With Jerusha Hess’ “Austenland,” starring Keri Russell as a Jane Austen obsessive, hitting theaters August 16, and the 200th anniversary of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” celebrated earlier this year, we rank the best screen versions of the romantic classic which sees the uniting of bright, stubborn Elizabeth Bennet with the breathlessly handsome yet slow-to-warm Mr. Darcy. Video below.
For the P&P anniversary, Entertainment Weekly compiled a list of the many ways in which the novel has influenced pop culture over the years. While the classic has launched or cemented the careers of a number of A-list stars (hello, Colin Firth!), its effects also run deeper. EW posits that the now tried-and-true TV convention of romantic couples who love/hate each other comes straight from “P&P,” and the novel has ultimately even renewed passionate U.S. interest in British culture (hello, “Downton Abbey”!).
Meanwhile, Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy is so ingrained in pop culture adoration that the character got his own 12-foot statue in London’s Serpentine Lake.
1. “Pride and Prejudice” (1995, TV Miniseries) The BBC found the perfect Elizabeth Bennet-Mr. Darcy casting in Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. The series, expanded over six 50-minute episodes, manages to be faithful to Jane Austen’s mischeivous sense of humor and swoon-worthy sense of romance without the trappings of a stuffy adaptation. A positively glowing Ehle is at once observant and sharp, stubborn yet insecure about her true feelings for the men around her. Firth is the definition of “dashing,” and communicates smoldering yearning with his eyes while maintaining the stiff-upper-lip countenance that has become a signature for the actor as a romantic hero. (Since then, Firth has revisited a more contemporary Darcy opposite Renee Zellweger in the Richard Curtis adaptations of the “Bridget Jones’s Diary” series.)
2. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) For decades, Robert Z. Leonard’s gorgeous black-and-white Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier romance was the Austen standard. Until Firth came along, Olivier defined the arrogant yet elegantly sensitive Darcy, who loves Elizabeth despite himself. Aldous Huxley was one of the screenwriters, and in also adapting Helen Jerome’s popular 1936 stage play, many changes were made from the novel, most especially in a more sympathetic Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The movie was beloved by critics and won the Oscar for art direction; it holds an 88% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
3. “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) Joe Wright’s wind-tossed version of the Austen classic is the director’s best work to date, and the film on which he first collaborated with muse Keira Knightley. The actress gives her own spin to Bennet, making the character’s stubbornness a tad spikey. It isn’t exactly plausible that statuesque Knightley’s Elizabeth would be the second-most attractive sister, but then gorgeous Elizabeth Bennets are the norm for the book’s screen versions — see Ehle and Garson. Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn are magnificent as the night-and-day Bennet parents; Sutherland’s performance is reserved and loving, Blethyn’s performance is tittering and vapid. The one weaker point is Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy. He by no means turns in a poor performance, but he’s in the unlucky position of having unbeatable acts to follow.
4. Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is floundering in development limbo, presumably dead in the water because of the poor reception of the film version of the author’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer.” For this we can be truly thankful.