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06 October 2010

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?

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15 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

For me, it was the Rintoul version of P&P. He remains my favorite Darcy. For books, it was Heyer that got me hooked on the era (though even with her, it's the 18th century books that I love the most).

Have you seen St. Ives? Great adaptation of the novel, with wonderful comic performances by Richard E. Grant and Miranda Richardson.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

RfP who commented on my website also loves the Rintoul/Garvie version, Isobel. It's weird, that's the one version I've never been able to get into. I need to watch it again. Which Heyer book did you read first? And was that the one that hooked you?

I haven't seen St. Ives (or read the book). Thanks for the recommendation!

11:45 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

My first Heyer was Devil's Cub. I think it's still my absolute favorite. And I was pretty much hooked from that point on. I read all the Heyer books my godmother had, then moved on to the library, then started buying my own copies in used book stores. And then the internet came into its own and I could hunt them down online. Eventually, I bought ALL of Arrow reprints from England, and now I’m buying them again as eBooks (though the formatting is all effed up on the ones I bought, and I’m still fighting with them about refunding my money or fixing the books).

12:59 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Devil's Cub is great. I read "The Grand Sophy" first and then I think "Frederica" (not entirely sure of the order). I still have paperbacks that are 20-30 years old (my copy of "An Infamous Army" is in two pieces). I was thinking I'd love ebooks, but not if the formatting is messed up.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I spent $12 a pop for the new eBooks, and they're unreadable because of the formatting. I'm really annoyed.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

How frustrating!

2:14 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I have all of Heyer in trade paperback, either the Arrow or HQN editions. I gave my mother my old mass-market editions to replace her tattered editions.

I fondly remember the Russian version of WAR AND PEACE. I've seen it multiple times, even dressed up in costume for it! Entire scenes still live in my memory, although it's been years since I last saw it. It had both raw power and intimacy. Wonderful.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I haven't seen the Russian War and Peace, Diane--it sounds fabulous. I have seen the BBC production, which I love.

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Valerie L. said...

I love the BBC version of War and Peace and finally got it on DVD. I'm still hoping to get the DVD version of the Masterpiece Theater version of Anna Karenina. It was fabulous!

When I was 10 I saw Ronald Colman in a Tale of Two cities and fell in love with the 18th century. Much later Sean Bean and Sharpe introduced me to the Napoleonic Wars and Regency period.

I wish they would make those long multipart series again. They were as close to the books as a film production could get - and the eye candy wasn't too bad either.

My first Heyer was These Old Shades and it's still my favorite. but Devil's Cub is a close second.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

How wonderful to find the 18th century through Ronald Colman and A Tale of Two Cities and then the Napoleonic Wars and the Regency through Sean Bean and Sharpe, Valerie! Also cool that you discovered the Regency via the Napoleonic Wars, because I think for a lot of readers it's the reverse.

I wish they'd make more of those multipart series, too. I loved them growing up, and my whole family would gather round the tv and talk about the story in between episodes. I still remember watching Poldark with my parents on midnight repeats on our local PBS station. The last series I can think of that was so long was the 1995 P&P. Though I have mixed feelings about the recent Emma, I enjoyed that it was a bit more leisurely. I'd love to see an Emma as long as the P&P though.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I still find it the most perfectly cast version of P&P, and even if the screen adaptation doesn't allow Darcy to make the break as much on his own, for my money no actress has ever rivaled Edna May Oliver for Lady Catherine, and no other P&P adaptation has yet to capture Austen's wit and the tone of the novel, as well as the 1940 version does. After all, you've got Aldous Huxley at the typewriter!

Also, I think the reason for the 1830s costume update was because Greer Garson looked awful in Regency-era costumes, so of course the whole era had to be updated to accommodate her. But the costumes are in fact wildly successful in this film, telling the story they need to do, regardless of the fact that the period has been moved. They are marvelously comical when they need to be (the outsized prints and ludicrous, warring bonnets are exactly what they need to be in that opening scene in Meryton with Mrs. Lucas and Mrs. Bennet in the draper's shop).

10:41 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love talking to you about this movie, Leslie, because we so agree :-). Watching the movie recently I was noting the costumes and the use of detail in general. There are some wonderful bits, whether it's the various characters interacting with the chaos of the Bennet family's possession packed for their move to Margate or a lovely background detail I noticed at the start of the archery scene, where a dog runs by and a family walks past, with the boy stopping to pet the dog. A wonderfully rich production, both in acting and visual detail.

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Olivier version always bothers me. They changed some of the best lines.
"Any savage can dance." became "Any Hottentot can dance." Yipes! The second verision is from Olivier and awful for many reasons including racism.
I also didn't like the point blank lines in the ew one. Charlotte Lucas: I am thirty years and must get married.
No version of P&P could annoy me as much as the films of Little Women. For starters let's just say we could use a long one of that.
Actually my mama thought they changed the ending of P&P to be like Little Women. Remember in the end of the first volume Aunt March Settles the Question.
I never liked Emma as much as P and P. Thought the new interesting. Among other things its better to see a new interpretion then to see them mess up the same way again and again.
Anyway I like historical romances. The only reason I like Regency is that most of them are regency.This is especially weird when you consider that
a)Austen wrote about that time because that's when she lived.
b) Heyer wrote regencies but other times; including Georgians which her Georgians are distictive as her Regencys. (To Ms. Grant I know you love an Infamous Army. I had trouble starting it. It seems like more of a sequel to Regency Buck; so many of the same characters.)
Finally I think its the War and Peace is mentioned. I often wonder why there are not more historicals from the Regency set elsewhere like America.

2:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

shoot! Sorry about that when I wrote the second version was awful I meant of that particular line Any Hottentot can dance. The movie is not my favorite version of P&P, but its okay. My favorite is with Colin Firth.

2:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Anonymous, I too find the "any Hottentot dance" line disturbing. In general, though, I like the 1940 script and I find quite a bit of Austen's dialogue in it.

Did you stop reading "An Infamous Army"? I'd recommend giving it another try. It takes her a while to set up the different characters and story lines, but I find both the love story and the history quite fascinating. And it's also a sequel to "Devil's Cub" with Mary and Dominic making a late appearance.

7:12 PM  

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