It’s a Good Time to Binge on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Adaptations

It’s a Good Time to Binge on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Adaptations

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single person in possession of a good “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation must be in want of another one.

Jane Austen, who published the aforementioned novel anonymously in 1813, could not have imagined its popularity more than 200 years later. Over the past 25 years, especially, her work has enjoyed a resurgence, spawning numerous adaptations in print, television and film, with no signs of stopping, in other countries as well as America.

Some of the adaptations use the first sentence of “Pride and Prejudice” (reinterpreted – or mangled – above): “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Cristina Richieri Griffin, a postdoctoral fellow in 19th-century studies in the University of Virginia’s English department, is OK with all this.

“Whatever it takes to get people to read a good book,” she joked.

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Griffin is teaching a course, “Austen and Adaptation: Pride and Prejudice and Then Some,” to a mix of 60 undergraduates – literature-loving English majors, number-crunching policy analysts and science-driven engineering students. She leads the course online in real time as they explore “what it means to grapple with this text in 2020, a world that looks much different than Austen’s Regency England.”

With the diversity of academic backgrounds among students (as opposed to an upper-level course specifically for English majors), Griffin designed a variety of assignments, from literary analysis to script-writing to product marketing.

She also invited guest speakers virtually to the Zoom classes – two authors of recent adaptations and a television screenwriter. It certainly was possible before the coronavirus pandemic to do that, but Griffin said she had not thought to include virtual guests in her course design. She happens to know the screenwriter personally, but did not know the other writers, Soniah Kamal and Olivia Waite. She simply emailed them and asked them if they would participate, and they responded enthusiastically.

First, the class read “Pride and Prejudice,” Austen’s novel about Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters – all of marriageable age and whom their mother is trying to match up with the most eligible bachelors in England at the turn of the 19th century. The class has also spent the semester taking “a global genre tour to investigate how the novel has been adapted, co-opted, misread, ignored, commercialized, rewritten and repurposed,” Griffin wrote in her course description.

Adaptations, she said, give us a chance to reflect on what the plot would look like now, or what it could look like, especially thinking of what issues are left out of the story. Many of the themes continue to resonate, including how social and family dynamics complicate love and marriage.

A few of the many adaptations of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Griffin is teaching Olivia Waite’s “The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics” and Soniah Kamal’s “Unmarriageable.”

People seem to love to adapt “Pride and Prejudice” into all sorts of genres, from children’s books to zombie movies – yes, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is a real book and horror film. In addition to the popular book and 2001 romantic comedy, “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” there’s a Bollywood version, “Bride and Prejudice.”

There’s a whole Austen industry out there. Griffin would even call it an Etsy phenomenon, because there are so many products and decorative items made that are associated with Austen and her novels. Griffin doesn’t collect them herself, but has several gifts, including a Jane Austen action figure, a tote bag, and the book “Good Night, Mr. Darcy” (modeled after the celebrated children’s book “Good Night, Moon”).

But it’s not all fun and games. Austen and her descendant writers and adapters describe and question social institutions and norms, with contemporary writers imagining or filling in what Austen left out of her stories – race and poverty, for instance, and when it comes to marriage and relationships, physical intimacy, Griffin said. In the 2013 novel, “Longbourn,” author Jo Baker recreates “Pride and Prejudice” from the servants’ point of view, Longbourn being the name of the Bennet family home.

Griffin has taught Austen and “Pride and Prejudice” often, but this is the first time for this specific course. Austen finished six novels, two of which were published posthumously. Even her unfinished work has been food for adaptations, with the series “Sanditon” being the most recent on TV.

“We really don’t know much about Austen’s short life,” Griffin said. Austen died at 41 of an undefined illness, possibly an endocrine disorder. “Her sister [Cassandra] destroyed the majority of Jane’s letters.”

In “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Elizabeth Bennet is a master of martial arts who joins forces with Mr. Darcy when a mysterious plague brings zombies to the 19th-century English countryside.

Jane Austen didn’t make enough as a professional writer to live on, although her earnings did help support her family as it experienced financial troubles.

Although today it seems Austen “skews toward female readers,” as Griffin put it – and women do outnumber men in her class – that’s a contemporary development, she said. In the 19th century, the writers and admirers included many men. There weren’t many reviews of her novels, but Sir Walter Scott, popular author and critic, opined that she was the best novelist of her generation, Griffin said, especially in depicting common life.

Griffin pointed out some reasons why Austen’s novels persist and are so adaptable: Austen presents universal themes and the novel’s opening sets up the story without explicitly specifying place or time period (though both become apparent as the story continues), and she innovated new writing techniques, including free indirect discourse, to show her characters’ internal feelings and thoughts about their experiences.

Besides her characters dealing with “crazy” family dynamics, or their personal desires for love and romance, she shows characters’ conflicting feelings when they want to meet social expectations, but also buck them sometimes.

“Those issues still matter today in all kinds of groups, even though the book is primarily about rich white people,” Griffin said. “Austen also shows the value of knowing and appreciating what another person feels inside.” Lizzie and the famous Mr. Darcy have all kinds of problems getting together because of misunderstandings and erroneous judgments. That it’s difficult to understand what another is feeling – this transcends time and place, Griffin said.

Over the years, Jane Austen’s work has spawned numerous adaptations in print, television and film, from “Longbourn,” told from the servants’ perspective, to the zombies horror story.

Third-year student Elizabeth “Lizzy” Lynch, who’s majoring in commerce as well as English, said although she had read “Pride and Prejudice” before, “Taking this class, I feel like I have explored it in a new light, truly understanding the long-lasting effects of Austen’s language and why it is such a timeless piece of literature.” She recommended taking a course of Griffin’s as “an absolute must at UVA.”

“What appeals to me about ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is what I deem to be the very progressive ideas and challenges to society that Austen makes in writing the novel,” Lynch wrote in email. “Her use of irony, implementation of free indirect discourse, and complex characters set out to disprove the famous ‘universal truth’ set forth at the beginning of the novel. What I absolutely love about the adaptations is how they take these characteristics of Austen’s novel and manipulate them in unique and creative ways to adapt to a certain genre and timeframe.”

Yulie Cheng, a third-year aerospace engineering major, didn’t really like “Pride and Prejudice” the first time she read it, but has reconsidered her feelings, she wrote in email. Cheng also emphasized Austen’s humor as a big appeal.

“I really liked how the course incorporates Austen’s original work and the subculture it has spawned around the novel,” she wrote. “My favorite part about ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is how funny Austen is and the layers of irony in her work. I’ve enjoyed seeing how the different adaptations lean into her narrative, while also adding their own interpretations.”

Kamal’s 2019 novel, “Unmarriageable,” which takes place in contemporary Pakistan, expands the beginning of the story by depicting a class of ninth-grade Pakistani girls making up their own versions of Austen’s first sentence.

Soniah Kamal, the author of “Unmarriageable” who set her version of “Pride and Prejudice” in modern Pakistan, visited the class virtually.

Kamal was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and has lived in several places around the world, now in Georgia. A product of the British school system, she thought Austen might as well have been writing about Pakistani society, Griffin said, but she also sought Pakistani indigenous voices.

When she spoke to the students, Kamal told them she wrote with a deliberate point of view and she wanted to make certain claims and not others.

“In essence,” Griffin wrote in an email, “Kamal’s novel has a thesis, just like the critical and creative responses my students produce in our class. I am always telling my students that every cultural response they create – a formal essay they write, a meme they make, even a text they send to a friend about a book they read or a show they watched – contains an argument. Kamal demonstrated for the students the power of claiming those arguments and owning our own responsibility in making them.”

The second author, who visits Tuesday, is Waite, who published “The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics” last year. It is a “Regency romance,” a popular subgenre, Griffin said, set in the British Regency period of late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“It is completely indebted to Austen because of the same time period and social setting,” Griffin said. In this story, two women fall in love. Waite’s “reimaginings give voice to characters not represented in Austen. It’s romantic and idealistic, and yet also realistic to fill in this historic gap.”

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Romance is key in Austen’s work, but sexual intimacy stays under the radar, Griffin said, and Austen stigmatizes any sexual transgression. “The Regency romances recast sexuality with consent. They’re agency-filled and empowering – something to be celebrated,” she said.

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping people more isolated, Griffin said, “This is a great time to read a novel like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as an escape.”

And then there are all those binge-worthy adaptations.

Adaptations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

This selected list of “Pride and Prejudice” adaptations includes the films and TV series Griffin’s class watched – and many more. At least 17 movies have been made of “Pride and Prejudice” since 1938, not including sequels. There are also adaptations of Austen’s other work, too, especially of her novel, “Emma.”

  • “Pride and Prejudice” – 1940 film starring Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier.
  • “Pride and Prejudice” – 1995 BBC miniseries with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, launching his career.
  • “Pride and Prejudice” – this popular 2005 remake starred Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.
  • “Bridget Jones’s Diary” – 1999 novel, 2001 film with Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth reprising Mr. Darcy, and Hugh Grant.
  • “Bride and Prejudice” – 2004 Bollywood film.
  • “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – 2009 novel, 2016 film.
  • “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” – 2012 YouTube serial.
  • “Christmas at Pemberley Manor” (2018).
  • “Pride and Passion” – a 2018 Brazilian telenovela series.
  • 2013 novel, “Longbourn.”
  • 2019 novel, “Unmarriageable.”
  • 2019 novel, “The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics.”
  • Another 2019 novel, “Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors,” by Sonali Dev.
  • 2013 TV mini-series, “Death Comes to Pemberley,” based on the 2011 P.D. James murder mystery.
  • 2016 film, “Unleashing Mr. Darcy,” that features a dog show.
  • “Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice,” by Curtis Sittenfeld, published in 2016 and part of a series in which contemporary authors retell Austen’s six novels.
  • 2017 novel, “Unequal Affections: A Pride and Prejudice Retelling,” by Lara S. Ormiston.
  • 2017 novel, “Heartstone,” a historical fantasy by Elle Katharine White that sets “Pride and Prejudice” in a world of dragons and warriors.
  • “Pride: A Pride and Prejudice Remix,” by Ibi Zobol, published in 2019, updates Austen’s novel for young adults, setting the scene in Brooklyn.
  • “Ayesha At Last,” by Uzma Jalaluddin, published in 2019, is a modern-day Muslim retelling.

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications