The process of adapting a novel for film or television necessarily includes acts of character assassination as familiar names are ruthlessly cut for the sake of time or clarity. Yet one Jane Austen character survives in multiple adaptations in movies and on television. I am referring, of course, to the inimitable Mr. Collins, whose very flatness of character renders him an attractive canvas on which screenwriters, directors, and actors can distinguish themselves. For what is most striking about the Mr. Collinses in Pride and Prejudice screen adaptations is how divergent they are, with each taking up different facets of his character as presented in the novel. Each Collins character is a figure of ridicule in the adaptations, much as he is in the novel, but each Mr. Collins is also ridiculous in his own way. Overall, most adaptations soften their portrayals of Collins, shying away from the hypocrisies that he embodies and the social satire he enables. Ultimately, as a co-creation between novelist and filmmakers, Mr. Collins comes to express contrasting and conflicting ideologies, with the comedy outweighing the satire, the vanity outweighing the hypocrisy.
Film adaptation is capable of significant cultural work. Its representation of a historical period or an older text often indicates more about the time of its own creation than the time period represented. In other words, it is twice a cultural artifact: of the past and of its own time. Suzanne Pucci and James Thompson argue for the importance of the present, that there is value in examining the “cultural, social, and pedagogical conditions that have motivated and shaped these remakes” (2). John Wiltshire, in Recreating Jane Austen, proposes thinking about what the tension between past and present tells us about the process of “reading,” a term that encompasses adaptation: “I consider the various versions of the novels not as piracies, but—all things considered—as coherent readings of the original books, which by their public, objective existence, can throw a unique light on the nature of reading” (7). If adaptations are readings of novels, then they too, like other kinds of readings and interpretations, can illuminate the original text, pulling out hidden threads and making fresh observations. Film scholar Robert Stam proposes thinking about the relationship between a book and its film adaptation not as one would think of an original painting and its poorly rendered print, but intertextually, as two discrete, stand-alone texts that speak to each other. Collectively, the Mr. Collinses on screen further the interpretations of their own creators, but at times they also illuminate forgotten parts of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel.
This article examines the representation of Mr. Collins in five adaptations: the 1940 MGM production, the 1995 BBC mini-series, a 2003 Mormon romantic comedy, 2004’s Bollywood-inspired Bride & Prejudice, and the 2005 Keira Knightley vehicle. In all five adaptations, the Mr. Collinses are comic figures, definably ridiculous because they invite mockery. In the preface to his 1742 novel Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding offers a detailed dissection of the ridiculous. For Fielding, the ridiculous stems from affectation, which in turn proceeds from two sources: vanity and hypocrisy (52). Fielding defines vanity as the assumption of false attributes to attract praise and hypocrisy as the taking on of false virtues to avoid censure for vices (52). The larger the discrepancy between self and persona, the larger the measure of the ridiculous that a reader will feel. It thus follows that hypocrisy is more ridiculous than vanity, “for to discover any one to be the exact Reverse of what he affects, is more surprising, and consequently more ridiculous, than to find him a little deficient in the Quality he desires the Reputation of” (52). What Fielding’s two-pronged definition offers is a darkened conception of the ridiculous, for while it is easy to mock vanity, hypocrisy stings. In his character study Mr. Collins Reconsidered, Ivor Morris attempts to partially recuperate Mr. Collins, arguing that as a vain, comic figure, Mr. Collins brings “into prominence the manners and practices of the society of which he forms part” (141). Acknowledgement of Austen’s ironic humor notwithstanding, Morris presents an ultimately harmless Collins, casting him as a “Fortunate Fool” (2). Yet Collins’s function within Pride and Prejudice is more than merely as a fool (even a Lear-ish Fool who utters truths), but rather as a critical lightning rod, a grotesquely satiric parody of polite society in general and clergymen specifically. As we shall see, it is in his capacity as clergyman that Mr. Collins’s hypocrisy emerges.
So how does Mr. Collins appear in the novel? The narrator’s lengthy description begins promisingly enough: “Mr. Collins was not a sensible man” (70). It continues:
The subjection in which his father had brought him up, had given him originally great humility of manner, but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. A fortunate chance had recommended him to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his rights as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility. (70)
In short, Collins is a man who believes himself better than others but knows enough to behave as if he were subservient. He is the epitome of Fielding’s ridiculous, affected creature of vanity and hypocrisy.
In the movement from page to screen, characters gain a certain tangibility, what Robert Stam calls “an automatic ‘thickness’ on the screen through bodily presence” (22). Cinematic character is “an uncanny amalgam of photogenie, body movement, acting style, gestures, locale, costume, accent and grain of voice, all amplified and molded by dialogue . . . , lighting, props (mise-en-scène), and music,” not to mention a performer’s acting decisions (Stam 22). Stam’s use of the word “thickness” is particularly appropriate, for Austen uses similar language in her sparse description of Collins’s physical appearance: “He was a tall, heavy looking young man of five and twenty” (48). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “heavy-looking,” a now-obsolete term, indicates that Collins is “ponderous and slow in intellectual processes, . . . wanting in facility, . . . dull, stupid” (“heavy” def. 18); he is figuratively a bit “thick.” But what connects many filmic Collinses is another kind of thickness. Recent adaptations misinterpret the eighteenth-century term “heavy-looking” to mean “of a husky build,” thus ushering in a set of tall, awkward Collinses.
Collins’s comic physical appearance on screen operates within the code of romantic comedy, immediately signalling his undesirability as a marriage partner. In the novel, dialogue conveys Collins’s ridiculous character, but film’s advantage is its visual nature, which heightens the unfavourable first impression so many Collinses make. The representation of Collins as undesirable departs from the novel, where, as Ruth Perry argues, Charlotte and Collins’s marriage is characterized by a tolerant realism free of the sexual disgust that gradually became associated with non-love marriages over the course of the eighteenth century (131). Likewise, the representation of Collins as physically repulsive is a later development in the history of Pride and Prejudice adaptations. In the 1940 film, Mr. Collins (played by Melville Cooper), though affected and prone to saying inappropriate things, is slender, well coiffed, and well dressed. When we first meet him, he is presented as comical but harmless.
© 1940 MGM Films
This Mr. Collins is the model of affectation, from the walk, the formality of his speech, the practicing of compliments, and the habit of looking through his monocle at objects he is due to inherit (including potential wives). Even though Lydia derisively calls him a pudding face, he is not an unattractive man.
For more awkward Mr. Collinses, we need look no further than the sweaty Collins with a comb-over in the 1995 miniseries (Fig. 2), or the tall, lumbering Collins in the 2003 Mormon Pride and Prejudice (Fig. 3). Perhaps the most undesirable Collins of all is that of Bride & Prejudice, the hybrid East-meets-West Bollywood adaptation released in 2004. In this movie, Collins becomes Mr. Kholi, a non-blood-related cousin (“father’s sister’s husband’s sister’s son”), who lives in L.A. and works as an accountant for the Darcys’ hotel empire. The filmmakers have retained many characteristics of Austen’s Collins, including his social awkwardness, his inability to dance, his habit of noting how much things cost, and his awareness of status. But this Collins is also a product of a movie that is invested in an ideology of optimistic globalization and multiculturalism. The film’s politics opens up an additional avenue to mock the Collins character. As Troost and Greenfield note, Mr. Kholi “combines the worst aspects of American and Indian attitudes—the materialism of one and the sexism of the other” (par. 18). As an ex-pat Indian, Kholi shuns his rural Indian heritage, instead immersing himself in a Hollywood lifestyle (he owns a camera phone on which we see a photo of his big house) and into popular culture (in L.A., he blasts an R&B hit from his car—an affectation, as the song, Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me,” was a hit in 2001, years before the movie’s 2004 release date). At dinner, Kholi fails to see the contradictions between his praising of modern, professional, L.A.-based Indians (“all doctors and computers”) and his search for a traditional Indian wife.
© 2004 Pathé Pictures
Bride & Prejudice’s Mr. Kholi amplifies all of Mr. Collins’s worst qualities. His braying laughter suggests that he is an ass, and indeed this Collins is flashy, uncouth, insensitive, unpatriotic, sexist, and a little homophobic. His disgusting table manners also suggest his comportment in other areas, which we see when Mr. Kholi later appears in a musical number as the sisters imagine what he must be like in bed (Fig. 1).
Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice strays
from such negative portrayals of Collins by presenting Mr. Collins,
intriguingly, as a short man. As played by Tom Hollander, this
Collins’s height renders him more sympathetic, though still
ridiculous, in his attempts to elevate himself, metaphorically
speaking. Collins proposes to Elizabeth Bennet in a way that
suggests that he is a little frightened of her: he cannot make
eye contact, stumbles on his words, and only sounds confident when
© 2005 Working Title Films
The proposal scene showcases an actor whose performance is at odds with his dialogue, for Hollander’s reading renders much of the original dialogue less vexing and more pitiable. He transforms Collins’s confident assurances that Elizabeth is merely increasing his love by suspense into rote, mechanical expressions, suggesting that this Mr. Collins is unnerved not only by Lizzie but also by the very act of proposing.
Collins’s awareness of social forms is also present in this
2005 adaptation, which retains his self-introduction to Darcy at the
Netherfield ball. The presumptuous introduction is another
opportunity for the film to render visually the discrepancy between
Elizabeth’s two suitors.
© 2005 Working Title Films
The introduction is particularly telling, first of all demonstrating just how short Collins is, but also suggesting that Collins is a social outcast often overlooked or ignored by the taller and more powerful. Indeed, this sense of inferiority is borne out by Hollander’s performance; he slouches slightly and speaks in a deliberate manner, as if Collins is over-thinking every word. At the Bennet dinner table, for example, Collins compliments the beautiful house and the excellence of the boiled potatoes in one breath, adding that it has been “many years since I’ve had such an exemplary vegetable.” Collins even lacks the skill to trap young ladies in polite conversation. When Elizabeth arrives at Hunsford, she and Charlotte allow Collins to prattle on as they enter the house; they silently leave him to praise the view from the hallway as they go unnoticed into another room. His powerlessness is particularly evident in the mise-en-scène at Rosings, where Collins slouches in front of Lady Catherine, his slight frame overwhelmed by the furniture and artwork that occupies the shot (Fig. 4). The ostentation and wealth displayed heightens the discrepancy between the man and his patroness, rendering the character pitiable in his ridiculousness. The 2005 Collins is toothless to the point of being almost unrecognizable.
Funny as Hollander’s Collins is, his character’s pathos-inflected comedy lacks the bite of Jane Austen’s satire. Through Collins, Austen criticizes blind ambition, especially in clergymen who are more interested in social advancement than spiritual fulfillment. Mr. Collins’s obsequiousness also parodies the formal manners of his (and Austen’s) superiors, exposing them for the hollow gestures that they are. Finally, the fact that Charlotte Lucas is reduced to marrying such a man as Mr. Collins to secure a home and economic stability is a dire comment on women’s options in late-Georgian England. The adaptations enhance Austen’s feminist critique by emphasizing Collins’s sexual undesirability, thus depicting Charlotte’s choice to be as desperate as it is calculating. By focusing mainly on Mr. Collins’s personal comic foibles, however, some filmmakers obscure his small-mindedness and hypocrisy.
That small-mindedness and hypocrisy are evident in Mr. Collins’s letter to Mr. Bennet regarding Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. The letter is written ostensibly to offer Collins’s sympathies, but it actually emphasizes the enormity of the event and how the Bennet family will never recover from their distress, noting callously that “‘[t]he death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this’” (296-97). As the letter continues, Mr. Collins accuses the Bennets of too indulgent methods of parenting, though he adds that “‘her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age.’” He reports that he has shared the news with Lady Catherine, posits that “‘this false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others,’” congratulates himself on his narrow escape by not marrying into the family after all, and ends by suggesting that Mr. Bennet cast Lydia off entirely, leaving her to “‘reap the fruits of her own heinous offence’” (297). Strong words indeed for a clergyman, whose idea of Christian forgiveness does not include welcoming a newly married Lydia back to Longbourn for a visit. In fact, the words are more striking because they are deliberately conveyed in a letter rather than spontaneously presented in speech. There really is no excuse.
The varying approaches to what can be considered Mr. Collins’s low point, the Lydia Letter, indicates how Mr. Collins fares in each adaptation. The 1940 adaptation includes the “death of your daughter” line, but the impact of Collins’s hypocrisy in this version is blunted by two factors. First of all, the line is presented as a spur-of-the-moment but not malicious remark, with the other characters reacting to it as such. Secondly, Mr. Collins in this adaptation is not a clergyman, but a librarian, a change likely made to conform with Hollywood’s Production Code, a self-regulating censorship policy established in 1934 to maintain decency levels in American movies. The Code prevented religion from being ridiculed and religious figures from being represented as comic characters (Inglis 382). So while Collins’s change in occupation was probably pragmatic, it also reduces the line’s attempt at moral force and its hypocritical impact.
The period adaptations of 1980 and 1995 retain the contents of Collins’s letter almost entirely. While the 1980 miniseries keeps the letter, the 1995 miniseries turns the letter into a formal call, with Mr. Collins commiserating with his relatives at Longbourn. The 1995 adaptation actually heightens Mr. Collins’s offence by having him open his remarks with comments about his duty as a clergyman and then calmly delivering the “death of your daughter” line with no indication that he is aware of its inappropriateness. This miniseries suggests that Collins deliberately set out for Longbourn, as Elizabeth says, “to enjoy our misfortune and to congratulate himself on his own happy situation.” The 2005 adaptation, which emphasizes romance above all else, drops this part of the story entirely; we do not see Collins again after Elizabeth leaves Hunsford.
The effect of the Lydia Letter depends upon the shock-value of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, a serious event for which modern updates such as the Mormon Pride and Prejudice (2003) and the Bollywood Bride & Prejudice (2004) have difficulty finding a contemporary equivalent. As a result, these adaptations omit this example of Mr. Collins’s hypocrisy. However, the modern adaptations also express a dissatisfaction with Mr. Collins’s romantic storyline. Each modern adaptation attempts to redeem Mr. Collins by either pairing him with Mary Bennet or transforming his marriage to Charlotte from one of convenience to one of love.
To one extent or another, every Pride and Prejudice adaptation suggests that had Mr. Collins proposed to Mary, she would have accepted. In the 1940 adaptation, Mary is the only sister who smiles as he scans the room for a prospective wife. In the 1980 adaptation, Mrs. Bennet tries to persuade Mr. Collins that Mary’s intelligence compensates for her lack of good looks, even though he has already proposed to Charlotte Lucas. In Bride & Prejudice, Maya/Mary is the only person to smile at Kholi/Collins’s cheesy compliment about caterpillars turning into butterflies, and in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005), Mary gives Collins a wounded look after he proposes to Elizabeth (Fig. 5). Mary’s interest in Collins is most evident in the 1995 miniseries. Mary checks her hair when Collins pulls up to Longbourn, and she is impressed by his dinnertime references to Lady Catherine. When Collins asks Elizabeth for the first two dances at the Netherfield ball, the watchful viewer sees that Mary at first believes that he is addressing her, not her sister. Her ensuing disappointment is evident. In the background at the Netherfield ball, Mary attempts to talk to Collins while Darcy and Elizabeth dance, but Collins turns away to look at Elizabeth. Even Jane’s errand to fetch Mr. Collins away from Elizabeth and Wickham because Mary has a question about Fordyce’s Sermons can be seen as Mary’s ploy to get Mr. Collins for herself.
Of course, for the purposes of Austen’s novel Collins cannot marry Mary since that relationship would keep Longbourn in the family and alleviate the sisters’ economic hardship. Unable to get around this important plot point, the period adaptations are content with hinting at the match with Mary but ultimately pairing Collins with Charlotte. However, the 2003 Mormon romantic comedy adaptation of Pride and Prejudice does not have to deal with the constraints of the entail, and Collins ultimately ends up with Mary, though only after he has proposed to Elizabeth, then Jane, and possibly Charlotte. In this adaptation Collins does not fully understand what a good marriage consists of, or even that courtship is a mutually acknowledged enterprise. He proposes to Elizabeth believing that they’ve been dating when they have not, misinterpreting her giving him a hair cut as a sign of intimacy: “It was practically a scalp massage, the way you dug in there with your fingers.” Mary’s interest in Collins is evident from early in the film, however, when they are shown to have a shared interest in the re-enactment of a historical pioneer trek. Later in the movie, as part of a montage sequence, Elizabeth dials Collins’s phone number and then supportively hands the receiver to Mary. At another point in the montage, Elizabeth helps Mary with her make-up as she prepares for a date with Collins. At the end of the movie, we are told that after a long courtship, Collins proposes to Mary. Clearly, he has learned that there is a right way as well as a wrong way to get a wife.
What is at work in the continual attempts to match Collins and Mary? At first, the adaptations seem to be extrapolating from the novel itself: “Mary might have been prevailed on to accept him. She rated his abilities much higher than any of the others; there was a solidity in his reflections which often struck her” (124). But while Austen’s narrator cautiously uses the passive voice and qualifies the statement (“Mary might have been prevailed on”), the adaptations make no doubt of Mary’s interest. The adaptations’ approaches to the match suggest a kind of wish fulfillment, for a Mary/Collins marriage would not only resolve the entail difficulties but symmetrically pair up two characters matched in their levels of affectation. The coupling is also indicative of mainstream cinema’s need to see a single woman of marriageable age paired up by a movie’s end. It is no surprise that, by the closing credits, the MGM 1940 adaptation provides each and every Bennet sister with a fiancé or suitor. In the novel, Jane’s and Elizabeth’s marriages are presented as fortunate. There is a slight fairytale quality to the matches; Jane and Bingley fall in love at first sight, and it could be argued that the same happens to Darcy and Elizabeth. The adaptations apply the novel’s undercurrent of wistful romanticism to the prosaic Collins and Mary. Everyone, the adaptations seem to suggest, has a soul mate, and poor Mary must suffer under the clichéd belief that she and Collins would make the perfect match if only he would notice her.
By realizing the match that is only hinted at in the novel, the adaptations reveal fresh layers of irony stemming from the Collins/Mary/Charlotte triangle. First, had Collins actually stuck to his wholly unromantic method of choosing a Bennet daughter as a wife and continued moving through the sisters following “his strictest notions of what was due to seniority” (Austen 70), Mary would have been next. What, then, is Austen saying about Collins’s approach to marriage? Does the near-match actually endorse a systematic, market-based approach to finding a wife? Secondly, Collins’s orderly proceedings are disrupted to facilitate a match with the even more pragmatic and orderly Charlotte Lucas, who, ironically, is ultimately a better-suited wife for Collins because she is wise enough to ignore his faults when possible. Finally, while the adaptations presume that Mary is in love with Collins, the novel begs to differ. For it transpires that Mary does not consider Collins quite up to snuff: “though by no means so clever as herself, she thought that if encouraged to read and improve himself by such an example as her’s, he might become a very agreeable companion” (124). The novel presents a cynical view of the potential match, mocking Mary’s own self-importance while undercutting her common sense. Ironically, because Mary matches Mr. Collins in levels of self-delusion and vanity, she becomes a bad match romantically. The poor match also suggests that Collins’s methodology would have yielded an imperfect result, therefore questioning his entire enterprise.
The potential match between Mary/Collins creates a fascinating dialogue between the novel and the adaptations as well as amongst the adaptations themselves. By pulling out the buried Mary/Collins plot thread, the Mormon Pride and Prejudice makes explicit the wish fulfillment at work in certain adaptations’ plots of thwarted romance, such as those found in the 1995 miniseries and the 2005 Keira Knightley film. In turn, by calling attention to two sentences buried the novel, these adaptations bring forward yet another example of a cynical view of marriage in a novel filled with cynical views.
Not all adaptations are content with such cynicism. In Bride & Prejudice, Mr. Kholi’s character is restored and his marriage to Chandra (the movie’s Charlotte) becomes a happy one. This conciliatory portrayal departs radically from the novel and even other adaptations. As Troost and Greenfield note, Bride & Prejudice celebrates the importance of the family unit but fails to replicate Austen’s critiques of the family. The Kholi/Chandra love match can be seen as another example of this tendency. When the Bakshi (Bennet) family are invited to Kholi and Chandra’s Los Angeles wedding, they finally get to see Kholi’s much-vaunted house. In an odd echo of the novel’s Pemberley visit, Lalita (Elizabeth) learns about a man’s character while touring his home.
© 2004 Pathé Pictures
Collins is redeemed by his marriage, a redemption first signaled by the subtle improvement in his appearance. He’s undergone a makeover, dressing better and now wearing contact lenses. Chandra’s body language (she casually touches his arm during the tour) suggests a physical ease absent in the novel and in other adaptations. This version provides Charlotte’s happy ending. Even though Chandra claims that she is not romantic, her language (including the cliché about the prince never coming) suggests otherwise.
Indulging in the wish fulfillment of making Charlotte Lucas’s marriage happy undermines the novel’s more clear-eyed take on marriage. It detracts from the sting of Charlotte’s acceptance and Elizabeth’s sense of betrayal. Objecting to Jane’s points that Charlotte had few prospects and that Mr. Collins is respectable, Elizabeth declares, “‘You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger, security for happiness’” (135-36). Charlotte’s acceptance of Mr. Collins’s proposal is also a strong critique of the paucity of options for unmarried women in eighteenth-century society, in which a man such as Mr. Collins is considered an excellent match for woman such as Charlotte, who has nothing but pragmatism to recommend herself. The marriage also criticizes the economic and class structure that causes Charlotte to be a burden on her family without any means of providing for herself.
The redemption of Mr. Kholi gives rise to an inconsistent characterization that threatens to undermine the movie. Why, after all, present his ignorant comments at the Bakshi dinner table and his sexual undesirability only to render him a misunderstood man, his ridiculousness toned down, his affectations softened? The discrepancy jars as the mockery of Kholi as a heritage-renunciating ex-pat is undermined by the courtship plot that calls him a “good man.” By trying to recover him, the filmmakers inadvertently make him seem hypocritical, for there is little reconciling the two Mr. Kholis. Surprisingly, Mr. Kholi is the character who best embodies the idealized global existence that the movie celebrates. He lives and works in America, returns to India to marry an Indian girl, holds two weddings—a small one in an India temple and a lavish one (“Fifty-one wedding suits!”) in Los Angeles—and gets his happy ending. Mr. Kholi exemplifies the effortless movement between cultures that the other characters are still learning to negotiate, but the inconsistency of his characterization calls his idealized global citizenship into question, ultimately undermining the movie’s optimism about cross-cultural, global relationships.
conclude, I turn to a detail that many Pride and Prejudice
adaptations omit, the fleeting but important mention of Mr.
Collins and Charlotte’s “young olive branch” at the
end of the novel: “‘The rest of his letter is only
about his dear Charlotte’s situation, and his expectation of a
young olive-branch’” (364). Only one adaptation,
the 1980 mini-series, mentions Charlotte’s pregnancy, evoking
the spectre of future young Collinses to come. Jane Austen’s
novels rarely feature pregnant characters; Charlotte’s
situation stands out. In Pride and Prejudice’s
world of strategic marriages and ill-advised elopements, Charlotte’s
clear-eyed, calculated move to get a husband has a visceral price,
one that is writ large on a woman’s body—but in the novel
only. Though Charlotte’s pregnancy could have easily been
worked into any of the adaptations by having her visibly appear so,
it never happens. Charlotte’s pregnancy seems to be too
much for filmmakers who are so preoccupied with Collins’s comic
potential that such a stark reminder of the novel’s cynicism
about marriage has no place in the final project. The pregnancy
is also a final reminder of Longbourn’s cruel entail.
After all, in a novel about inheritance and male heirs, it is the
Collinses who become pregnant and, in what might be the greatest
irony, who might produce a male heir for Longbourn one generation too
NOTE: All clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.
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