Thanksgiving weekend is a time to eat too much and argue with your family, and if you've already worked your way through such controversial topics as vaccinations and Black Lives Matter, here's another one to add to the list: The BBC's Pride and Prejudice is hands down the best adaptation of the Jane Austen novel ever made.
The 1995 miniseries stars Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, two people who overcome their differences in social standing and temperament to realize they're made for one another. And it is basically perfect.
Yes, I realize it's long. Yes, I realize it came out 20 years ago. Yes, I realize the 2005 feature film starring Keira Knightley earned rave reviews and four Oscar nominations. But despite being well-regarded, director Joe Wright's take on the source material is a pale, sad imitation of the BBC's, and you can't call yourself a true P&P fan until you've watched all six hours of the latter version. (Plus, with its apt portraits of complicated family relationships and embarrassing relatives, it's Thanksgiving-appropriate, too!) Here are four reasons the TV miniseries beats the pantaloons off the 2005 film.
The key romantic pairs are so much more charming (and believable)
Pride and Prejudice requires a suitably dreamy Mr. Darcy, and Colin Firth's portrayal of the character made him a star. Perhaps fittingly, the 2005 film came from the same studio that produced Love, Actually and Bridget Jones's Diary — both of which star Firth, and the latter of which is a modern take on P&P, with Firth playing "Mark Darcy." But the studio couldn't very well cast him again, so it needed to find someone new — and somehow landed on Matthew Macfadyen. The choice was the filmmaking equivalent of ordering a Coke and having your server respond, "Is Pepsi okay?"
Lacking in both fire and haughtiness, Macfadyen's Darcy comes across as a soggy mopester, which makes his gradual softening from smug snob to ideal romantic partner far less resonant. Knightley does the best she can, but her impish sparkle merely serves to highlight his flatness. Same goes for her other love interest, Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), who despite being convincing as a member of 19th-century One Direction never musters up the considerable charm that would be necessary to hoodwink a woman as sharp as Elizabeth.
In this area, though, it's probably unfair to expect any other Pride and Prejudice to measure up. After all, the BBC's version gave viewers what the Guardian called "one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history": Firth's Mr. Darcy emerging, dripping wet, from a lake — only to encounter a shocked Elizabeth Bennet:
Meanwhile, the 2005 film reduced the story's epic romance to mush. Consider this moment when, after brutally rebuffing Darcy's proposal, Elizabeth inexplicably looks like she's about to make out with him:
But it's not just Elizabeth and Darcy — the 2005 film's Jane and Mr. Bingley suffer, too. Simon Woods's Bingley comes off as mildly cerebrally challenged, which has the unfortunate effect of making Rosamund Pike's lovely, intelligent Jane seem a bit stupid for liking him — or, worse, blinded to his faults by his piles of money. But in the BBC miniseries, Crispin Bonham-Carter plays Bingley as the human equivalent of a golden retriever puppy, sweet and generous to a fault, making him the perfect loyal companion for the beatific, blonde eldest Bennet.
The supporting cast is equally stellar
I say this knowing that the 2005 film is stuffed with stars — Rosamund Pike, Jena Malone, Carey Mulligan — and well-known character actors, while the BBC cast a bunch of Brits who were (and remain) largely unknown to American audiences. Yet the miniseries' longer runtime gives its cast the time and space to really shine; even minor roles like Kitty and Mary are fleshed out with believable quirks and mannerisms. Alison Steadman's portrayal of Mrs. Bennet is a triumph of hilariously irritating eccentricities and hideously embarrassing behavior, and David Bamber as the unfortunate Mr. Collins oozes the perfect amount of oily obsequiousness.
The 2005 film, meanwhile, wastes its star power; as Lydia and Kitty, Malone and Mulligan spend most of their limited screen time giggling, and while Malone's baby face drives home the disturbing truth of Lydia's eventual elopement at 15, her character is so one-note that it's hard to truly care. Even Pike as Jane, Elizabeth's favorite sister and closest friend and confidant, is demoted from a central relationship to bit player status, despite Jane's romance with Bingley being a main driver of Elizabeth's animosity toward and eventual reconciliation with Darcy.
The one exception to this rule is Judi Dench, who is sublime in the film as Darcy's aunt, the fearsomely acidic Lady Catherine de Bourg. The problem? She's far too fabulous as a villain for such a tiny role; her brief appearances mostly serve to make you wish for more head-butting between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth (and hope that they'll join forces somewhere down the line).
It explores the full scope of the Bennet women's limited world
The miniseries' nearly six-hour runtime does more than just allow it to devote more space to minor plots and characters — it also leaves far more room for world building, fully sketching in the limited contours of the women's world. There are stretches where nothing much of anything happens, long bleak sequences full of grayish, wintry boredom that highlight the women's relative isolation and lack of free movement. The "action sequences," by contrast, serve to illustrate how tedious and suffocating the era's endless niceties and social gatherings could be, yet what a necessary evil they were.
Pride and Prejudice, after all, is not just a love story — it's a financial one, a portrait of a family with no sons whose entire future rests on the shapely shoulders of its two eldest daughters. The stakes attached to their marriages are extremely high, and every society scene serves to further underline the pressures that women of the time period faced.
Lizzie's friend Charlotte Lucas illustrates this best; while the 2005 film seems to hint at some affection between Charlotte and her husband, Mr. Collins, the miniseries makes no such display: Charlotte's choice of mate was a cold, pragmatic decision based solely on financial prospects, and in later scenes with Elizabeth, we see her realize the full consequences of marrying an idiot with means, both good and bad.
It does full justice to Jane Austen's razor-sharp dialogue
The BBC's miniseries is the rare instance in which the screen adaptation of a novel serves as an equally worthy companion piece to the written source material, and both works are strong and delightful in their own right. Watching the cast verbally spar with each other using Austen's savagely witty words offers an incredible showcase of the author's gift for language and satire. Her dialogue drips with cutting humor, all the funnier and more devastating for being couched in courtly niceties. While the 2005 film carefully spells things out for the audience, the miniseries relies on subtlety, and to great effect; it's astonishing how much Ehle's Lizzie can communicate with a suppressed smile or a peevishly arched brow.
Here, again, the 2005 film fails to measure up — a fact perhaps best exemplified by the character of Mr. Bennet. In the film, a grizzled Donald Sutherland plays the character as benevolent and world-weary; he mumbles his lines, blunting Austen's sharp dialogue with his mellowness until he nearly disappears into the scenery at times (check out his slouched posture here):
But in the hands of the miniseries' Mr. Bennet, Benjamin Whitrow, the dialogue comes alive. Suddenly the long-suffering patriarch's exchanges crackle with a wicked sense of humor; he delights in teasing his wife and is always ready to share a joke with his favorite daughter (at anyone's expense). The BBC's sure grip on Austen's language and tone make Mr. Bennet's special bond with Lizzie far more vivid, while also explaining how an intelligent man could end up with a drama queen like Mrs. Bennet — and how his love of the ridiculous could cause him to occasionally delve into "impropriety" himself, as Darcy memorably chides Elizabeth.
It's through words, after all, that Austen brought her world and characters alive; and, fittingly, it's in staying true to those words that the BBC's take on Pride and Prejudice manages to outstrip all the rest.
Correction: This post originally misidentified the actor who played Mr. Wickham in 2005's Pride and Prejudice.