By Leah Burgin, Daily Fine Arts Columnist
Published March 13, 2011
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any adaptation of Jane Austen’s timeless classic “Pride and Prejudice” will be met with either hostility or obsession, but will most definitely grab the fanatic attention of Austen disciples. And it will most likely make money.
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Most recently, “Pride and Prejudice” entered my life through a staged romantic comedy adaptation my family saw over spring break at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. While I thoroughly enjoyed parts of the show, I thought it was miscast and the characters reduced to annoying shells of their most recognizable traits. Elizabeth was confident and witty, but in a “shut up, no one wants to listen to you” way, and Darcy was reserved and bitter, but to the point of seeming constipated.
Despite my criticism for the adaptation, people seemed to go gaga for it. Not only was the show’s run extended, but each performance sold out — an unprecedented event for such a small theater with a niche audience. This is the power of “Pride and Prejudice” — even a mediocre performance of the beloved story can draw in more people and revenue than Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces. How can this be? Why is “Pride and Prejudice” so prone to adaptations that keep Austen’s fan base spellbound?
On the “Pride and Prejudice” Wikipedia page, there’s an entire section devoted to adaptations, ranging from the 2005 film with Kiera Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” — the 2009 novel that adds the living dead to the social circle of 19th-century England. Colin Firth stars in both the classic six-hour BBC made-for-TV miniseries and the clever rom-com adaptation “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Dozens of books start where Austen left off, imagining the lives of the beloved characters post-last page, or telling the story from Mr. Darcy’s point of view. Another BBC miniseries, “Lost in Austen,” features a modern 30-something (obsessed with “Pride and Prejudice”) who finds a portal in her bathroom directly leading her to the attic in the Bennet house. She swaps places with Elizabeth and everything goes crazy. There is also Sir Elton John’s rumored film adaptation “Pride and Predator” which adds an alien invasion to the rolling farmland of Longbourne.
A sense of timelessness isn’t the only reason “Pride and Prejudice” has stayed in the public eye and creative mind for all these years — the book is also boundless. There seems to be no tweak too bizarre for the fans. You could place the Bennet sisters at the bottom of the sea, with shell bras and fish fins, and I bet people would lap it up. It’s already been made into a musical and a Bollywood film, but where is the Disney version, complete with talking animals and an Alan Menken soundtrack?
I’m sure that, for some, these adaptations are blasphemous taints on the holy ground upon which the sacred work of fiction sits. Others may be amused by these new spins, but uncompromisingly claim that the book will always be better than any variation. And for a lot of girls in my high school, it was the idea of a sexy, misunderstood Mr. Darcy — played by either the simultaneously regal and adorable Firth or the much rawer and emotional Matthew Macfadyen — that kept the pages turning and the obsession ignited.
But the universally acknowledged truth remains that if you love “Pride and Prejudice,” any mention of it in a contemporary context is going to set your heart pounding. My grandma and aunt have a theory: It’s the brilliance of Austen’s writing, her ability to make the inane drama of an average fictional family seem relatable to readers — but also magically illusive — that captures our attention and that of the adapters who offer their own spin on the Bennets. Austen (probably not intentionally) balances between identifiable characters and enough wiggle room for adaptations to be born.