It’s a mystery to me why there are not more movie versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s perfectly suited for the big screen. It has superb characters. A dramatic plot. Extraordinary dialogue you can lift right from the page. And a happy ending.
Nevertheless, there have been only two film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice during the same time period in which Hamlet has made it to the big screen five times. It makes you wonder if it is a conspiracy, or obtuseness, that causes producers to bet their money on the sulky Danish prince instead of the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet.
At least when Jane Austen’s great novel has made it to the screen, big or small, the results have been worth watching. Here are my picks for the best Pride and Prejudice movies, in order of personal preference:
1. Pride and Prejudice (2005) starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden. The celebrated 1995 A&E mini series features better performances from its two lead actors, but I think this movie directed by Joe Wright is the more satisfying adaptation overall.
One of its strengths is the fresh perspective Keira Knightley brings to the role of Elizabeth Bennet. Her Lizzy is a teenager, not a woman. She is less polished and more vulnerable than other Elizabeth Bennets, while retaining the intelligence and self-possession that make Austen’s most famous character so appealing.
Another strength of the 2005 film is its refusal to deal in caricature. Austen often diminishes the humanity of her secondary characters in the pursuit of comic effects, a tendency the screen can amplify. Not so here. Donald Sutherland locates a dark vein inside Mr. Bennet’s aloof benevolence, while Brenda Blethyn brings a gratifying sympathy and balance to her Mrs. Bennet.
Wright neatly compresses the plot and many of the liberties he takes with the book work quite well. There are some clunkers, however. The second proposal scene is almost entirely replaced with new dialogue, and manages to feel both overheated and undercooked. Austen purists may also find the cooing, post-coital coda a bit hard to take.
As for the acting, Knightley and Macfayden performances are quite good – and more impressively – survive two moments of extreme danger. During both the Netherfield ball and the rejected marriage proposal scenes, Knightley and Macfayden come close to overplaying their parts and throwing the movie off a cliff. That they stumble along the edge, but don’t fall, somehow makes the film more affecting to me.
2. Pride and Prejudice (1995) starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. This television series justly deserves its reputation as the definitive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice based on the strength of its two lead actors. In particular, it is a pleasure to watch Ehle inhabit every corner of Elizabeth Bennet’s character over the six hours of the mini series.
But this length also has disadvantages. The pacing feels dutiful and the camera tends to pick a spot and sit there. This may be true to the book, but books and movies are different mediums, and must play to their different strengths. Movies need motion to be effective.
A more serious issue is the “Mrs. Bennet problem”. She is such a shrill fool in this adaptation that she can make the scenes in which she appears nearly impossible to watch. And she’s not the only one-note character in the series. Mr. Bennet, Caroline Bingley, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine all add up to less than the sums of their very few parts. That fully realized human characters are presented side by side with (sometimes grotesque) cartoons is jarringly dissonant at best. At worst, it comes close to a moral failing.
The film-makers have used almost nothing from the first half of the book, and pretty thoroughly eviscerated the second half. Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy is charming and solicitous, with few marks of the pride which is such a driving force in Austen’s work. Mr. Collins is a librarian. Lady Catherine conspires with Darcy to promote his engagement. In the end, all five Bennet girls have husbands, although Mrs. Bennet seems to have kept Kitty and Mary’s men stuffed in a closet until the last twenty seconds of the film, then yanked them out to make sure everything’s tied up neatly.
And yet the spirit of the two main characters is somehow intact. Greer Garson gives a wonderful performance as Elizabeth Bennet and Olivier is appealing in his role. And much of the re-writing is very good (Aldous Huxley worked on the screenplay). It’s just not as good as the material it replaces.