Book v/s Show v/s Movie: A Complex Unravelling of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice

·5-min read

For those who sit outside the sprawling Jane Austen fandom and look in, they likely see us all as basically the same entity. We all have an unfathomable connection with 18th-century romance novels set among English nobility, despite being hopelessly single and living with three roommates in 2021. We are a group of women so powerful in our passions that we forced Shonda Rhimes to go from Scandal to scandalous, creating the steamy Regency romance Bridgerton just for us.

Clearly, Austenians will inherit the earth, regardless of these gross misconceptions about our varied and widespread tribe. In fact, Austen readers come in all ages, genders, and stripes. There are devotees in former colonies such as Pakistan’s Jane Austen Society, and Indians like me who have acquired a taste for Austen from parents and grandparents. There are the new joinees who find their way to the books from period movies and, yes, Bridgerton. There are the history buffs who look to Austen as a window into the social mores of the time, and the romantics who just want a happy ending. There are even those whose favourite is Northanger Abbey.

Clearly, Austenians will inherit the earth, regardless of these gross misconceptions about our varied and widespread tribe.

Rare is the popular classic that can boast of having something for everyone. Perhaps this is why it needs to be said that the enduring relevance of Austen is not the same as Mills & Boon – a valid but essentially different preference. And yet, Austen’s place in pop culture is undeniable; that’s why Clueless (1995) is both a seminal teen movie and an excellent adaptation of Emma. When it comes to Austen, the book is not necessarily better than the film; the Pride and Prejudice fandom in particular can be divided along a single contentious issue: Whether the 2005 film or the 1995 BBC miniseries is the One True Adaptation of Austen's most beloved novel.

To my mind, 1995 was a golden year for page-to-screen retellings of Austen. The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice was a six-episode masterpiece of lyrical English countryside, fabulous costumes, and long, pregnant silences between characters. Its aesthetic perfection was bolstered by actors, starring Jennifer Ehle as smart, passionate Lizzie Bennett, and Colin Firth as the upright and forbidding Mr Darcy, right up until he emerges soaking wet from Pemberley Pond in a see-through shirt.

And yet, Austen’s place in pop culture is undeniable; that’s why Clueless (1995) is both a seminal teen movie and an excellent adaptation of Emma.

Convincing arguments have been made that Colin Firth, with his severe charms, is the superior Mr Darcy compared to the melting-eyed Matthew Macfadyen of the Pride and Prejudice film, released a decade later. It’s unfortunate as this newer version, with less runtime, focuses squarely on the parallel romantic lives of Lizzie and her beloved elder sister Jane, cutting out much of the unhurried yet lively colour of the six-hour miniseries.

Then there is the jarring presence of the film's retrospectively too-famous cast. Rosamund Pike is no longer the sweet, shy Jane, but a stone-cold thriller vixen, best known for her roles in Gone Girl (2014) and I Care A Lot (2020). Keira Knightley is overfamiliar in this English rose avatar, bringing to mind everything from Atonement (2007) to her earlier turns in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise since 2003. Joanna and President Snow from The Hunger Games (2012) both make an appearance, here seen as Jena Malone’s Lydia and Donald Sutherland’s Mr Bennett respectively. While it might be an unfair judgment on the film, the cast’s later success in more iconic roles makes it hard to revisit time and again, robbing it of comforting nostalgia value.

While it might be an unfair judgment on the film, the cast’s later success in more iconic roles makes it hard to revisit time and again, robbing it of comforting nostalgia value.

Still, this is not the only, or even the greatest argument in favour of the BBC miniseries. You see, all Austen fans are Pride and Prejudice fans, but not all Pride and Prejudice fans are Austen fans. As a member of the first group, I can’t help but think that this philosophical disconnect is at the root of this schism. Is this a form of literary snobbery - an equally obnoxious variant of the DC nerd who tells you to watch the Snyder Cut before commenting on the wanton stupidity of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice? Proponents of the movie might say so. The truth, however, is far more straightforward: The 2005 Pride and Prejudice film’s cardinal sin is that it’s just not funny.

The worst fallacy of the Austen reader is that of a hopeless fantasist, fallen prey to soppy sentimentalism from a bygone age. Yet, for all the unabashed affection for cottagecore (or manorcore), afternoon teas, and waltzing, Austen’s novels are, above all, a comedy tour de force. Full of wit and searing observations, Pride and Prejudice, far from being a stuffy old-time read, is laugh-out-loud hilarious. In the miniseries, the insufferable Mr Collins is played to cringing perfection by David Bamber, while Lucy Briens, in her turn as the proselytising Mary, is self-serious to the point of parody.

You see, all Austen fans are Pride and Prejudice fans, but not all Pride and Prejudice fans are Austen fans.

The real star of the show is not Mr Darcy, but the shrieking, fainting Mrs Bennet — perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown and played by a flawless Alison Steadman, who was rightly offered the role without an audition. After all, Mrs Bennet kicks off the entire conflict of Pride and Prejudice with her mercenary glee when wealthy Mr Darcy moves into their neighbourhood. Benjamin Whitrow, too, as her beleaguered husband delivers the same nonchalant sarcasm as the Mr Bennet of the book. Austen’s wicked sense of fun is all but absent from the film version, and her jokes are sorely missed.

It’s a fatal mistake that Clueless didn’t make. Nor did modern adaptations like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube, or even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For me, a lover of Austen’s brisk social satire, the Pride and Prejudice movie might as well be Mills & Boon.

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