Pride and Prejudice was the first real love story I read — and no matter how many I’ve read since then, each is measured against Austen’s tale and left wanting. The same is true with the film adaptations.
I’ve seen the 1995 made-for-television version approximately 100 times, and I love it more each time I see it; I despised the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley and that watery sad-sack Matthew Macfadyen.
But when a reader raved in the comments section of my first Musing Mondays post about the 1940 adaptation starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, it immediately went on my Netflix list. Nothing could be worse than Knightley…right?
I love Olivier — he was fabulous as Maxim de Winter in “Rebecca,” which was filmed the same year as “Pride and Prejudice.” But while he played the humorous side of Darcy well, the serious/brooding/prideful side was missing. And that’s what makes the character. For a classically trained Shakespearean actor, I thought he brought little to the role.
And if I was unimpressed by Olivier, I was downright upset with Garson. She was so great in 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver,” but I found her portrayal of Lizzie Bennet to be…pretty terrible. She plays Lizzie with this overly-breathy, big-eyed naivete. It’s not there all the time, but it comes out just often enough, and in the worst places, to be really annoying. The Elizabeth that Jane Austen wrote—and Jennifer Ehle played in 1995—is snarky, but really only in defense of herself and her family. Garson’s version is downright spiteful, and it made me like her less (although I partially fault the writers for this characterization).
Both Olivier and Garson are doing what one of my former professors calls “schmacting” — in other words, overacting. Rather than making serious moments more dramatic, it is distracting and makes the characters weaker. The proposal scene loses all its punch due to the crying, sighing, and lip-biting.
Costumes and writing
The clothing of Jane Austen’s time was pretty simple: a lot of empire waists, simple patterns, and maybe a feather or two in the hats of the wealthier women. So I was horrified to find the film filled with “ensembles” such as this (seriously, who did the costumes for this film? I will slap them):
And if the schmacting and terrible costumes don’t get you, the bad script certainly will. Obviously a certain amount of adjustment is required to fit the entire story into 118 minutes, but I wonder about some of the exclusions the writers made.
More so, however, I wonder at the additions. There are multiple completely new scenes, including one between Lizzie and Caroline Bingley that, while showing Lizzie’s spirit, also manages to make you like her less. There are also new plot points, including the Bennet’s apparent decision to move out of Longbourn after Lydia’s elopement.
It’s this last one in particular that gives me fits. Obviously an elopement was a scandal in Austen’s time — especially when it didn’t actually end in a marriage. And it was certainly possible for a daughter to damage her family’s reputation by engaging in such behavior. But would it have really necessitated the removing of the entire family from their home, selling it, and moving to a different city? Somehow the writers managed to make the matter even more serious (by having the family packed up and ready to leave) and simultaneously less so, by having everyone in a fight about whether or not they can bring the music box and a pet parrot!
I lay my dislike of this film firmly at the doorstep of the director (Robert Z. Leonard) and the writers (one of whom was Aldous Huxley, ugh); the writers did a shoddy job cutting of plot points and adding useless scenes, and the director allowed every actor/actress to “schmact” endlessly.
Yes, the funny parts are funnier, and there is a more prominent undercurrent of silliness which made the comical scenes more comical. But Pride and Prejudice is not a comedic tale, and should not have been treated as such. Overall, I found this film to be almost unpalatable.
Do you agree with my assessment, or am I being too harsh? Is there a particular adaptation of a book you just can’t stand? Let me know in the comments!