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Death by Chaucer

October 29, 2009

Chaucer killed me last night. It was cold-blooded, premeditated murder I am sure, although I am up and walking around today. I don’t know what that says about me; perhaps I have joined the ranks of the undead and the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.

Well. Even if I am still kicking, Chaucer has clearly killed my brain.

I wrote a kick ass Austen paper this week on film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. It is so kick ass that I am going to paste it at the end of this post, so that those of you who care can take a look at the kind of thing I am working on over here. Anyway. I even got permission to view an item at the library of another college, which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it IS. I had to email the librarian ahead of time and then get escorted to the library by a porter of the college upon arrival. It was Somerville College, by the way, which was women-only and founded around the same time as Smith, but went co-ed in the 90’s. They have a beautiful campus, the porter caught me staring while we were walking through and he laughed at me. All the porters here do this adorable thing where they ask you which college you’re from, and then tell you that there’s is the best one.

Anyway, it was a beautiful day and I spent a couple of hours at their beautiful library, and then I went and wrote my awesome paper and had a great tutorial, and then moved on to Chaucer who proceeded to beat me to death with a blunt object. At least it felt like the literary equivalent of being beaten with a blunt object.

The language is IMPENETRABLE. Even when I get past differences of vocabulary and syntax, I still don’t know what he’s trying to SAY. So yesterday and last night and the wee hours of this morning were torture, but then I went to my (9am) tutorial and Dr Dutton was very reassuring and helpful and hopefully things will go better next week.

This weekend I am going to London, so next week I will have things to say about that. Later today I will add pictures to this post because I have been taking some of campus and my general environs.


Here follows an Austen paper–reader beware! In copying I lost indentation and double spacing, so I marked block quotes with quotation marks, and I also lost italics so I only replaced it where meaning might be effected, and not for titles.

That being said, it is 3400 words. Proceed at own risk.


Sarah Wisner

Dr John Ballam

27 October 2009

Pride and Prejudice on Screen: Difficulties of Adaptation in the First Proposal Scene

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is probably the most widely beloved of all Jane Austen’s novels. In part a comedy of manners, infused with witty parlor-room banter and light-handed social commentary, it is nevertheless the romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy that captures attention. While there is a third-person narrator who informs and directs the reader’s opinions, the novel is organized around its heroine, Elizabeth; rather than seeing through her eyes directly, the narratorial style is such that we are perhaps positioned behind her left shoulder, with someone whispering in our ears what to think and where to look. Due more perhaps to its popularity than to its adaptability, thanks to that tricky narrator, Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for film and television at least eight times since 1938, not including re-imaginings and analogies (like Bride & Prejudice (2004), the modern-day Bollywood version, and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), based on the 1996 novel by Helen Fielding, which borrows major elements of Austen’s plot). When it comes to straight period drama, the question often boils down to one of fidelity: were “they” (the filmmakers, including the director, producers, costumers, cast and crew) true to the book? Did they keep original Austinian dialogue? Did they rearrange the order of action? Are the settings and costumes historically accurate? Did they cast the right Darcy, the right Elizabeth?

The trouble with adaptation, as in the act of reading itself, is that it is necessarily an act of interpretation. While the text provides the starting point and the ultimate authority, it is up to imagination to fill in the blanks. “You have to offer an interpretation of the novel,” writes screenplay writer Andrew Davies:

“There’s this nonsense which some people say about adaptations that you’ve ‘destroyed’ the book if it’s not identical scene by scene. The novel is still there for anybody to read—and everybody has their own ‘adaptation’ in a sense when they’re reading it.”
(Davies, Making of, 3)

This is where the art of filmmaking steps in. From writing a script to casting the actors, adaptation is about choice. What to leave in, what to exclude, what to invent or re-imagine—all of these decisions add up to a new text: one that represents and reflects the original, but also comments on it, and adds to it in terms of interpretation. With success in popularity, film adaptations can become inseparable from the original text in the public eye, and in such cases, the question of fidelity to the authority becomes almost meaningless outside the realm of academia and die-hard Janeites. What’s done is done, what’s seen is seen, and cannot be unseen.

The two most important adaptations, in that sense, are also the most recent: the 1995 BBC/A&E six-part serial, adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton, and the 2005 feature-length film from Working Title, adapted by Deborah Moggach and directed by Joe Wright. Both achieved critical acclaim and popularity, but each arrived at their respective projects with different concerns. In 1995, the BBC team was concerned with accuracy, but also made some risky choices, especially with Mr. Darcy: small additional scenes were added to round out his character, and the casting of Colin Firth in the role resulted in Darcy-mania upon its airing (and really, ever since). In 2005, Wright came to the film with no familiarity to the novel, and simultaneously making his directorial debut to the big screen. His efforts resulted in a film focused, like the novel, mainly on Elizabeth, using techniques such as a pre-recorded score of piano solos, long takes, and “magic-hour” (twilight) filming to create a film atmospherically and visually different from its BBC predecessor. Writes Judy Simons of Wright’s adaptation, “The movie is typical of the latter-day versions which presuppose a sophisticated reader, familiar not just with Austen’s originals but with their successive filmic transformations” (Simons, A Companion, 472). That is to say, when a “sophisticated” reader/viewer watches Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy, looking cold in a ballroom or watching Elizabeth play piano, that reader/viewer is comparing and contrasting him to the Darcy they constructed from the novel, and to Firth’s portrayal of that construction ten years previously.

This sophistication is both an advantage and a disadvantage to Wright’s film. On the one hand, Davies and Langton took risks with the novel that shocked some at the time, but put a foot in the door for further liberties—or more fluidity in adaptation—to come later; a later audience is ready to forgive more. On the other hand, for example, Firth’s Darcy is considered by many to be the definitive Darcy, making it difficult for a new actor like Macfadyen to capture room in the public imagination.

If there is still room for him, it is in the text: Austen is not known for her physical descriptions, so there is no reason why Darcy can’t look like Macfadyen—and there is actually a lot the reader is never told about Darcy. For the most part, the reader is focused where Elizabeth is focused, and at the beginning she doesn’t concern herself much with Darcy at all. Austen leaves space for the reader to imagine what he or she will about Darcy, in refusing to tell us explicitly what to think.

“It is this refusal that makes her work so productive of adaptive imaginings: her omissions and inventions are flirtatious because the elicit, even desire, another institutional frame of reference to identify them as omissions and inventions, and to provide them, expensively, with local habitations and a name.”
(Sheen, Classic Novel, 18)

In terms of casting, for Elizabeth, “local habitations and a name” consist of award-winning theater actress Jennifer Ehle in 1995, and the young and iconic Keira Knightly in 2005. And as Knightly pointed out in an interview, there is nothing so hard as taking on a part which everyone has an opinion on—not referring to Ehle’s portrayal, but to the Lizzy Bennet of the novel, the heroine that it seems every female person wants to be. Yet, writes Davies, “Elizabeth is so perfectly done in the book, there isn’t very much to do really, besides let her be herself” (Davies, Making of, 4). It is interesting, then, that Ehle’s and Knightly’s portrayals of her vary so widely: Ehle maintains a calm countenance all the way through, letting emotions spark in her eyes and at the very corners of her mouth, except when most distressed or most amused; Knightly, on the other hand, lets Elizabeth emote much more strongly, whether laughing with her sisters, hugging her mother, or silently begging her father to stay in the room so that Mr. Collins may not propose. The scene where their respective portrayals differ the most is also the one in which emotions are at their highest pitch, and is the climax of the story: Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth.

The original title of Pride and Prejudice was “First Impressions,” and this scene is the reason why: obviously not because this is where those fateful first impressions were made, but rather, because this is where the plot could have come to a happy conclusion had they not been made earlier. If one views the construction of the story in terms of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, this scene is the climax: before this scene comes the rising action, and all the action falls towards the conclusion after it. Wright nicknamed the scene “the car crash scene,” “because it’s like a car crash—it happens so fast, and so quickly, and afterwards you can’t remember what you said, you just know that something terrible happened” (Wright, Director’s Commentary, 1:10:35). Up to this moment, Elizabeth and Darcy had never fully understood one another; Elizabeth had no idea Darcy had fallen in love with her, and Darcy had no idea she disliked him so much. As terrible an experience as it is for the characters, being honest with each other actually allows them to eventually come together in understanding. It is the pivotal scene for the book and for the two adaptations.

In the BBC version, the proposal comes at the very end of the third episode, placing it, as in the book, exactly halfway through. Sue Birtwistle, the producer, writes about wanting to end each episode “as strongly as possible—ideally at a key turning point in the story. Overall the first three episodes lead us to Darcy’s arrogant first marriage proposal, which Elizabeth rejects; the last three episodes lead up to his heartfelt second proposal, which a chastened Elizabeth joyfully accepts” (Birtwistle, Making of, 2). Not only is the proposal central chronologically, it is the central moment of the story, where these two characters really see one another and things begin to change for their relationship.

Much work has been done on the importance of Mr. Darcy’s physicality in the BBC version. Because, as in the novel, he doesn’t say much, his physical presence, his actions, and his gaze gain heightened importance on screen. His social restraint is balanced by his physical exertions, such as fencing and swimming, which the viewer knows are his way of expressing pent-up emotions. Part of the reason Firth’s Darcy is so attractive is because the viewer is aware that he feels more than he lets on.

“For example, in the film adaptation (1995), Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s first marriage proposal can be read as a rejection due to his inability to voice his full emotions. Compared with his doting stares, billiard playing, bathing, fencing, and swimming, Darcy’s proposal seems restrained; although he expresses his love, he is unable to put his hidden emotions into a verbal vocabulary that matches the intensity of his physical vocabulary. His private desires are held back by public considerations of social inequality. Viewing the film, we feel Elizabeth is right to reject him; he has not given full expression to the depth of the emotions we, the audience, know him to have.”
(Nixon, in Hollywood, 34)

His gaze is also worth examining. In this scene, Darcy looks at Elizabeth when he tells her that he loves her, but as they fight he spends much of his time looking out of windows, into the mirror, and profile to camera. Mirrors and windows: “the iconography…suggests that he has, as yet, not looked fully either at what lies within him or at the woman who sits in front of him” (Hopkins, in Hollywood, 114). But again, this is the pivotal scene: although his focus here is similar to what it has been in the entire first half, it is what they say to each other here that allows for change. While it focuses Darcy’s attention, it also focuses Elizabeth’s, and that is reflected in how the camera sees Darcy: “from being a figure of side-shots and glances away, he becomes one of iconic centrality for both visual and narrative imperatives” (Hopkins, in Hollywood, 115). After this scene, we begin to watch Darcy as he watches Elizabeth.

In the 2005 version, Macfadyen has less screen time, but can take up where Firth left off. Although we see Macfadyen’s Darcy as active—horseback riding and walking, for example—we don’t need to see him swimming or fencing; we already know that Darcy does this, from Firth. Macfadyen’s Darcy is also concerned with physical presence, but more specifically, with touch. While he takes up room on screen—notably, when Elizabeth is rushing through the Netherfield ball to get away from Mr. Collins and nearly runs into Darcy, and the camera pan runs into the space occupied by his body—it is the earlier moment when he hands her into the carriage that stands out. It is the first moment they touch, and the way they both react makes it appear that an electric current ran between them. Similarly, the moment on the dance floor when the other couples disappear reflects how aware they are of each other physically. This physical awareness comes to a head in the first proposal scene, where they almost touch. Wright says about his “car crash” scene,

“And here the story starts to change and we go into a much darker phase. Jane Austen described Pride and Prejudice—the novel—as being too light and lacking in shade, and so one of the things I did was to try and bring a little bit of that shade to the story. ”
(Wright, Director’s Commentary, 1:08:05)

As is his way with the rest of the film, Wright begins this change atmospherically. He sets the first proposal scene outside, where Elizabeth has actually run through the rain to get away from Darcy immediately after discovering that he separated Bingley from Jane. The immediacy of the moment, the downpour, and the outdoor setting come together to eliminate at least some of the boundaries of propriety right from the start. Instead of paying a visit to Hunsford parsonage, as in the novel, Darcy pursues her through the rain: they are dripping wet and accompanied by thunder in their argument.

In both the 1995 and 2005 versions, little change is made to the original Austen dialogue, aside from a few edits for length, and the invention of dialogue where it was previously narrated. The most freedom comes at the moment of the proposal itself, where Darcy lists his misgivings, which are related to the reader by the narrator:

“Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit….He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favorable answer. ”
(Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 145)

This section of text does not need adaptation so much as translation: not only does one need to put actual words in Darcy’s mouth, but also any behaviors that might accompany them—these are the choices that turn Darcy on the page into a three-dimensional being, represented quite differently in two different adaptations.

In 1995, Colin Firth’s speech is as exact a translation as one could hope for:

“In declaring myself thus I am fully aware that I will be going against expressly the wishes of my family, my friends, and I need hardly add, my own better judgment. The relative situation of our families is such that any alliance between us must be regarded as a highly reprehensible connection; indeed, as a rational man I cannot but regard it as such myself. But it cannot be helped. Almost from the earliest moments of our acquaintance, I have come to feel for you a passionate admiration and regard, which despite all my struggles has overcome every rational objection and I beg you, most fervently, to relieve my suffering and consent to be my wife.”
(Davies, Pride and Prejudice, 1995)

The speed with which it is delivered, and the combination of anxiety and reassurance, almost recalls Mr. Collins’s proposal. It is only Firth that pulls the words back from the brink of absurd hurtfulness; his understanding of Darcy saves the viewer from hating him unconditionally:

“And so Darcy is coming in with a very impudent proposal, as he sees it. He’s saying to her, “I’m going to put to you a proposal that may make me seem rash, irresponsible and even, possibly, juvenile, but I don’t want you to believe I’m those things. I have thought through every detail of this; I know my that my family will be angry, that people will frown on us and that our social positions are very different….Nevertheless, having thought it all through, I find that my love for you is so overwhelming that these objections are rendered insignificant.” And, from that point of view, it’s a terribly romantic proposal. ”
(Firth, Making of, 103-4)

In contrast, Moggach conveys the same sentiments, in a different order: she has Darcy make his speech first, and then confess his love:

“Darcy: Miss Elizabeth. I have struggled in vain and I can bear it no longer. These past months have been a torment. I came to Rosings with the single object of seeing you. I had to see you. I have fought against my better judgment, my family’s expectation, the inferiority of your birth, my rank and circumstance, all these things, and I’m willing to put them aside and ask you to end my agony.

Elizabeth: I don’t understand—

Darcy: I love you. Most ardently. Please do me the honor of accepting my hand. ”
(Moggach, Pride and Prejudice, 2005)

The idea that he came to Rosings to see her is an invention—there is nothing in the text to confirm that this was Darcy’s intention, but rather, it was a fortunate circumstance that gave his love for her the opportunity to grow. Additionally, having him admit that he loves her at the end of the speech changes the emphasis on his emotions. Says Wright,

“He lets that whole opening speech out—he’s prepared that speech, but wasn’t prepared to say “I love you.” He’d written it down and he’d thought about it and he’d rehearsed it, which is why he rushes through it so quickly, and then surprises himself by saying “I love you”—it didn’t occur to him, but he can’t help but tell her. ”
(Wright, Director’s Commentary, 1:08:55)

Compared to the novel and to Firth’s portrayal, this makes his emotions seem much more genuine to Elizabeth. In the 1995 version, we see the authenticity of his love in other scenes; in the novel, we have to imagine that what he declares is true. But Wright—and Macfadyen—have the difficult job of making the viewer believe it on the spot, which necessarily increases the emotion contained in the scene, because if the viewer believes Darcy loves Elizabeth and the viewer is meant to be on Elizabeth’s side, then Elizabeth has to have a very good reason for rejecting him. Fortunately we have her recent awareness of Jane’s troubles to fall back on; but this is what makes the scene such a car crash—they are rivals, almost, one pushing and the other resisting, both for very good reasons. The established sexual tension between the two almost reaches a breaking point when Elizabeth mentions Mr. Wickham. It is a point of jealousy in any version, even readable in the novel; in the film, the wound from a painful history causes Darcy to step in to Elizabeth, which the viewer can clearly see causes difficulty: he means to be on the attack, but being closer to her actually softens his expression and he winds up looking at her mouth. It is a breathless scene: breathless for the characters, and for the viewers, who are inevitably wondering, are they going to kiss?

What worked, in terms of filmmaking, for the 1995 version, was Darcy’s gaze. His smoldering looks drew in the viewers, who want what the book doesn’t really give us: the process for Darcy, how Darcy fell in love. The 2005 version was able to succeed on this count in spite of the pre-established 1995 version by raising the level of sexual tension that much more. Reading Pride and Prejudice will always be satisfying, thanks to its careful construction, witty dialogue and keen observation of the foibles of love; viewing Pride and Prejudice is an additional pleasure, thanks in part to elaborate costumes, sets, and in both of these cases, beautiful scores; but mostly to the additional insight into the characters provided by adapted scripts, creative direction and intelligent acting. Just like reading criticism on the construction of the novel, watching a film adaptation is becoming privy to a multi-layered inquiry into the meaning of the book.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay Wisner permalink
    October 30, 2009 5:00 am

    Well said! Do I detect that you are tempted to suggest another adaptation of the first proposal, in which Darcy’s speech uses even less of the book’s narration?
    For the Chaucer, I think you should try reading him out loud. The tales attempt to capture an oral story telling tradition, and I think even the “modern” translations that are so dense on the page retain much of the music when voiced instead of read. Good luck!

  2. Grandma Jeanne permalink
    November 4, 2009 9:00 pm

    Your father stole my thought –sorta….. When I finished reading your “Chaucer-murder” part. my response was that to read aloud. or to scan in rhythm –you know,quick and light–might make it accessible.

    Anyhow –clearly your brain wasn’t eroded much, in view of what followed! Impressive analysis, and strongly defended.I may be too intimidated to try to converse with you after all this eddicashun!! Luv, me

  3. November 5, 2009 6:00 am

    Great P&P essay. The 1st proposal is so pivital. Having read the book and seen both the 1980 & 1995 adaptations which are truer to Austen’s intent (IMO) before the 2005 version, I must say that the 2005 version had a much different push and pull between the character because of Darcy’s delivery. Mcfadyen was a wet puppy all the way through. Those eyes were always beconing sympathy. Firth’s interpretation started off as a over wound clock ready to explode with anxiety – then Elizabeth responds and knocks him down – and we see pride and anger – then humilty. At one heated point in the Knightly – Macfadyen version they look so intently at each other and pause – I thought that they were going to kiss. An interesting reaction to anger and pouring emotion that I don’t think Austen intended. The 2005 version is not my favorite, but it is interesting. Amazing to think that the director had never read the novel. It explains a lot.

    Regarding Chaucer – I had the same reaction. What the heck is he saying? I needed an interpreter!

    Thanks for sharing.

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