Video Virgil: Austen Power
Having introduced the topic of Jane Austen (see "Sideways" rave below), I feel moved to mention why the 1996 BBC/A&E production of "Pride and Prejudice" starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is my favorite.
I admire this one the most because it achieves the most delicate balance between two very different worlds: that of Jane Austen’s novels and that of our contemporary film sensibility.
There are an amazing number of Austen adaptations out there. On this side of the pond they range from the old-fashioned Hollywood feature, the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice" starring Greer Garson and Sir Lawrence Olivier; to the new-fangled Hollywood feature, the 2003 update set in contemporary America, with the necessary social morality supplied by having the characters all be Mormons.
The chief fault of these, and of all novel-based feature films, is the adaptation process itself. No matter how highly credentialed the writers, they are bound by the stricture of the two-hour screenplay to commit ugly acts of amputation and evisceration.
The BBC led the way to a solution: the TV miniseries. Give the writer six hours instead of two, and he or she is less likely to turn into an Edward Scissorhands, out to discipline fusty old novelists for wasting kerjillions of words on material that doesn't advance the plot.
The BBC has adapted "Pride and Prejudice" four times: in 1952, 1967, 1980, and 1996. I haven’t seen the first two, but the contrast between ‘80 and ‘96 suggests the solution created a new problem: misplaced fidelity.
While Austen’s prose may seem dry to the newcomer, to the seasoned reader it purls along, clear and rapid as a fast-running brook. For reasons of cost, undue attachment to theatrical conventions, or perhaps both, this fluency was absent from the ‘80 production, which (despite a fine performance by Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet) is stagey and ... well, dry.
By ‘96 somebody at the Beeb - or at A&E - had figured out two things. First, that Austen is not dry. And second, that film has its own way of bubbling along, one that is different from both the page and the stage. Let the purists complain; if Austen were alive today, she would delight in this version and find ever so tactful fault with the others.