There’s a very funny podcast called Adapt or Perish, a podcast about adapting literary works to screen. Of course, they’ve done a number of podcasts on Austen. The title is a play on the phrase “Adapt or Die,” as applied to life in the wild. But there is perhaps a grain of truth in the fact that for a dead literary author’s reputation to survive and thrive in the contemporary screen-dominated media environment, that author needs to be adapted (and adapted well) to thrive and generate new young fans.
Austen has been adapted long before film even existed. (The scholar Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen tackles such early adaptations). But because film is a more permanent medium, it offers a portrait of some of the different ways Austen has been seen through the ages. The 1940 Pride & Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson abandoned the Georgian Empire waists in favor of more elaborate 1830s gowns to delight audiences with a chocolate box appearance versus the so-called “Regency wet nightgowns,” in the words of Ann Rutherford (Lydia Bennet), as well as threw in archery, carriage chases, a sweetened-up Lady Catherine, and other near-hysterical attempts to win over the American public to watch a film based on a British classic book. (It didn’t–the film flopped at the box office, despite positive reviews).
The 1980 BBC Pride & Prejudice featured a script by Fay Weldon designed to play up the more feminist themes and focus on the female characters (perhaps one reason why Elizabeth Garvie’s (Elizabeth’s) warmest relationship in the film seems to be with her friend Charlotte, versus David Rintoul’s remote, icy Darcy. The 1995 Pride & Prejudice became a global phenomenon, in contrast, with its fidelity to Austen’s dialogue, a surprisingly quick pace for such a long mini-series, and the sizzling chemistry between Jennifer Ehle’s sparky Elizabeth and Colin Firth’s Darcy. Dare I say that the melancholy, closed-off awkwardness, and smoldering sensitivity of Firth would have won over viewers even if the iconic white shirt hadn’t introduced an element of sexuality absent from many previous Austen adaptations? The 2005 Pride & Prejudice version’s cinematography, somewhat gentler interpretations of the leads and secondary characters’ conflicts, and Brontë-like romanticism (crashing rain, gaping ruins) also has its fans.
Regardless of preference, I’d argue that despite the argument that “adaptations come and go, the book is always there,” film versions often can be remarkably sticky in terms of the ways in which they generate visual images which set in stone various interpretations of Austen’s texts. Mr. Collins is tall in Austen’s text. But because the 1995 and 2005’s used the height of the actors playing this character to comic effect, I’ve seen many works of (written) fan fiction that insist upon the character’s shortness. Even the bizarre insistence Austen is Victorian might have its roots in the 1940s version’s hoop-skirted hold upon the public imagination.
There are even more versions than these, of course, ones which are much less widely available, but one which I’m quite intrigued about, after seeing this single episode and many random clips on YouTube , is the 1967, starring Celia Bannerman and Lewis Fiander as Elizabeth and Darcy. It was directed by a woman (Joan Craft), and Bannerman herself later went on to become the first woman to direct a production at The National Theatre. Worth a watch, given the quality of the acting, even though its budget was “beans on toast” and a fiver at the pub.
Does anyone else have any particular adaptations they love or loathe?