It is a truth universally acknowledged: A look at adaptation in Pride & Prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged”, that a classic novel in possession of critical acclaim must be in want of a faithful adaptation. Jane Austen’s novels in particular have been the subject of many different film and television adaptations, ranging from those highly beloved — such as, the various “Emma” adaptations, which, yes, do include “Clueless,” or the 2007 film “Northanger Abbey” — to those widely despised, such as the disaster that was Netflix’s 2022 adaptation of “Persuasion.” Translating Austen’s nuanced and intricate writing to the screen requires much thought and care, and clearly, not every iteration has or will succeed.
Arguably her most famous novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” which was published in 1813, has spawned a number of films and television series, with some adhering to the time and place of the novel, others borrowing the plot, including “Bride & Prejudice” (2004) and “The Lizzy Bennet Diaries” (2012-2013). The primary two adaptations of the novel, however — the 1995 miniseries and the 2005 feature film — are arguably the most popular and renowned of the slew of media that the novel has produced. Both attempt to stay true to the novel but with varying levels of success. While this may be a controversial opinion, this is a hill I’ve decided to die on: The 1995 miniseries is the definitive adaptation, and the 2005 film, while a good movie on its own, is a terrible adaptation of the novel.
It’s true that neither adaptation has been deemed definitively superior by the general public, and both received great critical acclaim and boast diehard fans. The miniseries “Pride and Prejudice,” directed by Simon Langton and starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, is generally considered to be the most popular adaptation, has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is praised for following the novel faithfully — nearly scene by scene. It set out to capture what other adaptations in the past have not, using its ample resources to shoot on location and design costumes accurate to the period in which the novel is set, for which costume designer Dinah Collin won an Emmy.
Similarly, the 2005 film, directed by Joe Wright and starring Matthew McFayden and Keira Knightly, has received much praise since its release, including multiple Academy Award nominations and an 87% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. However, the film cuts out and alters many details that make it unrecognizable when compared to the original text. It is true that the 1995 series has the advantage of six hour-long episodes to explore the story in more depth while the film only had two hours, but the film still made certain changes that led it astray from the heart of the novel. It is not the responsibility of every adaptation to do so, but when a film is claiming to be an accurate depiction of a text, it helps if they actually get it right.
The quality of adaptations is something that is highly subjective and difficult to reach a consensus on, which is evident in the debate over the best adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” I won't dwell on the minute details that I like or dislike about each. I do prefer the fashion and hair in the 1995 miniseries, and I don’t love the inaccuracies in the film — the hair nor the fashion is actually era-appropriate. Such things do impact the adaptations but are not the most important things to consider. What is much more important is how accurately they translate the characters, themes, and tone of the novel — something which the 1995 miniseries nailed and the 2005 film either didn’t care about, or the creators of the film greatly misunderstood the entirety of the novel.
It’s difficult to address every element in only 1,000 words, so my compliments and criticisms must be abridged. Ultimately, I adore the 1995 miniseries. It matches the tone of the novel quite successfully; “Pride and Prejudice” is a social comedy, and while it explores real and serious societal expectations and standards, the overall tone is still light and quite witty. The nuances of all the relationships are quite clear and the characters are all depicted as Austen herself wrote them. The creators appear to understand that there is a lot of drama in the original novel itself, and nothing needs to be exaggerated in order to engage the audience. It’s true that the miniseries inserts a scene in which Darcy walks the grounds at Pemberley, dripping wet from a swim, a detail certainly not written in the novel, but this changes nothing about the plot.
Alternatively, I have a laundry list of criticisms when it comes to the 2005 film, and nearly every one is something that the 1995 miniseries conversely did right. On a general level, the movie prioritizes romance over all else, and while that is a central and beloved part of the novel, it is not the only thing that matters. The novel is a social commentary, but the film ignores the titular themes — the pride and the prejudice.
They cut out Mrs. Hurst, one of Mr. Bingley’s sisters and turned Caroline Bingley into a seductress as opposed to focusing on her pride and her prejudice, losing Austen’s commentary on class. The director has said that the Bennets have a happy marriage and that Mrs. Bennet is a hero, both of which Austen refuted within the novel. In the novel, Charlotte Lucas is not a romantic and views happiness in marriage as entirely a matter of chance; meanwhile, her famous speech in the film refutes this idea. She marries not out of desperation but out of practicality. Jane and Elizabeth’s relationship is also rendered useless; they barely discuss anything and have virtually no notable correspondence. Conversely, in the novel, whatever they did not discuss was notable because they shared everything with one another. Knightley’s Elizabeth is overly emotional and puts herself at the mercy of others: such as when she begs her father not to force her to marry Mr. Collins, whereas Austen’s protagonist is strong and independent. The miniseries, however, hits every one of these points.
Indeed, the cinematography is stunning and the score is lovely, but watching the film, it feels more like an adaptation of a Bronte novel than anything else. “Pride and Prejudice” does not have love confessions in the rain. Mr. Darcy doesn’t dramatically walk across a field at sunrise to declare his love — that happens on a walk in the middle of the day. I will never understand the obsession with the “hand flex” scene — why is that more notable than Darcy helping her into the carriage at Pemberley and Elizabeth gazing back at him as her carriage pulls away, signifying her changing opinion of him, as Ehle’s Elizabeth does in the miniseries?
All this being said, my love for the miniseries stands on its own. It’s a remarkably well done series that I’ve watched five times in the last year; although, maybe that’s not something I should admit. I understand that my diatribe against a film that is so beloved may be off-putting, but if you’ve made it this far — I cannot recommend the miniseries more. It may not alter the way you see the film, but it is a genuinely lovely piece of media that I think any Austen fan would love.