I recently went on a bit of a Jane Austen-themed binge. Starting over the holidays and extending into the New Year, I read a couple of spin-off novels based on her work, reread Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, and rewatched two film adaptations of the novel. Rather than writing a full-on review for each, here’s a round-up of my thoughts on some of these works!
Austenland by Shannon Hale
Jane Hayes is a single New Yorker with a secret Jane Austen obsession. Her somewhat ridiculous shame stems in part from the belief that her idealization of Mr. Darcy has prevented her from being able to settle for the average, modern man. Then the death of a wealthy relative leaves her a strange bequest—an all-expenses paid trip to Pembrook Park, an exclusive English resort where wealthy young women come to live out their Regency fantasies, inspired by Austen’s work. Faced with the reality of her fantasy, Jane becomes uncertain about what she wants, and tormented by doubts about how to conduct herself in such a bizarre scenario. The events going on at the estate mix plot elements from various Austen novels, making it harder to predict what is going to happen. The tension comes from Jane’s efforts to tease out what is real and what is pretend at Pembrook, complicated by the fact that she feels different because she could never afford to holiday at Pembrook on her own, and the proprietress isn’t likely to let her forget it. Hale is walking a fine line trying to critique unrealistic romantic expectations without denigrating Austen fans, while still delivering a happy ending, leaving the message somewhat muddled, but overall this was a fun romp.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Jo Baker takes us belowstairs at Longbourn, Mr. Bennet’s estate in Pride and Prejudice. Her narrative dogs the footsteps of Austen’s original work. Baker grafts her story onto the day-to-day underpinnings of the Bennet’s lives, spinning scant clues from the text into a full-on life below stairs for Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah and Polly the housemaids, and James, the newly arrived footman, who is conjured out a single mention in Austen’s novel. The first two-thirds of this novel are fairly dry, perhaps unsurprising given the grueling work Sarah and her fellow servants are responsible for. Baker does give things a good twist in the last third, and surprisingly it is Mr. Bennet who is the character most fully reimagined and fleshed-out by this undertaking. However, other of her tweaks are less than fresh, such as having Mary be secretly in love with Mr. Collins. In many ways Longbourn is a more self-serious novel than Pride and Prejudice; Baker lacks Austen’s playfulness, and her way with words has less of wit and more of reflection. It certainly goes a long way towards bringing to life the harder realities of the Regency, something modern Austen fans sometimes over-romanticize.
Pride and Prejudice (2005) directed by Joe Wright
This most recent P&P adaptation (no I will not acknowledge the zombie one) starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen was generally popular when it came out, if not particularly acclaimed by more ardent Austenophiles. Its main problem is that it is rushed; everything has to move along at an extremely brisk clip to get even the rudiments of the story told in 129 minutes. Knightly wasn’t entirely popular as Elizabeth Bennet, but her tomboyish take is serviceable, while Macfadyen’s Darcy is rather hang-dog. However, this version does do some beautiful things with light. Jane and Bingley—well played by Rosamund Pike and Simon Green, even if Green is a bit bumbling—fairly glow as they fall in love. And the sunrise scene that concludes the film is beautiful enough to allow you to ignore Knightly and Macfadyen’s lackluster chemistry. Donald Sutherland, however, makes a great Mr. Bennet, and by far the most affecting scene in the film is when he gives Lizzie his blessing to marry Mr. Darcy. Admittedly, however, I usually only rewatch this version when I don’t have six hours to give its predecessor.
Pride and Prejudice (1995) directed by Simon Langton
In addition to a superb cast, this BBC adaptation benefits from actually being a six hour mini-series rather than a feature-length film. Many of the faults of the more recent version can be remedied by not being rushed, allowing time for things like establishing shots and transitions without sacrificing content. The down-side is trying to find six hours to watch it when you have a P&P craving. The picture quality of my 10th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition is looking a little dated, but I understand that the 2010 remastered version remedies many of these ills. I guess I might be buying this series again in its updated form! I do find Allison Steadman’s take on Mrs. Bennet a little bit overwrought, but overall this version is extremely enjoyable, and it is always a pleasure coming back to it. I wouldn’t call it definitive—only the book can be that—but it is a favourite in the adaptation department. Update: The remastered Bluray edition is indeed a vast improvement on the older DVD set! I highly recommend the upgrade.
Have you read or watched any of these? What are your favourite Jane Austen adaptations and spin offs?