Jane Austen month kicks off here at Lost In Drama and it’s all about the adaptations of her treasured novels. We’re beginning with the most beloved of her novels, Pride and Prejudice, and focusing on its most recent direct adaptation – director Joe Wright’s 2005 film…
If you were to ask a rough selection of die-hard Austen fans, they’d doubtless name the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as the best adaptation of the author’s most popular work, featuring the inimitable Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. It’s certainly true to the book, rigid in its adherence to historical realism aside from the occasional flourishes (yes, that lake scene).
However, Austen’s work deserved something more than small 90s television screens and annual Christmas showings. What director Joe Wright’s 2005 version gave the novel was the cinematic treatment, sacrificing some intricacies of the book for stunning landscape and accelerated drama. So lets break it down…
As an adaptation, this film does a careful job. The screenplay was by Deborah Moggach, a novelist in her own right, with one of those novels going on to became The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in cinemas. It’s a rich screenplay that remembers to keep in the best lines, even if they’re not attributed to quite the same person as in the novel.
The film flows quickly in around 120 minutes and changes some characters in subtle, but important, ways from the book. Georgiana Darcy isn’t shy in this version, but bold and enthusiastic. She brings out a smile in her brother and reconnects Lizzie and Darcy when they meet again in Pemberley. It’s a smart choice, since the film removes the large company of people that was present in the novel at that point. A shy Georgiana on her own wouldn’t have worked without those around her to buffer her quietness.
One particularly striking choice is the decision to make Mr Collins bumbling, as opposed to the creepy and almost threatening character in the novels. After all, novel Collins is a scary prospect, and one that could ruin Lizzie’s life forever. Every adaptation approaches him differently, with some adaptations emphasising his sinister nature whilst others playing him for sheer comedic value.
Tom Hollander plays Collins in this one and he does something much more nuanced than those two caricatures- instead adding an oblivious vulnerability to the character that recognises the threat he poses whilst humanising him and bringing a few chuckles. It’s the biggest change from the novel but it’s one that doesn’t harm the adaptation in any way.
Ah, Lizzie Bennet. Every bookish girl who has felt like an outsider has reached for that character as something to strive for, someone who prides herself on her self-taught knowledge and yet learns to remain open-minded. She’s not perfect and through the novel she makes mistakes, but she stays kind, whip smart and committed to her family.
Casting Keira Knightley for this role was therefore something of a controversial choice. By 2005, Knightley was already a household name for her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and still is a marmite actor for many people. Undoubtedly beautiful (some would argue too beautiful for Lizzie), she’s been criticised by some for over-acting at times.
When it comes to Knightley in Pride and Prejudice however, it’s hard to find fault. She is ruthlessly smart and ready with an open smile but often vulnerable, the fears and frustrations with her family visibly causing pain. Knightley gives her all to this role and delivers subtle lines gently.
A particular highlight is the final conversation with Charlotte Lucas before Charlotte gets married to Collins. Not only is it beautifully shot (we’ll get to that) but in one scene Knightley transforms Lizzie from joyous to presumptively dismissive and then utterly desolate.
Courtesy of the 1995 BBC adaptation, the Bridget Jones’ Diary films and the wet shirt, Colin Firth is the classic Darcy, immortalised with the book character for all of time. However, Matthew Macfadyen’s portrayal of Fitzwilliam Darcy in this version is fantastic, quite different in a host of ways but in no way less effective.
Macfadyen was a relative unknown on international screens when he was cast in the film, chosen in part for his counter-balance in star power against Knightley. His Darcy is different from the novel, even more repressed if that’s possible but still brimming with frustrated passion. There’s even some wit in there and when we meet him and see more of a human side later at Pemberley, his lightness doesn’t feel far-fetched but rather just a reflection of his comfortable surroundings.
As many fans of this adaptation will also attest, this Darcy is very romantic. Despite his imposing height (Macfadyen is 6’3) and shut-off demeanour, his moments of vulnerability draw parallels with Lizzie’s, reminding viewers of their status as the couple that are meant to be. His final declaration of love is stuttered with nerves but damn, every word is expressed with emotion.
This film is beautiful. From the opening credits to the final shot, everything looks like a painting. The use of the landscape is fantastic, particularly in the dramatic Peak District. To be honest, even talking about it I feel like I’m doing the cinematography a disservice. Take a look for yourself.
From a cinematic standpoint, Wright makes good use of tracking shots, something he’s continued to do in his following films. In the opening scene he brings us right through the Bennet house, which has been made scruffier than in the novels. It should be noted that this is a deliberate choice, made to emphasise the girls’ vulnerable lack of wealth and reinforce why their future marriage prospects are seen as so crucial.
In terms of the costumes, they’re carefully coloured for each character. Lizzie is dressed in earthy greens and browns, as is Darcy, tying both of them to the rugged landscape and their solitary walks. Jane, on the other hand, is often dressed in pretty, feminine pastels whilst Kitty and Lydia are dressed in childish, carefree yellows. Mary wears what she wants in drab colours, just as she wishes. These colour schemes are adhered to carefully throughout the film, amplifying rather than restricting the characters’ positions and attitudes.
The Best Scene
It has to be the disastrous first proposal attempt. Whilst it’s a time for many Austen fans to sigh frustratedly or otherwise become indignant for Lizzie, this version chooses to amp up the passion of the scene. As the two meet sheltering from the rain and both soaked (that water again, Austen adaptations love it), Darcy blurts out what is undoubtedly the worst proposal ever.
However, after Lizzie’s understandably angry response, there’s a moment of tension as thunder rolls and the two pause as if they’re about to embrace. The moment breaks and Darcy leaves, leaving Elizabeth shaken and shocked. The adaptation asks – is she shocked by the proposal, or by a stirring of feelings that she didn’t expect? It’s as passionate and dramatic as film gets.
The 2005 Pride and Prejudice is a masterclass in cinema, stunningly beautiful and well-acted. Traditional fans may not like the changes made and the sharp cutting of Austen’s novel to fit into a two-hour running time but as a standalone film, it’s very impressive.
It also deserves some praise for popularising Pride and Prejudice for a new young audience. This was its intention of course – trailers for the film used the music from Love, Actually and publicised the fact that it shared the same producers as Bridget Jones’ Diary – but despite what some Austenites would say, it served as an excellent gateway for new fans who may have been put off by stuffier, earlier adaptations.
Ultimately, it’s the cinematic treatment that Austen’s novel deserved, bringing in the iconic lines and beloved characters and combining them with the true mastery of film.
Fun Find: As the film begins, Elizabeth is intensely focused on her book. We get a quick glance at the text itself, which turns out to be an edited version of the last few pages of Pride and Prejudice itself, replacing Elizabeth for ‘Katherine’!