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Pride and Prejudice - A Successful Adaptation

I had the great pleasure the other week of getting to rewatch the BBC television 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, featuring Colin Firth as Darcy in one of his breakthrough appearances, alongside Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. Austen's 1813 novel has been adapted many times for the screen, but this version, produced by Sue Birtwistle and directed by Simon Langton, broadcast in six 55-minute episodes from 24 September to 29 October 1995, is rightly regarded as one of the best. Acclaimed by critics and general audiences, the series was honoured with several awards, including a BAFTA Television Award for Jennifer Ehle for "Best Actress" and an Emmy for "Outstanding Individual Achievement in Costume Design for a Miniseries or a Special". The infamous scene showing Firth in a wet shirt has gone down in British TV history.

As you might expect, the television version, like the novel, hinges on the two central characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, but I think the core of the tale is the largely unseen character arc of Darcy. By ‘largely unseen’ I mean that, as the story is told from the viewpoint of Elizabeth, what is happening inside Darcy’s head is only viewed remotely from the brief glimpses that we get of him on screen. This makes his portrayal on television even more difficult, as series screenwriter Andrew Davies explained in an interview made during the filming of the programme. The fact is that Darcy must appear aloof, cold, haughty and dismissive at the beginning for anything to make sense -- or, to put it another way, for a sufficient 'vacuum' to be created to draw attention toward him— but he cannot be presented as evil or too harsh, as obviously Elizabeth must warm to him, along with the audience, as the show goes on. The novel has to communicate this through words on the page only, but bringing the character to life on screen means that he must be instantly more scrutinised.

It’s a job for the actor: how to be seen as cold but with the potential to warm up. Indeed, the aim would be for a significant part of the audience to effectively 'fall in love' with Darcy. Part of this is achieved bluntly through Firth’s good looks: a less handsome actor, in the eyes of the public, would have had more of a struggle. But part of it is in the way that Firth shows the character to be unhappy and repressed, suggesting that there is an internal tension. We see nothing but this tension until the very scene mentioned above, in which Darcy, obviously haunted by memories of Lizzie Bennet who has forthrightly rejected his clumsy advances, decides to dismount from his horse and take an impromptu swim in the lake as he arrives at his home in Pemberley. Davies was pushing the limits of what was acceptable to Austen fans at that time, but it was a clever way to visually represent the inner world of one of the central characters — and even more powerful when it was arranged that Lizzie would encounter Darcy emerging from the lake, unaware as he was that she was visiting Pemberley at the time. The accidental meeting shatters social protocol and exteriors and permits Davies to advance Austen’s character arcs in ways more acceptable to modern audiences.

It's a little more than that too. This 'accident' of bumping into the very woman he has been obsessing about for days as he emerges from a lake-- as well as Lizzie's viewpoint of seeing the man she has been increasingly re-considering, especially since hearing about his truly noble nature from the housekeeper at Pemberley, also stepping unexpectedly out of the water in front of her, makes this particular scene quite dreamlike and also a little mythic, like archetypes converging.

I then had the good fortune to be able to visit Lyme Park soon afterwards, where some of the scenes were filmed, including the one above.

Lyme Park

The Formal Garden

The Lake

I highly recommend the series as an introduction to Austen, or as a delight for an Austen fan, but also as an education in adapting one format to another.

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