As Jane Austen’s classic novel turns 200, we take a look at the adaptations that graced our screens since the invention of film. Which is your favourite?
'Five love-hungry sisters… and how they got their husbands!’, is how the trailer for Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen’s iconic novel presents the female characters. I’m not too sure how this would go down in today’s society but it certainly seemed to do the trick back then. You would be forgiven for thinking that this version is one of many that have hit the cinema screens throughout the decades but this film is actually one of the two feature length versions made of Austen’s classic. The novel has been subject to more television miniseries than to cinema, a total of 7.
Yes, throughout the years, Jane Austen’s classic tale of love has graced our screens countless times and the timeless Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett reincarnated more than one can remember. This year celebrates 200 years since Jane Austen’s love story was first published, establishing it as one of the greatest romance novels of all time. It’s popularity in modern culture has resulted in numerous adaptations and also a range of stories imitating the themes and characters found within Austen’s book.
Pride and Prejudice’s continuing popularity is occasionally boosted by the arrival of a new television or film version and, of course, those that act in it… but let’s be honest, it’s the lucky actor that gets to play Mr. Darcy that gets most of us talking. The first adaptation dates back to 1938, paving the way to 2005’s star-studded affair, an adaptation that had more nominations thrown at it than you could shake a stick at. But what is it that makes the perfect Pride and Prejudice? Well, it’s clearly a combination of all the elements being brought together; director, screenwriter and the others that work on it from behind the scenes. Each adaptation, including the those made for Italian and Dutch TV, has had its moments.
Above, we have the trailer for the 1940 Robert Z. Leonard production, which starred the magnificent Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, both of whom are still regarded as two of cinema’s finest stars. The screenwriters didn’t stay entirely true to the novel (costumes, time period and characters were slightly altered) but who cares; this black and white movie comes from the Golden Age of Hollywood and contains as much glamour and guts as today’s versions, leading me on to the next version.
Cedric Wallis’ 1958 miniseries starred Jane Downs and distinguished stage actor Alan Badel, was the second take on the novel created for television, following the success of his 1952 series that starred Peter Cushing OBE and Daphne Slater, who was known for her Shakespearian roles. Cedric Wallis had a 10-year affair with Austen’s prose, creating 3 miniseries of the novel, including one that was made for Dutch TV. His repeated return to the story is not documented but he never achieved the same success that he did with 1952’s small-screen debut.
In 1980, the first colour adaptation was produced for British television by director Cyril Coke, along with female screenwriter Fay Weldon, who has been hailed for creating the best Pride and Prejudice to date for staying true to the characters. It stars Elizabeth Garvie as Miss. Bennett and David Rintoul as Darcy but it is Judy Parfitt’s Lady Catherine de Borough that steals the show here, portraying her with all the strength and flaws that Jane originally intended. Others say that this 1980s romp sometimes comes off as a little to sickly but this can be easily overlooked, the costumes, location and attention to detail here makes Coke’s one of the most faithful versions made.
After a 15-year hiatus, the novel came back with a boom, stealing the hearts of all those that watched it, mainly those of women who could not resist the charms of 1995’s Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth. This is THE television, starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett, receiving critical acclaim, honoured with several awards and was recognized for its outstanding achievements as a serial.
Adapted by Andrew Davies, produced by Sue Birtwistle and directed by Simon Langton, many people sight the infamous ‘lake scene’ as a source of its success, in which you see Firth emerging from lake, having gone for a swim. It was also this adaptation that sparked ‘Austen-mania’ and you couldn’t step on to public transport without seeing someone grasping a Austen novel. Even the Jane Austen Society of America saw a fifty percent increase of members in 1996. How could anyone try and take on this cultural phenomenon?
Well, no one did. For 10-years the story was left untouched, waiting for the fallout of Andrew Davies adaptation to settle before anyone dare take on the story once again. Then, director Joe Wright picked up Deborah Moggach’s script and history was made all over again, as there had not been a film adaptation since 1940. Fronted by cinema’s darling Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen’s updated Mr. Darcy, the world prepared itself for another round of ‘Austen-mania’. But it was to be a troubling time for those involved; Moggach’s script was initially true to the novel but Wright encouraged her to take a couple of risks, casting was difficult due to past iconic performances of specific characters and queries of who their target market should be. The panic felt before production got under way was well worth it for it went on to be nominated for an impressive 35 awards, picking up 6 in total. The film didn’t have the same cultural impact as 1995’s version but it certainly gave birth to a new generation of Austen fans and opened up the previous adaptations to studies by film, literary and Austen scholars.
And what next? There are rumours that the next Pride and Prejudice film is to be an imitation of the classic the 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' version which was published in 2009. As for as an adaptation of the original, we'll just have to wait.
I’m a sucker for 1995’s miniseries and also the glamour of Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 film, but I want to know which one is your favourite?