My sophomore year of college, soon after I discovered Pride and Prejudice, some people in my dorm did a “marathon” of the 1995 BBC/A&E adaptation (during Reading Recess, nominally in conjunction with the theater’s production of Sense and Sensibility). I (alas!) missed that showing, but over the next several years I’ve had (and taken) the chance to see both that miniseries and the other three screen Pride and Prejudice adaptations. This is something of a comparative review.
As far as I know, the first adaptation was the 1940 movie starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. As spectacle, it’s nearly incomparable—if nothing else, the antebellum settings and costumes it used are far more lush than those of the book’s Regency period. Of all four adaptations, it’s the only one to wrap things up so neatly and happily for so many of the characters. And the acting is of a quality only matched by the A&E miniseries, as one might expect from the cast. But as an adaptation—and, as anyone can gather from my previous film reviews (especially of the Narnia movies), I am particularly concerned that dramatizations of great books be good adaptations as well as good movies—it is hardly worthy of the name. Entire—and crucial—sections of the (book’s version of the) story are left out, major characters are excised (albeit skillfully, so the story changes as it should in response to the changes), and the second ball is replaced by a garden party (of all things). The Olivier “adaptation” is more a (tremendously-well-done) fan-video, exploring what the story would have been like if certain things had been different, than a true translation from text to screen.
In 1980, the BBC produced a miniseries based on the novel. Like other BBC adaptations I’ve seen (Narnia and a couple of Shakespeare plays) of that era, as an adaptation it’s tremendously strong, and in a few cases casting seems to be simply inspired, but the casting and acting sometimes seem hit-or-miss, and the sets, costuming, props, and the like leave an impression more of the BBC’s distinctive low-budget style than of the story they’re intended to tell. (With a few exception, most notably the paintings that open each episode.) But this is much less jarring here than in, say, the Narnia dramatizations. Except for the cuts made necessary because it’s over an hour shorter than the A&E series, the 1980 version is by far the most faithful adaptation of the four: whether that outweighs the economy of style is a matter of taste. And alone of all four dramatizations, this one follows Austen in making Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist, not be prettier than her elder sister Jane (and in making them all look like sisters, for that matter).
Another miniseries aired fifteen years later, produced jointly by the BBC and the American A&E channel. It’s nearly as visually lush as the Olivier production despite being carefully “in period” (though part of that is because the earlier film was black-and-white), and is a fairly faithful translation from text to screen. It adds a significant number of scenes illustrating the character of the protagonists, and makes reasonable revisions to compress some parts of the story, but many of the details are the same and the essential character of Austen’s original comes through clearly. On the other hand, what modern readers think of as “subplots” and secondary characters receive much less attention, to the point that they sometimes seem more like mere sketches of themselves—and the “main plot” is played more openly than the text warrants, with too much “chemistry” too early between Darcy and Elizabeth. But for all that, there are a few absolutely perfect scenes (my favorites are the montage the soundtrack calls “the return of Bingley” and the sequence following the party at Pemberley), and like I said it’s a fairly faithful adaptation.
Most recently, there’s the 2005 movie starring Keira Knightley. Because as a movie rather than a miniseries it only has about ninety minutes instead of several times that long, even with the (reasonable) cuts and compressing revisions the movie feels somewhat rushed and incomplete. I found many of its artistic choices (using sculptures rather than paintings at Pemberley is one of the most obvious examples) quite interesting, and delightfully understated by contrast with the luxuriant, not-quite-garish style of the series a decade earlier; similarly, at its best the movie uses visual storytelling equally as brilliant as the best of the A&E dramatization. But like that adaptation, if not quite to the same degree in the beginning, it “plays up” the “main” romance more than I think is warranted. I can understand why (much the same reason I prefer fan-fiction to the original as my “comfort read” nowadays, I suspect), but it hurts the adaptation and the film.
In summary: The Olivier take is worth watching, but doesn’t really qualify as an “adaptation” of Austen’s text. Of the other three, each has its strong points; on the whole I think I prefer the 1995 series, but I’m quite fond of the 1980 series and the more recent movie, and wish for an adaptation blending the best features of all of them and the faults of none … sigh.