Love or hate. That seems to be the unofficial verdict. Most of the hate, it appears, emanates from those who love the novel. I can fully understand that and sympathize with it. If one has a passion for a work of literature, it is very, very hard to see its purity tampered with in a filmed version. I have never, and will never, watch a movie of Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge." Never. I can't bear to replace the image I have in my head from the novel - the tears in my eyes - reading the death of Michael Henchard. I made the mistake once (only once) of watching Jean Renoir's supposedly classic filming of Emile Zola's "La Bete Humaine" with Jean Gabin no less in the title role. Quel massacre! Absolutely, indescribably eviscerated. Far worse than anything this film may have done to Jane Austen's work. So I know and I appreciate the sentiments of Jane Austen connoisseurs. Probably I can only overlook their chagrin because I am not a devotee of Jane Austen. I like her novels, including this one. But I far prefer, as you may have surmised, Thomas Hardy, also George Eliot and, for French literature (though they are complete opposites in form and idea), Zola and Victor Hugo.
What to do, Jane Austen devotees? Impossible to turn a blind eye. I know. But a slightly bleary eye? Try this. Find a recipe and mix a bowl of whatever early-nineteenth century alcoholic punch or hard liquor Jane might have favored. Drink a sufficient quantity. Then watch the movie as a movie. Watch it without prejudice (no pun intended). It is really, seen in no literary context, a wonderful film. Regard it not as a filmed version of "P & P" but as a film based on "P & P." Then, when you are sufficiently mellow, relish the marvelous acting, as only the great old Hollywood studios could provide it. I can't get enough especially of Melville Cooper who, for my money, steals the film. Enjoy Edmund Gwen's sardonic turn at the role of Mr. Bennett. (His very next film cast him as the sinister professional assassin in "Foreign Correspondent.") Or, my favorite, watch the delicious subtleties of Marsha Hunt as the gawky, myopic daughter. According to an interview she gave decades later, she said it took weeks to learn to sing out of tune. (If that is so, I can only imagine how hard it must be for a true opera singer to do the same purposefully-out-of-tune singing in the last act of Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment.") She also said she had a ball playing the part, and it was a career-rescuing role. Olivier, in my opinion, sleep-walks through his role. Greer Garson is radiant. It's odd. Olivier wanted in the worst way for Vivian Leigh to do the part. Instead he got Greer Garson, who shines. Just the previous year Ronald Coleman almost quit "The Light That Failed" because he too wanted Vivian Leigh. William Wellman insisted on Ida Lupino, whose shining performance launched her to stardom. Not that Vivian wouldn't have done those roles justice. Sometimes directors and studios know better than the leading man.
A last remark to Jane Austen fans. Don't worry about the temporal shift of the story, from the era of the Napoleonic Wars to the 1840s. Take it as a compliment to Jane Austen, that her novels have a timeless quality; they can be transposed to other eras and still have meaning. It's done to Shakespeare all the time. I've seen "Richard III" transposed from the 15th century to the 20th, with the king mutated into a Nazi-style dictator. Only the great works can be moved in time and yet retain their greatness.
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