Last Thursday, September 24th, marked the 20th anniversary of the premiere of the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. You know the one. Colin Firth has a dampened shirt on from his impromptu swim; his hair is damp and beautifully tousled as he stares passionately into your soul—undoubtedly the sexual awakening for many men and women alike. But more than just 327 minutes of repressed, perfectly British sexual tension, the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was arguably a watershed event not only for Jane Austen in popular culture, but also one, I think, that changed the way we adapt from page to screen.
BBC’s Pride and Prejudice was just one in what was an explosion of Austen adaptations in the latter half of the 1990s. A film adaptation of Persuasion and the deliciously 90s remake of Emma (Clueless) were released just months before, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility was released the next year, and a more traditional remake of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow was also released in 1996. Mansfield Park was released in 1999.
But what is it that makes BBC’s Pride and Prejudice so special? Why does it inspire almost everyone from the most fervent Janeites to casual fans alike? While I suspect it has to do with a number of factors including inspired casting, excellent costuming and faithfulness to the original text, I think it has also to do with what it does for raising the stakes for subsequent period dramas: an unrivaled commitment to world-building.
When we think of world-building in the mainstream sense, we imagine large, big-budget productions like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter. Sci-fi and fantasy novels, not to mention their film adaptations, often demand large-scale world-building, in that they must define their limits as a prerequisite to beginning the story. The world of the story must successfully contain the contents of the plot in order for the viewer to suspend their disbelief. How far does Middle Earth extend, both literally and figuratively? How will they render the aesthetic nuances from page to screen? Where does the fictional world end and the real world begin? What walls do the text erect, and are they sturdy? When a book translates to film, what will be lost, manipulated and even newly generated? All of these questions are, significantly, asked in direct conversation with the outside world, that is, the edge of the screen. These worlds push outward, push on the audience in an effort to contain their enormity.
For many period dramas surrounding Pride and Prejudice, especially ones striving for a sense of realism congruent with the times and texts they are representing, world-building becomes a function of stage production, creating tableaus that envision individually well-constructed moments but remain flat. The 1996 version of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, perhaps doomed from the start by trying to reduce Austen’s second-longest novel to 120 minutes of abridgment, focuses too much on the romantic entanglements of the characters without making the necessary engagements with the nuances of the world they’ve created onscreen from the novel itself.
In short, many period dramas do not pause to interrogate the narrative and aesthetic choices that manifest when the text was translated into film. Instead, they present a series of truncated moments important to the story strung together in a way that communicates the major moments of the plot.
But what about the smaller moments that flesh out a text, especially the kinds that make a Jane Austen novel so distinct? The characters’ idiosyncrasies that not only manifest in conversation but also in moments of introspection? The mannerisms that reveal themselves only upon translation—the sighs, the grimaces, the eyebrows raised in indignation? This is the kind of world-building that Pride and Prejudice pays so much attention to, a kind of inverse world-building. Aware and comfortable with its limits and boundaries (in that it must conform to the realist early 19th century aesthetic) Pride and Prejudice pushes inward, applying pressure to the world it translates from text to screen.
Pride and Prejudice not only gives us the moments every good Austen fan lusts for–cotillion dancing, brooding glances and empire-waisted gowns–it also gives us access to the impetus behind those brooding glances, and shows us the romantic and emotional chaos implicit in the rigid, organized dancing. It also gives us a miniseries-only moment (it’s not in the book or in any other screen adaptation): Mr. Darcy in a mythically wet shirt, taken off guard at the presence of Elizabeth at his home. The scene gives us more access than perhaps the novel does us into Darcy’s vulnerability and Elizabeth’s ability to push into spheres that are not her own, redrawing character boundaries within the space of the screen.
The 1995 Pride and Prejudice remains so seminal and extraordinary because it gives audiences access to the spaces between the lines of Austen’s most popular novel. It challenges the spaces and boundaries within the text—those between people, between places and between the audience and the story. Instead of an easily-digestible costume drama, the audience is asked to participate in a complicated emotionally and socially charged story composed of several interlocking narratives.
Also, Colin Firth is pretty easy on the eyes.