TALKING FILMS

Is Jane Austen spinning in her grave? Mission accomplished

The parody ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ is the latest, and most far-out, attempt to bring Jane Austen’s beloved novel to the screen.

With Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the new mash-up version of Jane Austen’s celebrated 1813 novel, due on Indian screens on February 19, it is time to visit some of the remakes, adaptations and other spin-offs from the popular novel.

More than 120 years since Austen wrote her novel, AA Milne penned a stage adaptation in 1936 called Miss Elizabeth Bennet, after its main female protagonist. Milne, the already celebrated writer of the Winnie the Pooh books, veered from the original. He set up scenes in which only the male actors featured and also added others. For instance, of Fitzwilliam Darcy dissuading Charles Bingley from courting Jane Bennet; and Jane and Bingley, at an early stage of their courtship, discussing the latter’s chances of running for Parliament.

Austen’s novel, too easily described as a social comedy of manners, saw a relatively late adaptation on stage and screen, and the reasons aren’t hard to figure. The silent era in movies would have ill-served Pride and Prejudice, in which characters reveal themselves largely through what they say and how they say it. The book’s many subplots also made it more suitable as a television miniseries. Indeed, there have been just two faithful film adaptations, while every decade since the 1950s has been marked by a television miniseries.

Television adaptations

The first BBC drama was telecast in 1938, with Andrew Osborn playing Darcy. This drama is, however, lost, as it was a live to air production. Recording facilities were still in a primitive stage and performances for television had to be redone each time.

The BBC had different versions again in 1952, 1958, and 1967, and the final one was the first to use specific locations rather than enacting the play on stage. Novelist Fay Weldon scripted the 1980 production, for which she played up the female roles. In 1995, Andrew Davies scripted his now famous six-episode take on the novel.

Jennifer Ehle, playing Elizabeth Bennet, won a BAFTA for best actress. But Davies’s script drew out the male actors too. The series had one of the most famous moments in British TV history when Colin Firth as Darcy emerged from a hasty swim in a lake, clad in a wet shirt.

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“Faithful” film productions

The first Pride and Prejudice movie, made in 1940, was adapted from Helen Jerome’s theatre script written in 1935. This had already been successfully staged in London and New York City. Greer Garson played Elizabeth and Lawrence Olivier was Darcy. Cedric Gibbons, who designed the Oscar statuette, and Paul Groesse won the only Academy Award for Pride and Prejudice: for best black and white art direction.

The film veers from Austen’s novel in some instances. In time, it moves ahead by 40 years to allow for more ornate costumes. Collins, cousin of the Bennets, appears as a librarian, not a vicar; Lady Catherine, in particular, appears more kindly and benign as she turns up at the Bennet house to test Elizabeth’s love for her nephew.

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The next faithful adaptation came 60 years later: Joe Wright’s 2005 film had Keira Knightley (a tomboyish, nature-loving version of Elizabeth) and Matthew Macfadyen in the leads. This was set in the late 18th century rather than the early 19th, since screenplay writer Deborah Moggach did not want too many comparisons with the popular 1995 series. She also tried to keep her script as close to the original and the focus on Elizabeth, though she did add scenes highlighting the male characters.

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Modern interpretations

The popular 1995 television series inspired British writer Helen Fielding’s columns, which soon appeared as a book and later as the film Bridget Jones’s Diary. Renee Zellweger plays Jones, Mark Darcy, a lawyer and one of Jones’s love interests, is played by Colin Firth, while Hugh Grant is the flirtatious Daniel Cleaver, Jones’s boss at a publishing firm. The book and film have an in-referential scene in which Firth and Zellweger watch the famous wet shirt scene of the 1995 miniseries, where Firth, of course, plays Darcy.

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The 2006 musical I Love You, Because has Marcy Fitzwilliam and Diana Bingley as friends looking for love. The two land a blind date with Austin Bennet and his brother Jeff Bennet (notice the play on the names), and many accidents and misunderstandings later, they do find true love.

The Mormon producers of Pride and Prejudice; A Latter-Day Comedy (2003) tried to recreate the book, with its message of propriety and the importance of marriage as an institution, into a modern-day tale. The movie was criticised on several counts, a major one being that the book couldn’t be adapted to a contemporary setting.

A fact disproved the very next year when Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice appeared. With its riotous display of colour and its play on the cultural differences between the American Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) and the Indian Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai) rather than class divisions, the movie brought up familiar clichés of Hollywood meeting Bollywood.

Bride and Prejudice was mainly in English, interspersed with Hindi and Punjabi (and later dubbed in Hindi for Indian audiences). Funded mainly by the UK Film Council, the film was shot in England, Amritsar, Goa and the United States of America. Bollywood influences show up not merely in the dance sequences and item number, but also in the clear love triangle in which Lalita is wooed not only by Darcy but also by John Wickham, who appears as a backpacker and the villain.

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In other adaptations, Jane Austen the writer appears as a character. An NBC drama adaptation (1949) had Austen providing the voice-over and introducing the characters. Austen’s life is re-interpreted in the light of her books in Becoming Jane (2007) and the BBC drama film Miss Austen Regrets (2008). Pride and Prejudice inspired a fantasy mini-series, Lost in Austen (2008), and a crime one, based on PD James’s novel, Death Comes to Pemberley (2013). The Emmy-winning YouTube blog, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, has Liz, a college student, share her travails, which somehow get exciting once Bing Lee and his friend Darcy appear.

Pride and Prejudice has also seen spin-offs in Italy, Israel and the Netherlands. It is surprising, then, that despite its universal theme, the novel hasn’t seen more adaptations in India. Trishna, a 13-episode serial, was telecast on Doordarshan in 1985 with Sangeeta Handa and Tarun Dhanrajgir as Elizabeth and Darcy. It appears to have faded from public memory, however, as have most of its actors. The stereotypical conjoining of unmarried daughters and their hapless parents doesn’t make for much Indian humour even now.

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