Nine ‘Pride And Prejudice’ Adaptations You Should Revisit Before ‘Pride And Prejudice And Zombies’
Naturally, all the Colin Firth ones made the list.
If you’re thinking, as the release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies approaches, that Austen’s famous novel has been adapted a lot, you’d be right. Pride and Prejudice, the enduringly popular story of Elizabeth Bennet, her four penniless sisters, and her pompous, tall/dark/handsome suitor Mr Darcy, has been adapted to film more times than any other literary property in history.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which looks both insane and insanely fun, is probably Peak Austen Adaptation: her witty novel of manners and society has been transposed by Seth Graeme-Smith into an action-horror jaunt, where the Bennet sisters are trained in the art of sword fighting instead of the art of embroidery.
But did you know that Pride and Prejudice is also a Bollywood musical, a crime series and a Mormon rom-com? We dove into some of the best, worst and most bonkers Pride and Prejudice film and TV adaptations there are. Here are our picks.
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
This was the first feature-film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson as Elizabeth and Laurence Olivier as Darcy. This is the one that started it all and if you like loud screeching, loud costumes and extraordinarily uncomfortable kissing, then you’ll love it.
All Pride and Prejudice adaptations live and die by their casts: Garson is a tolerable Elizabeth, playful but with far too much sobbing into handkerchiefs. (The women wear bizarre cupcake gowns that are utterly historically inaccurate but nevertheless hilarious.) Olivier is a terrible Darcy, somehow stilted, gushy and doltish all at once. He also botches Darcy’s first proposal – a seminal Pride and Prej moment. However, he does remove a coat in a most amusing fashion.
I’m afraid this one won’t sate your appetite for Austen’s famous blend of ire and romance; if you want a good black-and-white comedy of manners, opt instead for The Philadelphia Story, a brilliant screwball society film starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
There were actually six television adaptations of Pride and Prejudice between 1940 and the 1990s, but the only one worth mentioning is the beloved 1995 BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle as Lizzy and a relatively little known Colin Firth as the Darcy of your fantasies.
This one’s all about the sex: Darcy gallops around on horses, luxuriates in bathtubs, vents his sexual frustration during a fencing match, and casts many a smouldering gaze at Ehle’s warm, witty Elizabeth. And, damn, that dip in the lake.
At six hour-long episodes it’s a slog, but it is worth it. Alison Steadman (Gavin and Stacey) is the superlative Mrs Bennet, and Ab Fab’s Julia Sawalha bounces effortlessly off her (and everyone else) as a pitch-perfect ridiculous Lydia. Mr Collins (David Bamber) is wonderfully creepy; but Wickham, as played by Adrian Lukis, is disappointingly swagger-less.
Still, in this version it’s all on Ehle and Firth. They’re sublime, and so is this adaptation.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
An artfully self-reflexive metacomedy, Bridget Jones’s Diary is just as brilliant as you remember (despite the fact that some of Bridge’s singleton sorrow has aged rather poorly in our post-post-feminist world).
Adapted from Helen Fielding’s darkly funny novel by Andrew Davies (who also adapted the aforementioned 1995 miniseries) and British rom-com giant Richard Curtis, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a gem. A well-accented Renee Zellweger plays funny, frank Bridget Jones, the contemporary everywoman version of Elizabeth Bennet – or, rather, the kind of woman who wishes she was Elizabeth but is perhaps more of a Kitty. Firth returns in the Darcy-ish role of Mark Darcy, an amusing bit of casting that both lampoons and monopolises on the insane popularity of the steamy 1995 miniseries.
Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones both shine as Bridge’s hopeless parents, and her raucous ‘urban family’ are an excellent contemporary translation of the Bennet sisters. But it’s Hugh Grant’s Wickam-esque Daniel Cleaver (perhaps his best-ever performance) that is the most fun. He captures all the charm and charisma of the playboy Wickham, and is oddly more handsome as a slightly older, droopier man sharpened by IRL scandal. If you haven’t rewatched Bridget Jones in a while, trust me, it’s time.
Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (2003)
Yes, there is a Mormon Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve watched it – twice – so that you don’t have to. This Elizabeth Bennet (Kam Heskin, star of all The Prince and Me films without Julia Stiles, in case you were wondering) is a student at a Utah university, living with four housemates: Jane, Mary, and snobbish sisters Kitty and Lydia. Elizabeth is struggling to make it as a writer, and while working part-time in a bookstore she meets the arrogant Darcy (Brit Orlando Seale).
Make no mistake, this movie is truly dreadful. The acting is shocking, and no film will give you a better insight into the worst of mid-naughties fashion. Elizabeth is a romance novelist who refuses to admit that her book is a romance; Darcy is a really pretty reasonable, charming publishing executive. There’s just no zing. But knowing it exists is, at the very least, a good bit of general knowledge to possess.
Bride and Prejudice (2004)
There have been many attempts to make a successful Pride and Prejudice musical; the one that’s stuck is onscreen and comes with Bollywood accoutrements. Bride and Prejudice was Gurinder Chadha’s follow-up to her beloved debut film Bend It Like Beckham. Set in India, Chadha’s technicolour adaptation follows the fortunes of the Bakshi daughters – sweet Jaya, feisty Lalita, oddball Maya and boy-crazy Lakhi – who are shaken up by the arrival in town of wealthy Balraj and his stuck-up friend Will Darcy.
The songs are fun and Aishwarya Rai, who plays Lalita, is a wonderful performer. (However, she is perhaps a little too beautiful to play Lizzy Bennet, who was never really gorgeous but merely had ‘fine eyes’.) The standout performance is from Nitin Ganatra as Mr Kohli; his big, irreverent turn is great fun, as is the song dedicated to him, ‘No Life Without Wife’. Sadly Bride and Prejudice is plagued by the terrible miscasting of Martin Henderson as Will; his Darcy is a wet blanket, not nearly enough of anything to believably tempt the brilliant Lalita.
Featuring a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from mid-2000s darling Alexis Bledel (boy, she must be glad Netflix is reviving Gilmore Girls), Bride and Prejudice is about a medium success (though truly beloved by many Austen fans). If in doubt, you can just play ‘No Life Without Wife’ on repeat.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Certainly the most sumptuous of all the Pride and Prejudice adaptations, Joe Wright’s stunning 2005 film, starring his muse Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, is frame after frame of drool-worthy mis-en-scene. It’s easy to forget (if you saw last year’s dreadful Pan) that Wright is an intelligent, emotionally intuitive filmmaker. As with his arresting Atonement, this Pride and Prejudice is a painterly delight. It features a stunning score by Dario Marianelli (perfect for your next study session) and a lot of very attractive duck-egg blue drawing rooms.
Wright’s film also has some extraordinarily prescient casting choices when it comes to the Bennet sisters: current It Girls Carey Mulligan, Jena Malone and Rosamund Pike delight as Kitty, Lydia and Jane. When I first saw this film I hated Keira Knightley as Elizabeth – too beautiful, too skinny and too moody (Elizabeth is wry, certainly, but never petulant). She’s grown on me, and so has Matthew McFayden’s very different Darcy. Rather less pompous, certainly more reticent and watery, McFayden’s stuttering declaration of love is a nice alternative to the smouldering, sombre Firth (though Firth’s is still the superior interpretation). McFayden’s dawn walk across the moors to meet Elizabeth at the film’s end is truly divine.
On the other hand, Donald Sutherland is much too slow and imperious to be a good Mr Bennet; Rupert Friend proves, as Wickham, that though he is a gorgeous-looking man, he is also a bad actor; and worse, Mr Collins is forgettable. Vexingly, the film does not end with a kiss between Darcy and Elizabeth (more what the Always Sunny cast would call a ‘sexually charged hug’). However, the studio did release a ‘US ending’ online, with an abundance of kissing, for all us pervs to enjoy.
Lost in Austen (2008)
Lost in Austen, where disenchanted social worker Amanda (Jemima Rooper) finds a portal into the world of Pride and Prejudice and switches places with Elizabeth Bennet (Emma Arteton), is perhaps the most contentious of all the adaptations. Purist Pride and Prej fans tend to hate it because when Amanda (and her annoyingly straight hair) stumbles into Longbourn she immediately mucks everything up. Ever wondered what would happen if Collins married Jane, or if Lydia ran off with Bingley, or if Wickham was really the hero? Find the answers to all these questions and more in Lost in Austen, which is both immeasurably silly and intensely fun.
Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville is an excellent Mr Bennet, and Tom Mison is a brilliant revised version of the generally affable Bingley – this one’s all hapless and hopeless and tied up by his own inertia. The one true disappointment is Elliot Cowan’s blustery, bad Darcy; he’s closer to Olivier than Firth, which is not the direction a Darcy should be going. Still, he looks bloody good doing a redux of Firth’s iconic dip in the lake. If you’ve ever fantasised about jumping into an Austen novel, this one’s for you.
(PS, look out for my favourite revision: a revelatory Caroline Bingley, played by the arch Christina Cole, who is deepened in a way I’m certain Austen would’ve approved of.)
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries an award-winning web series where Lizzie Bennet (Ashley Clements) reports in via vlog with the help of sisters Jane (Laura Spencer) and Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles) and her friend Charlotte Lu (Julia Cho). The vlog format means there is lots of Lizzie talk, so your enjoyment will be determined by how much you care to watch what is basically a YouTube confessional.
Clements is a peppy Lizzie and this is a winking contemporary update (instead of eloping, Lydia’s dalliance with Wickham results in a sex tape that he threatens to release online). Their Darcy (super serious Daniel Vincent Gordh) is a rich guy with some old-fashioned manners and a bad habit of dressing like the owner of a gentleman’s club.
While it’s clever, it can also feel stilted. There’s just not enough of the classic Austen banter to keep things moving. However, if it takes your fancy, there are a bunch of other classics-based web series available through YouTube channel Pemberley Digital (riffing on Emma, Sanditon, Little Women and even Frankenstein).
Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)
Death Comes to Pemberley is one of the most accomplished and inventive Pride and Prejudice adaptations – and I’m not just saying that because I wish I was married to the scrumptious Matthew Goode. Based on the PD James novel, in Death Comes to Pemberley it’s six years after Lizzy and Darcy’s wedding, and the pair are installed happily at Pemberley, ready to host a lavish ball, when a murder most foul happens on their grounds.
What’s brilliant about Death Comes to Pemberley is how expertly it imagines the future for Elizabeth and Darcy. Their marriage feels very real, a credible peek beyond ‘happy ending’ that’s just the right balance of heated disagreements and passionate make-ups (there’s even a bit of sex, truly a scandal for any Austen reimagining).
The Americans’ Matthew Rhys is very good as an older, wiser but still pigheaded Darcy; Anna Maxwell Martin is a marvellous Elizabeth. You’ll have the most fun with Doctor Who’s Jenna Coleman as Lydia Bennet, and Matthew Goode is, well, Matthew Goode. He’s perfectly cast as the roguish Wickham. This one is truly gorgeous – plus, murder!
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies premieres February 25.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She tweets from @mdixonsmith.