Monday, October 16, 2017

Eight Reasons Why A New "Dark" Pride and Prejudice Isn't What We Need

I first discovered Pride and Prejudice in the summer of 2009. I was fresh out of eighth grade, gearing up for high school, starting to tire of the 101 books in the Saddle Club series and frustrated that the Mysterious Benedict Society sequel wasn't out yet. I read some Dickens novels here and there and felt grown-up about them, but though I called Martin Chuzzlewit my new favorite book, I still hadn't been "grabbed," as it were, by a book written for grown-ups. I was starting to think that maybe books for adults just didn't grip you the way kids' books did, and that I was going to be doomed to a life of reading classic novels so I could be an intellectual, stimulating my brain and increasing my vocabulary while being bored stiff.

BOY WAS I WRONG but that's a topic for another day.

Anyway, so then my mom suggested I give Jane Austen a try, and took me to Borders (yes, Borders still existed then) with a new birthday gift card, and I picked out a Modern Library Classics paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice, with a blond Lizzy and snooty-looking Darcy on the cover, and took it home and read the whole thing in less than a week. And I was hooked. And then we watched the 1995 A&E miniseries (the five-hour one with Colin Firth. Y'all know what I'm talking about).  And I was in love. (Not with Colin Firth, though. I mean, he's okay, but... yeah.)

Eventually I read all of Jane Austen's novels, watched almost every adaptation in existence, read all the novels again, started a blog about them (You Are Here), and... well, I have Opinions about the forthcoming newest adaptation of Jane Austen's most popular novel.

I'm not a fan, folks.

Here's what we know so far: the same producers in charge of Poldark and Victoria are spearheading a new P&P series. (Full disclosure: I haven't seen Poldark and can't offer an opinion on that. I do love Victoria, but it's not based on a book.) It's supposed to be "gritty" and "dark" and is supposed to showcase what the writer calls "Jane Austen's wit, which is sparkling like granite."

You can read more about this here and here, so I won't bother recapping every single detail. They say you aren't supposed to write novels in blog posts because you lose your audience's attention (and with the sporadic nature of my blog posts, I need to keep my audience's attention whenever I can get it) so I'll get right to the point. Here are my eight reasons why I am not excited about this new production.

1. P&P is more than just a "bonnet drama."

It really grinds my gears when people refer to miniseries like Cranford and Sense and Sensibility as "bonnet dramas." It implies a note of condescension, that stories primarily told from women's viewpoints in bygone eras are somehow frivolous or unimportant. It's a bunch of ladies in bonnets! Visiting! Having tea! There's nothing deeper there than who's-going-to-marry-who! I will be the first to acknowledge that Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell are not everyone's cup of tea, and I am okay with that, but I am not okay with entertainment critics patting Jane Austen on the head. Yes, there are bonnets in P&P, but there is a plot, too. P&P primarily deals with marriage, money, and morality, but it's not just about Mrs. Bennet howling over Mr. Bingley's ten thousand a year. It was the first novel in English literature to feature a truly independent thinker as a heroine-- a woman who chose her own future (yes, with a rich man, but not because he was rich) within the limitations of her time, who wasn't afraid to speak her mind yet still maintained the sense of propriety with which she was raised. It's a fascinating study in the deficiencies and strengths of human character, and to reduce it to Colin Firth in a wet muslin shirt is incredibly disrespectful to the impact it has had on literature in the Western world.

2. P&P is not a dark story.

This isn't a contradiction of the point above. P&P is serious and deals with some weighty matters. But at its heart, it IS light and bright and sparkling. Jane Austen did not describe Elizabeth Bennet as a melancholy, tortured heroine - she said that she "thought her the most delightful character that ever appeared in print." P&P is funny. It's clever. It's full of snark and sarcasm and you get the constant sense that the author is laughing in her sleeve at all this characters, while simultaneously loving them, and as she writes she's sharing a great inside joke with all her readers. The witty, down-to-earth fun of P&P is a large part of what draws most people to Jane Austen.  (I mean, she wrote some darker stuff, don't get me wrong. Check out Persuasion if you want a dark story! But P&P is not the place to go if you want dark.)

3. We don't need yet another P&P flick, really.

we don't.

You can go watch the 1940 version or the 1980 or the 1995 or the 2005 (except... ya know, don't) if you want a "straight" adaptation of the novel set in Regency England. (WELL EXCEPT FOR THE FACT THAT THE 2005 ABOMINATION TRIED TO PUT IT IN 1795 WHEN THAT WAS NOT THE RIGHT PERIOD but I digress and will leave that for another day). If you want a different re-imagining of the story, skip to Point #8. Are any or all of those adaptations perfect? NOPE. Not even the 1995 BBC/A&E miniseries which is one of my favorite Austen adaptations of all time. That one STILL didn't get everything right (though I still love it). But guys. We have a LOT of P&P out there to choose from. (And I am using a LOT of caps today. I AM SORRY.) There is a finite amount of movie-making money floating around out there, and a finite amount of TV air time, and wouldn't it be better to use that money and time towards an adaptation that we actually need? Like, y'know, Mansfield Park for example? (Hint hint hint hint hint. If Heidi Thomas or Sandy Welch are reading this, please take note.) We have a poorly-filmed and somewhat dry version from the 80's, a totally-not-like-the-book-what-is-even-happening-here chick flick from the 90's, and a scowling hour and a half of Billie Piper with her hair down from the 2000's. Please, please, please. Give us a decent Mansfield Park. Fanny deserves better.

4. We all saw what happened with Anne with an E.

Okay, those of you who were brave enough to watch the whole series saw what happened. To be fair, I haven't watched all of it - just clips here and there and read some horrifying reviews, my hair standing on end the entire time. Taking a beloved, classic story and trying to make it into something it's not will not go down well with that story's many fans. Anne with an E is the latest edition of What Not to Do in the period drama universe.  Let's learn from other people's mistakes.

Charles Dickens wrote his own stuff!

5. You want a dark, gritty story, write your own.

Which brings me to the old conundrum. If you replace a faulty plank in a ship, and slowly over time end up replacing ALL the planks in the ship, at what point (if at all) does the ship cease to be the same ship? Similarly, if you start changing everything familiar about an original work of fiction, is it even still the same work of fiction? Are you just slapping a title that you know will sell onto a hodge-podge, fabricated desecration of your own invention and loudly proclaiming that you know better than the story's original inventor?  Well, if you are... maybe don't. If Nina Raine really wants a complex television serial, maybe she ought to just come up with her own plot and leave well enough alone.

6. Jane Austen said herself that she could not write a serious romance to save her life.

If that isn't a good enough reason for you to accept that P&P is not meant to be a serious romance, then I don't know what WILL convince you. (Note that I'm drawing a line between "dark" and "serious" -- as I said in #2, I consider Persuasion to be dark, though not in a bad way.) She said this *after* writing P&P, I might add -- you cannot argue that she later changed her mind and decided to sparkle like granite.

7. Fake P&P already messed up badly enough.

I realize I am stepping on some toes by saying this, and I don't mean to offend the sensibilities of those of you who enjoy that movie. As a film, it's lovely. As an adaptation of P&P, I feel that it does not measure up. Can't it be a cautionary tale to film producers at this point? We've seen what happened when a writer decided to stick the Bennets in a pigsty, introduce wild flouting of social convention, make Elizabeth Bennet (the delightful creature!) incredibly obnoxious, and rewrite everything that makes Mr. Darcy... well, Mr. Darcy. (If you want to read more bashing of what my best friend and I fondly call Fake P&P and understand more of the reasoning behind why I despise it, feel free to click here.)

8. You want a re-imagining? We've already got those!

May I recommend The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, for starters? (Viewer discretion advised-- a lot of the content in this web series adaptation is not for younger viewers.) I haven't seen it, but I've heard some good things about Bride and Prejudice. Death Comes to Pemberley, while not strictly a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, does a pretty good job of staying faithful to the original while bringing in a new storyline. We won't talk about P&P & Zombies, (although do check out some of the hilarious comics that some clever people have made in response to the Jane Austen/paranormal nonsense going on lately) but there are many, many more novels and films out there inspired by the original.

You may wonder why I seem to have a problem with this new BBC adaptation and not with things like The LBD. The reasons for this are threefold. First, that The LBD doesn't even pretend to be a straight page-to-screen adaptation of the novel -- it's a new version for a modern audience that creatively places new interpretations of the original characters in the digital age. It's very cleverly done, but it doesn't pretend to be "the" P&P. I love it when writers take an old, old story and make it
new again by putting the characters (or basic approximations thereof) in new settings. It forces the reader or viewer to think about the messages the original novel is sending, and why people behave the way that they do. But when a reader who loved a book goes to look for a film adaptation of said book, optimistically hoping for a faithful onscreen bringing-to-life of the characters she fell in love with in the novel, she's going to be very disappointed to turn on a movie that *looks* like it should be great (after all, the costumes look good! The famous people look pretty on the cover! The title is right!) and... isn't.

Am I being cynical?
Yeah, probably.

Am I willing to be pleasantly surprised by the new P&P, if indeed it turns out to be good?
Sure! In fact, I'll write a retraction of this post if that is the case.

But am I holding out much hope for that?
Well, unfortunately, not.

I look forward to your (civil) discourse in the comment section. :)


Naomi Pitts said...

WhoA. Wait... There's going to be aNOTHER vers---

Wow. They just can't stop, can they. In the meanwhile after all these years Rilla of Ingleside still remains movieless.

100% agree with you on every point haha. (Booooriing.) Although I do want to give the new Anneogg a go. Even if I only end up tearing it apart.

Katie Hanna said...

*bites lip pensively and considers*

You know, I always thought P&P was rather a dark story. It never struck me as funny or bright or sparkling, in any way, at all. You may say this is because I'm naturally a melancholy person--and that's true, I am--but still, the fact remains that I have never read P&P as light and cheerful. I mean, you have the parental abuse and the family dysfunction and the pedophilia (yes, I said pedophilia) and the stupid social prejudices and the self-doubt and the guilt and the despair and the fact that neither Lydia nor Charlotte Lucas ever gets a happy ending--and you've got yourself a pretty grim kettle of fish. I mean, it's a masterpiece, and I love it, don't get me wrong. But it's really serious stuff. And yes, I want ALL the "dark and gritty" adaptations you can throw at me. That's who I am, and that's what I enjoy.

That's the thing, I guess. When you have such an immensely, earth-shakingly influential classic as Pride and Prejudice--the number of unique interpretations of the story are only limited by the number of people in the world. Everybody's going to see it in a different way . . . and that's the beauty of it! That's why stories like these go on and on, and are retold over and over and over. Because they're so vast and so deep, there's room for everyone.

HOWEVER. That being said, I definitely appreciate your practical argument about the finite amount of time and resources for costume drama production; and yes, if I were given a choice between a new P&P and a new Mansfield Park, I would choose Mansfield Park every time. (Now there's an even darker story for you.) Billie Piper as Fanny Price was completely and utterly miscast. In fact, it wasn't until I started watching Doctor Who that I was able to appreciate Billie for who she truly is--and that is Rose Tyler, not Fanny Price. She's emotional and fierce and full of spunk & anger, and none of that has ANYTHING to do with Fanny.

Naomi Pitts said...

Where in P&P is there anything related to pedophilia??

I'm confused.

(I see your point in your comment by the way, my dear, but I don't think that was how JA wrote it/ how she meant it at all.)

RosieP said...

You can go watch the 1940 version or the 1980 or the 1995 or the 2005 (except... ya know, don't) if you want a "straight" adaptation of the novel set in Regency England. (WELL EXCEPT FOR THE FACT THAT THE 2005 ABOMINATION TRIED TO PUT IT IN 1795 WHEN THAT WAS NOT THE RIGHT PERIOD

Actually, "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" was written in the late 1790s. Austen made a few re-writes in the early 1810s and it was published in 1813.

In reality, the novel is set in the late 1790s. Even Wikipedia has acknowledged this.

Miss Dashwood said...

Right!?!?!??! We NEED a good Rilla movie. ASAP.

I definitely appreciate your practical argument too! We must agree to differ as I don't see P&P in the same light as you do, but I am glad you agree we definitely need a new Mansfield Park. Poor Fanny!

I have to second Naomi's comment, though, and ask where you see pedophilia in P&P. Are you referring to Wickham and Lydia? Because though Lydia's age (15 and then 16) to our modern sensibility seems WAY too young to be getting married, she really wasn't a child by Regency standards. Young, yes, but just over the cusp of acceptable marriageable age.

Rosie P,

The novel was indeed *begun* in the 1790's but as you acknowledged, rewrites were done in the 1810's and it wasn't published until 1813. The only Jane Austen novel that specifically mentions dates is Persuasion, which tells us what year it takes place by telling us how old Anne is and what year she was born, but one can easily extrapolate that Jane Austen meant all her books to be contemporary. The presence of British officers in Longbourn and Brighton are the only tiny nod to the ongoing Napoleonic Wars of the early 1810's, but their mention makes a lot more sense in the context of 1813 than in the 1790's. Wikipedia may say 1790, but numerous Jane Austen scholars have agreed it was probably meant to be around 1813.

Jillian said...

Hello, m'dear! (This is Jillian.) :) I approve of your skepticism. I haven't seen Anne with an E yet, but you have me curious. I will say I'm excited/curious about PBS's new Little Women in 2018! :)

Also, a quick note: I'm fairly certain that Victoria is based on the book Victoria by Daisy Goodwin.

Jillian said...

I forgot to subscribe to comments. Apparently I have to comment again to subscribe. *makes a general bow & stumbles away*

Katie Hanna said...

@Naomi and Amy,

I'm talking about both Georgina and Lydia. You're right, "pedophilia" may not be the precise word we're looking for; but this is a clear pattern of premeditated, sexually predatory behavior against adolescent girls who are much too young to protect themselves--and who are explicitly recognized in the narrative as being too young to protect themselves. Darcy clearly doesn't consider Georgiana as being "of marriageable age" when he talks about what Wickham did to her; and Elizabeth feels the same way about Lydia. And that's some pretty dark stuff right there.

Also, Naomi, I agree the overall "dark" tone which I myself see may not be what Jane Austen intended when she wrote it; but when it comes to literature, I'm more interested in my own subjective impressions than in the author's intentions, if that makes sense? Because I'm not Jane Austen, and I don't know for sure how she felt when she wrote this story; but what I DO know for certain is how that story makes me feel.

RosieP said...

Austen's rewrites were not that extensive. Also, parts of the completed novel that was published in 1813 still indicated that the story was set in the 1790s. Also, Wikipedia wasn't the only site that acknowledged that the novel was set in the 1790s.

Miss Dashwood said...


I'm really curious about the new Little Women too - I'm HOPING it's good because we sorely need a truly accurate version. I really like Heidi Thomas' other work so I'm optimistic about it. What I've seen of the costumes so far isn't promising, but hey... Hollywood... :P


That's a really good point - I still don't agree with you about darker tones in P&P (overall, I mean - there are certainly some dark moments) but it's absolutely true that every reader is more interested in their own subjective POV! We *can't* know exactly what an author was thinking, so all we have to go on is how we each feel about a work of literature. And, really, isn't that what literature is all about? I appreciate your perspective. :D


I'm curious what indicators you're referring to about the story still being set in the 1790's? I'm not wedded to the concept that it absolutely had to be 1813, but I don't feel there's sufficient indication that it was meant to be the 1790's. I'd be interested to hear what you've read on the subject, though.

Jillian said...

I definitely agree with you, Jessica. I think the novel is light and funny at the surface, and MUCH darker in the subtext. That's actually what I find most intriguing about Austen's work. And I think she did it on purpose. Shaking the chains, daring readers to think beyond the love story, speaking to the darkness beneath the dressing, etc.

Jillian said...

Miss Dashwood,

I'm optimistic about Little Women too! I love the 1994 version, however. I know it's not quite accurate, but it's sort of the same story adapted for our era. That's how I look at it. I cry EVERY TIME I watch it, which is every Christmas. :)

Katie Hanna said...

Miss Dashwood--oh, no! I definitely don't expect everyone to read the novel the same way I do; after all, wouldn't that be boring? As you said, our unique perspectives are what makes discussing literature so exciting! :-) And that's why I'm glad there are so many different adaptations out there, because it brings in different sides of the story which each individual person may find more or less important, depending.

Amaris said...

I totally agree with this. I'm getting tired of people associating a movie like "P&P & Zombies" with classic period dramas. It's just sickening, if you ask me.
Great post!

Gabby A. said...

They're making another one?!


No thanks!

But, ooohh, I didn't know about the Little Women one!! :D Now I'm intrigued. I shall look it up.

Gabby A. said...

I want to try the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, too. :D

Anonymous said...

Yes yes and YES. There was not a word you wrote that I did not agree with. You gave beautiful and well-informed reasons as to why we really don't need another P&P adaptation... especially a "dark" one. (besides, nothing will ever top P&P '95 anyways :D)I really see no need for yet another writer's spin on Jane's flawless novel; yet another "dark and gritty" interpretation of something that was MEANT to be serious, yes, but fundamentally joyful and witty and lighthearted. OH and your comments concerning so-called "bonnet dramas" were spot on. Beautifully done indeed, Miss Dashwood. :)

Kathleen said...

I am so late to this party but I love anyone who acknowledges that the 2005 P&P was an abomination. Lizzy was super rude and bitchy, not lively and likable. The Bennets wouldn't have been admitted to Netherfield if they lived in such filth. Come on, Mr. Bennet has $2K per year so they would have lived respectably. Don't even start me on the hair, no bonnets, and terrible clothes - they are a country family, but again, they are not poor!
Judi Dench and Donald Sutherland couldn't save this one! Thanks for the validation.