What Jane Austen Doesn’t Tell Us

Sense and Sensibility

a film directed by Ang Lee, screenplay by Emma Thompson

Persuasion

a film directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Nick Dear

Clueless

a film directed by Amy Heckerling, screenplay by Amy Heckerling

Pride and Prejudice 1996

directed by Simon Langton, screenplay by Andrew Davies. produced by BBC Television Arts and Entertainment, January 14—16,

The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film

by Emma Thompson
Newmarket Press, 287 pp., $23.95

The Making of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

by Sue Birtwistle, by Susie Conklin
Penguin/BBC, 120 pp., £9.99

The six-hour Pride and Prejudice now showing on the Arts and Entertainment network is the fourth screen adaptation of a Jane Austen novel to appear since August, though it is by no means the best. This Pride and Prejudice is a BBC production; the script is by Andrew Davies, who did the BBC Middlemarch shown here on Masterpiece Theatre two years ago. Like the Middlemarch, it is a generally dutiful rendition with not the shadow of an idea in sight except the idea that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are two uncommonly good-looking people who have simply got to get past all these ridiculous social hang-ups so they can be where they ought to be, which is together.

This is an interpretation not incompatible with the pleasure most people take in the book, of course, and the enhancement it requires of Jane Austen’s text is an enhancement that has probably been made in readers’ heads pretty continually since 1813, when it first appeared—which is, the glamorization of Mr. Darcy. Nearly all of Davies’s departures from the novel involve Darcy, and are calculated to remind us of something Austen is characteristically elliptical about, which is that Darcy (played here by Colin Firth) has a body. We see him, therefore, in his bath; we see him practicing his fencing (he turns out, not surprisingly, to be a fierce and accomplished swordsman); we watch him strip off his coat and neckcloth and take a spontaneous plunge into what looks, actually, like a rather weedy pool on the grounds of his estate. This is, in short, a P&P with extra Darcy. He rides, he strides, he stares, he smolders. Rakish things are done with his hair. So that when he is finally accepted by Elizabeth, we fairly expect him to rip his own bodice before ripping hers.

He doesn’t, though. No bodices are ripped at all. Darcy and Elizabeth barely touch hands in the reconciliation scene, and their single kiss, in the very last shot, takes place in the wedding carriage and is a disappointingly decorous and tentative affair, made awkward by the lady’s bonnet and the gentleman’s unflattering top hat. What a relief, they seem to say, to have cleared up all those misunderstandings. Now let’s be sweethearts.

A show that fails to rise even to the height of expectations this soapy is a show in serious trouble, and when Elizabeth and Darcy are off the screen, there is not much else to entertain us. This is principally the fault of the acting, which is misconceived in the minor roles, and of the direction, which is by Simon Langton—who is also, presumably, responsible for much that is wrong with the acting.

Langton has somehow failed to see that although the book’s characters are frequently obnoxious to each other, they do not therefore have to be obnoxious to us. The greatest offense in this regard is the Mrs. Bennet, played by Alison Steadman, who …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.