With this twenty-first century-adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright inscribes himself in some prestigious filmic lineage. His version has been acclaimed as the third “significant” opus of what now seems to be the “official Darcy trilogy” starting with Robert Leonard’s 1940 version starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, and continuing with Simon Langton’s cult 1995 BBC series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Wright actively chronicles what he calls in the 2006 Universal DVD bonus “Jane Austen’s realism” or, in some interviews, “the first piece of British realism” (Fetters). Meanwhile he also focuses on the complexity inherent in events and characters. Along with scriptwriter Deborah Moggach, the filmmaker was thus sent back to the central problem of voice in Austen’s texts: how to adapt at once the narrative voice’s assertions and commentaries and the texture of the characters’ dialogues and internal focalization, while making them understandable for a contemporary audience?
When discussing his adaptation technique, Wright often refers to his relentless search for the cinematic equivalent of prose, but what seems to best characterize his work is actually his way of looking into the Bennets’ private sphere and erasing the allegedly insurmountable obstacles posed by Austen’s ironic voice. Camera movements, close-ups, exchanged glances bring to the foreground the intensity of the characters’ inner lives in a manner which has often little to do with the classic codes of the Heritage Film subgenre. Made into “acceptable” voyeurs, the spectators peek in from the very first shots of the introductory sequence, as the boundaries between the camera and Elizabeth’s points of view are alternately dissolved and reinstated on screen.
In this opening sequence, an ironic but loving eye is already at work, filling in the filmic space with the representation of the gentry’s mores and grounds. “We” as spectators and voyeurs are literally propelled into the relatively protected arena of the Bennets’ world. In Austen’s novel, with its epigrammatic formulation and impression of absolute authority of some unidentifiable voice, the narrative’s celebrated incipit in Chapter I is immediately undermined by the ironical phrasing and restricted scope of the next sentences:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. (3)
On screen, such an assertion immediately and forcefully translates into a different signifying system. The Steadicam fluid shots framing Elizabeth reading a novel as she’s walking back to the family house operate as some metafilmic allusion to the process of adaptation. They also introduce us to a very lively household of marriageable daughters and arguing parents, while skirting any dialogic exchange.1 The eye of the camera captures first and foremost the intense vitality of Elizabeth as the main actant and this wild brood of sisters all engaged in various occupations.
If the prologue then begins by fulfilling its Heritage Film obligations of shooting some glorious landscape (here the English countryside suffused with a golden light), it also discloses a highly unconventional view of the family’s privacy. In his DVD bonus commentary, Joe Wright insists on his desire to show “a house full of hormones,” and the camera rather ostensibly subverts the code of decorum usually imposed by the Heritage subgenre. It lingers on the laces, bonnets and diverse pieces of lingerie abandoned on the living room table and films Mary playing the piano in a backward medium shot, as well as her parents through a window as they discuss “Netherfield Park [being] let at last.”
The camera reveals here the usually hidden facets and secret habits of the members of the gentry. From the very beginning, the intrusive eye of this highly mobile camera plays a game of exposure and concealment in some sort of low-culture versus high-culture version of the Heritage movie. What is immediately foregrounded, then, is the language of desire of young, expectant bodies.
Pride & Prejudice was the first feature film for Joe Wright, then a young television movie-maker. He successfully carves out a distinct territory for himself, redefining in his own way the mechanisms of adaptation. Much has already been said about the difficulty of adapting for the screen such a celebrated classic with complex authorial comments, unclaimed voices and charged dialogues, but Wright’s strategy seems to entail an ironic response to Elizabeth’s famed question to Darcy at the end of the novel:
“How could you begin?” said she. “I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?”
To which Darcy answers:
“I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” (380)
By focusing immediately on the “privileged” daughter and witness, the director delineates a special type of dynamics which sets her instantly and unmistakably apart. In this sense, his opening is literally spectacular. It exposes to the viewer’s gaze the central “reflector” or “centre of consciousness” that Henry James defines in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady. Meanwhile it also chronicles the other characters’ points of view. Such a constant shuttle movement in between several focalizers and angles of vision seems to be what best characterizes Wright’s approach to the process of adaptation.
What the novel’s narrative voice repeatedly refers to as Elizabeth’s “lively, sportive, manner of talking” (387-88) is here transferred to the fluid movements of the camera, which actually frames the vigorous and vivacious characters as well as an amazingly diverse range of spaces, among England’s most imposing mansions and landscapes (such as the Peak District National Park). The dramatic settings and open splendor function as brief references to the aesthetic category of the Picturesque as theorized by William Gilpin, Uvedale Price, and William Payne Knight in late eighteenth-century England.
In this respect, the first long take is characteristic of Wright’s technique since it already provides the key to the construction of filmic point of view and space. As he insists in his DVD commentary, “I like these long takes.” The introductory sequence, actually two shots joining up with the close-up on the white sheets in the courtyard, tracks Elizabeth back to the family house and establishes her character as being at once outside and inside or, to be more specific, as taking part in the action but also as being in the liminal position of the ironic observer. Wright is overtly playing with the codes of romantic comedy when he has Elizabeth’s viewpoint merge with the camera’s, ironically recording in a through-the-window shot her parents quarrelling or, later in the film, having her comment on “the shame of having such a mother” after Mrs. Bennet has sent Jane on foot to Netherfield.
Staging intimacy, interiority and introspection in a highly visual manner seems to be Wright and television playwright Moggach’s most efficient way of chronicling Elizabeth’s inner journey to enhanced perception. In her book on The Art of Adaptation, Linda Seger states that
[a] narrator can move in and out of a character’s life, even going inside a character’s head to let us know how the character thinks and feels. . . . We identify with the character psychologically, emotionally and in terms of the action he or she takes. In a novel, the narrator stands between us and the story to help us understand and interpret events. When we watch a film, we are an objective observer of the actions. What we see is what we get. Even if characters tell us their feelings through a voice-over in a film, we may not believe them. Without the narrator to guide us, we may not know whether characters are lying or not. . . . Film doesn’t give us an interior look at a character. A novel does. (19-20)
In Wright’s movie however, the spectator is seduced into becoming much more than just “an objective observer” as he gets as close to Elizabeth as possible. This peculiar vantage point launches his own hermeneutic quest, partly reflecting Elizabeth’s own necessarily limited view. Just as the line of sheets obstructs vision in the prologue, so is the heroine’s full perception hampered for the longest time in the film. And, along with the swing sequence when Charlotte announces her engagement, the series of close shots of Elizabeth lost in thought at Hunsford rectory after Darcy’s first proposal is probably the scene when the moment and the process of introspection are best framed. In this strange mirror sequence, the use of lighting functions as an objective correlative helping the viewer understand very quickly what’s unfolding inside, thus becoming a filmic equivalent of the mixture of third person narration, internal focalization, and virtual interior monologue found at the end of Volume II, Chapter XI.
On screen, Moggach and Wright ironically reconstruct the central notion of “reflection[s]” in the interplay between the two mediums. These reflections literally turn into mirror images of intense mental projections on screen:
The tumult of her mind was now painfully great. . . . That she should receive an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy! . . .
She continued in very agitating reflections. . . . (193-94)
In the movie, the entire section translates into various and at times blurred medium long-shots and medium close-ups and close/insert shots of Elizabeth or of Darcy’s letter while the camera frames Darcy in the background coming in to deposit his explanatory note. The montage foregrounds the manner in which Elizabeth supposedly fixedly gazes at the mirror while looking directly at the camera and the spectator. Like the recurrent shots through the window, these repeated immersions into Elizabeth’s conscience all provide some specific insight into her perception and interpretation of the scene.
The play of soft lighting and darkness, especially as reflected on Elizabeth’s thoughtful face, at once marks the passage of time and functions as a companion piece to the process of complete reassessment of the whole situation. The chromatic shift from daylight to dusk and then night-time underlines her re-interpretation of Darcy’s character, of her own feelings, and of herself. The entire sequence probably constitutes one of the film’s best examples of condensation, reconstructing within the scope of a few minutes the actual depth of action and narration unfolding over three chapters in the book (193-209). The sequence’s oneiric dimension2 is also emphasized by the fact that Darcy’s phantasmatic figure starts reading the letter and then vanishes while continuing to read it in voice-over. Paradoxically, this condensation technique also operates as expansion since the heroine’s symbolic passage through the looking glass calls for the metaphorical recreation of another storyline and fosters a new interpretation of facts and potentialities. In a striking visual mode, it also calls for a re-reading of signs, precisely thanks to a different semiotic system.
The rules of attraction
It is, of course, cliché to underline the intensity of Lizzy’s inner journey and to picture her profound inner displacement in spatial terms, but it’s also a very effective way of appraising the extent of her (r)evolution. Joe Wright chooses to do so in a highly sensuous manner. His representation of her re-evaluation process is firmly rooted in what could be called the bodily dimension. It seems to register on screen with increased vigor as well as slightly out-of-focus and off-center extreme close-ups of Elizabeth’s face during her sleepless night at Hunsford parsonage. It also culminates at Pemberley when Elizabeth’s mental projections eventually take shape—“flesh”—as her wandering eye takes in the voluptuous nude bodies painted on the entrance hall ceiling or the seductive lines and expressive folds of the master’s marble bust, and eventually at Longbourn during the lovers’ first embrace. The mental journey topos is here superimposed on the deciphering eye motif.
In fact, starting with this long sequence of introspection at the Collinses, what’s unfolding is at once some acknowledgment of the paradoxical nature of perception, and hence the experience of the painful process of seeing in a new way, and a slow and steady initiation into the importance of measure and harmony. In both mediums, Elizabeth seems to be standing at the intersection of three aesthetic modes of representation: literature, cinema, and painting, on the one hand; and literature, cinema, and sculpture, on the other. Consequently, the reformatting of vision at Pemberley somehow becomes the epitome of the process of adaptation. The eye is attracted—in all possible meanings of the term—to this new sense unfolding and new picture forming and has to learn meanwhile new rules of proportion.
In the novel, the reader is introduced to these new rules of proportion during Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley. Elizabeth reappraises Darcy as she admires the perfect balance between nature and artifice in his beautiful grounds:
They had now entered a beautiful walk by the side of the water, and every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods to which they were approaching; but it was some time before Elizabeth was sensible of any of it; and, though she answered mechanically to the repeated appeals of her uncle and aunt, and seemed to direct her eyes to such objects as they pointed out, she distinguished no part of the scene. Her thoughts were all fixed on that one spot at Pemberley House, whichever it might be, where Mr Darcy then was. . . .
They entered the woods, and bidding adieu to the river for a while, ascended some of the higher grounds; whence, in spots where the opening of the trees gave the eye power to wander, were many charming views of the valley, the opposite hills, with the long range of woods overspreading many, and occasionally part of the stream. (253)
This passage at once literalizes and metaphorizes the earlier notion of “prospect” the voice uses: “Elizabeth, after slightly surveying it, went to a window to enjoy its prospect” (246). The term, of course, evokes in the language of the picturesque some gorgeous view of the countryside, but it also signifies hopes for the future. As the accuracy of Elizabeth’s perception increases, so does the visual impact of things and symbols around her, and consequently the critical dimension of her gaze decreases.
The filmmaker transforms this keen perception into re-envisioning. Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley functions as a matching sequence for the mirror episode at Hunsford. In both scenes the camera eye is intently staring at her. At Pemberley, however, Elizabeth is by no means watching a representation of herself but a reconstitution at once palpable and mental of Darcy’s character. In this sense, filmic space becomes precisely fantasized, imaginary space projecting the main protagonist’s viewpoint on screen and hence implicating the spectator. Inventing somehow a brand-new version of Darcy in this sequence, Elizabeth, framed in tight shots, also watches a reflection of her own desire. In the novel, Elizabeth moves from viewing Darcy’s portrait inside the house to seeing Darcy in the flesh in the grounds of Pemberley. Wright slightly modifies this sequence: Elizabeth first views Darcy’s bust in the sculpture gallery and then wanders further into the interior spaces of Pemberley to surprise Darcy and Georgiana in a private section of the house. Her voyeuristic intrusion into Darcy’s intimacy sends her running outside, scared as much by her own desire as by a breach of decorum—“the impropriety of her being found there” (252), as the novel’s narrator says.
Affording more clarity
The whole sequence at Pemberley, with its highly sensual, revolving camera movements, materializes on screen the inscription of Elizabeth’s desire. The heroine’s eye can no longer afford a divided, ironic vision. Pemberley’s grounds and house, in their picturesque and truly artistic dimension, force her to see through, to reach for the essence of the place and hence, of course, its owner. The entire sequence stages a revolution in perception and technically turns Elizabeth from a critic into a believer, transforming her detachment into adherence.
Joe Wright seems to have somehow literalized the notion of revolution. The camera launches into some sort of contorted high-angle crane shot, thus inscribing within the frame the notions of impingement on some spectacular ground and discovery of some profoundly noble and superior order. At this stage, the camera eye is still an external focalizer selecting its own perspectives, Pemberley’s endless, wide tree-lined majestic access road for instance, while filming as well the scenery and characters. The master shot of the façade, however, as if stolen from the other side of the lake behind the tree branches and wild grasses, already establishes the birth of a different type of gaze. The slow and caressing right to left tracking shot of the camera eye is about to merge with Elizabeth’s internal point of view. Curiously enough, her troubled and occasionally out-of-focus vision (her “perturbation” , says the narrative voice) is constantly pitted against the perfect proportions of the woods, lake and mansion, thus announcing at once her feeling submerged with the magnificence and “natural beauty” (245) of the estate and the violent readjustment of vision and eruption of desire she is to undergo:
It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. (245)
The medium close-up of her taking in the splendor of the mansion shows her laughing before a blurred background, not out of derision this time but in utter disbelief of what she’s actually witnessing.
Irony here seems to be displaced onto this new quality of vision, going beyond the veil on the marble woman’s face she sees in the museum. It’s also transferred to the way in which Elizabeth eventually gains some more privileged access to the master of the house. Her wandering eye seems to be stroking whatever it encounters so that even before she actually stops in front of Darcy’s bust and can match this particular image with her various representations of him, her desire has been effectively let loose. At this stage, what could be called the performing gaze becomes a desiring one. The shot of a nude body lying prone and merging with a first blurred view of Darcy’s head effects the mixture of internal and external focalization while the camera amorously revolves around the statue and eventually Elizabeth herself gazing in awe. It also materializes the moment of recognition of her true feelings for him with the medium close-up on her own thoughtful and loving face—the moment the narrative voice chronicles: “There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth’s mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original, than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance” (250). From this moment on, the camera tracks her in a low angle shot, suddenly magnifying her whereas she had mostly been framed in high angle shots before. She not only closely watches but also touches the various objects lying around until her eye can focus on the image of Pemberley’s picturesque gardens (first redoubled then tripled), but mostly until she can get a “clearer picture” and confront a flesh and blood Darcy. This particular moment of the filmic diegesis somehow enacts what Darcy had told her earlier at the Netherfield ball: “I hope to afford you more clarity in the future.”
The emergence of desire paradoxically turns Elizabeth into a reluctant voyeur. The eye is now endowed with the sensuousness displayed by the wandering hand as it is literally offered new perspectives. The tight shot of Elizabeth, framed in the doorway, peeking at Georgiana at the piano and then at Darcy tenderly embracing his sister, is the first actual stage of her sensuous conversion. All three senses of sight, touch and hearing now combine as she is guided back to the living room by the sound of music. She first discovers a mirror reflection of Georgiana playing the pianoforte and then of Georgiana and Darcy hugging merrily. Then and only then, when she has penetrated Darcy’s family intimacy, do her intense amazement and inner turmoil register on screen in a split-second zoom-in on a fragment of her face.
The mechanics of desire triggered ever since the first sight at the Meryton ball has thus become visibly and vigorously inscribed on faces and bodies. And such intrusion and recognition of desire put an end to the spatial and intellectual confinement that has characterized Elizabeth’s world. Her sudden epiphany in the white marble room is much more of an awakening of the senses—as the camera filming her lit-up eyes shows—than an enlightenment through reason. And it’s probably one of the oddities of this early twenty-first-century adaptation of the Austenian text that it should mostly stage female sexual attraction in its early and constantly repressed phases. Even in the night-time coda of the Universal Studios DVD added at a later date for an American audience, desire hardly registers on screen with the violence of unleashed sexuality.
Capturing feminine desire
Contrasting with the late-eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century English sense of propriety, as we see in the prologue, the expression of desire in this movie mostly falls to the women. Most of the film’s sense of decorum and restraint actually is exhibited by the male protagonists. The camera only briefly frames Bingley’s notorious fits of embarrassment or Darcy’s fists clenched in sexual frustration—however noticeable the close-ups of his tight fists may be. It certainly lingers, though, on the originally undirected desire of the circle of women. In fact, most of its firing stages seem to depend on women’s rituals and original stratagems, from biting remarks while dancing, to intense looks or flurries of ribbons negligently exposed.
In the filmic adaptation, Wright and Moggach have at their command enunciatory procedures as potentially complex as any other narrative mode. The core of their mise en scène is certainly the intense energy emanating from these female bodies agitated with the irrepressible urge of getting married while painstakingly trying to remain proper. The overall rapid tempo enhanced by the final montage and the constant play on close-ups of vivacious and longing females are also emblematic of these narrational strategies belying the moments of stasis inherent in the life of an English gentry family. The occasionally hectic rhythm of the film’s editing is best exemplified by the somber sequence of the horse-drawn carriage rushing back to Longbourn after Elizabeth learns of Lydia’s elopement. It is actually inserted in between the Pemberley sequence and the scene staging the devastated condition of the Bennet household.
In the later section of the movie for instance, after Bingley has proposed to Jane, the camera symmetrically reproduces in a night-time visual echo its slow tender waltz around the Bennets’ house. Once again, it exposes female bodies engaged in various occupations and goes inward through the window to witness yet another exchange between Jane and Elizabeth about the necessity of finding the right mate. But Lady Catherine’s arrival imposes another and final change of tempo and twist of the filmic diegesis. In this confrontational scene, which truly functions as a metaphor for desire, the rich play of shadows and the golden tones of the candles lighting up the two women’s faces operates as a transitional stage in the film’s narrational economy. The whole mechanism of desire feeds here on the hero’s absence, and Elizabeth’s body is compulsively set going again, until the ultimate moment when desire, once fulfilled, somehow met in the flesh, changes status.
Elizabeth’s ultimate walk by herself in the countryside functions then as a companion piece to her first walk in the prologue. It somehow literalizes Elizabeth’s central question put to Darcy: “‘How could you begin?’” (380). It also summarizes “the distinctive grammar of the medium” to which Brian McFarlane refers (“It wasn’t like that” 169). In the scene, clarity and intensity are effected in every possible way. The topos of romantic love and the story of its birth combine Jane Austen’s technique of mapping out the heroine’s progress from blindness to insight and of vitality in dialogue as a dramatic mode, with Joe Wright’s technique of using vitality as a visual mode. After all, in another romantic cliché, the sun eventually comes out in fiery brightness, framing in a two-shot the two heroes joining heads. Wright has, as McFarlane also explains, redefined and expanded the contours of the collective process of adapting a literary work of art:
The issue of authorship, always complex in film, is especially so in relation to the film version of a literary work. Not only will the directorial signature inscribe itself with varying degrees of forcefulness on adapted material, not only will the spectre of the novel’s author, especially in the case of the classic or the best-selling novel, hover over the spectator and critic’s reading of the film; also, the status of the author(s) of the screenplay will intervene between the former two. (Novel to Film 35)
With script-writer Deborah Moggach, Joe Wright has imposed a new reading system on the various strata of the original narrative.
1. Most of Jane Austen’s text is in fact dialogue transcribing the various characters’ opinions and special natures. Obviously, these sometimes long exchanges would be ill-adapted to the filmic medium.
2. In between dream, pure vision and reconstruction, Elizabeth is once again framed standing on the brink of some new state.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: OUP, 1932.
Fetters, Sara Michelle. “It’s Austen All Over Again.” Interview with Joe Wright. 2005. 20 May 2007 http://www.moviefreak.com/features/interviews/joewright.htm.
McFarlane, Brian. “It wasn’t like that in the book.” Literature/Film Quarterly 28 (2000): 163-69.
_____. Novel to Film. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.
Seger, Linda. The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film. New York: Holt, 1992.
Wright, Joe, dir. Pride & Prejudice. DVD. Focus Features, 2005.