The new Pride & Prejudice may not surpass the 1995 Ang Lee-Emma Thompson production of Sense and Sensibility, but it has already established itself as one of the most watched big-screen adaptations of a Jane Austen novel in the annals of cinema. This has "Janeites" gnashing their teeth and tearing out their hair; Austen blogs carry messages of despair from around the world. To their horror and disbelief, discerning critics have praised this vulgarity as an "enchanting," "sumptuous," and even "perfect" adaptation.
The Janeites (their own chosen name) are an interesting psychosocial phenomenon. They are a faithful congregation made up mostly of intelligent, well-read women who have an abiding love for the Austen oeuvre and its author. Many Janeites formed their attachment during adolescence.
Austen, who never married, writes about the trials and tribulations of young ladies who, early in the 19th century, had only one career: marriage. No writer has made better use of the English language to explore the genteel but perilous adventure of finding a husband without losing one's self-respect.
That Janeites do not outgrow their attachment to these stories is, on the one hand, a tribute to Austen's literary genius. On the other hand, there is an intriguing psychodynamic dimension. If it is possible, as I think it is, for the narrator of novels written 200 years ago to become a young person's ego-ideal, then I would suggest that this is the psychodynamic pathway to a lifelong attachment to Austen.
Each of her heroines is interesting in her own right, and Austen's plots are engaging, but more captivating is her narrator, who knows best, understands all, and confides her judgments to her readers. Austen's narrative voice is the wise mentor—yes, the ego-ideal who can be admired without envy or ambivalence, and who has the sense and sensibility that any intelligent young woman would want to emulate. The wisdom of Austen's narrator is not of the kind that can be distilled into nostrums; her genius is in the precise details of her perfectly chosen words. Adolescents often give up their early ego-ideals as they begin to sense their imperfections, their hypocrisy, and their profane humanity. But Austen remains perfect and chaste; her narrator is mistress of all she surveys and her self-respect is never in doubt. Unfortunately, a first principle of contemporary filmmaking is "show, don't tell"; that means leaving out what is quintessential in Austen—the narrative voice.
Let us concede at the outset, therefore, that the Janeites are entirely correct: they have every reason to fear that this bowdlerization of Pride and Prejudice will corrupt a whole generation who might otherwise have found their way to the Austen temple. One might then conclude that the discerning film critics, including some of the most estimable, either have not read Jane Austen or are using "adaptation" in the loosest possible sense. But it is far more likely that they have simply been bewitched by this Pride & Prejudice's magical charm. Keira Knightley lights up the screen, and if the critics are wrong about the quality of the adaptation, they are not wrong about the warm emotional glow they felt in the theater. Hardened critics who have sat through thousands of movies were almost unanimous in finding Pride & Prejudice heartwarming.
At the end of the film, Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet tells Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) that she is "incandescently happy." One film critic quoted that phrase to describe what he and the audience felt. That a film can create such happiness in an adult audience is an amazing achievement. At the same time, it must be said that the now-famous last scene in which Elizabeth and Darcy canoodle in the moonlight is nowhere in the Jane Austen work. Indeed, it is not even in the British version of the film; it was added specifically for Americans who, the director has said, need more sugar in their champagne.
Although it is based on the novel, Pride & Prejudice ("the ampersand is intentional") is not a literary film. It is about images, not words, and owes little to Jane Austen's genius. The director, Joe Wright, is quite candid about the fact that he is not a literary man. Wright is 33 years old and he is dyslexic. He dropped out of school in England before taking his O levels: the only thing he learned in school, he says, was "to duck." But he grew up playing in the puppet theater that his parents ran in Islington, in the north of London, and he spent time in film school learning his craft. He admits that he had never read any of Austen's novels before Working Title Films, the highly successful British production company, sent him Deborah Moggach's screenplay.
Joe Wright thought from the start that he would be the wrong person to direct an Austen film. His directorial signature was gritty realism, injected even into his 2-part television miniseries Charles II: The Power & the Passion. The first episode in that docudrama begins with Charles II hidden under the executioner's platform, making eye contact with his father as he is beheaded. The episode goes on, to quote an online review of the DVD, to show us the Countess of Castlemaine "go down on His Highness, have sex with his bastard son, and pimp for the King." This is life below the waist, not the sort of thing one finds in Austen's novels. It earned Wright a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award that apparently convinced Working Title to take a chance on him.
This is a Janeite's worst nightmare: a man who is not a reader, knows none of Austen's work or influences, and is into sex and grit is selected to direct a film based on one of her most beloved novels. And there was another huge stumbling block: every young woman who reads Pride and Prejudice—Janeite or not—imagines herself as the heroine, Elizabeth. The second of five daughters, Elizabeth is the one who achieves a special relationship with her father. She is his confidante and intellectual companion, whereas her mother is something of a ninny. Elizabeth, to use the Freudian catachresis, has won the Oedipal struggle. How could Joe Wright be trusted with the responsibility of actualizing this fantasy, and what actress would satisfy all the different readers who imagined themselves as Elizabeth?
Wright makes no bones about the fact that he is no Janeite, that he ignored the "temple" of learning and worship that has risen up around Austen, and that he instead focused on this one novel, working with Moggach to project the characters, scenes, and language through the prism of his own directorial imagination. Wright made a point of not viewing any of the other adaptations of Pride and Prejudice with one exception: he watched the last Hollywood featurefilm version, which was made in 1940. Bosley Crowther, then the New York Times critic, enthusiastically recommended "this exquisite comedy about the elegant young gentleman who was proud [the 33-year-old Laurence Olivier] and the beautiful young lady who was prejudiced [the 36-year-old Greer Garson]. Both are as real as any two young people you know today."
Wright says bollocks to the realism of the 1940 film. "I just don't believe that those people are virgins," he says. His own film would be a response to this artificial comedy of manners with a buxom matron as Elizabeth and a preening dandy as Darcy. "The most important thing about making Pride & Prejudice," he said, "is that you cast actors who are the right ages." To his mind, Austen's story did not make sense unless it was believable that Elizabeth and Darcy were "experiencing these emotions for the first time." He notes that Lydia, Elizabeth's wild sister, is only 15 when she runs off with the villainous Wickham. And he reminds us that Jane Austen was herself only 21 when she wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice. As in all of Austen's novels, the central concern for young women is finding the right husband. The Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice has 5 daughters and the fate of the entire family depends on how well they marry.
Wright made up his mind that he would select his own cast and he wanted a 20-year-old actress to play Elizabeth. When he met Keira Knightley, she was not at all what he had expected. What he found was a gangly teenager in blue jeans, all knees and elbows—a fiercely independent tomboy. On the spot he decided he wanted her in his film as she was in real life. That casting decision was the cornerstone of his contribution as director. Her transition from rebellious tomboy to beautiful woman was the red thread he wove into Austen's text; to Janeites it was a red flag.
The charm and mood of this Pride & Prejudice is created by the rollicking energy of the 5 young Bennet sisters. Instead of staid and polite young women, he gives us screeching teenagers who put on manners only for company. He takes the story out of the parlors and into the countryside. As he worked with Moggach, he began to think of Austen not as a romantic but as England's first literary realist. In this he is at odds with those who criticize Austen for leaving out of her novels the great events of her time—the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Wright is also at odds with those who are disappointed that Austen and her heroines show no sign of appreciating or opposing the inherent injustices of the British class system.
As Wright has imagined Pride and Prejudice, the French Revolution and the injustice of the class system are not left out; they are a part of the social reality that Austen is describing. Wright's assumption is that the royal heads rolling in the French Revolution had sent a shock wave through the British aristocracy and made them aware of the need to establish better relationships with the under classes. This is his back story for Darcy and Bingley's trip to the Hertfordshire countryside and to the Meryton Assembly to mix with lesser gentry, such as Mr and Mrs Bennet and their 5 daughters.
The assembly dance, under Wright's direction, is a raucous and sweaty hoedown for ordinary folks, not a fancy ball of minuets for aristocrats. When Darcy and Bingley arrive, it is like a visit from royalty—the music, the dancing, and the fun stop; the crowd parts to let them make their way to the place of honor. Wright's back story lends more nuance and believability to Darcy's initial snobbery and makes Elizabeth's behavior seem cheekier. Darcy may think it politically necessary to mingle with these people, but he certainly doesn't want to become personally involved with them. His manner offends Elizabeth.
In keeping with his take on Austen's social reality, Wright visually depicts the social and economic distance between the Bennets, with their 5 daughters crowded into one messy country home (Elizabeth shares a bed with her oldest sister, Jane), and Darcy and his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourg, with their splendid isolation and perfectly ordered palatial estates. The Bennets are surrounded by chickens, ducks, geese, and larger farm animals, including a pig with huge testicles that waddles gratuitously in front of the camera. This, Wright insists, is the reality of the times, but those conspicuous huge testicles can easily be read as Wright's jab at Austen's chaste literary imagination, and the Janeites were certainly offended.
Wright's Elizabeth is not thumbing her nose at the social order, but she is a fiery and independent young lady who refuses to be condescended to by small-minded aristocrats whose class pride is only vanity. Even when she bows politely, we see her resistance. The film opens on a view of a field in fog, and as the sun shines through we see Elizabeth finishing the book she had been reading on her walk. She may have gotten her shoes and the hem of her dress muddy, but she is not the kind of young lady who worries about that sort of thing. Knightley is almost painfully thin, and Wright puts her in simple worn dresses that do nothing to enhance her figure—this is no buxom coquette. She is animated by intelligence, a ready wit, and adolescent fire and vulnerability that come through in her face.
Wright and Moggach understood that they were leaving out most of the plot twists that allowed Austen to bring to life the 16 major characters of her novel. (For example, the sinister Wickham—who is critical to our understanding of Elizabeth's character, Lydia's wild behavior, and the near disgrace of the Bennet family—is reduced to 2 brief appearances.) This meant they were sacrificing much of the essence of Austen's genius. Indeed, it is impossible to find any complete paragraph of Austen's perfect language in the script. Instead, Wright gives us close-ups, mostly of Elizabeth's face. Under the relentless gaze of Wright's camera she comes to outshine Jane, the beauty of the 5 sisters.
The list of Wright's offenses against Austen's text will be faithfully detailed by Janeites. In addition to sins of omission there are radical distortions. Mr Collins, an odious self-important person in the novel, becomes a figure of farce in the film. Brenda Blethyn, who plays the nerve-ridden Mrs Bennet, is allowed to go over the top and become Mrs Malaprop. As for Wright's other critical casting choices, he wanted Dame Judi Dench to play a bitchy aristocrat, and she does it to perfection. He chose Donald Sutherland to play Mr Bennet because, he says, he thought that Sutherland's masculinity would not be overshadowed by his wife and 5 daughters. Perhaps, but it is difficult to believe that he is not there for the same reason as that pig.
Jane Austen could have been describing Pride and Prejudice when she wrote in Northanger Abbey that a novel conveys "the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineations of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor . . . in the best chosen language." Little of that can be found in this film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. What Wright has given us instead is life in all its joyful vigor, a young man and woman whose pride and prejudice obscure from them the love they felt at first sight. Yes, this is a Cinderella story, but one that leaves the audience with the warm feeling that true love is possible. Austen certainly believed in true love; in every novel she makes that undeniably clear. For us, having traveled such a great cultural distance from her, it is a great joy to feel, if only for a few moments, that Austen was correct. Joe Wright has made a delicious movie; it is not Pride and Prejudice, but relax and enjoy it anyway.
Dr Stone is Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry in the faculty of law and the faculty of medicine at Harvard University. He currently teaches a course called Law, Psychology, and Morality: An Exploration Through Film. His collection of film reviews, Reel Insights, is soon to be published.