My friends from Austen fandom probably know what I chose. The rest of you -- well, as I've mentioned once or twice, I hate, hate hate the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Yes, the one with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Oh, I'm willing to admit that there are good things about it, but they just make me hate the overall production even more. For extra fandom dissonance, the thing I hate most about it is Colin Firth's Darcy.
And this is why.
Stereotyping the Hero
The BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is frequently praised as the ultimate, perfect adaptation of any Austen novel. It has no flaws. It cannot possibly be improved upon – despite constantly reinforcing stereotypes of gender and appearance, often in direct contradiction of the original text.
The story is straightforward enough. It’s 1811 – the beginning of England’s Regency, and just about everybody’s favourite period for historical romance. A spirited young woman named Elizabeth Bennet is living on her father's comfortable estate, along with the rest of her family: said father, her mother, and four sisters. When Mr Bennet dies, however, all five women will face certain poverty - and since women of their class and time are not permitted to work, their only alternative is to marry. Fortunately for them, Charles Bingley, single and nouveau rich, has just rented the nearby estate. Better still, he's brought with him his friend/mentor: Mr Darcy, a brooding, powerful aristocrat.
Jane Bennet (the Regency's version of a Disney princess) and Mr Bingley instantly fall in love; Elizabeth, meanwhile, overhears Darcy insult her, and determines to loathe and mock him for eternity; and Darcy struggles with the enormous social gap between them, on one side, and intense sexual attraction on the other. After over a year of quarrels, separations, proposals, and one scandalous elopement, the chastened Elizabeth and Darcy fall in love, finally marrying in a double wedding with Jane and Bingley. They ride off in their carriages, the Bingleys gazing adoringly into one another's eyes, while Elizabeth laughs and even the otherwise sombre, brooding Darcy smiles before kissing his wife.
Some would say that this adaptation - and all others - should be evaluated on its own merits alone. However, the very act of adapting a work from one medium to another is, by its very nature, an interpretation of the text. Few of us would sit through five hours of romantic comedy if it were not billed as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice - the translation of one of literature's most brilliant and incisive works onto the screen. Therefore this act of interpretation, and the values it reflects, must be considered.
Andrew Davies' script is what is often called faithful, and in many respects actually is. Almost all the significant divergences are clustered around the character of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice’s notoriously difficult hero. Here, played by Colin Firth, he’s recreated as the original alpha male: forceful, moody, smouldering. He glares out of windows, watching Elizabeth from behind a billiards table or in a bath like a watered-down Heathcliff. Burdened by unwanted passions, he fences, crying, "I shall conquer this!"
Upon returning home to meet with his steward, he postpones matters of business to fling himself into a pond, then wanders about the estate half-dressed and sopping wet. In a crisis, he rushes to action - scribbling his famous letter all through the night, hurrying to London to rescue Elizabeth's silly sister Lydia. When prodded into drawing rooms, he endures all social encounters with the object of his affection – or obsession - with a scowl, snapping back at her when she dares disagree with him.
All of this, however, contrasts sharply with the Darcy of the novel, who enjoys the “liveliness of [her] mind,” smiles throughout their battles of wits and only falls harder during them. Calmer and more analytical than his celluloid counterpart, Austen’s Darcy first betrays his attraction to Elizabeth by listening to her talk. He’s painfully introverted, though not (as this production insisted) shy, and it takes him at least a week to work up the nerve to actually speak to her. Then, however, he talks to her about everything from human evil to friendship, in some of the most celebrated dialogues this side of Shakespeare.
In the same emergencies faced by the mini-series’ Darcy, Austen's considers each situation before acting. He doesn't compose his letter until convinced he's recovered his usually “sedate” temper, instead waiting through the rest of the day, going to sleep, and finally sitting down to write it at eight o'clock the following morning.
Later in the story, Darcy’s archenemy brings Lydia Bennet dangerously near to a life of prostitution. Darcy not only doesn't rush away that day (again, it's the following morning), he comes up with two separate plans for resolving the situation. When the first fails, he falls back to the second. And he is happy to banter with Elizabeth herself, his responses varying between severe moral pronouncements and dry wit - but in either case, he almost always smiles, even as he smiles (unusually for the eighteenth century) in the portrait hanging among his ancestors. Firth’s Darcy rarely moves the muscles of his face at all. He would, perhaps, be more convincing as a Botox victim than the sharp, scheming Darcy.
These variations, small and large, reveal perhaps more about our values, our expectations of a romantic hero, than they do about either Austen or her character. After all, what sort of man waits to rescue the fair maiden until he's thought about it first? What sort of man responds to the near-seduction of his fifteen-year-old sister by writing a note to the perpetrator? Why would an aristocrat up to his ears in every kind of privilege try to convince a “ruined” girl that she's better off single than miserably married? When the woman he loves rips him up one side and down the other, how could a proper hero respond with a letter ending, "God bless you"? Why would a young man, falling in in love for the first time, smile and banter with the girl he likes?
The answer, of course, is that while a real person might very well do any of these things, a proper alpha hero most certainly would not. Darcy is an odd, often perplexing forerunner to that hero - by modern standards more like an evil mastermind minus the evil than anything else. He's plagued everyone from A A Milne (yes, of Winnie-the-Pooh fame) to Lawrence Olivier (saddled with the part in an infamous wartime production) to Davies himself. So he's got to be changed.
He shouldn't consider his motivations before acting on them, he shouldn't wait for all the information before solving a problem, and he certainly shouldn't have a sense of humour. That's for sidekicks - and while Darcy and Elizabeth, within the world of the novel, are just sidekicks to the classically good Jane and Bingley, that's not acceptable for a would-be Byronic hero.
It even goes beyond major issues of characterisation, to the minor and trivial. Austen only describes her characters in vague terms, and never says more about Darcy's appearance except that he's young, very handsome in an aristocratic way, and very tall. The producers, however, apparently had a very clear image of what The Hero ought to look like - down to the eyebrows.
Colin Firth’s light brown hair was dyed darker – a Hero, after all, must be tall, dark, and handsome – and curled. So were his eyebrows. He wore heavy mascara and more makeup than his female co-stars. By the end, he bore a striking (if not particularly astonishing) resemblance to Lord Byron.
It's no surprise, really, that the adaptation is overwhelmingly popular. There's enough of the original text to keep the purists happy, more or less. Stereotypes - well, they persist for a reason. This production appeals to just about every one of them available, and it works. Reducing the characters to types, the Spunky Young Thing and Brooding Hero - well, that works too, for contemporary audiences. Those are the images of gender and personality that we like, that we approve of, that we expect. They don't tell us anything about a two-hundred-year-old text that consciously subverts them, but they tell us plenty about ourselves.