Wednesday 29 January 2020

Comment: ITV is brewing an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but weren't five stabs at it enough?

Reboots are dominating the big and small screen

Pride and Prejudice. BBC
Pride and Prejudice. BBC

Pat Stacey

It’s generally accepted that the big Hollywood movie studios have run out of ideas. They’re creatively bankrupt. Year after year after year, multiplex arteries are clogged up with sequels, prequels, spin-offs, remakes and reboots.

Superhero movies are the biggest offenders, as well as the biggest box-office draw (even a total dud like Suicide Squad made an obscene €745m). Which, of course, is why they keep churning them out.

Since 1989, there have been three takes of varying quality on Batman — Tim Burton’s (subsequently ruined by Joel Schumacher), Christopher Nolan’s and now Zack Snyder’s — spread across eight films, starring five different actors. You can make that nine films when Justice League opens in November.

Even more egregiously, three actors — Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland — have squeezed into Spider-Man’s bodysuit in just 15 years in half-a-dozen movies that effectively told the same story with a few cosmetic tweaks.

Thanks goodness for television, then, which is giving us loads of great, meaty, grown-up, original dramas that engage the brain as well as the eye. TV would never indulge in this cynical business of recycling the same old stories over and over again.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the second part of the above paragraph had so much as a single grain of truth in it?

When it comes to flogging something to death, TV broadcasters are in no position to feel superior to crass, money-obsessed Hollywood. They’ve been doing exactly the same thing for years.

It was announced last week that a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is in the pipeline. Incredibly, this is the sixth time Jane Austen’s most famous novel has been turned into a television series, although the first to be produced by ITV. All previous versions were made by the BBC.

The first, in 1952, starred Daphne Slater as Elizabeth Bennet and Peter Cushing as Mr Darcy. Just six years later, Jane Downs and Alan Badel played the characters.

The 1967 version, starring Celia Bannerman and Lewis Flander, was the first in colour. It was followed in 1980 by an adaptation by Fay Weldon, featuring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.

Last — until now, anyway — but most definitely not least was the 1995 version, which starred Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Colin Firth as Darcy. The screenwriter Andrew Davies, a master at taking period novels and turning them into shiny television gold.

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Colin Firth as Mr Darcy

And this particular Pride and Prejudice really was gold of the highest, shiniest quality. The critics raved, it pulled in a huge audience in the UK, was a hit around the globe (and particularly in America), won a sackload of awards, turned Firth into a refreshingly reluctant sex symbol and brought, for better or worse, costume dramas roaring back into fashion.

It’s regarded as the definitive Pride and Prejudice. Twenty-two years old it may be, yet time hasn’t dented its appeal. Television technology has changed since 1995, but not changed radically enough to make it look remotely dated. So why even bother adapting the book again when there’s virtually no hope of improving on the 1995 version?

Well, because it wasn’t dark enough, apparently. According to the company behind the production, Mammoth Screen, which also makes ITV’s Victoria and the BBC’s Poldark, previous versions have missed a trick by not teasing out the story’s “darker tones”.

“Pride and Prejudice is actually a very adult book, much less ‘bonnet-y’ than people assume,” said latest adaptor Nina Raine, a playwright who’s never written for television before and claims she’s never seen any previous adaptations of the novel.

She added: “I hope I do justice to Austen’s dark intelligence — sparkling, yes, but sparkling like granite.”

Ah, now I get it! Everybody was wrong — readers, viewers, all those people involved in previous adaptations. All along they’d assumed Austen had written a clever, romantic comedy of manners poking fun at the social mores of the time, when in actual fact she’d written Breaking Bad with Regency ruffles.

Clearly this is all about setting the artistic record straight and has nothing at all to do with ITV wanting to make shedloads of money from squeezing a much-loved literary property till the pips squeak.


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