Susan Year Itch: The birth (and rebirth) of the RomCom!

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a book in possession of a good cast of characters must be in want of filmic interpretations. However, my star rating, once lost, is lost forever.

I need to warn you that if you take any of my below advice, you may end up suffering a bit of a shock when you return to the real world of commuting, condos, and commercials. It’s a little like having a “case of the Mondays,” only instead of looking bleakly ahead to the work week in front of you, you try to accept the fact that you will never be able to “take a turn about your drawing room” without tripping over a dog toy or a Wiimote.

I attempt to, though. It’s pretty clear when I’ve been indulging in too much 19th century literature: my husband gallantly ignores the florid language I try to incorporate into my texts (“I shall take my departure from my place of business directly and, in my mechanical future-carriage, will endeavor to devote myself to the arduous journey home.”) and my dog gallantly accepts her new nickname, Mr. Charles Bingley (no really, they are exactly alike!!). It gets to be such a sickness that three years ago I resolved to choose a literary theme for myself each year* that did not include Eliot, Austen, or the Brontes. Now that I’m out of school for good, no one is going to encourage me to expand my horizons but myself.

But alas! I made no such restriction on my movie-watching experiences, so from time to time, I fall off the wagon and acquire my English countryside fix with almost shameful gluttony. Lately, I have really thrown caution to the wind. I knew when I read a description of Lost in Austen (regular gal loves P&P, ends up living it) that I should avoid it for fear of the post-Austen depression with which I was so familiar. However, the circumstances were against me. I was alone, Bingley was sleeping happily on my lap, and, dammit, in the poster, the main character looked eerily like yours truly. I’m not big on fate, but that is tough to resist.

In the following weeks, I rolled up my sleeves and did some rewatching research in order to put this column together. I leave it to you to discuss amongst yourselves the inspiring dedication I have for my craft.**

Pride and Prejudice: The One with All the Gazing

Director: Simon Langton, 1995
Starring: Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth

Often described as the quintessential and most complete P&P, this BBC/A&E miniseries leaves very little out (and very little to the imagination – oy, those britches!), and so for that reason, I’ve listed it first. If this is your first foray, you need to start with all the information. If this is your 800th foray, like it was mine, you need to be reminded. Colin Firth’s Darcy has an arsenal of stares with minute variations that mean different things, Elizabeth scoffs, and Mary is completely hilarious. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why Adrian Lukis was cast as the devastatingly handsome (or I guess reptilian and gross?) Wickham, but David Bamber is the second best Mr. Collins, and both of the elder Bennetts are spot-on. The cinematography is less sweeping than it is just pleasant, but there’s something undeniably compelling about that tiny glimpse of frustrated Darcy that this one affords us. The climax, I’m sorry to say after repeated watchings, is somewhat lacking in passion, but there are enough emotions packed into all of those gazes from across the sitting room to make up for it.

Banter score: 3
Heartstring manipulation score: 4
Casting score: 4.5
Darcy-induced swoon score: 4 (……..He’s looking at me again!)

Pride and Prejudice: The Old One

Director: Robert Z. Leonard, 1940
Starring: Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier

My mom made me read the book (she sent it with me to summer camp when I was nine, even the counselors made fun of me) before I watched this movie, her favorite. While I truly believe that reading the book will enrich your moviewatching experience, just enjoy the films if you want to without feeling guilty. Why not? Our repeated viewings of this film were like a quicker way to get to the payoff (Olivier softening up). While nobody does tense romantic banter like 1940s Hollywood, it doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch, and, to be honest, it probably was my mom’s favorite because Colin Firth had yet to wear the Darcy scowl.

Banter score: 5
Heartstring manipulation score: 2.5
Casting score: 3
Darcy-induced swoon score: 4 (Olivier is still Olivier)

Becoming Jane: The One That Remembered That Shakespeare in Love Won Some Oscars

Director: Julian Jarrold, 2007
Starring: Anne Hathaway (as Jane Austen) and James McAvoy (as her own personal Darcy)

Before there was P&P, there was Jane and That Guy! Yes, Jane LIVED P&P, this movie would have you believe, and just like Shakespeare in Love, there are poignant conclusions to draw from the famous author’s interactions as a young lady. Unlike Shakespeare in Love, this movie is dumb. I’ve positioned it here so that your P&P knowledge will be complete before you watch a film that does nothing but allude to it, but you won’t be entirely disappointed. The casting is pretty great. Who’s more adorable than Anne Hathaway, anyway? Answer: James McAvoy. Also, the sets are amazing, the costumes are pretty, but the rest of the movie is just forgettable. Well, not the entirety of the movie – there is one utterly heartstopping romantic interaction that I still think about sometimes when I’m stuck in a meeting or waiting at the doctor’s office. It’s an old habit that’s hard to break, and I challenge you not to feel some emotions when it happens. In general, however, you can get the James McAvoy On An English Estate effect with phenomenal writing and directing by just renting Atonement.

Banter score: 3.5
Heartstring manipulation score: 2 (one scene gets a 5)
Casting score: 4
Darcy-induced swoon score: 2

Bridget Jones’s Diary: The Fun One!

Director: Sharon Maguire, 2001
Starring: Renee Zellweger (as Bridget Jones, aka the Generally Luckless Version of Elizabeth Bennett) and Colin Firth (as Darcy) (yep!)

I’d seen this at least twice before I realized what was going on here. It’s not a one-to-one interpretation of P&P, but it certainly does get close. Bridget seems to combine all of the Bennett sisters (Elizabeth’s cleverness, Jane’s sweetness, Mary’s awkwardness, Kitty’s tendency to giggle, and Lydia’s flirtatiousness), and the misfortunes with Wickham (in this case Daniel Cleaver, played by Hugh Grant) are all her own. Luckily, this jerk she knows named Mark Darcy, whom she had prejudged to be full of pride, just as he had prejudged her own pride (nasty cycle, everyone!), has extensive prior experience with meaningful gazes.

Banter score: 4
Heartstring manipulation score: 4
Casting score: 5
Darcy-induced swoon score: 3.5 (I never quite buy Mark Darcy’s interest in Bridget, but have you seen him in his barrister outfit?)

Pride & Prejudice: The Beautiful One

Director: Joe Wright, 2005
Starring: Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen

After all of these interpretations, you can reward yourself with the most stunning example of all. Directed by the guy who did the aforementioned masterpiece, Atonement, Elizabeth and Darcy trudge around an epically beautiful Georgian England. I remember the first time I ever took an interest in the Best Cinematographer Award was when I was fifteen and Michael Coulter had been nominated for Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility (throw this into the mix before Bridget Jones’s Diary, if you want to be convinced that Hugh Grant is capable of different roles). Wright’s Pride & Prejudice blows S&S out of the water, hands down. The attention here is to detail instead of to text accuracy (but everyone still stares at each other, don’t worry), and it’s possible that you will slide out of your chair and onto the floor in an attempt to wrestle with the unfamiliar shudderings in your robot heart.

My only complaint is that the (finally!) beautiful Wickham (Rupert Friend) has very little screen time. Luckily for me, he stars in The Young Victoria, and though he is sans ponytail in that one, he does have a tiny moustache. Oh, and also he isn’t evil. Win!

Banter score: 4 (Darcy and Elizabeth have less witty banter here and more stinging barbs)
Heartstring manipulation score: 5
Casting score: 5
Darcy-induced swoon score: 100 (I type this from the floor, where I slid yesterday afternoon and whence I will be unable to remove myself for about another week)***

Lost in Austen: The One Where You Get to Be In It

Director: Dan Zeff, 2008
Starring: Gemma Arterton and Elliott Cowan, but, surprise! They don’t get to meet, because Elizabeth switches places with London 2008 twentysomething Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper)!

Part what-if comedy, and part world collision, the BBC miniseries does not leave out the parts we all want, although at various times, you’re convinced it’s going to. Amanda is discontented with her 2008 life and longs to go back to the times depicted in her favorite book, Pride and Prejudice. When a portal opens up that allows her to do just that (suspend that disbelief!), she finds herself not just hanging around Georgian England, she’s actually IN the Bennett household. Believing that she will ruin the world somehow if she doesn’t help things move along exactly as they ought, Amanda does her best to fit in while pushing the correct people towards the other correct people. Almost immediately, things begin to fall apart. Turns out all of that romance and gallantry is quickly forgotten when you realize you have to brush your teeth with twigs and chalk. It’s over three hours long, and I watched it twice in a week.

Banter score: 5 (It’s the dialogue in this that makes it so worthwhile. Not convinced? Imagine Bingley’s reaction when he’s told someone is a lesbian.)
Heartstring manipulation score: 4
Casting score: 5 (I’m pretty sure this is the best cast I’ve seen yet, with the exception of Amanda herself, who’s kind of supposed to be annoying, so I’ll give it a pass.)
Darcy-induced swoon score: 5 (Cowan’s Darcy isn’t quite as reserved as Firth’s or as expressive as Macfadyen’s, his contempt and anger is more terrifying, causing the respite to seem sweeter).

*I miss you 2009: Year of Fantasy.
**”Watching what I want and then babbling about it” – THERE ARE WORSE CRAFTS!
***Val has been image searching for this article, and I’m pretty sure she is on the floor too, judging from the occasional “SIGH” and “GAH” and “MY HEAAARRRTTTT” I keep hearing from the IM window.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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