Jane Austen done easy!

First of all, I'd like to say that each of the 3 times I've seen the 2005 Pride & Prejudice, I really want to like it. And each time, with the first 10 minutes I'm fooled into enjoying it, and then it just lets me down. I rewatched it this Thanksgiving break followed up by a reviewing of Sense & Sensibility(1995) which only made the flaws of P&P more obvious. Admittedly, P&P is one of my favorite books of all time, so any big changes to it makes me a little antsy. Which is why I adore the 5 hour BBC version from 1995--it contains most every scene and develops every storyline. So chopping up this novel into a ~2 hour cinematic piece is like killing my own baby. Well, it's cringe worthy at least. S&S, on the other hand, manages to develop characters and create an accessible story despite it's length.

Anyway, I'd like to point out some of the contrast between these two films:

P&P: Artsy and maudlin. The cinematography is gorgeous, which isn't a bad thing. The long takes through complicated scenes are to be admired, but unfortunately, it takes precedence over acting and character development. Instead of having characters have scenes together that build emotion and character arcs, odd and overt film metaphors are made: at the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth and Darcy literally end up dancing as if they were the only couple in the room; when Elizabeth is pondering Darcy's first proposal, she stares into a mirror all day, reflecting on her life; when Elizabeth tours Pemberly for the first time, the camera dwells on nude statues, apparently showing her growing sexual attraction to Darcy. Literally.

Not to mention the completely out-of-nowhere and corny 2nd proposal where Mr. Darcy walks through the morning dew toward a sleepless Lizzie on a walk. And then stating that she has "bewitched [him] body and soul." WTF? And don't even get me started on the "Mrs. Darcy" crap at the end. Mostly, the film avoids showing true character development and spends all its time on monologues of drivel and trite film metaphor, apparently making it accessible to modern audiences.

S&S: Simple and humorous. Ang Lee's direction is seamless and unnoticable throughout the film which allows the characters to shine and develop, which I think is truer to Austen's story telling. Her novels aren't about being pretty, but pointing out peculiararities within society. To do so, she focuses on people's words and actions, not asinine metaphor. The humor is also intact in this adaptation. The adapted lines don't stick out like they do in P&P, and blend into Austen's brand of biting observation. And even changes like the youngest sister being a wannabe pirate and Mr. Ferrars actually having a personality makes the story more interesting to a modern audience instead of just dumbing down the discourse.

Lead roles
P&P: I don't hate Keira Knightly in this role. She's an adequate actress and only gets lost in the old-fashioned language on occasion. She's a spunkier Elizabeth, but does well for this adaptation. Matthew MacFadyen is about as milquetoast as they come. For a spunkier Lizzie, he is an impossible match, not because of his douchey behavior, but for his complete lack of personality. He spits out lines with little to no emotion. This description doesn't do the vapid performance justice, since being very emotionally controlled would be an accurate description of Mr. Darcy. But there's no spark of mild flirtation, only close up shots of his hand whenever he touches Elizabeth, that show his attraction to her. Instead of a fiery argument during the 1st proposal, they almost kiss instead of connecting through words. Maybe the director figured out MacFadyen is boring and had to add in visual indications of personality to replace such a lackluster performance. Call me crazy, but I like my romantic leads to have, you know, chemistry. This is just boring. I honestly don't care if they get together, and I mostly blame that on Darcy.

S&S: This being Emma Thompson's baby, she does a lovely job at forming emotion from Austen's words. Certainly her work doing shakespeare contributes to her ability to take complicated language and convey its meaning and nuances. I can't say enough about just listening to her talk. And her portrayal of a very responsible and, by necessity, closed-off sister/daughter is genuine and believable. Kate Winslet is young and her spunk contributes to the ridiculous character of Marianne who is overly sentimental and dramatic. Winslet always plays this type of role well (see: Titanic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind .) Alan Rickman is always funny, but he does meloncholy well in this film. He even manages to be kind of sexy. Hugh Grant is always a shock to see as Mr. Ferrars, since he's so well known for his floppy-haired modern romcoms, but once the movie settles, so does his character. Grant does well with comedy and being neurotic, so the indecicive Mr. Ferrars suits him well. Overall, a cast well suited for their characters and who speak the language with eloquence and humor.

Costuming/sets/group settings/whatever
P&P: Greasy hair and dirty houses seem to match the artsy tone of the movie. Poverty films well, so I guess they decided to make the Bennet's even poorer than they already were. As far I know, the Bennet's just didn't have a fortune to give their daughters, but they weren't particularly bad off. Which makes dwelling on a pig walking right outside their house an odd choice. Also, Keira Knightly's way too thin for the time period with her dress draping over breastless body [ed. note: I'm not really sure how thin people were in this time period, but Knightly looks too frail to hold up an empire-waist style dress. More of an observation of preference I guess.] But the messier style looked great in ballroom scenes where many people are dancing and having fun. You could actually see why people would have fun with a ball in this film. And that's what it comes down to really: a less cordial, more casual, "modern" style that defines this film.

S&S: Neat, simple and lovely defines this film. Contrast in wealth is shown through an absense in color and fabrics in the homes, which is more subtle than dirt track through the house vs. fancy. But the clothing was well crafted and simple, like the story. Although the wigs are obvious in this film (so curly) and seemed to mismatch eyebrows/coloring a lot. But overall, settings are simple and quiet so when something does happen dramatically, we can focus on the lead characters without being overwhelmed by everything surrounding them.

This is an area where both soundtracks are absolutely gorgeous. Both utilize 19th century musical themes to a film soundtrack, perfect for the time period.

Novel to Screenplay, overall reflection
P&P: Like I stated earlier, this is a brief version of the story. Adapting novels to film always requires cuts to be made, whether in characters or scenes. Unfortunately, P&P is a complex story with subtle, slowly building character development and change. This version just doesn't have the length to give the story a full and deserving treatment. I would submit that they should have cut and rewritten some moments entirely since the strength was in the purely original work. For example, Mr. Wickham, though handsome* has little charm to attract Elizabeth to him so the audience never thinks that he's a real contender for her heart. I would have been fine if they cut him out. In fact, I would have been fine to watch a newly written regency era film with the style. They tacked on enough new stuff at the end that it's practically a new story anyway. So in terms of an adaptation, it fails to capture the tone of the novel and drowns in so many plot points to cover.

S&S: This is a much simpler story. Many of the scenes cut out were those between Elinor and Colonel Brandon and would have only contributed confusion**. But major plot points are intact and changes in character are developed throughout the film. By simplifying an already simple story, the film is able to capture characters since it isn't drowning in plotlines***. Any changes to character, like stated before with Mr. Ferrars, serve to give the audience more of a reason to care about the characters. Added scenes assist in developing a relationship between the characters, which is where the genius of this adaptation lies: character development and observation that is both funny and genuine.

What you should take from this
Go watch Sense & Sensibility--it's humorous and good. And avoid Pride & Prejudice--unless you like trite love stories.

*Kind of like a more mannish version of Orlando Bloom...in other words, Keira Knightly.
**I still think they should end up together, at least in the novel, since they're the least ridiculous characters.


  1. There is no pig walking through the house in P&P 2005. The family is clearly also portrayed as being that of a gentleman ("we're perfectly capable of having a cook") and the Bennet home is an actual Gentleman's home of the period which should pretty much end any discussion on the subject.

    How it would be possible for Lizzy to be too thin based on anything in the text of the novel I'll never know. Every single word on the subject (and there aren't many) points to her being small. Not one mention of her ample bosom spilling out of her inappropriately revealing daytime dress is anywhere to be found.

    And the 1995 TV version, while obviously (due to the far longer running time) including more of the scenes and plot of the book, certainly doesn't have everything. And it also freely invents and distorts in a number of areas. All of which is fair enough as it's merely an adaptation and anyone who wants the real thing can always read the book. But the people who proclaim it a perfect representation of the novel must not have read it very carefully.

    Rant over. :-)

  2. Duly noted.

    And yeah, the BBC one has some weird stuff in it too, but I like the time devoted to the characters more. In essence, it matched my expectations according to the book.

  3. Okay, in all honesty, I have listened to a lot of girls say they liked the 2005 P&P. I felt Very similarly to you, however. I thought the film Looked beautiful and the music was gorgeous and Keira Knightley was a pretty good Elizabeth. I also sort of enjoyed the actors playing her parents. Brenda Blethyn is always a fun, crazy mother. But over all, I really don't think this film could be listed as one of the best Austen adaptations. All these girls talked about how romantic the "Mrs. Darcy" part was, but when I saw it in theatres (I was willing to give it a shot) I was just short of gagging. It was SO Hollywood. So completely....I don't know....what's the word? Plastic? Marketed? Cheesy? It's like how they advertise period pieces with rock music. It just makes me a little ill.

    As I've gotten older I only appreciate Sense and Sensibility more and more. It's not just a period piece/romantic comedy/ "chick flick", it is a legitimately good film. Emma Thompson did such a Beautiful job and is so wonderfully in tune with Austen and the time, so much more so than the average person, that she really did magic in writing the script. Okay, agreement submitted. I'm off.

  4. I have never seen the 2005 version because I was always afraid I would just end up angry. I appreciate your commentary here, and I may even watch it to see if I agree.

    As far as your remark about Keira Knightly's body, Kels, I couldn't agree more. (And that is not a bitchy, 'Oh my god she's soooooo skinny' comment.) I think it has more to do with cultural body ideals of the times than how Lizzy was described in the novels. I realize that Elizabeth broke from a lot of social ideas of beauty (i.e. getting 'tan and flushed' by walking in the sun too much), but I can't really imagine that someone with that body type really existed. Like, obviously genetics still existed, but women liked to eat and a fair amount of fat was a sign of wealth and beauty. Obvs she couldn't help it if she had small, small breasts (I can empathize), but her arms (for example) would likely have been less twiggy. I agree that it was inappropriate casting (this is why I always have to wear lots of padded corsets when I'm cast in a period piece... for reals).

    Anyhow, I always enjoy some quality film analysis, especially when it involves anything Austen. So thanks! And look at all the commentary you inspired.

  5. People come in all shapes and sizes and have always done so. Naturally skinny people are just that and would have been so 200 or 2000 years ago as well. What people actually look like has little to do with what the beauty ideal happens to be at the time.

    And if you go by Jane Austen's actual description of Lizzy I can't see how it could possible be argued that Keira Knightley doesn't fit it at least as well as Jennifer Ehle did. Really.

    What exactly is the problem people have with the supposedly "Hollywood" (whatever that's supposed to mean) ending of the 2005 version. Which, btw, was only incuded in the North American release of the film.

    In the last chapter of the novel Jane Austen herself gives us Lizzy and Darcy being alone together at last. Relaxed, happy and playful in each others company. The 2005 film's ending (cheesy version) does the same.
    In the 1995 version, on the other hand, we have an equally cheesy double wedding (complete with awkward kiss), but this scene doesn't resemble anything Austen wrote at all.
    It might be noted that the 2005 ending was written by Emma Thompson, btw. And although the version of Sense and Sensibility for which she wrote the script is very enjoyable it's not a particularly faithful adaptation.

    Don't get me wrong, I do like the 1995 series very much, but nothing comes close to the novel and I do get the feeling that many people are very keen to point out every perceived flaw in the 2005 version while claiming that the 1995 one is near perfect. Maybe if you've seen the series before reading the book you can end up seeing the book as a companion piece to the novel rather than the other way around? I've got no idea if that applies to anyone here, though.

    The 1995 version, while faithfully retaining most of the plot and the characters, contains some fairly major structural changes compared to the source material, and in my opinion they weren't for the better.
    For one thing the vastly increased focus on Darcy changes what to me has always been a story primarily about a girl growing up into one with two pretty much equal leads. This was obviously done on purpose, but I like the original better and the 2005 version retains this aspect. It's no coincidence that the 1995 version is often referred to as Colin Firth's (and never as Jennifer Ehle's) while for the film it's Keira's name that is sometimes used to label it.

    By adding a lot of freshly invented Darcy scenes the series also ruins the surprises which were an important part of the novel. The reader is as much in the dark about Darcy's actions and intentions as Lizzy is. Nothing is revealed in advance and Darcy appearing at Pemberly (for example) is as much a shock to us as it is to her. Not so in the series.

    The series also fails to show us the introspection and change which was caused by Darcy's letter to her following the first proposal. In the novel the first part of the letter has him confessing to separating Jane and Bingley - and reading this makes Lizzy very angry. But the second part, about Wickham, makes her see everything in a different light and is the thing that makes her start to question her own judgement. To me this is a crucial part of the whole story.

    In the 1995 series they have, for some reason, chosen to invert the order of the letter and as a consequence we see Lizzy being as angry and self righteous at the end of reading it as she was before. Nothing has really changed in her (that we can see).

    In the 2005 film they have moved the first part of the letter - the Jane confession - to the proposal itself, allowing it to fuel Lizzy's anger there. As a consequence the letter is virtually all about Wickham and it causes Lizzy to cry, be lost for words and engage in some serious introspection.

    These are just some examples, but I just want to make the case that it's unfair to claim that the 1995 version is perfect while the 2005 film is "Hollywood" and takes all kinds of liberties. They both have their strengths and weaknesses.

  6. The point of this post was really to compare two cinematic adaptations: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and how effectively I thought they carried out their stories. I preferred Sense and Sensibilty's changes more than Pride and Prejudice's because I thought we were able to get to know the characters better in the former.

    While I do prefer the 1995 version, by no means is it the pinnacle adaptation--nothing ever is since it's not the novel. But I didn't really want to discuss this since it gets into fuzzy how a reader interprets a story territory.