Watched: Pride & Prejudice (1940)

I’ve just watched this because I’m interested in doing a research project comparing the various film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, since that is one of my favourite novels of all time. I thought it would be easy but wow, was it a torture sitting through this adaptation.

If you liked this adaptation, you may not want to read my review of it.

I began my love for Pride and Prejudice from the novel directly. The 1995 film adaptation was the most recent one at the time when I first read the (abridged) novel, and I didn’t fall in love with it straightaway. Rather, it took me a few more reads of the novel to really get under its skin, and then from there I could appreciate the exactness of the 1995 film adaptation. Subsequently, I have watched the 2005 film version which I did not particularly like, but it was a watchable movie. I never bothered trying to watch the 1940 film version until now and – phew. I’m glad it’s over.

I don’t think it’s possible to make a list of the changes they’ve made to the novel’s story because it would be way too long. Suffice it to say that it feels like they took the basic romance comedy formula from that era and gave it a thin veil of Austen. Characters’ personalities are changed. Entire sequences and scenes are cut out. The age order of the Bennet sisters is changed. The film isn’t even set in the correct time period, for crying out loud. But I could’ve possibly put up with more if it hadn’t been the way women are portrayed in this film. Pride and Prejudice isn’t exactly the most feminist novel around, but this film makes the novel look like progressive in comparison (considering the novel was written almost 150 years before the film was made…)

There was a lot of praise at the time for Greer Garson’s portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet, but I – can’t see it. I suppose it’s not her fault if the character was rewritten this way, but Elizabeth is portrayed as petulant, indecisive, and easily swayed. There is none of that sharp wit or sardonic charisma that characterizes her in the novel. She also gives in to “womanly” weaknesses, like actually crying in public (though in a more isolated area) when her family embarrasses herself at the Netherfield garden party (yes, it’s not a ball anymore, it’s a garden party with archery contests and Maypoles…), and Darcy has to console her. She takes up handkerchiefs and cries unconvincingly when she is rejecting Darcy’s earlier proposal, apparently out of too much emotion. She says stupid things like, “Not knowing anything about it, I’m on your side” to Wickham, just because Darcy has insulted her and she immediately sides Wickham even before he’s even loaded her with his cock-and-bull pity story. Elizabeth rejects Darcy vehemently, but after Lydia’s elopement as well as Darcy telling her (face to face, instead of in a letter) about his sister’s near-elopement with Wickham, Elizabeth rapidly and suddenly changes her mind and tells Jane that she loves him, making her look like she could change her mind flippantly.

Can we also talk about Darcy’s portrayal? He delivers his famous insult about Elizabeth which she overhears, but immediately after that exhibits interest in getting acquainted with her. I don’t get the sense that he’s struggling or concealing anything because he so obviously has the hots for her right from the start. I hate it whenever people (mostly Elizabeth) tell him that he’s “impassive” and that he should “laugh more”, or when Lizzy quotes directly from the novel telling him about his “arrogance, conceit and selfish disdain for the feelings of others”, because Darcy never shows anything like this in the movie. Where is his arrogance, besides some neutrally delivered lines about how Lizzy’s family is inferior to his? I don’t hear any biting elitism or conceit in his tone. Where is his impassivity? Why should he laugh more when he’s literally been laughing and smiling so much upon Elizabeth from the start? NOTHING MAKES SENSE!!!

I also hate how Jane has been dumbed down. During the part where she is invited to Netherfield for dinner and catches her cold, her mother expressly tells her to always show her side profile to Mr Bingley because she has the nicest side profile in England or something. So when she catches her cold and is forced to stay in bed, Mr Bingley is occasionally peeking at her from a screen in the room, and despite her apparent illness, she continually tries to show her side profile to Bingley, looking ridiculous in her attempts. I suppose it’s a comedic moment but it’s also so bimbotic.

This is the era of classic Hollywood movies where nothing can look messy or out of place, so none of the actresses in this movie look anything worse than pretty. Mary Bennet is another pretty face, merely wearing glasses. Charlotte Lucas doesn’t look any plainer than Elizabeth, and in fact looks younger. Anne de Bourgh could pass off with the same air of glamour as Caroline Bingley, and only gave occasional coughs just to show a bit of her sickliness.

And of course, you know, the sole objective of women is to find any husband and there needs to be a proper resolution to the movie, so Mary and Kitty magically have suitors that literally appear out of nowhere by the end. Lydia and Wickham are “rich” by the end of the movie because apparently Wickham had a relative that died and left him the money. I’m not sure if he was making things up and Darcy had simply bribed him to marry Lydia, because I wasn’t paying attention anymore. Whatever the case, Lydia and Wickham actually have a somewhat happy and affluent ending, and they aren’t banished to the Northern regiments, Wickham’s villainy never quite comes across. Lady Catherine is shown to be in cahoots with Darcy to ‘test’ Elizabeth’s feelings, and even approves of their match. However, how did either Lady Catherine or Darcy even know that Elizabeth had changed her mind, because the last time Darcy saw her, Elizabeth sent him away without betraying any reciprocation? Jane and Bingley’s reconciliation is shown simply in the distance while Elizabeth and Darcy look on.

All in all, as an adaptation, this movie fails pretty badly. Nothing about the original source novel, whether in terms of setting, characterisation, plot elements, or even simply the spirit of the original story comes through. Instead of adapting Pride and Prejudice, it felt like the filmmakers wanted to loosely use Pride and Prejudice as a very superficial and thin veil to create a generic romance comedy to bring in the bucks. It says something that even Laurence Olivier, who plays Darcy, didn’t even like the movie. Maybe it might read better as a standalone movie, if one does not compare it with the source novel or other adaptations, but I can’t provide a perspective on that. Can I also just register my shock that Aldous Huxley wrote the script for this movie? Aldous Huxley, of Brave New World fame?

“O brave new world, that has such people in’t!” indeed.

P.S. I’ve just read people on IMDB forums defending it and saying like, “if you wanna discuss the book, go to a Jane Austen forum, don’t come to a movies forum and discuss how it’s different from the book. Judge it as a movie by its own rights.”

NO, I WILL NOT. It’s an adaptation from a BOOK. If it wanted to be a movie in its own rights, they could’ve made an entirely different movie with a different title, different characters and just sub-title it “loosely based on Pride and Prejudice“. But it wasn’t. It’s branded as a proper adaptation with the same title, same characters, therefore it should be judged as an adaptation. And adaptations do not exist in a vacuum divorced from their original source material.

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