Love and language in Jane Austen adaptions
Jane Austen achieved some success as an author during her own lifetime. Her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811), was reviewed well and sold out of copies after about a year. Her second, Pride and Prejudice also sold well as did Mansfield Park, followed by Emma. She completed six novels in all, but the last two, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously (1817, 1818). Her novels are seen as an insight into everyday Regency life and her satire illuminates the lives and loves of both high and low-born characters. But how faithfully have recent audiences received them on television?
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy)
The earlier the TV series, the closer the adaption is to the original text. In Pride and Prejudice (mini-series, 1995, Andrew Davies), the proposal where Darcy confidently expects Elizabeth to accept him, but is turned down is a long scene between the two actors which borrows some lines directly from Austen’s dialogue. Afterwards, Darcy gives Elizabeth a letter which explains his actions which caused her to reject him.
Film adaptions find it harder to include all the nuances of a story in such a short time, and time-constraints exclude long speeches. In Pride and Prejudice (2005, Deborah Moggach), the story is necessarily shortened. Darcy spends more time face to face justifying himself to Elizabeth. The language used is much more modern. Elizabeth tells him that, Jane is ‘shy’ and that her ‘sister hardly shows her true feelings’ to her. The setting is wet and rainy, reflecting the mood. The letter that Mr Darcy puts in her hands later on is not as long as the one that Jane Austen writes over several pages. This first, unsuccessful proposal is told in full in the novel.
“…I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.” (Pride and Prejudice, Miss Elizabeth Bennet)
Jane Austen seems to take pleasure in writing the scenes when the characters are left unsatisfied and rejected, for example, Mr Elton’s proposal to Emma. Emma had been planning to match him to her friend, Harriet Smith. Mr Elton has encouraged Emma to paint a picture of Miss Smith and has even ridden to London to get the painting framed. Emma is shocked when he manipulates her into riding in a carriage with him alone after a dinner party.
He takes this as a sign of fate (film, 1996, Douglas MacGrath) and as an opportunity to declare his love. She accuses him of drinking too much wine, and he accuses her of encouragement. Both have misread the signals. The rest of the ride is finished in a sulky silence. Shortly following this incident, he goes off to Bath and marries a girl worth £20,000 a year.
‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.’ (Emma, Mr. Knightley,)
When, however, it comes to true proposals of the heart, Jane Austen seems to find herself tongue-tied. Instead of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice, she tells us that Mr Darcy expresses himself ‘as only a man violently in love can do’. Adaptions must necessarily fill in the blanks.
In Pride and Prejudice (1995, Andrew Davies), Mr Darcy and Elizabeth are walking together. They glance at each other shyly, their explanations are restrained, but their expressions say so much more. The words are in keeping with the original text, and they do not stop and embrace, but continue walking, companionably talking. This is the only recent adaption that restrains itself in the matter of romance.
In Emma (1996, Andrew Davies), Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are found kissing passionately in the village square, regardless of the scandal this would cause in the village. At least when Emma and Mr Knightley embrace, they are in the privacy of the grounds at Hartfield, her home, in the same production.
In Pride and Prejudice (2005, Deborah Moggach) Darcy and Elizabeth meet at sunrise in order to resolve their relationship. In keeping with the less formal language, Darcy declares, ‘I love you’ three times before kissing her passionately. Later, they are seen, sitting together, still kissing. This would have been frowned upon in Jane Austen’s time where a woman had to be careful of her reputation.
The language that Jane Austen chose to write in her novels perfectly reflects her time. Rather than an accurate portrayal, each writer of an adaption brings something of their own understanding to it. When we watch or read an adaption, we form an opinion on how it measures up to the novel, and it can encourage us to return to it and reread it, seeing the story with new eyes. Each generation can remake the story in their own image – for the latest re-imaginings check out YouTube for Emma Approved or The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which are entirely and deliberately in 21st-century English. Horror buffs may have recently enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, while Bollywood inspired Bride and Prejudice, a musical version of the story. They do not attempt to imitate Jane Austen’s style, but they are bringing her work to a new generation.
Which is your favourite adaption and why?
Jane Austen Adaptions
Most of these adaptions acknowledge Jane Austen as co-author.
- Pride and Prejudice, mini-series, 1995, Andrew Davies, starring Jennifer Ehle (Miss Elizabeth Bennet) and Colin Firth (Mr. Darcy)
- Emma, TV movie, 1996, Andrew Davies, starring Kate Beckinsale (Miss Emma Woodhouse) and Mark Strong (Mr. Knightley)
- Emma, film, 1996, Douglas McGrath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Miss Emma Woodhouse) and Jeremy Northam (Mr. Knightley)
- Bride and Prejudice, 2004, Paul Mayeda Berges, Grinder Chadha, starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (Lalita Bakshi ) and Martin Henderson (William Darcy)
- Pride and Prejudice, film, 2005, Deborah Moggach, starring Keira Knightley (Miss Elizabeth Bennet) and Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Darcy)
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2009, Seth Grahame-Smith (Quirk Books)
- The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, web series, 2012, created by Hank Green and Bernie Su, starring Ashley Clements (Lizzie Bennet), Julia Cho (Charlotte Lucas), Laura Spencer (Jane Bennet), Christopher Sean (Bing Lee) and Daniel Vincent Gordh (William Darcy)
- Emma Approved, web series, 2013, created by: Bernie Su, starring Joanna Sotomura (Emma Woodhouse) and Brent Bailey (Alex Knightley)