling their reputations, and Mary knows she hasn’t got a hope of attracting a husband so doubles down on a kind of awful censorious piety.
These are genuinely damaged people and their damage is actually highly specific to their time and their environment.
I’ve been going on about this adaptation for nearly four thousand words now and the reason I’ve been able to do that is, well, it’s partly just that I’m long-winded but it’s also just that there’s at least four thousand words worth of stuff to talk about in it. Which makes the overall rating a bit difficult. There’s part of me thinks it should get a Full Darcy because it does so much well and so much that other adaptations don’t do.
But there’s also part of me that feels the fact that its Darcy and its Elizabeth having close to zero chemistry, for all that this seems to be a deliberate and totally valid creative choice, and one that is kind of central to its doing the things it is doing, is kind of a deal breaker for me.
I’m compromising on nine thousand a year. It’s good, but purely subjectively I did like the 1970s Persuasion better.
Next up: Sense and Sensibility 1980.