If the new Pride and Prejudice has staying power—worldwide box-office receipts are now over $100 million and counting—it could surpass Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility to become the most watched film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel in the annals of cinema. This has Janeites gnashing their teeth and tearing their hair; the Austen blogs carry messages of despair from around the world. To their horror and disbelief, discerning critics are praising this vulgarity as an “enchanting,” “sumptuous,” and even “perfect” adaptation.
Let us concede at the outset that the Janeites are entirely correct: they have every reason to fear that this bowdlerization will corrupt a whole generation who might have found their way to the Austen temple. One might then conclude that the discerning film critics, including some of the most estimable, have either 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 and 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 and 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 Jane Austen. 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.
The antidote for Pride and Prejudice’s spell is Anthony Lane’s review in The New Yorker. Lane writes as if he were being paid by the insult. The Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley did not bewitch him: he compares her “famous underbite” to that of the queen in Aliens. Darcy, he thinks, has been transformed from Austen’s icy aristocrat into a breeches-busting Heathcliff. But when he steps back from his eruption of invective, he recognizes that what offended him most was the mood of the film. Jane Austen, he writes, had been “Brontëfied.” He points to particular scenes—Elizabeth on a cliff, Darcy in a long coat walking through a field—that for him embody an exaggerated romanticism that seems more Wuthering Heights than Pride and Prejudice. Although Lane clears away the mist of sentiment, “Brontëfied” does not sum up the mood of the film or explain its ability to bewitch audiences. Emily Brontë might make audiences swoon; making them happy is quite another matter.
Lane may be right when, in excoriating Pride and Prejudice, he suggests that it may be impossible for any movie (indeed, any adaptation) to capture Jane Austen. Under the heavy imprint that movies leave on the mind, the subtleties of even perfect prose are lost. There is also a huge cultural distance to bridge: whatever else Austen is—and she is undoubtedly a literary genius—she is the ultimate example of complete sexual repression. Austen’s characters do not exist below the waist.
Despite its origins, Pride and Prejudice is not a literary film. It is about images, not words, and owes little to Jane Austen or any other literary figure. 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 also dyslexic and dropped out of school 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 part of London, and he spent time in film school learning his craft. He admits that he had never read Austen’s novel 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 signature was gritty realism, injected even into his two-part miniseries Charles II: The Power and the Passion. The first episode in the 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 existence below the waist. It is not a film you would show to children, but 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 the 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. 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 in the role?
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.
As Wright tells it, he took Moggach’s screenplay with him to the pub one Sunday afternoon, only because it came from Working Title. He began reading and quite unexpectedly found himself laughing and crying into his pint. He was sold. He buckled down, read Austen’s novel, and was bowled over by it. Wright now professes to believe that happy endings are a part of real life.
Wright made a point of not viewing any of the other adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, including the acclaimed 1995 TV miniseries that made Colin Firth (who played Darcy) a star and that was deemed acceptable even by the Janeites. There was one exception: he watched the last Hollywood feature-film version, which was made in 1940. (To fend off those who say that the world did not need another Pride and Prejudice movie, Working Title emphasizes that this is the first feature-film version in 65 years.) Bosley Crowther, then a 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 and 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 are “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 21 when she wrote the first draft of Pride and Prejudice.
Wright had made up his mind that he wanted a 20-year-old actress to play Elizabeth. When he met Keira Knightley, she was not the malleable aspiring actress he had expected. What he saw was a gangly teenager in blue jeans, all knees and elbows—a fiercely independent tomboy. 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 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 and Prejudice is created by the rollicking energy of the 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 injustice 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 common folk. This is his backstory 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 five daughters. The assembly dance, under Wright’s direction, is a loud 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 backstory lends more nuance and believability to Darcy’s initial snobbery and makes Elizabeth’s behavior seem more cheeky. Darcy may think it politically necessary to mingle with these people, but he certainly doesn’t want to become personally involved with them.
In keeping with Austen’s social reality, Wright depicts visually the social and economic distance between the Bennets, with their five daughters crowded into one messy country home (Jane and Elizabeth share a bed), and Darcy and his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourg, with their splendid isolation and perfectly ordered estates. The Bennets are surrounded by chickens, ducks, geese, and larger farm animals, including a pig with huge testicles that waddles conspicuously in front of the camera. This, Wright insists, is the reality of the times, but those huge testicles can easily be read as Wright’s jab at the Janeites and refusal to accept Austen’s sexual repression.
Wright’s Elizabeth is no revolutionary, and she 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 rebellion. 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 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 of Elizabeth’s character, Lydia’s wild behavior, and the near disgrace of the Bennet family, is reduced to two brief appearances.) That 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. She may have an underbite, but under the relentless gaze of Wright’s camera she comes to outshine Jane, the beauty of the five 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 person in the novel, becomes a figure of farce in the film. And 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 five 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 obscures 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 love is possible. Austen certainly believed in love; in every novel she makes that undeniably clear. And 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. Relax and enjoy it.
Alan A. Stone is the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School.