When Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation arrived in cinemas in 2005, it competed for the hearts and minds of an audience still attached to the iconic BBC television series from Andrew Davies and Simon Langton ten years earlier. Their’s was a comprehensive six hour adaptation; but Wright had just over two. Here are some of the ways Joe Wright makes his film adaptation stand out.
“The two BBC versions are seminal — the second one was the most successful BBC drama ever – but we were intent on making a big-screen version, one that doesn’t conform to the television drama stereotypes of a perfect clean Regency world.”Pride & Prejudice (2005) Producer PAUL WEBSTER
Film requires grander visual scale than television and Wright turns this to his advantage by shooting entirely on location. Many of the novel’s key scenes take place inside where the stuffy interiors provide the backdrop to its examination of class and manners. But Wright transfers them outdoors, where story is communicated by light and weather instead.
The film opens at dawn. Mist transforms into golden morning light. A new chapter is about to open in Elizabeth’s life: an idea made flesh as she turns the pages of a book. This lighting choice is echoed in the film’s climactic scene, as Lizzy begins a new life with Darcy.
In contrast to this etherial glow, Darcy’s first, unsuccessful, proposal takes place during a cloudburst that’s symbolic of his emotional outpouring and Elizabeth’s impulsive rejection. Heavy rain intensifies the passionate atmosphere and accelerates the pace – Elizabeth arrives at the encounter already drenched and out of breath, her moment of respite abruptly shattered by Darcy’s unwanted intrusion. His romantic ambition doused in cold water, Darcy makes a swift exit.
By connecting Elizabeth with the natural environment, Joe Wright seems to borrow from the Brontës. Lizzy is Cathy Earnshaw’s kindred spirit, perfectly at one with the elements. In echoes of William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, she soaks up the views, her coat billowing in the wind.
Lizzy’s spirit cannot be contained.
“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”JANE AUSTEN, Pride & Prejudice
“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.”JANE AUSTEN, Pride & Prejudice
“My goodness, did you see her hem? Six inches deep in mud. She looked positively medieval.”JOE WRIGHT’S Pride & Prejudice adaptation
When Lizzy arrives at neighbouring Netherfield manner for the first time, she brings the outside in. Her relaxed appearance makes stark contrast with the formality of the reception offered by Darcy and Caroline Bingley. Joe Wright takes this connection between Lizzie and nature and suffuses it throughout his entire Pride and Prejudice adaptation.
“I wanted a sense of the elements, of mud and rain. It occurred to me that love is an elemental force, and I wanted to set it in the context of the other elements. It seemed to me that if Elizabeth had a very earthbound existence, then her aspiration for romantic love would be all the more heroic. She’s got her feet in the mud, and she’s reaching for the stars. I think it’s a heroic story.”JOE WRIGHT speaking to Indiewire
But some Austen fans thought the film’s muddy aesthetic was excessive. Cows, pigs and chickens populate the grounds of the Bennet’s family home. In the opening moments, the camera moves through their chaotic environment. The physical disarray reflects the messy impropriety of Lizzy’s mother and sisters and brings the stiff, museum-like architecture of the aristocratic classes into sharp relief.
Joe Wright beats down the formality of the novel and its traditional adaptations. The Bennets are warm and relatable, their emotions barely masked.
“”I believe that when people do period films they are reliant on paintings from the period, because there is no photography. But in a painting, everything is formally composed; it’s not real life. Then they do wide shots to show off the period detail of the sets. I think that the detail is in the small things, like crumbs on a table, or flowers in a vase.”JOE WRIGHT, speaking to Focus Features
“”We’re proud to say there was absolutely no make-up used on Pride & Prejudice. We would cover any obvious blemishes but otherwise we literally pinched their cheeks and off they went. It was a decision between the director, Joe Wright, and I that make-up should not be seen on camera. I banned hairspray on Pride & Prejudice because it wasn’t invented yet. We got all the girls to grow their eyebrows and nobody wore mascara except for Kelly Reilly, to show the contrast between London’s high society and our country bumpkins.”Make-up artist FAE HAMMOND speaking to Stylist
“That’s why there are so many closeups. Jane Austen observes people very carefully and closely: so that was the cinematic equivalent of her prose. I like closeups very much indeed. I think studying the human face on that kind of scale is one of the enduring pleasures of film.”JOW WRIGHT speaking to Indiewire
Vulnerability is the film’s modus operandi. There’s a youthful girlishness to Keira Knightely’s performance that connects her with sillier sisters, Lydia and Kitty, and reveals the emotional consequences of her impulsivity. At times, Lizzie hardly seems to know herself and she is evidently rattled by Darcy’s slights.
The film’s soft light is appropriate for an adaptation that smooths away the characters’ hard edges. Darcy’s transformation is less metamorphosis than blossoming: a gradual loosening of a tightly wound disposition. Matthew MacFadyen plays down Darcy’s snobbery and reveals, through softly spoken dialogue, a general unease in his own skin. The relaxation of his nerves, the calming of his social anxiety, is signalled through a loosening of his wardrobe – a literal unbuttoning that’s reminiscent of Colin Firth’s own iconic wet shirt almost twenty-five years ago.
What did you think of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation? Let me know in the comments….
What to read next…
What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.
Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.
If you’re short on time, try these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.