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 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 my fellow History Hoyden Leslie Carroll 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.
Another of my fellow Hoydens, Isobel Carr, 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.” 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. 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. He and Greer Garson have great chemistry. 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…
Just writing this makes me want to watch the movie again. What are some of your favorite novel-to-film adaptations? If you like the Regency/Napoleonic era, what book or movie or other source introduced you to it?
This week’s Fraser Correspondence letter is another update on pre-Waterloo Brussels from Mélanie to Raoul.