So last night, some of the girls in the neighborhood threw a pizza-and-movie party. I thought this sounded like a great plan for Valentine's Day . . . though, heck, I think this is a great plan for any Thursday you care to name. So I dropped on by, ate some pizza, and enquired what the movie was.
"Pride and Prejudice," said someone.
"The new one, or the like six-hour one?" asked another.
"The new one. With Kira Knightley. Yeah, we're NOT gonna be here for six hours."
I flinched a little. I saw the new P&P when it was first released on DVD, and remembered not liking it. But, thought I, that was a long while ago, and I've studied a lot of adaptation theory since then. Maybe I'm prejudiced against it by liking the A&E version so much. But there can be two different interpretations of the same text, and they can both be good, right? Maybe I was just being a snob because it wasn't "the right" P&P. I may be a literature grad student, but that shouldn't make me into a jerk who can't enjoy movies. And wouldn't it be ironic if it turns out I'm too prideful and too prejudiced to enjoy watching Pride and Prejudice?
So, with the best of intentions, I sat down to watch.
I had to leave by the Netherfield Ball.
I respectfully submit that my early-planted aversion to this film is based on neither pride nor prejudice. It's just simply quite awful. I know that there are many folks who like it, and to them I say: I'm so sorry. I really, really am. I'm so hesitant to declare myself a P&P snob when I so recently railed on the Les Mis snobs of my acquaintance. But to all you folks about there who like this movie, I say: there's so much more in this wonderful story for you to enjoy. It takes a bit of effort, and a bit of time, but hardly any money. You can love Pride and Prejudice for so much more than what you're seeing in this film.
Pride and Prejudice, right? Up there with the great novels of the English language. Seriously. Jane Austen was writing at the beginning of the Age of the Novel, when advances in printing technology and literary theory and paper-making allowed the novel, as we understand it, to emerge. Yeah, mid-1700s you get things like Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and the late 1700s you've got the truly goshawful Coelebs in Search of a Wife (which qualifies as a novel in that it is long, prose, and fictional, but is an epic failure if you're looking for character or plot), but right around 1800 was when the English novel really truly took off, and P&P hit the market in 1813. That's two hundred years ago. Two hundred years people have been reading this book. Actually reading it. I mean, other novels from that period and earlier have survived and are still published, but how many have you read? Robinson Crusoe? Clarissa? The Absentee?
And it's never been outdone. P&P has some of the funniest, most human characters you will ever meet. Even with all we know now about psychology and behavioral theory, family relationships and human motivation, we can't harness all that information to draw characters any more engaging than the Bennetts, Bingleys, and Lucases. Part of the continuing delight of this novel is that you can read along and suddenly realize "Oh, my gosh, [character] is totally my sister, my roommate, my best friend, my mom!" That's part of the funniness of it: just the delight of meeting the caricatures of people you already know. When I'm watching a film adaptation of this book and can't remember which girl is Lydia and which is Kitty, there's a problem.
It's got some of the sharpest one-liners in the English language. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Two hundred years, and this is still funny. The dialogue and the details absolutely sparkle. It's like listening to a harpsichord: light, clean, quick, fun, emotive. It takes a meaningful level of neglect to make dialogue like this fall upon the ear like lazily-thrown bricks, which, unfortunately, the KN P&P achieves. It's so sad to listen to.
But here's my biggest concern about this film: the hair. The HAIR! In the brief portion I re-watched last night, KN was wearing her hair down (or half-down), in public, fully three times. Please, show me a fashion plate, a portrait, an engraving from this period that shows an upper-class adult woman wearing her hair down in public. Elizabeth should not have been allowed outside (or even downstairs) with her hair looking like that. It marks her as either a child, a lunatic, or a prostitute.*
Which unintentionally made her arrival at Netherfield really funny. She walks in to the room and my whole brain is like "Oh my GOSH her HAIR what is she THINKING?!?" However, the hypercritical Miss Bingley, who from a historical sense should have been even more shocked than I was, comments disdainfully on the state of Elizabeth's skirt. Because that's what's in the book.
There is a film adaptation of P&P that delights in the characters, celebrates the dialogue, and did its homework on hair and costuming. Yes, it's six hours long. Yes, that's a long time. But truly, my dear friends, it is worth it. I can't think of a better novel-to-film adaptation, period. I implore you to give it a try, and see what this lovely story when not just the lead actress, but the entire cast, are allowed to shine.
And if you enjoy that, I'd happily recommend to you the book itself. It is a delicious, sparkling, joyful commentary on the follies and merits of humanity. The text and the film aren't even in competition, as is so often the case: they enhance one another. The KN P&P, I'm sorry to say, just doesn't participate in that synergy at all. Which is sad. KN is a lovely actress and has done some great roles. She even does a darn good job here. But the costumers, screenplay writers, directors and supporting cast are just not where they need to be to let her performance blossom into a worthwhile story. Which is a shame, because it is a very worthwhile story.
So today, the 15th of February, I declare International Hug Your Favorite Novel-to-Film Adaptation Day! Because doesn't your favorite novel-to-film adaptation deserve a hug at least once a year?
*Maybe her house was on fire. It would be acceptable for her to go outside with her hair down if the house had caught fire while she was getting dressed. But if that were the case, you'd think it would be mentioned somewhere in the film. Also, you'd think that someone would do something to stop these house fires from happening three times in a single month.**
**A month with at least one day of pouring rain.