There’s a rumour floating around that when the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice first appeared on the A&E network, a television executive asked whether Jane Austen would be available for promotional book signings.
Crack all the jokes that you want about the reading habits of American TV executives, but the reality is that Austen, upon whose book the miniseries is based, has provided filmmakers with stacks of eye-fluttering, heart-pounding romantic material. There’s even a Jesus-friendly film version of her novel subtitled A Latter Day Comedy. The latest rebirth of Pride and Prejudice, starring the photogenic Keira Knightley, is just one of 10 other filmed adaptations of Austen’s story produced since 1938.
First published in 1813, the novel is the story of Elizabeth, or Lizzie, Bennet—an independent young woman with four sisters. Lizzie’s lower middle-class parents are anxious to marry their daughters off to suitable, wealthy men. Lizzie hopes for a little more from the world. Then she meets Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy at a ball, immediately dismissing him as rude and arrogant. She is, however, intrigued by Mr. Wickham, who also happens to be Mr. Darcy’s sworn enemy. But when a family crisis occurs, Darcy’s true nature is revealed, and true love—sigh—is discovered.
During a time when it feels like movie scripts are generated by churlish robots, it’s fascinating that this simple story, edging towards its 200th birthday, is still relevant. Just check the DVD rack. Many successful romantic comedies are founded on the Austen principle: Feisty girl finds love in an unlikely man, preceded by plenty of sexual tension and clever banter. Successful scriptwriters such as Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) and her sister Delia (Bewitched) understand the principle well. Amy Heckerling uses it to her advantage with her film tribute to another Austen heroine, Emma. Set in Beverly Hills, Heckerling’s Clueless, starring material-girl Alicia Silverstone, is considered by many Austenites to be one of the best modern adaptations.
Perhaps the most famous take on Austen is Bridget Jones’s Diary. Based on the book by Helen Fielding, who also wrote the screenplay, Bridget (or Lizzie) pulls on granny underwear and bunny ears to deal with her own lot of pride and prejudice. Our plucky heroine (Renee Zellweger) finds solace from her crappy job, weight issues and tumultuous love life with wine, smokes and marathon viewings of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. The miniseries stars Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, who, ahem, also plays uptight barrister Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones. Confusing? Perhaps, but for fans, it’s a delicious inside joke.
You see, Colin Firth IS Mr. Darcy. There will never be another. Ever. For those who score low in the romance department, Firth’s embodiment of Darcy is the equivalent to Sean Connery playing James Bond. But really, there’s no logical explanation for the deep feelings Firth conjures up—is romance ever logical?—it’s a rare emotional tie between a character and his audience. Even the Jane Austen Society of North America approves of this Darcy. For proof, just ask a Firth fan; you’ll get a dreamy look, and perhaps a long sigh, but you won’t come any closer to understanding why Mr. Darcy takes our breath away.
OK, so here’s the obvious question: if Firth is so damn hot, why remake Pride and Prejudice? The film’s producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love, Actually) offer this explanation on the film’s website <\n>(prideandprejudicemovie.net): “Over the decades, Jane Austen’s central depiction of Lizzie and Darcy has been appropriated as the core of many other films—including a couple of our own. We felt it was time to bring Austen’s original story, concentrating on Lizzie, back in all its glory to the big screen for audiences everywhere to enjoy.”
While Bevan and Fellner have a point—most of the focus of the BBC version is on Darcy (his face is even prominent on the DVD)—the more cynical might translate this quote as “new Darcy Matthew MacFadyen ain’t no Colin Firth.”
Therefore, success for the new Pride rides on how high Keira Knightley scores on the charm-o-meter. (It worked for Gwyneth Paltrow when she starred, in 1996, as the titular Emma.) Judging from initial reviews of the film, Knightley upholds Lizzie’s obstinate manners, grace and likeability. Jane Austen would be proud.
Pride and Prejudice is playing now.