Since 1938 there has been 17 film and television adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Not including “sequels,” these traditional and modern renditions spark debate among fans, resulting in lively discourse over which is definitively the best version. We all have favorite portrayals of our adored Elizabeth Bennet and the haughty Mr. Darcy as well as other characters. Some of those favorites exist in different productions which we wish we could “mash” together in the ultimate Pride and Prejudice mash-up! With that in mind, I’ve chosen five productions of Pride and Prejudice from which I culled five noteworthy performances. Ranging from the classic to the contemporary, each offers unique perspectives of Jane Austen’s classic novel.
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The films: MGM’s 1940 production starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, the BBC 1995 version starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, Miramax Films’ 2004 Bride and Prejudice starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Martin Henderson, Focus Features’ 2005 classic starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen, and last, but certainly not least, Sony Pictures’ 2016 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (PPZ) starring Lily James and Sam Riley.
Of course, no comparison is worth its salt unless it features Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. In addition, I’ve chosen three additional characters who are central to the story. By no means are my choices the definitive answer to “who played it best” but rather, a subjective starting point for a conversation over the world’s most popular novel. After all, can we truly ever tire of discussing Pride and Prejudice?
5 Versions, 5 Characters: The Best of Pride and Prejudice in Film and Television
#1 Mrs. Bennet
“She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”
Ah, the antics of a busybody mother with no other purpose in life than to see her daughters married and married well. Mrs. Bennet’s frivolous nature is a source of affectionate embarrassment for Elizabeth, exasperation for her husband, and often the topic of conversation among the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy.
Mary Boland was delightful in her interpretation although she was not so silly as she could have been. Alison Steadman, on the other hand, brought Mrs. Bennet to life beautifully. The shrill voice, crass manners, and plotting were executed with aplomb. Nadira Babbar’s Mrs. Bakshi was an enjoyable twist to the character. The result was an excellent blend of cultural traditions with the classic story, shying just short of over-characterization. Brenda Blethyn’s Mrs. Bennet was quieter and more genteel. Nevertheless, her restraint did not detract from the expected flightiness but rather lent Mrs. Bennet an unassuming air that was endearing. Finally, there was Sally Phillips. Having raised five daughters to slaughter zombies, Phillips’ Mrs. Bennet balanced the pride of her daughters” accomplishments as independent women with the desire to see them married and settled.
Who Played it Best
It truly is difficult to find fault with any of these portrayals. However, based on Jane Austen’s descriptions, one did outshine the others. For the reasons described above, Steadman’s fickle Mrs. Bennet wins the day.
#2 Lady Catherine de Bourgh
“Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them, such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank. She was not rendered formidable by silence; but whatever she said was spoken in so authoritative a tone as marked her self-importance…”
‘Formidable’ aptly describes Lady Catherine. Her air of superiority comes from her social status. She uses it with purpose so that others feel at a disadvantage. Further, Lady Catherine’s opinions demand adulation and adoption without question. As the foil to Elizabeth’s own romantic desires, the character of Lady Catherine is important. She appears infrequently and thus her presence must be felt all the more for it.
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Edna May Oliver’s interpretation in 1940 began with potential until it departs abruptly from the novel. The idea of Lady Catherine secretly playing matchmaker is difficult to believe. Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s portrayal in the BBC production is more traditional. Her affected, nasal tone simply reeks with superiority. Marsha Mason’s Catherine was written as Darcy’s mother in Bride and Prejudice. To this end, a parent’s interest in her son’s love life was more authentic. Unfortunately, Mason did not capitalize on her limited screen time to drive home her aversion to Lalita.
Dame Judi Dench’s Lady Catherine was perfectly supercilious. Her mere presence alone was arresting. Plus, her authoritative, brisk manner of speaking left no room for argument, not that anyone, but Elizabeth, would dare! Lena Headey’s character in PPZ was equally formidable, achieved from her skill on the battlefield. She wasn’t exactly against Elizabeth. Instead, there was a grudging acceptance and appreciation of Elizabeth’s skills.
Who Played it Best
While I adore Judi Dench and her performance, I believe she was memorable simply because she is Judi Dench. As a result, Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s sniffing and rolling “r’s” give her the edge as the most perfectly, snobbish Lady Catherine.
#3 Mr. Collins
“His air was grave and stately, and his manners were very formal. He had not long been seated before he complimented Mrs. Bennet on having so fine a family of daughters; said he heard much of their beauty, but in that, in this instance, fame had fallen short of the truth….This gallantry was not much to the taste of some of his hearers…..Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he hoped….”
The awkward, ingratiating nature of this character is perfect comedic relief in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins’ obsequious nature as it relates to his superiors contrasts greatly with Elizabeth. He is written as having little education and lacking common sense. Still, what truly marks the character is his air of self-importance and sense of entitlement. Unfortunately, Melville Cooper’s 1940s version did not quite capture Mr. Collins’ effusive manner. He came across as too genteel and refined.
Nitin Ganatra’s Mr. Kohli in Bride and Prejudice was hilarious while insufferable. Exactly as intended, it was a well-done caricature of Mr. Collins. Still, while Cooper and Ganatra’s versions fit with the tone of their respective adaptations, they don’t quite do Mr. Collins justice.
Conversely, David Bamber gave us a delightful blend of an anxious and overly-solicitous Mr. Collins in the BBC’s adaption. His patronizing smiles, carefully crafted compliments, and servile manners were typical Mr. Collins. Equally wonderful was Tom Hollander in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. His eagerness to please, hidden beneath a guise of solemn dignity, was unexpectedly amusing. Lastly, there is Matt Smith’s portrayal of Parson Collins in PPZ. Smith’s depiction of a man completely unaware of his ridiculousness is charming. Smith’s Mr. Collins was perfectly pompous amidst the carnage of a 19th-century zombie apocalypse.
Who Played it Best
Hands down, Matt Smith takes the cake with his portrayal of Mr. Collins. Seriously, the dance scene alone sealed the deal! Need convincing? Check out some of his best moments here.
#4 Elizabeth Bennet
“….for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous……there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.”
The most beloved protagonist of all Jane Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth Bennet is intelligent and independent. Her imperfections attract readers across generations. The women that brought Elizabeth to life each honored the character in unique and memorable ways.
Even so, Greer Garson brought a haughtiness to Elizabeth, capturing her pride in every look she shot Mr. Darcy’s way. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s barb-slinging Lalita in Bride and Prejudice was more direct. Her dislike of Darcy was obvious and upfront. Consequently, it was equally obvious when her feelings began to change. Jennifer Ehle’s classic take highlighted Elizabeth’s lively wit and warm relationship with her sister, Jane. Ehle’s Elizabeth always appeared ready to smile, her eyes sparkling with merriment at whatever thoughts she was having.
Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Elizabeth was more reserved. However, this only served to highlight her moments of playfulness. Her laughter and smile took her from serious to utterly charming. Also, there was a sense of self-reflection that was deeply touching. To that end, her feelings are never in question. Finally, there was Lily James rendition of Elizabeth. A great deal could have gone wrong with a sword-wielding Elizabeth. Nonetheless, James beautifully balanced Elizabeth’s classic characterization with a battle-ready fearless version.
Who Played it Best
None of these interpretations are inferior to the other. Jennifer Ehle held the title for 10 years. Her version was incomparable until Keira Knightley. Admittedly, their portrayals are different and difficult to compare. Still, Keira Knightley’s deeply sensitive portrayal just edges out Jennifer Ehle.
#5 Mr. Darcy
“…..Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien….the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening…..His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world…..”
The epitome of tall, dark, and handsome! That is Mr. Darcy and the field of actors are certainly not lacking in that department. Each of these men brought the lofty Mr. Darcy to life in fine fashion. While Laurence Olivier’s portrayal was indeed proud and remote, his reversal in opinion was too quickly achieved. There was no build-up to his admiration of Elizabeth for viewers to become emotionally invested. Colin Firth’s traditional interpretation was more on point. Each meeting with Elizabeth captured Darcy’s struggle as he found himself reluctantly falling for a woman with “inferior connections.”
Martin Henderson’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy was missing something from the beginning. Henderson’s Darcy was not equal to Bachchan’s Elizabeth. Thus, she outshone him in every scene. Entirely unexpected, however, was the quiet depth and passion of Matthew Macfadyen. It was his eyes. They revealed his innermost thoughts at just the right moments. Above all, those long, smoldering looks he gave Elizabeth were sigh-inducing.
This brings us to Sam Riley’s Darcy. It’s hard to imagine Darcy fighting zombies. Nevertheless, Riley’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy was a faithful interpretation. He maintained the pride and reserve the character is known for. In the end, his surrender to Elizabeth was all the more charming and sensitive.
Who Played it Best
It would certainly be difficult to choose the best Mr. Darcy if Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen had not soared immediately to the top. Without a doubt, Colin Firth is a fan favorite. Even so, Matthew Macfadyen portrayal snuck into reluctant hearts. Of course, Firth’s Mr. Darcy diving into the lake was indeed swoon-worthy. Even so, Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy professing his love in driving rain was its equal. To choose seems almost unfair. Ultimately, I find the dreamy more brooding portrayal of a man tortured by his reluctant heart was best captured by Matthew Macfadyen.
So, there you have it! A list of “who did it best” from the perspective of a life-long fan of almost every production of Pride and Prejudice.
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