Austen at Large: Darcy and Davies: Adapting Mr. Darcy from the Novel to the Screen

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s most popular if not most adapted novel, and  its famous hero Mr. Darcy has been interpreted in many different ways. There have been several excellent period adaptations of Pride and Prejudice which present Darcy’s character differently, particularly Fay Weldon’s 1980 and Andrew Davies 1995 versions. These two adaptations master the characters of Austen’s work which is so important. Weldon’s perhaps captures it slightly better than Davies’ because she is not as focused on Darcy as he is. Davies’s tries to bring Darcy’s side of the story forward so that the viewer sympathizes with him and sees what a good character he is long before Elizabeth feels the same way. This goes against the feeling of the novel because the reader is guided by Elizabeth’s thoughts for the majority of the novel rather than understanding Darcy’s.

David Rintoul as Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice (1980)

Pride and Prejudice‘s popularity has been growing over the years bringing more people to Jane Austen as well. Many of the adaptations are wonderful but the viewer has to keep in mind that it is the novel that is at the heart of the film. They should not depart drastically. Pride and Prejudice can be adapted faithfully to the novel while bringing the characters to life. It is only a matter of the writer and director doing it, some have and some have not.

Mr. Darcy in the tub, Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Davies’ adaptation might as well be called “Darcy’s Story” at times. Darcy is a great character in the novel and yet the story is not about him. It is about Elizabeth, her relationship with her family, and then Darcy. In Davies screenplay Darcy’s point of view is given to the viewer to show us his softer side, the side Elizabeth can’t see immediately but the viewer can. In the novel Darcy is suppose to be constantly looking at Elizabeth and these looks can explain a lot about his character. Andrew Davies explained,

One of the first things that struck me about Pride and Prejudice is that the central motor which drives the story forward is Darcy’s sexual attraction to Elizabeth. He doesn’t particularly like her, he’s appalled by the rest of her family and he fights desperately against this attraction.” (BBC website)

In Davies’ version these looks are almost always of admiration and approbation, yet in other versions it is not easy to tell why Darcy is looking at Elizabeth. David Rintoul’s Darcy in the 1980 Weldon adaptation hides his facial expressions better than Firth’s 1995 Darcy does. Yet, perhaps Firth is meaning to wear emotions on his face (though this is not very Darcy like) to bring him more to life and to make him more agreeable. One positive aspect of Darcy in this adaptation is that he practically has to relearn everything he thought he knew about women to get Elizabeth. He has been use to objectifying them but when Elizabeth comes along, she sparks a change in him. The problem is that this is a little too fanciful. Darcy does change and for the better with Elizabeth’s help, but as Elizabeth points out to herself in the end of the novel “She remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin“. He is not a completely changed creature and Elizabeth knows this. The viewer, like the reader should love Darcy in the end for the reasons Elizabeth does. That he is a gracious, kind, thoughtful man and he is better than we ever believed possible from their first encounter; yet for this to be successful the viewer cannot be idolizing over Darcy for three quarters of the film which is what most viewers are doing in this version.

Mr. Darcy does the dip, Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Davies’ adaptation is an almost faithful reworking of the novel for a modern and sexual audience. Darcy’s sex appeal cannot be over looked and is overplayed by Firth. In the novel Darcy’s character is what makes him a fine man, not his body. The story shifts focus in this adaptation to Darcy which though it seems faithful, I think it undermines Austen’s original story because viewers can feel more sympathy for Darcy than they do for Elizabeth.

Although Jane Austen’s book was told very much from Elizabeth’s point of view, Andrew decided to make his version very much Darcy’s story as well. He did this partly by inserting new scenes which showed Darcy outside the stiff social events, allowing the viewer to see more of the real man” (BBC website).

The opening of film shows what the emphasis will be about as Davies opens his film with Darcy and Bingley riding on horseback, rather than begining with one of the most famous line in the English language, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife“. Instead, Elizabeth is given these lines a few scenes in, but by starting with Darcy, Davies’ is perhaps showing where his focus will be throughout the production, on Darcy rather than on Elizabeth.

 Pride and Prejudice (1995) DVD cover        Pride and Prejudice (1980) DVD cover

As much as I love the 1995 adaptation written by Andrew Davies, I really dislike how Darcy takes the center stage at times. Even when looking at the  DVD cover compared with the 1980 Fay Weldon version, the 1995 cover includes Colin Firth as Darcy front and center with Elizabeth only in the background with Jane, while on my 1980 DVD cover it has Elizabeth and Jane in the front and Darcy only in the background with Elizabeth. I know these might be merely marketing issues that I am raising but it is worth thinking about because if the focus of the adaptation changes too much, then what is it saying about those who are watching it. I just get tired of the Darcy mania. I sometimes feel that I am on a soap box shouting about him so I don’t want people to think that I don’t like him in the end. I DO. Who couldn’t? But I just think that readers and viewers of the movies should remember the original story in mind because that is what is so amazing, not some adaptation of it. Ok enough soap box… what does everyone else think?

Until next week,

Virginia Claire

Virginia Claire, our Austen at Large roving reporter is a college student studying English literature and history who just returned from her time studying abroad in Bath England and working as an intern at the Jane Austen Centre. She is the Regional Coordinator of JASNA North Carolina and a lifelong Janeite. She will be sharing her thoughts on all things Austen this semester and remembering her travels in Austenland.