Part II: Pride and Prejudice, cont’d.

P&P95 is next on the list of P&P adaptations.  It’s the longest adaptation so this is a rather long column.

I hadn’t watched it in quite a while (it’s been at least 2 years), and was looking forward to seeing it again. It’s hard to forget that there has been a lot of hype about this adaptation; I’ve heard it called “the best BBC adaptation ever,” “the book come to life” and “perfection itself.” So, does it live up to the hype? Alas, in my not-so-humble opinion, the answer is “no.”

The BBC (and its co-producers, such as the US cable network A&E) had a very large budget, and the production is gorgeous.  The sets, the costumes and the music are all breath-taking, and when I add the remastered box set to my collection it will be even more gorgeous. My problems are, however, not with the production values, but with the production itself.   Most of the cast members are too old for their roles, most notably Julia Sawalha as Lydia.  A 25+-year-old playing a 15-year-old?  Sorry, but she was not convincing in the slightest and seemed to try too hard to be naive and immature.  She flung herself around the room, snorted while laughing and Davies gave her jokes laced with sexual innuendos.  Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth is way too matronly and mature at the start of the story; she never really grows up and matures the way Austen’s Elizabeth does.  The scenes where this very self-contained Elizabeth scampers about the countryside and plays with the dog at Netherfield are positively cringe-worthy and out of character.

Ehle’s Elizabeth is also very rude to Darcy.  She rolls her eyes when he speaks to her and is very curt when she speaks back.  As I have mentioned before, we cannot forget that Austen tells us the following:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger. (emphasis mine)

“Arch,” as we know, means “saucy,” or “roguish” or “impertinent.”  Ehle’s Elizabeth is none of the above, and I honestly fail to grasp what this Darcy sees in her.  During their dance at the Netherfield ball, she rolls her eyes and contorts her face, spits out her lines and is generally very disagreeable.  And Firth always looks angry. I would too, if I had to spend any time with this Elizabeth Bennet.  If I were Darcy, I’d run as far as I could from this woman.  It’s patently obvious she hates him and, in the book, he is unaware of her true feelings for him.  Granted, it’s not all Ehle’s fault – after all, she can only do what the director and writer tell her to do — but I find no basis in the text for this kind of behavior.

This Elizabeth never has her “lightbulb moment.”  The book’s Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter and says “until this moment I never knew myself.”  And she means it.  This is, in my opinion, the turning point of the novel, the point when Elizabeth starts to have the self-awareness needed for her growth into a mature adult.  In this adaptation, she does say the line, but she says it to Jane several days later, back at Longbourn, so it really doesn’t pack the same punch as it does in the book (or, dare I say it?) in P&P80.  And, speaking of the letter, I don’t understand what possessed Andrew Davies to flip the contents and talk about Wickham first, and deal with Jane and Bingley later. This makes no sense to me at all. As an aside, there’s a head-scratching moment during the flashbacks – after Wickham gets his check for law school from Darcy, he leaves the room and greets Emilia Fox as Georgiana.  But, since this all happened 5 years previously, Georgiana should only be around 11 years old.  Someone obviously was not paying attention.

Scenes from the book that I miss include Elizabeth singing at the Lucas’ party, Miss Bingley offering to repair Darcy’s pen, Darcy asking Elizabeth to dance a reel and Mrs. Gardiner warning Elizabeth about falling in love with Wickham, among others.  Instead of these scenes, however, there are several scenes invented by Andrew Davies that I am not fond of.  For example, I don’t understand why Mrs. Bennet tries to convince Darcy to dance with Elizabeth at the Meryton Assembly, and I want to throw something at the TV when Elizabeth talks about how “only the deepest love will induce [her] into matrimony.”  Talk about cringe-worthy!  And then there’s the scene where Elizabeth and Wickham talk about his engagement to Mary King and he says something to the effect that “if only circumstances were different…”  That scene really doesn’t work for me (nor does a similar scene where Wickham tells Elizabeth that he’s “loath to part” from her). I also don’t like the scene where Lydia is running around in her underwear, bumps into Mr. Collins and starts laughing.  That is just completely inappropriate.

I think the biggest problem I have with this adaptation is all of the “extra Darcy.”  Austen’s Darcy is not around very often, and we get to know him as Elizabeth does.  This Darcy is not quite omnipresent, but we do see him far more often than we do in the book.  The simple fact that this is referred to as “the Colin Firth version” is very telling.  We’re not supposed to know so much about Darcy before Elizabeth does. The scenes in the bathtub and at the fencing school are gratuitous.  The pond scene is ridiculous and makes me very angry.  It is just so un-Darcy-like and I find it to be purely gratuitous.  Darcy knows full well that the grounds of Pemberley are often visited by the public, and I cannot picture Austen’s character diving into that scummy pond. And then there’s his “quick-change” act — he gets into the house, runs up to his room, dries off, changes his clothes and runs back downstairs again — all in the time it takes for Elizabeth and the Gardiners to walk across the lawn back to their waiting carriage.  Did he borrow Doc Brown’s flux capacitor?  And I haven’t even mentioned yet that the pond scene ruins the surprise that Darcy has arrived.  If Austen had wanted us to know that Darcy was at Pemberley before Elizabeth does, she’d have told us.  She did not do so.  The scenes where we see Darcy going off to London in search of Lydia also tick me off – they ruin that surprise completely too.  What reason could Davies possibly have for doing this?  Not everyone out there has read the book.  Why ruin it for them?

Another made-up scene that I am not fond of is when Mr. Collins comes to the Bennet house to “condole” with the girls while Mr. Bennet is searching for Lydia in London. In the book he wrote a letter expressing his sentiments.  And that makes sense, because it’s already been established that Longbourn is a good 50 miles from Hunsford.  We know from Mr. Collins’ visit to Longbourn and Elizabeth’s to Hunsford that this trip takes more than a day, and that distance is why he wrote a letter.  The distance is also why it’s such a big deal for Lady Catherine to travel to Longbourn to warn Elizabeth not to marry Darcy.

If I close my eyes when Alison Steadman is on screen, I hear Monty Python’s Terry Jones pretending to be a woman.  Steadman’s shrillness and shrieking are extremely annoying.  Yes, Mrs. Bennet is supposed to be annoying, but she’s never described as a shrieking fishwife. There is no hint whatsoever of the beautiful, good-humored girl Mr. Bennet fell for all those years ago.

Despite this very long list of quibbles, I actually do like this adaptation. I like that they include the scene near the end where Elizabeth tells Jane how long she’s loved Darcy, and I also like that they have the scene where Mr. Bennet tells Elizabeth that he’s given Darcy permission to marry her.  But the second proposal is not well done at all.  Instead of sounding like a man who’s “violently in love,” Darcy sounds as if he’s agreeing to a business transaction.  I have heard that even Andrew Davies himself has admitted that this scene is not as good as it could have been.

Unfortunately, however, all the hype and hysteria surrounding this adaptation – particularly in the aftermath of the release of P&P05 – made me go back and watch it more critically than I ever had before, and I honestly don’t think it holds up well to intense scrutiny. It absolutely is not “the book come to life,” but it is still a whole lot of fun and I enjoy watching it.

OK, now despise me if you dare.