Why We Can't Live Without Mr. Darcy
By Emily Anderson, Assistant Professor of English
Two hundred years ago, Jane Austen wrote a story about a boy and a girl who, after overcoming several obstacles, fall in love and live happily ever after. In essence, it's the plot of every romantic comedy we've ever watched. A few pages into Pride and Prejudice, we know exactly how it will end -- with the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.
But it turns out that we are not content with the hundreds of films that tell this classic love story -- think Notting Hill, The Wedding Singer, and anything starring Meg Ryan. What we really want to see over and over again is Austen's particular story.
In the last 12 years, Jane Austen has become one of the most important people in Hollywood. Versions of Pride and Prejudice have appeared on screen five times, and there have been a dozen adaptations of her other novels or films about Austen herself. Shirts and bumper stickers read "I'm an Elizabeth in a Darcy-less world," "What would Jane do?" and "Darcy '08."
True, we all love Elizabeth's wit and Darcy's confidence. But we love a lot of heroes and heroines. What is it about the story of these characters that brings us back, again and again?
The answer may not lie with the characters themselves, though this argument is harder to make after the phenomenal success of the BBC's 1995 adaptation, which conferred cult status upon Colin Firth. His dive into the lake, especially, made Mr. Darcy a very attractive figure. But other men have dared to come after Firth, and these more recent adaptations have been no less successful.
When we read Austen, we are standing beside the narrator. It is not Elizabeth or Darcy with whom we identify, and, in fact, we see their flaws quite clearly. We identify with the narrator who guides us through their romance, winking at us behind the characters' backs. It is the narrator who is so attractive and who keeps us coming back.
When Darcy finally proposes to Elizabeth, for example, Austen writes that he "expressed himself ... as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do." And how sensibly is that? Not very. Austen doesn't even tell us what Darcy says because to do so would turn the scene into melodrama. Instead, even as she gives us a happy ending, our narrator is just a little bit tongue in cheek.
This kind of distance between the narrator and the characters makes the novel ironic. In other words, the narrator and reader interpret events a little differently than the characters do. We see things more clearly. And it is the irony that draws us in.
Films, though, have a much harder time constructing this kind of irony. The camera cannot distance us from the characters the way a narrator can. The camera can't wink at us behind the characters' backs without mocking the story itself. In the many film versions of this novel, we are always laughing with Elizabeth or sympathizing with Darcy. In fact, most films give the narrator's best lines to Elizabeth herself, encouraging us to identify with her.
And so we do identify with Elizabeth, and sometimes with Mr. Darcy, and we utterly adore them. But we don't get from the films what we get from Austen's novel -- a chance to identify with the narrator, with Austen's own voice. In attempting to transform this novel into our current medium of choice, film, we must give up its central charm.
And that is why one adaptation will not suffice. We keep telling the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy because we keep hoping to replicate -- not the plot, which is everywhere -- but the narrative voice. Every director who approaches this story tries to capture the magic of the novel, and several of the adaptations are very good. But none of them is really like the novel.
So we will continue to put Pride and Prejudice onscreen. We will continue to fall in love with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. But we will also continue to read the novel. We will keep searching for Austen herself. Because of course, no matter the century, nobody really wants to live in a Darcy-less world.