by Russell Fox
Well, she doesn’t really hate her. But she’s not going to go see her latest movie, coming out in November: a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. (Here’s the trailer.) Why not?, I ask her. You love Jane Austen. Because it’ll be travesty!, is her response. Two hours to tell the story of Pride and Prejudice?! They’ll have to hack scenes and characters and dialogue right and left! They’ll ignore subplots and subtlety! That’s no way to treat a masterpiece! "Elizabeth Bennet is a modern woman…" (so the trailer says)–baloney! They’ve plainly no idea what the story is really all about! How cheap! And so on, and so forth.
As you might be able to guess, Melissa is a massive fan of the classic BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Is she simply ticked that the new version will not feature the smoldering, tousled good looks of Colin Firth? Admittedly, that may be part of it. But I suspect there is something more at work in her ferocious reaction. What it comes down to is this–as far as my wife is concerned (and clearly she’s not alone) Pride and Prejudice has already been done. The miniseries was practically flawless; who could possibly want to watch–or be responsible for exposing a loved one to–an inferior adaptation when such an excellent treatment is still available? In short, we already have the definitive version of Pride and Prejudice; that’s what people should be watching. For movie studios to waste their time creating another, likely bad adaptation of a such a classic piece of literature is not just foolish….it is, in a sense, disrespectful of what the BBC achieved.
I’m not a fan of Jane Austen the way Melissa is, but I can see where she’s coming from. I’m only going to compare the new version to the old, and I’m confident the new version will come up short, so why bother? Yes, yes, of course–copying and adapting and transforming old stories into new is what art is all about, right? I don’t disagree, particularly when it comes to film, theater, and song. But even if I grant the importance of innovation and recreation, can’t I also insist that some works of art are just so excellent, so complete, so full on their own terms, that one can be forgiven for wondering is there’s anything besides the lure of a fast buck behind those who insist on continuing to rework these stories and songs and images even further? (Case in point: Madonna’s atrocious cover of the classic "American Pie." Another case in point: Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie, an insulting remake of the flawlessly smart Charade.) I think Melissa is right when she says, in essence: there’s no reason to offer me another Pride and Prejudice; Keira Knightly and Co. can’t offer me a take (at least not a "realistic" take, which is what the BBC version and this new one both presume to be) on the story that’s already been done about as well as can be done. So just don’t bother.
Of course, not everyone will see it that way, as not everyone recognizes the same definitive versions of particular works of art. Some people insist that the original production is always definitive (I would argue this is almost always the case with the Beatles; I have only rarely heard a Beatles cover that is even comparable to the original), whereas in other cases a song or book or film fairly begs for more definitive treatment (I would argue this is the case with most of Bob Dylan–while his oeuvre has suffered from hundreds of crappy covers, more often than not it is other performers who really nail the spirit of his own songs: think Hendrix’s "All Along the Watchtower"). Sometimes an adaptation utterly transforms what came before (Bobby Darin’s cover of "Mack the Knife"), thus setting the stage for a whole new raft of interpretations. And sometimes an artist will cover himself, thus putting an interesting spin on what constitutes a definitive version (which is the superior version of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much–the 1934 with Peter Lorre, or the 1956 with Jimmy Stewart?).
I can think of a handful of movies and songs that I consider definitive, basically unsurpassable–I’d rather listen or watch them over again than anything else that might come down the pike: Robyn Hitchcock’s "Robyn Sings" (a complete cover of Bob Dylan’s Royal Albert Hall concert); the 1959 Julie Andrews/Rex Harrison London recording of My Fair Lady; Harry Connick Jr.’s covers of "Pure Imagination," "Maybe" and other standards on "Songs I Heard"; the whole movie Singin in the Rain (every song in the film is a remake from the 1920s and 30s); Ray Charles’s "Georgia on My Mind" and "It’s Not Easy Being Green" (what, you thought that was a children’s ditty? guess again!); Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V. I treasure them all, just like Melissa treasures her BBC Pride and Prejudice. What are your definitive versions? Do you have any?