Pride & Prejudice: Can We Really Choose A Superior Adaptation?
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
I've seen a fair number of book adaptations over the years, but very few give me the enjoyment I receive from watching Austen's books adapted to film! I wouldn't say I became a real Janeite until I was in high school, but I've always had a dear love for the 1995 Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle (King's Speech). A good chunk of my childhood featured this series at one point or another. So when I came across the 2005 adaptation starring Kiera Knightly (Anna Karenina), I was skeptical that it would live up to the original. Much to my surprise, however, I found it extremely compelling.
I noticed a number of differences between these two adaptations, and I've narrowed them down. Not to say which is superior, but to compare and contrast the different styles and themes of each adaptation and appreciate the different approaches to the story. Because let's be honest, this fandom is never going to decide which version is most superior.
Day to Day Life vs Whimsical and Artistic
I'd say that the glaring difference between these two adaptations is their contrasting film styles.
The mini-series is filmed very by the book, so to speak. It follows the story practically page by page, including every important story detail and telling it from everyone's perspective. The simple musical score and the banter-filled script gives the series a "slice of life" feeling. I've always appreciated that about this version, because it gives viewers slightly better insight into the everyday rituals of Regency-era life.
The 2005 adaptation, however, has a more artistic approach. One of my favorite scenes is when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen, The Current War) are dancing. Once they begin their conversation, the camera focuses on them alone, and suddenly they are the only two people in the room. The single note on the violin in the background adds to the intensity and immersion of this scene, enabling us to better understand its context and see it better from Lizzy and Darcy's point of view. The approach overall is very different, being a bit more romantic and whimsical.
Kiera Knightley vs Jennifer Ehle
One of the more controversial topics when discussing these two films is the very different ways Kiera Knightley and Jennifer Ehle portray the character of Elizabeth Bennett.
Lizzy in the mini-series is definitely more soft-spoken and gentle. She's very lovely in her manner and politely speaks her mind. She laughs a lot during her conversations with Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth, Love Actually), catching him out in his arrogant manner yet still retaining a polite air. She's also very mindful of her dress (minus the mud-soaked petticoats), always appearing very ladylike and clean.
Kiera Knightley's portrayal, however, is much more emotional. In her conversations with and about Mr. Darcy, she makes her feelings very clear by the expressive way she speaks. We as the audience see Lizzy's character and actions more from her perspective, and we get a better understanding of how deeply she is affected by the events of the story. The way she's dressed is also different than the mini-series. Lizzy's hair is worn loosely and her dress appears much more active. I personally prefer this style - it does a good job of being (mostly) historically accurate while being better for Lizzy's daily activities, and I personally feel that it suits her personality better than tight corkscrew curls perfectly placed by her temples.
Proper Proposals vs Romantic Confessions
Finally, one of the biggest differences in this film is the way Mr. Darcy confesses his love for Elizabeth, both the first time and the second (when she finally accepts him).
In the mini-series, Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy is very awkward and factual about his proposal. He walks through it almost like a business meeting and, even though he lays everything on the line, comes across as cold and indifferent. I loved the way this particular scene was filmed because it made Lizzy's disinterest and disgust very believable and, let's just say it, absolutely called for.
By the time he proposes for real, Darcy goes about it the same proper way, but that coldness is dissolved and replaced with endearment. Both of them are smiling and awkward, which I love because that's generally how proposals are. You don't see them confess their love or even kiss each other until the final scene, but I believe it works quite well in that it relates a very realistic proposal for that time period.
In the 2005 film, each proposal scene with Elizabeth and Darcy is very dramatic. The failed proposal occurs in a rainstorm, and Darcy is much more emotional - in fact, he's almost wretched. When I watched this scene, I actually felt more pity for Mr. Darcy due to how genuine he was. Elizabeth has every right to be horrified by his choice of wording, but his reaction when she shoots back at him with her rejection is completely heartbreaking.
The scene where they confess mutual feelings for each other, however, is very sweet. Both are out for a walk and just happen to run into each other. When they begin talking, there's maybe a bit of nervousness, but I'd say overall both looked relatively calm and confident with what was being said and the replies they gave. I loved how they kissed each other's hands, which sometimes I find more compelling than on the lips. It displays an innocence in their romance while still coming across as satisfyingly romantic (it's all about the longing).
I wouldn't say I like one version of this story over the other; it's almost impossible to choose. For myself, I gain equal enjoyment out of watching each version. I thoroughly appreciate the differentiation in film style, acting, musical score, and the general feeling each adaptation gives off. I believe that having more than one version of this story helps to attract more than one type of person to the Jane Austen fandom and allows a version for everyone to enjoy!