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Round Two is on!
"Austen wrote the first Darwinian novel ... [driven by] the gene in Mr. Darcy's breeches."
At the end of April I attended the Jane Austen Society of North America's (JASNA) spring meeting for the Southwest region. (Yes, I am that person ... on occasion.) Who was this year's guest of honor? Answer: Andrew Davies, the most prolific screenwriter of period adaptations of our time. Mr. Davies' attendance was a major coup for JASNA which, as one of the organizers emphasized, views Mr. Davies as a "rock star."
And with good reason. He did, after all, write the screenplay for what most Janeites consider to be the authoritative screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995 for ITV (its production marked the bicentennial of Austen's completion of her initial draft of the novel). He also went on to co-write the screenplay for the enormously successful Bridget Jones' Diary (2001), the film adaptation of Helen Fielding's novel about a thirty-something "singleton" in London, which is itself (partially) a reworking of Pride and Prejudice (the romantic lead, after all, shares a surname with Austen's hero ... and in the film was portrayed by none other than Colin Firth). Davies also wrote other Austen adaptations, Emma (ITV 1996), Sense & Sensibility (BBC 2008), Northanger Abbey (ITV 2007), not to mention adaptations of the works of several Victorian writers (Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, et al.) as well as original and contemporary material.
The highlight of his remarks at JASNA was, of course, discussion of his Austen adaptations, Pride and Prejudice in particular. It is in many's view (mine included) his finest achievement as a screenwriter. Davies spoke at length about his approach to adapting the novel for a miniseries. He said he wanted to write an updated, energetic script that stayed true to the spirit of the novel, rather than the letter of it (though I believe his screenplay is also one of the most faithful literary adaptations ever written). For him, despite the strict social conventions of the Regency period, at its core Pride and Prejudice is really more about desire than love: "The first half of the novel is driven by Darcy's desire for Elizabeth -- not his love for her -- in fact he doesn't even like her, but something about ... [the way she is] fascinates him." While most readers of the novel would concede that there is some invisible, driving force putting Darcy and Lizzy in each other's path (be it providence, fate, destiny), Davies' take on it is much simpler: it is the instinctual and primordial pull of biology leading the two of them to seek out their ideal mates.
Yet in spite of Davies' earthy candor about his inspiration for tackling Pride and Prejudice, the production is beautifully restrained and authentic to the period. Lizzy and Darcy sizzle (though I credit not only the writing, but also Simon Langton's direction and the onscreen chemistry between Firth and Jennifer Ehle in their portrayals of the iconic pair). That thread of desire felt throughout is largely communicated through subtext.
It is the subtlety, in fact, which distinguishes Pride and Prejudice from many of Davies' other projects, including other Austen adaptations. In an effort to tap into the latent sexual energies of the characters, Davies' more recent creative liberties have sometimes felt less organic to the narrative and the setting (e.g. Frederick Tilney's outright seduction of Isabella Thorpe in Davies' script for Northanger Abbey, an event which was not realized in the novel but suggested as a mere possibility).
The same is true for his adaptations set in later periods, at least as I observe it. The most recent example is Davies' treatment of romantic and/or sexual relationships in the Edwardian era in ITV's Mr. Selfridge (currently airing stateside on PBS), which he created and wrote (in collaboration with three other writers, including Lindy Woodhead who authored the biography, Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge, on which the series is based). Selfridge in this regard is actually a more cynical show than, say, Downton which is set in the same era (and is a series Davies has been mildly critical of, incidentally).
In trying to ferret out what set Pride and Prejudice apart from his other works, I considered whether Davies perhaps is less at ease with certain authors, genres or periods. This was, in part, my motivation I think when I asked him about the relative advantages and disadvantages of adapting fiction (like Austen's) versus nonfiction (like Woodhead's). After hearing his response to my question, however, I do not think he has a "type" in that sense. He acknowledged the creative freedom involved in a production like Selfridge (even while he joked that he often goes "prima donna" on ITV) because he is more concerned with bringing people and events from history to life rather than making sure he gives a classic literary text the treatment it deserves. But what I noted, overall, from his comments and demeanor was that clearly some books inspire more than others. He in fact tacitly admitted as much in his brief discussion of Sense and Sensibility, a novel for which he initially found it difficult to muster enthusiasm largely because he found the supposed hero(es) lacking in drive and/or passion (it is of course questionable whether Ferrars and Brandon are heroes; perhaps they are simply the objects of their respective heroines' affection). At least with respect to romance, it is clear to me that in his eyes Davies has not yet found Pride and Prejudice's equal ... among Austen or elsewhere.
Hope this is alright, but sorry if it isn't.
Can anyone remember the episode of New Tricks where Sandra hosts a dinner party? I think it was in series 3, but I can't remember which one.