In the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, the romantic tales of Jane Austen must seem awfully tame. Still, I’ve been on a Pride and Prejudice kick lately, and the advent of Valentine’s Day is the perfect moment to contemplate the innocent side of romance. The time is also ripe because I’m now preparing to lead a community discussion as part my local library’s annual Santa Monica Reads program. The book this year is Longbourn, Jo Baker’s 2013 retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the Bennet family’s servants. Longbourn, which I’d personally categorize as educated chick lit, contains some of the upstairs/downstairs social tensions that have drawn many of us to Gosford Park, and more recently Downton Abbey. Longbourn is instructive, mildly steamy (especially when there’s laundry to be done), and presents some uplifting grand passion among the lower orders. But, truthfully, I’d prefer Pride and Prejudice any day.
Hollywood has always been fond of the romantic sparring between the proud Mr. Darcy and the spirited Elizabeth Bennet, who thinks the worst of him from the moment he arrives in her little village and sneers at the locals. I have a strong affection for the Golden Age version, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, in which Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson play the lovers, and Edmund Gwenn (best known for portraying Santa Claus in the original Miracle on 34th Street) is Lizzy’s properly whimsical father.Yes, I must admit that Garson, though completely charming, is much too old to play Elizabeth. In 1940, when this film was released, she was 36, though Austen’s character admits in passing that she’s not yet one-and-twenty. But Olivier makes the perfect Darcy, and Edna May Oliver is hilariously obnoxious as the stuffy Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose outspoken disapproval of the match ironically ends up furthering it.
It took over sixty years for another big-screen version to surface. The Elizabeth of Joe Wright’s 2005 version was aptly played by the dewy yet spunky twenty-year-old Keira Knightley, with Matthew McFadyen as her Darcy. Who better than Judi Dench in the Lady Catherine role? Others involved included Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as Lizzy’s mismatched parents. I was amused to discover that her angelic sister Jane was played in this version by Rosamund Pike, far removed from her Amy Dunne character in Gone Girl. And Carey Mulligan, in her first film appearance, was cast as one of the lesser Bennet sisters. Knightley earned herself an Oscar nomination for this film, which was also honored for its music, art direction, and costume design. But true fans of the novel are particularly fond of 1995’s serialized BBC television version, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.
The story of Pride and Prejudice is so well loved that it has also shown up in some multicultural versions. I refer you to Bride & Prejudice, an oddball adaptation from 2004 obviously intended to capitalize on the Bollywood craze. In Bride & Prejudice, Lizzy Bennet is transformed into Lalita Bakshi (played by the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai), one of five daughters in a modern-day Hindu family. Her Mr. Darcy is an American (Martin Henderson), cocky scion of a wealthy family, who shows up in her quaint Indian town with plans to build a big, bad hotel chain. The plot sticks fairly closely to Austen’s original, except that at one point the main characters are whisked away to L.A., where they sing and dance in inimitable Bollywood fashion in front of Disney Hall and other SoCal landmarks. I suspect that Jane Austen would have been puzzled, and then highly amused.
The public is cordially invited to all Santa Monica Reads events. Y’all come!