It is a truth universally acknowledged that every few years the public must be in want of another version of Pride And Prejudice. Since it was first published in 1811, Jane Austen’s novels have never been out of print. Deemed worthy of scholarly study in the 1940s, Austen’s work now threads a fine line between popular and academic appeal; one is just as likely to enjoy her books for fun as to dissect them in a classroom. By far, her most popular and influential novel is 1813’s Pride And Prejudice. The love story of lively Elizabeth “Lizzy” Bennet and haughty Fitzwilliam Darcy—the most satisfying of all Austen romances—continues to capture imaginations more than 200 years after the novel was published. That’s thanks in no small part to an ever-growing list of adaptations and reimaginings that have brought the story to life over and over again.
But why do we keep revisiting this world in particular? Pride And Prejudice is the rare literary classic that offers a genuine happy ending yet balances its crowd-pleasing romance and comedy with intelligence and seriousness. It effortlessly subverts the notion that great books must be tragic ones. At times laugh-out-loud funny, Austen plays the neat trick of keeping her prose as polite and mannered as the society in which her characters live. Her acrobatic wordplay hides humor behind sarcasm, irony, and understatement, and her characters still feel real and recognizable two centuries after Austen wrote them.
The latest in a long line of Pride And Prejudice miniseries, movies, books, spin-offs, and modern-day retellings is Death Comes To Pemberley. Based on a 2011 book by 94-year-old mystery writer P.D. James, the BBC miniseries hops across the pond to PBS on October 26. The adaptation maintains Pride And Prejudice’s period setting but flashes forward to six years after the events of the original novel. Darcy’s massive country estate, Pemberley, serves as the main locale and adds a decidedly Downton Abbey-esque flare to the proceedings.
In place of Austen’s twinkling wit and satire, the series offers a murder mystery, a melodramatic love triangle, and a bit of upstairs-downstairs intrigue. Thanks to the time shift, the series is able to deepen some of the original novel’s secondary characters by revisiting them in different circumstances. Lizzy’s boorish little sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman); Lydia’s caddish husband, George Wickham (Matthew Goode); and Mr. Darcy himself (Matthew Rhys) particularly benefit from the additional nuance. Introduced at the height of marital bliss, Death Comes To Pemberley gives Lizzy (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Darcy some interesting relationship drama that doesn’t feel like a retread. And even though some of the characterization feels a bit off—Lizzy has lost some of her original spark—and the central mystery lacks complexity, it’s pleasant enough to spend more time in Austen’s familiar world.
Like all of Austen’s novels, Pride And Prejudice centers on the social and marital woes of the British landed gentry. Due to a law of entail that sees property passed through male heirs, the five daughters of the Bennet household are set to inherit nothing upon their father’s death. Their histrionic mother, Mrs. Bennet, sees marriage as the ultimate aim for her daughters. Without a good match (in wealth, if not in happiness), her daughters will be destitute. Lizzy, the second oldest but most intelligent Bennet, is determined to marry for love as well as for financial stability. Slighted at a ball by the proud—and at times socially awkward—Mr. Darcy, Lizzy is all too quick to write him off as a wealthy snob and believe the worst of him at every turn (the prejudice to Darcy’s pride). It’s only when Darcy and Lizzy both make an effort to be better for one another that they get their happy ending—all the more satisfying for having been earned and not merely granted.
Two major film adaptations—made 65 years apart—have brought Austen’s Pride And Prejudice to the big screen. In 1940 Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier slipped into the iconic central roles. The film makes several significant changes to the story, not least of which is swapping the novel’s Regency-era setting for a Victorian one. Empire waists are replaced with hoop skirts and crinoline, which filmmakers thought would look better on-screen. In general there’s an enjoyable comic exuberance to the film that matches its updated setting (think the opening scene in Gone With The Wind) more so than the novel’s neoclassical one.
In 2005, director Joe Wright cast Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as the stars of his Pride And Prejudice. The film downplays the satire (although not the comedy) and takes a more romantic approach—both by emphasizing the love stories and in the literary sense of the word. In Wright’s Romantic aesthetic, the natural world reflects his characters’ emotional states. Darcy’s failed first proposal takes place outside in a torrential downpour, while the lovers’ reconciliation happens as the sun peaks over the horizon of a misty field. That climax even styles Darcy as a Heathcliff-esque hero with a flowing coat and proudly displayed chest hair. Where the 1940 version offers broad comedy and satire, Wright goes for sentiment. Both work well as individual films, and it’s a testament to Austen that her novel is rich enough to provide fodder for these wildly divergent interpretations.
Those who prefer a truly faithful rendering of Austen’s novel must turn to the much beloved 1995 A&E/BBC collaboration starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. BBC made four previous miniseries adaptations of Pride And Prejudice, but this version remains the gold standard. Where the 1940 and 2005 films tipped their hands one way or the other, this adaptation perfectly balances the novel’s satire and romance. Clocking in at more than five hours, writer Andrew Davies fits in almost every major plot point, retains good chunks of Austen’s dialogue, and places more emphasis on Mr. Darcy. And what a Darcy he is. When asking, “Why do we keep adapting Pride And Prejudice?” it’s tempting to simply answer: Colin Firth. The actor perfectly captures the way Darcy’s haughty pride melts into warmer affection under Lizzy’s influence. Alongside “Prince Charming” and “bad boy with a heart of gold,” Firth’s performance helped solidify “Mr. Darcy” as a popular romantic archetype.
Darcy may be the iconic Pride And Prejudice figure in pop culture—helped in no small part by Firth’s wet shirt—but it’s Lizzy Bennet who is key to the novel’s continued popularity. Funny, intelligent, and self-deprecating, Lizzy feels universal in her specificity. Readers—particularly female readers—have long connected with her struggles to navigate an unjust world while maintaining an outer grace. For fans of the novel, it’s fun to watch various actresses try to capture the essence of the character. Garson nails the humor, Ehle the intelligence, and Knightley the fiery spirit of this complex protagonist. What all three interpretations do well is depict both Lizzy’s strengths and her flaws. It’s satisfying to watch Lizzy shape Darcy into a better man, but it’s equally satisfying to watch Lizzy (any Lizzy) expand her own perspective and realize there was a lot to like in Darcy from the very beginning.
Austen’s enemies-to-lovers trope has likely inspired hundreds of romantic comedies (and itself may have been inspired by the similar dynamic in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing). Notably, writer Helen Fielding drew from Pride And Prejudice for her modern-day romantic series Bridget Jones’ Diary. (Adding an even more absurd meta level: When the book was adapted into a movie starring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth was cast as the modernized version of his most famous role.) But while romance is the biggest association most people have with Austen’s work, her books contain deep social analysis and characterization from which to pull. Set in modern day rural India, the Bollywood-style musical Bride And Prejudice replaces Austen’s focus on class and gender with a focus on culture. The pomp and circumstance of traditional Indian life makes an unexpectedly wonderful stand-in for Regency England. Lalita Bakshi (Aishwarya Rai as the Lizzy figure) is first prejudiced towards Will Darcy—here a wealthy American hotel owner—because of the condescending way he discusses Indian traditions.
Meanwhile the webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries reimagines Lizzie (Ashley Clements) as grad student releasing video blogs about her life. By highlighting the novel’s female friendships, the series finds surprising pathos in Lizzie’s relationships with her best friend Charlotte and her sisters Jane and Lydia. Even though both Bride And Prejudice and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries drop the ball when it comes to romance (neither finds a particularly compelling Darcy), their other strengths largely make up for this deficiency. Austen’s work remains surprisingly rich even when stripped of the Lizzy/Darcy tension.
Where Austen adaptations fail is when they try to use Pride And Prejudice as a synonym for wish fulfillment. Both the 2013 film Austenland and the 2008 British miniseries Lost In Austen center on modern day Austen fanatics who long to trade in their busy modern worlds for her mannered, romantic one. (They both do so over the course of their respective stories; Austenland’s Keri Russell through an Austen-themed resort and Lost In Austen’s Jemima Rooper through a magical portal in her bathroom.) The problem is, any true Austen fan would realize her world is not a particularly welcoming one for young women.
Sure, the decorum and order are appealing on some level, but there’s also a palpable sense of danger lurking for Austen’s female characters. Lacking the beauty and youth of the eldest Bennet sisters, Lizzy’s friend Charlotte Lucas chooses to make the most of a marriage of convenience to an undesirable husband rather than become an old maid. (In an age where marital rape was legal, that’s no small bargain.) Mrs. Bennet’s desire to see her daughters married is over the top, but it’s also rooted in a very real fear: If Mr. Bennet dies before any of the girls are married, the entire family will be left homeless and poor.
Austen doesn’t openly condemn her society. It’s as easy to read her books as affirmations of aristocracy as it is to read them as critiques. Instead she presents the hypocrisies of her world and lets readers make up their own minds. Mr. Bennet regrets his somewhat frivolous financial planning yet treats his wife’s matchmaking as a joke—perhaps because he never has to worry about losing power in his patriarchal world. After Lydia’s scandalous affair is discovered, clergyman Mr. Collins—whose position should guide him toward Christian forgiveness—claims it would be better if Lydia had died rather than to be so ruined in the eyes of society. Unlike Jo March and other later feminist protagonists who would openly rebel against their patriarchal societies, Lizzy and her older sister Jane very much work within the social and gendered system they are born into. But their desire to marry for both love and money is in its own way a progressive stance. They are rewarded at the end of the novel with wealthy and loving partners, but in some ways that’s just a spoonful of sugar to help Austen’s larger social commentary go down.
It’s clear the public hasn’t had its fill of Pride And Prejudice. (Next on the docket is a big-screen adaptation of the bestselling novel Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which, yes, adds zombies to Austen’s original tale.) Thanks to Austen’s masterful understanding of human behavior, her characters remain recognizable and relevant whether they are in Spencer jackets, hoop skirts, saris, or skinny jeans. Centuries before there was a Hollywood to question whether women can be funny or if audiences will support female-driven projects, Jane Austen answered both questions with a resounding “Yes!” The success of Bridesmaids, Frozen, and The Hunger Games are not anomalies, but extensions of a trend dating back to the 19th century and beyond. Until Hollywood learns to keep up with demands for better female representation, Austen’s wonderfully crafted female-driven stories will continue to do quite nicely.