Three Pride and Prejudice Adaptations
by Rachel Kovaciny
I am here today to compare my three favorite filmed adaptations of Pride and Prejudice by the immortal Jane Austen, the ones released in 1940, 1995, and 2005. I love all three of them, so prepare for some joyful gushing!
I first saw the 1995 BBC adaptation when I was a college freshman in the late ’90s. A literature professor was appalled that I hadn’t seen it yet, so she loaned me her personal VHS copy for a whole weekend. Some friends and I commandeered a dorm lounge and watched it from start to finish. I liked it, but not enough to buy my own copy, especially since I was a poor college student.
After college, my husband and I lived near his family for a few years. His younger sisters loved the 1940 version, and they brought it over to show to me when they learned I had never seen it. Once again, I enjoyed the watch, but I didn’t rush off to find a copy of my own. Our library had it, so I knew I could get it from there any time I wanted to rewatch it.
A year or two later, I rented the 2005 adaptation from the video store (on DVD, it’s true, but it was still called a video store). I liked it quite a bit. Over the next few years, I rewatched the two earlier versions. And then I rented the 2005 version again.
Do you know what I discovered?
I like all three of them! In fact, I now own all three on DVD.
A few years later, when I got more into blogging, I discovered that some Jane Austen fans consider it absolute heresy to enjoy specific adaptations. In fact, opinions run hot and strong on this subject. Which has always confused me a bit and amused me a lot. Why should this be an either/or topic? If I can enjoy three different adaptations of this wonderful book, why do some people seem to resent the idea that any version but their own favorite even exists, much less could be enjoyed?
I’m probably inviting a lot of angry comments by stating that all three of these films have good points. So be it. I hope I’m also encouraging people to try out a movie or two they have been told is “bad” or “unacceptable” when I declare that it ain’t necessarily so. I like encouraging people.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to discuss the portrayals of the main characters and then touch on the aesthetic of each film. Ready?
Greer Garson plays Elizabeth as an intelligent, sweet-tempered, self-assured young woman. She dearly loves to laugh, as Jane Austen wrote her. She flirts archly with both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham, and she is highly amused by Mr. Collins. I think she’s the happiest Lizzy of the three.
Jennifer Ehle plays Elizabeth as a confident, cheerful, witty young woman. She has a self-contained air, and she definitely gives the impression that she is laughing at people people privately. As Jane Austen wrote, she can be an obstinate and headstrong girl, indeed. She strikes me as the most arch Lizzy.
Keira Knightley plays Elizabeth as straight-forward, spirited, and sharp-witted. She enjoys verbally sparring with those around her, especially anyone who can challenge her. Just as Jane Austen wrote, her courage rises whenever people try to intimidate her. I find her the most confident Lizzy.
Laurence Olivier plays a polished, aristocratic, but aloof Mr. Darcy. He does not enjoy small talk, he’s tired of being pursued by ambitious young ladies and their mamas, and he has little time for fools. I find him the most stand-offish Mr. Darcy.
Colin Firth plays Mr. Darcy as confident, often bored, and uncomfortable around strangers. He knows his own worth, but he’s not fond of attention, especially from those he doesn’t know well. I find him the most intimidating Mr. Darcy.
Matthew Macfadyen plays a socially awkward, shy, and kind Mr. Darcy. He would rather stay home with a few people he knows and trusts than go to a social gathering. I find him the most approachable Mr. Darcy.
Maureen O’Sullivan plays a beautiful, good-hearted, wistful Jane Bennet.
Susannah Harker plays a very sweet and kind Jane Bennet, but she’s not particularly beautiful, unlike Jane in the book.
Rosamund Pike is a beautiful, self-contained, hopeful Jane Bennet.
Bruce Lester plays a charming, sweet, open-hearted Mr. Bingley. He’s quite lovable.
Crispin Bonham-Carter plays a proper, sweet, open-hearted Mr. Bingley. He’s quite lovable.
Simon Woods plays an enthusiastic, sweet, open-hearted Mr. Bingley. He’s quite lovable.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet
Edmund Gwenn plays Mr. Bennet as mischievous, a little absent-minded, and overall kindly. Mary Boland flutters and fidgets and exclaims a great deal as Mrs. Bennet. She’s definitely flighty, but she means well. Most of the time.
Benjamin Whitrow plays Mr. Bennet as being often irritated by those around him, but nice to a select few. Alison Steadman plays Mrs. Bennet as quarrelsome, meddlesome, and demanding. She’s purposeful and can be a bit abrasive.
Donald Sutherland plays Mr. Bennet as sharp-tongued and weary, but almost secretly fond of his wife and daughters. Brenda Blethyn is a foolish but determined Mrs. Bennet. Her timing is always terrible and she’s a wretched judge of character, but she is a fierce advocate for her daughters.
Melville Cooper plays Mr. Collins as an oblivious dimwit with affectations of grandeur. He makes me laugh.
David Bamber plays Mr. Collins as an obsequious weirdo with no social skills. He creeps me out.
Tom Hollander plays Mr. Collins as socially awkward with an inflated sense of his own importance. I feel sorry for him.
Edward Ashley’s Mr. Wickham is a frivolous and opportunistic dandy. I don’t hate him, but I don’t like him, either.
Adrian Lukas’s Mr. Wickham is a creeper with a taste for teenage girls. I can’t stand him.
Rupert Friend is a suave charmer. He kind of frightens me with how likeable and yet despicable he is.
The 1940 Pride and Prejudice is a happy, buoyant love story. The filmmakers deliberately filled it with over-the-top costumes reminiscent of Gone with the Wind because that’s what the audience really wanted in a period drama at that time. They also gave it a light and upbeat vibe because times were hard in 1940, and people went to the movies to escape the troubles of a long Depression and a growing war in Europe. This film was made to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, to attract everyone from school children to housewives to downtrodden factory workers. While modern audiences might find the 1860s costumes gratingly inaccurate, the audience at the time wanted beautiful dresses and fancy hats, and that’s what they got.
The 1995 Pride and Prejudice is a serious and sumptuous bringing to life of a beloved book. A year earlier, BBC had had a huge success with their adaptation of Middlemarch, and they wanted to please literary audiences again with another lengthy, character-driven adaptation of a classic. They succeeded beyond all expectations and set off the whirl of Austen Mania that we are still caught up in almost thirty years later. Casting, writing, costumes, sets, and locations in this adaptation reflect the 1813 world in which the book was published. But it still has a fairy-tale-like quality that many find very appealing.
The 2005 Pride and Prejudice is a vibrant and nuanced film. Instead of being set in 1813, the filmmakers chose to set it in the 1790s, which is when Jane Austen wrote the first draft. This has caused many fans of the book to fuss that the costumes are inaccurate, not realizing that this movie is not meant to be set in the Regency era of 1811 to 1820, but slightly before it. This change lets the film have a distinctly different look for its costumes from the 1995 version. The film as a whole is drenched with color and light, and it does not shy away from or gloss over the realities of life in eighteenth-century England quite so much as the other two versions.
I love all three of them! All three bring out different aspects of the characters and the story line, helping me to see and understand Jane Austen’s book in new and different ways. I find all three of them to be valid and respectful interpretations of the story, each with different focuses and aims and purposes.
Thanks, Rachel, for this fun comparison!