This is turning into a trend: for the second time recently, I’ve been inspired to pick up a classic book after watching an adaptation of it. In this instance, the starting point was the 2005 movie of Pride & Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. Jane Austen has become even more famous and beloved than ever in the past ten years, so I probably don’t need to provide a summary of the plot. Suffice it to say that it is an outstanding example of a romance between two characters who initially dislike and misunderstand one another only to be united in the end. How they get from here to there through the maze of society and their own personalities is the plot of the novel.
While watching the movie, I had no idea of how faithful it might be to the book. (I vaguely recalled reading the book in college, but could barely remember a hint of the written style, let alone the plot.) What struck me about it was the visual style, and the dreamy, emotional landscape it put me in. Early on, I was almost distracted by the beauty of the cinematography and the several showy tracking shots. Surely a bit arty for a comedy of manners? But by halfway, I was won over. As an entertainment and a thing of beauty in itself, I found it quite enjoyable.
How did it compare to the original? I wondered. Since my nearly 20 year old copy was still sitting on my shelf, I didn’t have to wait to find out. I began reading and stayed up much later than I should have several nights running till I got to the end.
From page one, I noticed that the book had a very different tone from the movie. Austen is an acerbic and judgmental narrator who mercilessly catalogs the faults of her characters. In the movie, I quickly saw what was up with Mrs. Bennet; in the book, I didn’t even have to notice, because Austen informed me on page three that she was “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.” Mr. Collins and other noteworthies are similarly skewered to humorous effect. Not a doubt remains of who these people are.
The two protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, are allowed more complexity. But even there, we are explicitly told things that might have provided more suspense if left vague. It is only chapter 6 when we learn that Darcy is beginning to fall in love with Lizzy. After about halfway through the book, Lizzy has also come around and begun to regret refusing Darcy’s proposal of marriage. The suspense in the book is no longer related to emotion — it is all about the barriers of circumstance and propriety that remain between the two.
These barriers are real (or were in Austen’s day), but in this instance, I found them frustrating. In the last third of the book, I kept wishing that people would for god’s sake say something to one another instead of remaining politely silent. The thought of Lizzy writing a letter to Darcy apologizing for her earlier behavior was also a distant dream, but apart from it’s being conduct unbecoming a lady, I can see why it didn’t happen: it would have lopped off a third of the story!
Perhaps the best thing about the novel, apart from the humor, is the psychological insight into not only easy targets like Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr. Collins, but also more complicated characters like Lizzy and Darcy, who must face up to their own pride and prejudice before they can be united. This theme is almost entirely missing from the movie, which presents Darcy as misunderstood rather than haughty, and Lizzy as misinformed rather than willfully dismissive.
Still, all in all, I found that I liked the movie better. It is certainly not without faults. Some story edits are confusing (e.g. Colonel & Mrs. Forster are mentioned just as Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner appear on screen, so you never clearly know who is who), some of the romantic scenes are positively cloying, and Matthew Macfadyen, though cute, is more like a wet noodle than Darcy ever ought to be. But it still left me with a sense of pleasant satisfaction I didn’t get from the book.
After reading several reviews (Abigail Nussbaum’s; Gina Fattore’s; and especially Anthony Lane’s), I think I know why: I’m a Brontëite. Apparently, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there must be a struggle between the Brontë and Austen sensibilities (let’s not question why), and if I must take sides, I’m with the gothic melodramatists, not the bitter, sarcastic realists. I’m glad I know that now.