I've long been skeptical about the 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier—the glossy classic Hollywood treatment just seemed wrong for Jane Austen. And the 1995 BBC adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is so good that I haven't been eager to seek out other versions.
But lately my partner and I have been seeing a lot of films from the 1930s and 1940s, including Mrs. Miniver (1942), which featured Garson in the title role as a stalwart wife and mother trying to hold her family together during the Blitz. Garson was wonderful in that role, and it made me curious about her Elizabeth Bennet.
|Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet|
|Laurence Olivier as Darcy|
|Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennet|
|Mary Boland as Mrs. Bennet|
|Jane's niece Fanny Knight; watercolor by Jane's sister Cassandra (ca. 1810)|
But worse than what's missing is what's changed: there are scenes with no counterpart in the novel, alterations of the plot, and modifications of the characters. The changes are most notable in the actions and character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver in one of her last roles), and they have implications that radically shift the story. There's no way to discuss these without giving away the ending, so be forewarned that spoilers follow.
First, the changes in plot: In her interview with Elizabeth towards the end of the movie, Lady Catherine claims to be able, as the trustee of her sister's estate, to "strip Mr. Darcy of every shilling he has." In the novel this is not a possibility, nor is it a claim ever made by Lady Catherine. Also, the revelation to Elizabeth (and us) of Mr. Darcy's role in Lydia's marriage to Wickham comes from Lady Catherine during this interview, and not (as in the novel) from the thoughtless Lydia.
After her interview with Elizabeth, Lady Catherine goes out to her carriage, where (in another departure from the novel) it turns out that Darcy is waiting. She tells him,
|Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine|
This utterly changes the meaning of the scene and the character of Lady Catherine (so splendidly portrayed by Barbara Leigh-Hunt in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice), not to mention Darcy himself. She and Darcy become calculating co-conspirators sounding out Elizabeth about her feelings (and giving her a strategic nudge or two). Needless to say, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the characters created by Austen.
In Chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice Austen has Darcy remark of women's romantic stratagems, "Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable." To which I'll only add that the word applies as well to those who apparently felt that their inspirations improved on those of Jane Austen.