Thursday, February 12, 2009

Janespotting: Pride and Prejudice (1940 film)

I was curious what I would see in this first film adaptation of Austen's classic. Two things piqued my interest: Laurence Olivier starring as Mr. Darcy, and a screenplay co-written by Aldous Huxley, author of the classic dystopia Brave New World. On the other hand, it was produced in 1940 by MGM, home of big technicolor spectacles and noted for their star system. They had originally wanted Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh to rekindle their magic from Gone with the Wind, but Gable turned down the part because he felt he wasn't suited to it. When Olivier stepped in, MGM replaced Leigh with Greer Garson, feeling that the married Olivier's affair with Leigh might produce bad publicity for the film (although they later divorced others to marry each other). So, two future Oscar-winners as Lizzy and Darcy, and an iconoclastic intellectual as co-screenwriter. Might this be a good film adaptation?

After viewing the film, my answer has to be: yes and no. Is it a good film? Well, the acting is well done. The story is has a quick pace. The set direction won an Oscar, and the music is charming. The costumes—well, it was a little bit of a shock to see Civil War-style hoop gowns and huge hats, but MGM was being economical by reusing frocks from Gone with the Wind. Greer Garson brings wit and charm to her Lizzy, and Olivier is brooding and handsome enough as Darcy. The supporting players are passable, and if you wanted a lighthearted romantic romp, this might do very nicely.

Ah, but is it a good adaptation? Sadly, I have to report the answer is, "Hell, no." Now, I'm no purist; I'm not one to complain just because a scene or character has been cut. And quite a bit of material is cut in this version of P&P, mainly Darcy's letter explaining his behavior and the whole section where Lizzy visits Darcy's estate and begins to fall in love with him. In this version, Darcy proposes while Lizzy is visiting the Collinses; she refuses him; and immediately upon her return home, she discovers her sister Lydia's disgrace. Only then does Darcy reveal his true association with Lydia's seducer Wickham to Lizzy, and immediately after he leaves, Lizzy decides, "Oh! I was actually in love with him all along!"

Urg. As I mentioned in my analysis of the original book, for me the appeal of P&P lies in the way the lead characters (especially Mr. Darcy) grow and change. Through Darcy's letter, Lizzy realizes her prejudice has led her astray, and her rejection of Darcy leads him to amend his proud ways. In this film, though, we don't see Lizzy agonize over her mistake, and we don't see Darcy try to make amends for his earlier behavior. Worst of all is what they do with Lady Catherine's character. In the book, she is against the relationship between her nephew and Lizzy, and threatens to stop it. In this film, she only pretends to object, in order to assess Lizzy's true feelings, and in fact brings them together, telling Darcy "she is the kind of woman you need." Oh, and she does this at the same moment that disgraced Lydia and her new shotgun husband arrive at Longbourn, in the kind of full-cast drawing-room scene that demonstrates this version's genesis in a stage adaptation.

After that, it's all downhill. We see Mary and Kitty with their own suitors, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet happily assessing the marital prospects of their brood. It's all very cheerful and neat and completely lacking in interesting emotional complexity. In other words, a typical romance film of the time. If I had seen this and thought it represented Austen's work, I could have been excused for thinking I didn't need to read any further.

Happily, though, I have other adaptations to consider. And next week, I shall go with the pinnacle, the epitome, the ultimate of all Austen adaptations: the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

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