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.
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.
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.