Pride & Prejudices

There's a lot of them out there right now. I haven't yet seen the most recent version that was released into theatres nationwide (it didn't last very long here in Portland; I'm not sure why since everyone I talked to who saw it liked it). In any case, the 2005 version is a retelling of the original in the original setting, and for the purposes of this post I am more interest in contemporary-set versions.

The two contemporary versions I have seen recently are Pride & Prejudice (2003), based in Provo, Utah (I will refer to it as LDS 2003) and Bride & Prejudice (2004), based (partly) in India. In both cases, a culture has been chosen that has strong expectations/institutions surrounding courting, marriage and its meaning to the family. It isn't just the implied rules of courtship and marriage which can be found in sitcoms like Friends. In both movies, there are external cultural rules at work. This is important if you want retellings that are faithful in spirit to the original, if not faithful in their settings.

In both cultures, there are omnipresent rules about dating at work. There's more freedom than in the original; there are no parental figures at all in LDS 2003; in Bride, the parents are a much larger part of the story (and the mother is a perfect Mrs. Bennett) but the kids date without chaperones. The point is, they do date: they go to dances and to the beach; they participate in active (modernized) rituals that arise from their culture. They aren't just going to bars to pick up people or get picked up; the latter is more of an implied custom while the former has an end in view.

The family, oddly enough, is more omnipresent in Bride. Mormon parents are definitely a part of the whole courting/dating expectation, but in LDS 2003, the roommates (who are not sisters) take the place of the parents. In Bride & Prejudice, however, the parents are to the fore and amusingly enough, the tradition of dowries and arranged marriages makes it possible for the mother to be much more forthright than Mrs. Bennett ever is. The "Mr. Collins" of Bride is a distant relation from L.A. who has come over to India to get himself a wife since girls in L.A., he says, are too independent. And nobody pretends that there is any other reason for him being there.

On the other hand, the Mr. Collins of LDS 2003 must be mentioned; he is the "I had a vision that you should marry me" Mormon guy and is perfectly rendered. There's a scene where he stands up in church and bemoans modern girls who don't know their role in life. Elizabeth imagines throwing a hymnal at him. She restrains herself; instead, the bishop gets up and whispers in Collins' ear, "That's enough. Sit down." Maybe you have to be Mormon to appreciate it, but it's pretty good stuff.

The "Darcy" in both cases is from another country, and it is his "otherness" that causes the problems, not his class. In LDS 2003, he is British and scornful of American bookstores. In Bride, he is American and clueless about Indian customs. In both cases, his rudeness is caused by his inability to appreciate the "natives," which is an interesting twist on the original and neatly avoids the problem of the original. Superiority based on class is a trifle more difficult to swallow in our day and age than in Jane Austen's time. (In both cases, he remains rich . . . hmmmm.)

And in both cases, Mr. Darcy beats up Wickham, which says something, I don't know what, about modern women. In the original, he just shows up and fixes Lydia's life; in the A&E version, he shows up and glares at Wickham (after fixing Lydia's life). In LDS 2003 and Bride, he gets into a punching fest with the bad guy.

In both cases, "Lydia" is rescued before she "falls," which points to differences between Jane Austen's time and now. I think one difference is that in Jane Austen's time, the act of sex was insignificant compared to loss of reputation; it doesn't matter whether Lydia slept with Wickham or not, her character is lost irregardless. So, you know, she might as well sleep with him. Also, too, in Jane Austen's remorseless way, Lydia is forced to pay for her mistake; well, Wickham is, by being forced to marry Lydia. (It's doubtful whether Lydia could have done any better.) But in LDS 2003, Lydia is chased down to Las Vegas and prevented from marrying a bigamist. And in Bride, an extremely youthful Lydia (Lucky) is chased down before Wickham can seduce her (2004 Lucky is played as a flirt but an innocent one; she really doesn't see any of this coming.)

In both movies, Wickham is immediately recognizable. In LDS 2003, he is the Jack Mormon guy who lives just far enough inside the strictures of the culture to get dates and persuade girls that he is "the one," but not enough inside it to care about loss of reputation and not enough outside it for his lack of standards to be obvious. In Bride, he is the laid-back guy who backpacks around India and really digs the culture but also happens to be unreliable and totally amoral; he will seduce a 15 year old just because she happens to be there. All in all, Darcy seems more difficult to portray, which may be an unfortunate commentary on dating in our culture or just the unfortunate experience of women in today's culture. On the other hand, the "Bingley" character in both is so well-portrayed that not all dating experiences can be that bad. (Everyone has met at least one Bingley.) In both movies, he is played by an actor who strikes you as effortlessly sweet, somewhat innocent, bright without being super smart, gregarious and completely agenda-less.

Both movies do tend to lag. The A&E version was five hours long for a reason. When you try to squash all the elements of the story into one two-hour film, well, it's good stuff, but it tends to leap about disjointedly. Remember, in the original, at least a year passes between the beginning and the end. You try to do that in a movie and it just seems kind of schizo. The LDS 2003 version is more uneven, but the pacing of Bride isn't helped by the fact that it is a musical. In some ways, it is very clever (the opening song is great), but in other ways, it means taking a long plot and making it even longer. They could have cut at least two of the songs. (I tend to think that about musicals in general, and I like musicals.)

All in all, my great insight on all this is that rules of culture are not necessarily bad things. Sure, we could have a John Lenin world without religion or rules or government or law or institutions or whatever. (Actually, it probably isn't possible.) But who wants that? Give me cultural insitutions and all the rules and problems and graces they bring with them and then give me the art surrounding those cultural insitutions and I'll considered myself far, far better off.


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