Remaking a classic without prejudice

British director Joe Wright finds Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice’ adaptable, contemporary

Erin Adler

Americans don’t know it, but in Britain, “Pride and Prejudice” is not required high school reading. In fact, when Joe Wright accepted the task of directing the book’s umpteenth screen adaptation, he had to first sit down and read the novel.

That’s when, like countless future English majors before him, he “fell in love” with the book.

It made sense then, that his adaptation would not only reflect his rapture, but also remain loyal to the lexis of Jane Austen.

“I tried to be very faithful to it, the story events, the atmosphere, the tone,” Wright said when he stopped by the Daily office.

Through that faithfulness, Wright unknowingly bridged a literary chasm: He created a visually sumptuous film version of “Pride and Prejudice” that is equal parts romance, nuanced observation of human behavior and 18th-century commentary on class and gender.

Add to that “Oscar contender.”

Adapting the adaptation

Wright didn’t have to ponder the question many reviewers likely asked themselves: Why remake “Pride and Prejudice” ” again?

Just as he had never read the book, Wright, a 33-year-old director who previously did British television, had never seen the 1995 BBC miniseries that many U.S. Austen fans know well. To him, it had not been adapted to the screen as recently as the 2004 Hollywood hit “Bride & Prejudice,” or 11 times before that.

He referenced the 1940 Laurence Olivier rendering as the story’s last actual film adaptation.

“To me, the story seemed very fresh and pertinent,” he said.

On screen, Wright’s fresh approach is readily apparent. Though its characters and setting are period-authentic, the word “contemporary” comes up in nearly every review of the film ” in a good way.

Rightly casting Knightley

Smart casting choices are what makes Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” feel current, and the role of Elizabeth Bennet is a case in point. As Lizzie, the second of five sisters in a bourgeois British family, Keira Knightley shines. She’s a sprightly, intelligent character, but not without her flaws.

Despite Knightley’s sizable talent, Wright said he was initially skeptical of the casting. According to Austen, Lizzie is plain-looking; Knightley, Wright thought, was “probably too beautiful.” But when the two met in a London bar, he was struck by her “incredibly strong personality” and found her to be “quite boyish, actually ” a scruffy, tomboyish character.”

And a strong personality was just what the film needed, he thought. It struck Wright as curious that previous versions of the film were known simply by who had played the male lead of Mr. Darcy (i.e. “the Colin Firth one” or “the Laurence Olivier version”).

“The story needed to be about Lizzie and her point of view,” he said.

Throughout the film, Knightley wears earthy browns and grays to dull her beauty in comparison to her blond older sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike). She plays Lizzie so well, from her indignance when she rejects a suitor to her emotional regret when she misjudges Darcy, that her appearance becomes secondary.

A recipe for reality

In some ways, the film is the ultimate nonrelationship movie; Lizzie and Darcy (played by British stage actor Matthew MacFadyen), the wealthy, single Netherfield Park visitor, have few actual encounters, and even fewer with positive results. But there is a smoldering in their glances, touches and what is not said. The fact that the two never consummate their relationship onscreen, even through a kiss, only adds to the tension.

Austen’s book, on the surface, is a tale of romance.

Jane finds true love despite early challenges with Bingley and Lizzie ends up in the arms of Darcy. Unpacked, however, it is just as much about the intersection of gender and social class; the five Bennet girls risk a life of poverty if they do not marry in a timely fashion.

The film documents this desperation through the plights of Mrs. Bennet, a flighty woman obsessed with marrying her daughters “advantageously,” and through Charlotte Lucas, Lizzie’s best friend who marries only to avoid becoming an old maid.

Even scenes that appear steeped in romance make this reality evident. In the scene when Bingley asks Jane to marry him, for instance, Jane appears bubbly with anticipation, Wright said.

But, “There is a sense of waiting, of Jane not being able to move, to speak, in that scene. She is so powerless, waiting for her future. It’s heartbreaking,” he said.

“Pride & Prejudice” is heartbreaking. It is sexy, clever and ends happily, a fact that Wright said initially “went against (his) socialist principles.”

Above all, though, it is real ” as real as Jane Austen’s life, her disappointment in love and her own estimation that her writing was never quite serious enough.

Which seems more than enough reason to remake it ” again and again.