April 27, 2012

Darcy and Elizabeth Revisited: Four Film Adaptations that Reflect the Build-Up of Cultural Feminist Advancement

Sarah Pavey, Advisor: Marcela Kostihova

Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice challenged the use of the Byronic hero and patriarchal structures in 19th century society with satire. Lloyd Brown argues that Austen’s novel can be considered an early feminist text because “her themes are comparable with the eighteenth-century feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft insofar as such feminism questioned certain masculine assumptions in society.” This aspect of her work arguably lead to its long term popularity as both a literary and feminist text. With film becoming more widely regarded as a legitimate text for critical study, it is only natural that film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice would be used similarly to express feminist discourse. Indeed, Austen’s book has been adapted more than ten times for television and film in the last 70 years. Over time, the visual representations of her satire have become a vehicle for feminist criticism in the time in which they were produced. However, our awareness of feminist discourse in film did not begin in the manner we think of it in the present day. The use of the feminist themes in Pride and Prejudice on screen have developed over the years through a multifaceted and non-unidirectional process. In the context of Pride and Prejudice dramatizations, the portrayal of the central characters Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet reflect the progress of cultural feminism as each adaptation builds on the work done by the previous adaptation. I have chosen to look at the 1940 film, the 1980 series, (one of many British television adaptations), the famed 1995 BBC series, and the most recent film from 2005. Each retelling of Austen’s novel engages the gender and class dynamics of its own time and therefore presents a chronological relationship in the progress of cultural feminist advancement. Through analysis of critical approaches to the gendered film gaze, the change from the male to the female film gaze, the evocation or disruption of the Byronic hero, and the romanticization and sexualization of the two primary characters, I argue that the visual translations of Pride and Prejudice reflect the changing attitudes to feminism in society.