Adaptations of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Since the 20th century, film adaptations of novels have occurred regularly such as with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Novels and films are produced with various instrumental differences in the presentation of a story. The work of film must not only maintain the spirit of the original novel but must also appeal to the contemporary audience, and so renditions that greatly diverge from the original text in order to honor it as opposed to compete with its telling often find the most success. In the adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is portrayed with great variance in film adaptations including Gurindher Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, Burr Steers Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. These films depict the character of Elizabeth and her representation of Austen’s feminism to appeal to the modern audience through differing interpretations and resulting presentations. Even though filmmakers and screenwriters often attempt be faithful to the overriding source of the novel, they have an obligation to meet the demands of mass film public as an audience that changes with time and the profit-based industry to justify the multi-million dollar film funding. Additionally, Characters on a screen are forced to behave differently to their counterparts in a novel, as the loss of the omniscient narrator means that other narrative devices must be used and that characters have to clearly display what is usually kept between the narrator and the reader. These factors and additional challenges with presenting internal dialogue and personality on film as compared to in a novel results in an Elizabeth that maintains her core values and defiance, but in a form that is often exaggerated in order to bluntly present critical components of Elizabeth and Austen’s presentation of feminism.

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As the protagonist of her story, Elizabeth is portrayed by Austen as intelligent, direct, and bold. However, set in the early late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, women’s roles in society were limited, having little of the autonomy that women in modern society possess. Instead, they had to resort to marriage in order to advance themselves socially to their husband’s position, or even to just survive. In the opening line of the novel, Austen sets this tone in beginning “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen, p. 1). While not solely indicative of a man’s desire to have a wife, the line is indicative of the assumption by society and women that men desire a wife, a jab both at Mrs. Bennett and her fanatical encouragement of her daughters to find husbands but also society’s expectations. In the context of the novel and the Bennett family, this is significant as it is represented by Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters, representative of the young women that must marry in order to maintain their social standing or progress up the social rankings. In Austen’s original text Pride and Prejudice, one of her most prominent feminist themes was that of showcasing the world from a woman’s perspective. With Elizabeth as her vessel, Austen offers audiences the comprehensive view of the world through a woman’s perspective – the real world, with a frequently pessimistic view, especially of the surrounding men. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth’s thoughts and perspective are what is presented to the observer, and those of Mr. Collins or Mr. Darcy are viewed through Elizabeth’s eyes. While Austen may use a third person narrator in Pride and Prejudice but it is not an omniscient one, Elizabeth is clearly the protagonist of the story and any events that take place outside of her knowledge are only learnt of by the reader when Elizabeth learns of them.

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice depicts Elizabeth as an attractive and beautiful character with a spirited wit and good sense. In contrast to her older sister Jane, Elizabeth bends the constraints of her feminine role in society, although without overstepping her boundaries. Following her personal sense of righteousness, Elizabeth voices her opinions to her companions, although as in the case of Mr. Darcy she is not so deviant as to publicly object directly to the misconduct. While bold, Elizabeth maintained much of her action to within the standards of societal norms, including in her dress. In Austen’s representation of Elizabeth, she maintained a contemporary, conservative dress, including carrying a parasol (Austen, p. 269) with her as she walked outdoors. The adapters of the story draw on elements of the character of Elizabeth in addition to imparting their individual vision of the classic tale of initial impression.

In Wright’s film Pride & Prejudice, the adaptor has created a bold and independent woman who holds less respect for the rules of her contemporary society. Instead, she is rather a prototype of a modern woman who is quite bitter and sure of her position. Elizabeth displays this well in her response to her sister Mary, that “men are either eaten up with arrogance or stupidity. If they are amiable, they are so easily led they have no minds of their own whatsoever” (Wright, J., 2005). Furthermore, in Austen’s novel Elizabeth did not respond to being referred to by Mr. Darcy as “tolerable” in his declining to dance with her beyond telling the story to her companions. This is followed in the film, although with one significantly added retort by Elizabeth – towards the end of the ball, when advising Mr. Darcy on how to encourage feelings, Elizabeth’s advice is “Dancing. Even if one’s partner is barely tolerable.” (Wright, J., 2005). Not included in the novel and added solely for Wright’s adaptation to film, this curtly delivered piece of direction by Elizabeth is exceptionally bold as well as culturally inappropriate, but allows Elizabeth to depart a satisfied heroine while Mr. Darcy is left baffled. In physical presentation, Wright depicts Elizabeth’s sexual attractiveness by use of low-cut costumes as well as casting her to fill the modern media demands and appeal to the larger audience. To some degree, the adaptation is close to the mother novel, but also presents a life of individually established detachments from the novel that shift interpretations. Wright’s film is traditional and faithful in terms of form but is a delicate modification that shows an effort to modernize Elizabeth, often to extremes, for the existing audiences.

While restrained by the lack of freedom she had as an early nineteenth century woman, in Wright’s film Pride & Prejudice Elizabeth is found to have great freedom to express her free-spirited tendencies. In this film, Elizabeth is framed as more of a rogue figure, being much more mobile and outside of the social matrix of her society as compared to in the novel. However, this updating or modernizing of Elizabeth comes at the cost of Austen’s own feminism, an ideology that calls to attention much more strongly the lack of freedom of women in the world at the time. Similarly to Austen’s novel, we follow Elizabeth, and are presented the characters and story through her perspective. Early in the film, the Bennett discusses visiting Mr. Bingley. Through this discussion, instead of aligning herself with her mother and sisters with regard to their marital hopes and anxieties, she aligns herself with her father and views the other women of the family with an almost amused detachment (Wright, J., 2005).  While representative of Elizabeth’s apparent divergence from the common constraints of women of the time, this presentation of Elizabeth is conflicting with Austen’s original portrayal. In detaching her from these anxieties, Wright releases Elizabeth from the intricate social concerns of the time, as well as the more bludgeoning economic ones, that so thoroughly restrict the world and potential of Austen’s female characters. This overreaching of the portrayal of Elizabeth’s freedom results in the tension Austen sets up between Elizabeth’s exceptional character and the norms and expectations of Regency femininity all but collapses. As opposed to a remarkable young woman painfully brought down through the story, Wright’s Elizabeth is not only identified as distinguished from her introduction but also enabled throughout to observe the flaws of her world from beyond its reach. Wasting no time in establishing Elizabeth as exceptional, Wright’s Elizabeth certainly maintains Austen’s presentation of her protagonist as a feminist vessel, however, the feminism itself represented has been modernized. Abandoning Austen’s feminist argument of a young woman lacking agency due to the structure of society at the time, Wright’s feminism as expressed through Elizabeth is that of a significantly freer individual, and through the majority of the film unconstrained by the limitations set on her novel counterpart. This updating or modernizing of Elizabeth was likely done with a younger audience of post-feminist viewers in mind, a probable audience for a 2005 rendition of Pride and Prejudice. While Wright’s film does maintain a strong sense of feminism through Elizabeth, it is an altered one that is distinct in its divergence from Austen’s original novel. In maintaining the feminist theme, Joe Wright maintains his responsibility to the original text in his adaptation, however, he also provides the necessary modifications to modernize the story and its message in order to appeal to the contemporary audience the film must appeal to.

Gurindher Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice adapts Austen’s novel by depicting the intense politics in marriage in a drastically different culture. Comparing this adaptation to the classical work it is worth to note that they entirely different in the general mood of the story. From the very title of the film, it becomes clear that this is a subtly ironic movie. The film generally constantly appeals to the story and the plot of the novel. However, the action takes place in a much more contemporary India as opposed to early nineteenth century England, and there is a significant difference in the surface on which the plot is developed. The action of the novel has been postponed to the modern world days and to Amritsar – the city of the Indian province. Here Bride and Prejudice observes the family of a poor farmer who has four daughters and their mother’s main task is to marry them as soon as possible, preferably to a wealthy foreigner. The screenwriters and director changed the names of the main characters: Jane turned into Jaya, Lizzie into Lalita, Mary into Maya, and Lydia to Lakhi, and Bingley is converted to an Indian named Balradzh who lives in London, and he is portrayed to most likely be the dream of every Indian girl. The names which have been preserved are Darcy and Wickham. Moreover, this adaptation reveals the modern world and therefore the essence of some aspects, such as the same pride and prejudice are shifted and disclose the entirely different issues. Characters in comparison to the original novel are poorly disclosed. Both Lolita’s and Darcy’s characters in the film are shown superficially. They are not displayed through dialogues but mostly through the blames which characters express to each other. Thus, the viewer does not have a chance to approach the characters critically. Characters and actions are shown by the director superficially and the development of their characters can be hardly traced. In Austen’s original novel, it is much more pleasant and understandable to both follow and enjoy the story through the characters’ development and understanding. Characters are in Bride and Prejudice are disclosed through their dialogues and interactions between each other. Jane Austen subtly approaches the careful disclosure of each particular character despite their significance to the development of the general theme. Despite the significant difference in the mood of the story, it does not make sense to compare the classical story and this adaptation under the same criteria.  The creators of the film did not hide they do not aim to repeat the literary source and did not set ambitious tasks before themselves. They shot the film with the classical novel in mind while adapting it to the modern Indian culture they viewed with a parodic twist. Unlike the restrained classical novel of Jane Austen, the film is very colorful and this mood is created by Indian dresses, landscapes, even the city markets are filled with unforgettable shades and Indian mood, and dances and songs are subtly interrelated between a typical Indian film and a Hollywood musical. Chadha’s film re-images the plot structure of the original work, drawing from the emotions of the story as it diverges from the class and gender focus of Austen’s novel. The stylistic manifestation of Chadha’s Elizabeth, Lalita Bakshi, shows the narrative and cultural obstructs to romantic union for her. The divisive adaption adopted by Chadha in the film relates with Austen’s novel based on a hybrid of contemporary audiences. Similar to Wright’s film, Lalita considers herself to be spirited and intelligent, and she longs for a partner capable of matching her with sparky, intelligent conversation, or as she phrases it in one of the musical numbers of the film: “I just wanna man who’ll give me some back/ Who’ll talk to me and not to my rack!” Ain’t it the universally acknowledged truth?” (Chadha, 2005). To that end, Elizabeth has her own cultural input within the Indian society through which she connects with the modern audiences, as well as creating appeal through the story’s dissociation from the original novel. American influence and American conscious can be strongly felt in this movie. Traditional Indian cinematograph portray Indian girls as modest and shy ladies who obey their parents. However, here there is no this traditional modesty neither traditional strict Indian parents. If one tries to compare the situation for women in India today and their situation in Austen’s nineteenth century England we find many similarities. Woman as a domestic being was still the norm, and a career outside the home in many cases was not even considered. The norm for most women was still to marry well, give birth to children and tend to her husband’s needs. Yet the women in Bride and Prejudice seem stronger and more reflective than the men who seem intellectually weaker. This is where Chadha’s feminist view becomes visible. It is no longer the man’s prerogative to be the hero and save the day, as the woman has her share of the heroic moment. Therefore, it makes sense to claim that this adaptation was not only the adaptation of Austen’s novel to Indian context but also an adaptation of Indian context to American perception while still maintaining Austen’s core feminist ideas while changing the setting in time, geographical location, and culture. 

 

Opposed to the woman’s subservience in the traditional ideal of an Indian marriage, Chadha mocks it is when the four daughters of the family envisage what life with Mr Kholi would be like. This vision portrays Lalita dressed in the traditional Indian sari serving her husband a meal. Her world is Kholiwood, which is written in large letters on the wall, and her place in this world is beneath her husband, acting as a servant in his home, giving him a foot massage and tending to his every need, while he continues to act in a ridiculous manner (Chadha, 2005). Presented through Mr. Koli and his belief that modern women are becoming too educated and outspoken for his taste and so hopes to find a traditional woman to fit his desires in a wife, Chadha demonstrates how Indian women were trapped in a society of marriages of servitude, and the men were not readily willing to give up their power as husbands. While in the upper class families in major cities this has changed due to the education, for the great majority of women in India this is not the reality. Living in the countryside and without financial situations that would support an education, they remain trapped in a society similarly restricting as Austen’s England.

An adaptation of the 2009 parody novel of the same name, itself an adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Burr Steers Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an apocalyptic retelling of Austen’s original story, still set in Austen’s classic nineteenth century England. Set in one of the remaining human outposts still holding out against the undead, a great majority of the remainder of Austen’s storyline is maintained. However, in one of the earliest deviations from Austen’s text, while still including Mrs. Bennett’s fretting about her daughters being married to a wealthy man as they cannot inherit property of their own, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Mr. Bennett has raised his daughters to be warriors to defend themselves against the undead, insisting that they are “trained for battle, not cooking” (Steers, 2016). Incredibly capable of protecting themselves and rescuing men from zombie attacks, the Bennett sisters constantly demonstrated that they do not need men to protect them; that they instead can afford to seek a husband on the basis of their own genuine desire. However, without inherited property a single woman would be left defenseless and so must find a husband, with a man of wealth and stature still being incredibly desirable. Nearing the end of the film, during the wedding ceremony following the battle led by Elizabeth and Jane against the zombies, the officiant reverses the typical wedding roles, asking the brides if they take the men to be their husbands (Steers, 2016). As opposed to the traditional asking the husbands, this role reversal again places the agency into the hands of the women of the story. Placing a modern twist on Austen’s original feminist text, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies shows that the narrative of women’s lives, however domestic or seemingly romantic, have always been and still are stories of survival and strength. Even through the addition of flesh-eating zombies, the real threat women have and do face is a life of poverty, and even outside of Regency era England, marriage as a means of survival is still a crucial aspect of many women’s lives today.

There are many similarities drawn from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and her adaptors in film productions. However, translating written texts to film often arouses criticism, as producers, directors, and screenplay writers seek to capture the essence of an author in addition to incorporating their individual interpretation of the work. Even in attempts to produce an adaptation that is true to the original work (as much as the medium of film or TV allows) they are faced with contemporary audiences that cannot be expected to fully understand much of the historical and social context of the story they are viewing, leading to alterations, misinterpretations, and omittance of significant messages. Supported by this, it makes sense to note that Bodeen was correct in his claim that “adapting literary works to film is, without a doubt, a creative undertaking, but the task requires a kind of selective interpretation, along with the ability to recreate and sustain an established mood.” This analysis demonstrates that even with an honest approach to maintain and retell the original work, there is always a subjective interpretation. A director and a screenwriter interpret the story through the prism of their perception. Moreover, in order to make the character in the pages alive and to not distort them is a constant challenge for the actor as well as the director. Developed in a haste characters become superficial and unreal which ultimately results in a primitive and much-simplified adaptation. Such adaptations as Bride and Prejudice displaced the story in an entirely different cultural context in which just a parody can be traced without the hint at the original. Therefore, while filming the story, screenwriters and directors should take into account various subjective aspects and be aware enough how to avoid their use in order to get the most accurate ultimate masterpiece. Particularly, the depiction of Elizabeth as an empowered woman, her sexuality, her dressing, and views on marriage goes beyond the original novel and creates a close connection with the contemporary audiences. Overall, it is evident that films remain rooted in the historical novels, but are progressing towards a sense of revolution to connect to the modern viewers with emphasis on the boundary pushing feminism presented in Austen’s work. Due to this effect, it can be seen that these modern adaptations of Austen become romantic comedies designed to appeal to mass audiences, missing much of Austen’s satirical comment on her society. It can be identified that at times Austen’s views on women and the role in society are deliberately edited out of these adaptations in order to leave only the romantic essence of her stories, or perhaps the interpretation may be that “no one writes Jane Austen so well as Jane Austen”? (Wright, A., 1975, p. 423).