Austen on Film - 1940 Pride and Prejudice
This weekend I rewatched the movie that began my fascination with the Regency era – the 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as Elizabeth and Darcy and a wonderful screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin, directed by Robert Z. Leonard. I’m aware of the irony that the movie that set me on the path to writing Regency-set books is set in the 1830s, but the movie sent me to the novel and then to other Austen novels and to Georgette Heyer and Bernard Cornwell and Regency and Napoleonic history books and ultimately to creating my own stories.
I love a number of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, but in many ways this one remains my favorite. I’ve sometimes wondered if it seems to be so true to the mood and tone of the book to me because I saw it (at the age of six) before I read the book. But I’m currently in the midst of rereading Pride and Prejudice and watching the movie this time I was struck by how well it captures the spare, dry irony of the book, the keen wit, and the understated emotion.
I also think the film does a brilliant job of taking the book and telling it in cinematic terms. There’s the opening sequence in which Mrs. Bennet and her daughters and Lady Lucas and Charlotte learn about Bingley’s and Darcy’s arrival in Meryton, and the two women have their coachmen race each other home, so their husbands can be the first to call on Mr. Bingley. A wonderful way of demonstrating cinematically that “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.”
There’s the archery contest between Darcy and Elizabeth that captures, also in cinematic terms, the tensions in their relationship and their growing attraction. There’s the lovely, heart-melting scene (which Leslie and I have discussed) in which Darcy tells Elizabeth the story of Wickham and Georgiana, a scene that is essentially Darcy’s letter, turned into a dialogue between two people.
When I blogged about Pride and Prejudice recently and mentioned the film, Isobel brought up the fact that the movie softens Lady Catherine. “In the Olivier/Garson P&P I was always very bothered by the transformation of Lady Catherine into a benevolent do-gooder who’s promoting the match between Lizzie and Darcy. It changes the story too much for me. It removes one of Darcy’s major moments of character growth.” I blogged about the film this week on my own website, and JMM brought up this same point, saying " The whole point of Darcy’s growth was him learning to let go of his snobbery and seeing people as they are. (IIRC, it’s Lizzie’s mother’s relatives that impress him when he meets her again at Pemberly after his insulting proposal.) He marries Lizzy with the knowledge that his aunt might never speak to him again."
This always bothered my mom (who loved the movie) as well. The changes to Lady Catherine bother me, too. I actually like the scene between Darcy and Lady Catherine after Lady Catherine speaks with Elizabeth (Darcy is so wonderfully exuberant), but I agree the arc of the story is better with Lady Catherine not changing and Darcy marrying Elizabeth knowing he is cutting ties with his aunt (who seems to be his only remaining relative from his parents’ generation).But it’s not enough to ruin (or even damage) the movie for me.
Then there are the performances, a series of finely etched portraits. Very much including Olivier as Darcy. He’s so wonderfully aristocratic (with so much emotion smoldering beneath). And yet if you watch the way he moves, his arms are always held close to his sides, as though he’s hemmed in by his role. Even as a romantic leading man, Olivier was a fabulously physical character actor. He and Greer Garson have great chemistry (watching the movie this time I was particularly struck by the intensity of the romantic tension). Edmund Gwenn captures Mr. Bennet’s dry wit, Mary Boland has Mrs. Bennet’s giddiness and determination, Melville Cooper is an hysterical Mr. Collins, Maureen O’Sullivan is a sweet but not cloying Jane…
In the comments to my post on my website, there's been wonderful discussion about favorite adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. There were votes for the 1980 1995, and 2005 versions, with many noting a preference for the first version they saw. The discussion moved on to other Austen adaptations, particularly different versions of Emma, and other film versions of literature, such as the fabulous Anna Karenina with Nicola Pagett, Stuart Wilson, and Eric Porter that was on Masterpiece Theatre years ago (and which is now firmly fixed in my mind when I think of the book, though I read the book first). What are some of your favorite novel-to-film adaptations, Austen or otherwise? If you like the Regency/Napoleonic era, what book or movie or other source introduced you to it?