Another Look at ‘Pride and Prejudice’

I’ve seen most of the television and movie productions of Pride and Prejudice. I’ve enjoyed almost all of them. Like most people, my favorite is probably the 1995 television production with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Darcy. The reason has as much to do with the length—it is a six-hour miniseries—as with the casting. In contrast to a ninety-minute or two-hour movie adaptation, the six hours of screen time allow the script to more fully develop the plot lines in the novel and more faithfully encompass Jane Austen’s spirited dialogue.

My least favorite is the 1940 movie starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. It’s not just that the leading players were a decade too old (36 and 33, respectively), or that the costumes were from the wrong time period, or that the story became pure comedy. (Lady Catherine not only ended up the star but for some reason her mannerisms reminded me of the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz.)

It’s hard to believe that Aldous Huxley, the serious author of Brave New World, was one of the screenwriters. He might as well have penned the script for a Three Stooges movie. What rankled me most, however, is that Olivier smirks his way through the entire production. It’s as if he can’t believe he signed up for something this awful.

The 2005 film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen is the de facto standard for the shorter movie or TV versions. For pure enjoyment, however, my favorite movie-length adaptation is the 2004 Indian version, Bride and Prejudice. It stays true to the best parts of the original while also infusing the story with an exuberance that the stiff-upper-lip set seldom achieves.

It was with great interest, then, that I watched the recent Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta, a modern-day version set in the black community of the American city. I waited to see the Lifetime movie until a few days ago because I needed to re-read the novel for other reasons and thought it would be good to finish the book first.

There’s a fair amount to enjoy about this 2019 made-for-TV movie, directed by Rhonda Baraka. The cast is attractive and engaging; the men in particular have been cast to draw swoons. Lizzie (Tiffany Hines) and Darcy (Juan Antonio) have great chemistry, though not a lot to do. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Reginald VelJohnson and Jackée Harry)—happier than in the book—play off each other well, and the new reverend in town (Carl Anthony Payne II) is as self-satisfied as Austen’s Mr. Collins. He turns out not to be as flawed as the original, which is unfortunately true of everyone.

The Bennet family of “Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta” throws a lot of energy and charm into trying to overcome an abridged script. The result is fun but misses the complexities and seriousness of Austen’s masterpiece.

Purists may wince, but I enjoyed the conversion of some of Austen’s lines to the colloquial, as when Bingley (Brad James) and his sister Caroline (Keshia Knight Pulliam) arrive and Mrs. Bennet says in a voiceover: “Everybody knows that a single man with money needs to get himself a wife.” (Notice that, as here, many Southern colloquialisms have a strong iambic rhythm: That’s often the reason for seeming filler words.)

Other changes place the movie in a contemporary setting. Lizzie is a political activist; Darcy is a political moderate she sees as a sellout. Bingley is a pro golfer; Jane (Raney Branch) is a widow with a child. Lady Catherine is just plain Catherine (Victoria Rowell), but she’s as arrogant and obnoxious as the worst aristocrat. One high-quality twist is when Catherine claims that Jane is a uniquely modern gold-digger, a “baby momma” looking for a pro athlete to support her.

Maybe half such original lines by screenwriter Tracy McMillan work well. Another is when Lizzie says: “If a woman ain’t happy alone, she won’t be happy with a man.” (Like many Southerners, this well-spoken character reverts to the colloquial when feeling strong emotions.)

P&P: Atlanta would work better if we returned to the best of Austen’s dialogue (even updated) when matters involved personal relationships. Lifetime, however, decided not just to have the requisite happily-ever-after ending but to remove any meaningful conflict whatsoever. This may have been the result of abridging the story to leave plenty of room for commercials. I wonder how frustrated the screenwriter McMillan must have been when given too little time to develop a serious plot.

Darcy has no real negatives to offset his looks. In the book, he looks down on the Bennets and thinks Jane does not care for Bingley. As a result, he pulls Bingley away. In the movie, he separates Bingley from Jane because, until now, Bingley has been a player. He’s afraid Bingley will hurt Jane. Darcy and Lizzie never have any blistering back-and-forth dialogue because Lizzie seldom gives him a chance to speak. Wickham (Phillip Mullings Jr.) reforms before he’s really done anything wrong. Lydia (Reginae Carter) has a few saucy moments but reforms even faster than Wickham.

With no real drama to work through, the actors imbue the characters with more zest than the script deserves. This makes the movie fun without any serious undertones. The serious undertones were there but did not directly show on screen. Harry told the New York Post that one of the film’s sets had at one time been a plantation house, “where they kept slaves in their quarters, and they told us all the history. … So you go [to the house] and do your thing, but you feel the ghosts of it. It really made it all the more real to what we were doing—a black version of a classic.”

In a movie filmed lovingly in Atlanta, the actors seemed to take great pride in recreating a standard, even a highly shortened version. They clearly enjoyed displaying a minority culture of middle-class, upper-middle-class, and wealthy blacks. This is a welcome contrast to the usual grim, poor, crime-ridden stereotypes of black urban life. That may be the best thing about Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta. Viewers see a vibrant community of generally happy people enjoying solid lives any of us would want to have.

(Images from Lifetime.)

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

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