Happy 200th birthday, Pride and Prejudice!
As crazy as that might sound, it is the truth. Jane Austen’s wonderful romance novel was first published on January 28, 1813. Originally titled First Impressions, the novel was written by Austen in 1796-7, and was eventually (after numerous revisions by the author) finally published by Thomas Egerton of Whitehall.
200 years later, Pride and Prejudice still remains one of those classic romances that never seem to go out of fashion: it’s been adapted numerous times for cinema and television (including in languages other than English – Dutch, Hindi and Italian are some examples). It’s been twisted and given new shapes, set in milieus ranging from a typical Indian household to a college in the US. It’s spawned sequels, prequels, and more.
So, to celebrate the bicentennial of Pride and Prejudice, a review of the first adaptation that I ever watched. This also fits the theme of this blog, since it’s a pre-70s film. Whether or not it’s an adaptation I’d recommend for someone looking to watch Pride and Prejudice… well, we’ll come to that later.
The story begins in ‘Old England’ [yes, that’s what the title reads. Thank goodness they didn’t spell it Olde Englande]. In the country town of Meryton, the loud [raucously so] Mrs Bennet (Mary Boland) is at a shop with her two eldest daughters, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Elizabeth ‘Eliza’, or ‘Lizzie’ (Greer Garson), buying cloth.
In the midst of trying to decide between flowered damask and muslin, Mrs Bennet’s attention is diverted by the arrival of a chaise in the street outside. The chaise’s passengers consist of two handsome gentlemen and one lady, all obviously Quality. The shopkeeper, who appears to be as much a busybody as Mrs Bennet, goes off to find out who these people are, and returns with the news that one of the gentlemen is the very wealthy Mr Bingley (Bruce Lester), who has just leased Netherfield Park.
Mrs Bennet – whose ears have pricked up at the sound of Mr Bingley’s wealth – is further reassured when she discovers that the lady with Mr Bingley is his sister Caroline (Frieda Inescort); the other gentleman (Laurence Olivier) is Bingley’s friend, Darcy.
What fabulous news, says Mrs Bennet, already imagining two of her daughters getting married to these wealthy men.
So as to waste no time, therefore, she gathers up the rest of her offspring:
Mary (Marsha Hunt), who is bookish and seems rather half-witted, in the way she gapes and peers about myopically from behind her spectacles. [Obviously, those specs aren’t doing their job].
And Kitty (Heather Angel) and Lydia (Ann Rutherford), both giddy, silly teenagers with nothing on their minds except men in uniform (of whom Meryton has its fair share).
In the meantime, another friend and neighbour – Lady Lucas (Marjorie Wood), mother of Elizabeth’s dear friend Charlotte (Karen Morley) has also heard the news, and has decided that Bingley must be snagged for Charlotte before any of the Bennet girls can lay hold of him. What ensues is a silly and unnecessary bit of idiocy, as the Lucas and Bennet ladies race back to their respective homes in their coaches, egging the coachmen on to overtake the other coach. The Bennet coach wins…
…and Mrs Bennet and her gaggle of girls get home to Mr Bennet (Edmund Gwenn), to whom Mrs Bennet swiftly reveals all her plans. Her husband seems far from supportive, and Mrs Bennet is convinced that he has no fatherly feeling whatsoever for his daughters – when he surprises her by letting her know that he has already made the acquaintance of Bingley when Bingley leased Netherfield. Mr Bennet has even invited Bingley, along with Darcy and Caroline Bingley, to the ball at the Assembly Rooms.
At the ball, all the Bennet ladies are in fine fettle, and Bingley, seeing Jane, is immediately smitten by her. The attraction is mutual, and Mrs Bennet is quite vocal (while chatting with friends and neighbours) about what a fine couple these two will make. Unfortunately, her hopes of Mr Darcy marrying one of her other daughters are dashed: Darcy appears to be a very proud and haughty man who dances almost exclusively with Caroline Bingley, who is as aloof and cold as him.
Lizzie gets a rude shock during the course of the evening. She and Charlotte Lucas are sitting and chatting behind a broad pillar, when they overhear Bingley trying to persuade Darcy to dance – he recommends her, Elizabeth, when Darcy says that there is only one pretty girl in the room (meaning Jane), and that Bingley is monopolising her. Darcy’s reply is that while Elizabeth Bennet is tolerable, he has no inclination to pander to the natives.
This, unsurprisingly, really riles Lizzie. A short while later, Darcy comes along and asks her for a dance [we are given no reason for this sudden change of mind; perhaps Aldous Huxley – one of the writers of the script – suddenly realised Lizzie and Darcy had to get better acquainted at the Assembly ball?]. Lizzie is smilingly caustic in refusing him and going off, instead, with Mr Wickham (Edward Ashley), one of the officers Kitty and Lydia are so keen on.
In the process, Lizzie also discovers that Wickham and Darcy are already known to each other: they bow coldly when they meet, but there is no interaction between them beyond that.
When they’re alone, though, Wickham confides in Lizzie and tells her the reason for this animosity. Wickham had been left a hefty annuity by Darcy’s late father, who had loved Wickham as a son – but Darcy himself has blocked the annuity, leaving Wickham to abandon his dreams of joining the clergy and join the army instead.
Be as it may, the Bennets (especially Mrs Bennet) return from the ball well pleased. Jane has obviously made a conquest, enough for even the hoity-toity Caroline Bingley to have extended an invitation for Jane to come and dine at Netherfield. If Jane has been invited, Jane must go – and endeavour to come back engaged. To this effect, Mrs Bennet (having realised there’s a storm in the offing), sends Jane to Netherfield on horseback…
…with the result that Jane gets soaked, falls ill, and is forced to stay on at Netherfield. Where Bingley, peering over the screen while the doctor gives his long-winded and very technical diagnosis, is able to translate all that medical jargon into simple terms for Jane’s benefit. The simplicity is just as well; Jane’s simpering and idiotic grins seem to indicate that she’s simple-minded, anyway.
Lizzie, worried about Jane, arrives the next morning to enquire after her sister’s health. Caroline Bingley is shocked at Lizzie’s unladylike [read ‘muddy’] demeanour, but the gentlemen – both Bingley and Darcy – are gracious, and impressed at Lizzie’s obvious devotion to Jane. This devotion means that Lizzie ends up spending a few days at Netherfield, looking after Jane, and getting to know Darcy (who improves on further acquaintance, and – to the insightful – looks rather smitten by Lizzie).
Lizzie, however, does not realise this. And Darcy does not speak up.
When the two girls – Jane now well – finally return to their home, it is to find that the Bennets have a guest. This is their pompous cousin, Mr Collins (Melville Cooper), librarian to Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver), whom he seems to regard as a pattern card of gentility and condescension.
It is Lady de Bourgh who has egged Mr Collins on to find himself a good, sensible bride, and Mr Collins – aware that he is the heir to Mr Bennet’s estates, which are entailed on him – has decided to do the generous deed of offering for one of the Bennet girls. Mrs Bennet manages to let Mr Collins know that Jane is nearly engaged, but Lizzie is not, so Mr Collins gets his hopes up.
Soon after, Bingley hosts a garden party at Netherfield, and the entire Bennet clan is invited. Mr Collins tries to pursue Lizzie – and she is saved only with the help of Darcy, who sends Mr Collins off in another direction.
This gives Lizzie and Mr Darcy the opportunity to chat a little while he tries to teach her archery (only to realise that she is a better archer than him). Lizzie also makes an oblique reference to Darcy’s ill-treatment of Wickham vis-à-vis the annuity, but Darcy doesn’t defend himself.
Things seem to be getting along better and better. Darcy asks Lizzie to let bygones by bygones; shall they be friends? Lizzie is happy to accept [she seems to have conveniently forgotten poor Wickham’s tale of woe]. Only, just at that moment, the pair of them pass by an open window and overhear Mrs Bennet loudly proclaiming to her friends that once Jane marries Bingley, it’ll make it so much easier for the other girls to find rich husbands.
And – poof! – shortly after, the Bennet household receives a terrible shock in the form of a letter from Caroline Bingley. Bingley and she (and Darcy, presumably) have left Netherfield, never to return.
Equally shocking but far less depressing [in fact, a downright relief for Lizzie] is the news that Mr Collins, whose proposal she has turned down in the meantime, has gone and proposed to Charlotte Lucas – and has been accepted.
With Charlotte and Lizzie being such dear friends, it’s hardly surprising that Lizzie should be pressed to visit the Collinses at their home – and that she be then invited to meet the haughty and rather rude Lady Catherine de Bourgh as well. Here, in Lady de Bourgh’s grand mansion, Lizzie meets her nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam (a very vacuous-looking man in a kilt), and another nephew, this time one Lizzie knows all too well: Mr Darcy. He is considerate and friendly, and Lizzie seems happy enough despite all of Lady de Bourgh’s efforts to put her down.
It doesn’t really come as much of a surprise to us viewers, then, that Darcy arrives at the Collinses’ home a couple of days later, asking to meet Lizzie in private – and proposes to her. He tells her how much he loves her despite their difference in rank and wealth, despite her vulgar relations, despite everything – and Lizzie, of course, flares up and refuses him outright. The fact that she has just learnt (from Colonel Fitzwilliam) that Darcy had been instrumental in breaking off Bingley’s attachment to Jane has got Lizzie even more incensed.
Which, of course, if you know the story, is really only about mid-way. There’s lots yet to come, with a very eventful storyline, some very irritating swooning and screeching by Mrs Bennet, and one of the most horrendous manglings of a perfectly good book that I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across.
What I liked about this film:
I was tempted to leave this out, really, because there was very little I could find to like about this film. But yes, Laurence Olivier does look very good as Darcy.
Greer Garson is lovely in some scenes, but the effect is ruined by totally unsuitable costumes (which, by the way, were reused from Gone With the Wind) and gawd-help-us hair accessories. And, if I am to be very honest, Garson is really rather too old to be playing Elizabeth Bennet.
What I didn’t like, and some comparisons:
In most reviews where I compare a film to another adaptation or to a book from which it was adapted, these are two separate sections. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, I realised that what I hated about this film basically centred around the fact that it messed around needlessly with the source. Austen’s book is wonderfully entertaining: there’s romance by the ton, there’s humour, conflict, and lots of stuff happening. What more could one ask?
Certainly not buffoonery, which is how the script writers (Aldous Huxley, Jane Murfin) and the director (Robert Z Leonard) seem to have interpreted Austen’s humour. The book’s humour lies not just in Jane Austen’s witty narration, but in the delightfully dry humour of some of its characters – especially Mr Bennet and Lizzie.
In the film, while some of the wit has been retained in the original dialogues (most notably Mr Bennet’s and Lizzie’s), there is what seems like an attempt to make this a screwball comedy, which resorts to sheer idiocy at times: the race between the Lucases’ and the Bennets’ coaches back from Meryton; the time Lady Catherine de Bourgh sits down on a music box at the Bennets’; and Jane’s expressions when in love and ill at Netherfield. All of it is really rather unfunny, and excruciatingly so when compared to Austen’s fine wit in the original.
The second major grouse I have with the film is the way Darcy’s character is treated. In the book, Darcy is never the effusive, hail-fellow-well-met type. He is always proud, mostly arrogant, and only unbends quite far into the book – and then, too, his still-dignified charm is directed mostly towards Lizzie and the Gardiners.
In the film, on the other hand, while Darcy has his nose in the air during the first few shots at the Assembly Ball, he (inexplicably) changes tack and begins to be utterly charming to Lizzie soon after. His subsequent behaviour towards her is just too sweet, too obviously besotted, to make him recogisable as Austen’s Darcy.
The last major complaint I have is the distortion of the ending. Why, why, why?! If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t seen it, but love the book, then the end of the film comprises enough reason in itself to avoid it like the plague.
There are superficial things that I hold against this adaptation too. For example, the dresses, which are all wrong for Regency England. And Mary Boland’s Mrs Bennet (a character who is irritating, of course, but in Boland’s case, also comes saddled with a very odd accent – Boland was American, and nobody seems to have made much effort to help her manage a Brit accent. Any sort of Brit accent).
So, all in all: a bad adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I can understand why certain characters (Bingley’s other sister and brother-in-law, the Gardiners, Georgiana Darcy, and Colonel and Mrs Forster among them) could be left out, because of the paucity of time. I can understand that, for the same reason, some events would be telescoped or simply omitted. The problem with this adaptation is that it changes the essence of the book, making this story a farcical, silly one that leaves both wit and romance by the wayside.
Of the many adaptations I’ve seen, the 1940 one is one of the worst. My favourite is the 1995 BBC version, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; the 2005 version (with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen) isn’t bad, either. The 1980 TV series (Elizabeth Garvie, David Rintoul) is a great adaptation, though I’d have preferred another actor as Darcy. Bride and Prejudice, I will admit, I am probably prejudiced against – because Aishwarya Rai isn’t a favourite of mine, and the film itself is too loud for my liking. And Trishna, the old Doordarshan TV series (from the 80s?) I don’t remember much about, except that I liked it.