“It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that each of Austen’s novels ought to make a good movie,” explains Nora Nachumi (130). Whether Meg Ryan’s character discusses Pride and Prejudice in You’ve Got Mail (1998), or Sandra Bullock pulls Persuasion from the floorboards in The Lake House (2006), cinema-goers are aware of the fact that, much like her knowledgeable narrator, Jane Austen is always with us. Many of Austen’s novels have been adapted into films or miniseries, and scholars have examined each at length. In light of the vast amount of critical attention paid to Austen adaptations such as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995), Clueless (1995), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Bride and Prejudice (2004), and Pride & Prejudice (2005), it is surprising to note the lacuna surrounding Andrew Black’s 2003 cinematic re-imagining.
Although the original title of Black’s adaptation was Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy, virtually all of the Mormon allusions were removed from the film upon wider release. Instead of emphasizing its nuanced religious references, Black’s film retells Austen’s novel through the lens of college life and the conventions of contemporary Chick Lit. At first blush, it may seem as though Black’s film modernizes Austen’s tale so thoroughly that the storyline itself loses a degree of its original historicity. If one accepts the notion, however, that the genre of Chick Lit emerged from women’s writing for other women, Austen’s stories may arguably serve as one of the important inception points of the current category. Pride and Prejudice, in this sense, is one of the textual cornerstones of this increasingly popular female-centered literary genre.
Andrew Black’s film, then, engages in perpetual dialogue with Austen as well as with other cinematic adaptations. Rather than standing as an Austentatious non sequitur amidst the larger collection of cinematic re-workings, Black’s Pride and Prejudice uses its Chick Lit backdrop to realign the underlying motifs of female connection, agency, and expressions of desire that appealed to Austen’s readers, returning to the core issue of female self-discovery via a very relevant series of stylistic decisions. Black grounds his film version of Pride and Prejudice in the quintessential Chick Lit framework of style, setting, and character: the emphasis on pastel within the film’s mise-en-scène evokes the color scheme that is the genre’s mass-market hallmark; the central female characters are involved in conspicuous consumption of merchandise; these females, who aspire to work in glamorous professions such as publishing, attempt to balance their interests in romance with independent career objectives. Early in Black’s film, Darcy—here a publisher—classifies Elizabeth’s manuscript as a romance and reacts to her visible displeasure: “It’s not a put-down, Miss Bennet; it’s a category.” Viewing Black’s film as a part of the category of Chick Lit may open an avenue for critical inquiry.
The roots of Chick Lit have been (shortsightedly) traced to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, itself an adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s 1813 text “is now perhaps the best known of all Jane’s works—not only in the United Kingdom but all over the world,” notes Deirdre Le Faye, “as it has been translated into thirty-five languages—and its title and opening sentence have become catchphrases in everyday life” (179). As Austen’s novel emphasizes female self-discovery, introspection, and personal growth, Fielding’s fiction updates those emphases. According to Suzanne Ferriss, “Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels emulate Austen’s in presenting the interior states of their female characters. Both writers present intelligent but misguided women who learn the error of their perceptions of men and discover true love in the process” (75). Moreover, the continued popular appeal of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice revolves, at least in part, around the way in which the text portrays the socio-economic pressures, the personal desires, and the romantic proclivities of its central female characters. In a very real way, what is old is still new, as modern women continue to face varied forms of opposition and oppression from the dominant, and perhaps continually pervasive, patriarchy—a condition Chick Lit explores.
Further, Chick Lit creates a social space where women write for largely female audiences. Though Black is male, three of the four writers (Austen herself, and screenwriters Anne K. Black, Katherine Swigert, and Jason Faller) involved in this Pride and Prejudice are female. Austen’s characters are thus shaped by the authors of the screenplay, with the female voice at the center of the textual construction. Even though Black’s film modernizes Pride and Prejudice in many ways, the central characters and themes of Austen’s text remain stable throughout the revised version.
Black’s Pride and Prejudice rejuvenates Austen’s original story, shifting the family dynamic of the characters, the location of the plot, and the ending of the tale. While older figures such as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and Lady Catherine play significant roles in Austen’s 1813 text, they are conspicuously absent from Black’s re-imagining. Just as contemporary Chick Lit novels often eschew the inclusion of older characters in favor of young, single professionals, so too does Black’s film. Black’s characters are in their late twenties and early thirties, within the age range of the protagonists in many popular Chick Lit texts, and Black’s eradication of the older adult influences places the interactions, concerns, and interpersonal dramas of the young characters at the forefront.
Rather than occupying the domestic sphere as sisters, the central female characters in the film are housemates and friends at Brigham Young University. Elizabeth is an intelligent aspiring author; her roommates include their beautiful Argentinean friend Jane, their overly conservative and awkward friend Mary, the man-hungry Lydia, and Lydia’s vacuous sister, Kitty. Although Austen’s Charlotte Lucas makes a brief cameo appearance in the film, it is Mary who becomes romantically linked with the stolid Collins. Jack Wickham figures into Black’s film as a gambling Lothario, and Charles Bingley emerges as a wealthy entrepreneur. Mr. Darcy is the well-to-do head of a publishing firm, who inevitably desires to obtain Elizabeth’s developing novel. For the most part, Austen’s romantic plotline remains intact throughout the film although the ending does not fully coincide with Austen’s version. Jane and Bingley marry and subsequently adopt an orphanage of foreign children; Lydia is rescued at the Las Vegas chapel where Wickham attempts to marry her, and she ends up as a single, self-help-book author.
Black’s re-interpretation of Austen places itself in dialogue with earlier films, effectively creating links among various popular culture versions of Austen. The casting call for Black’s film described Elizabeth’s character as a Renée Zellweger-type and noted that the actress portraying Lydia should be reminiscent of Alicia Silverstone (“Casting Notice”), attempting to evoke the heroines of the Bridget Jones films and Clueless. In Black’s Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth’s varied fantasy sequences are reminiscent of Bridget Jones’s daydreams while Lydia’s erratic driving invokes images of Heckerling’s adaptation of Emma. Instead of merely mimicking previous films, Black briefly pays homage to them and then proceeds to take the plot in new directions. Austen herself is not forgotten, as many puns and allusions highlight her presence. The roommates live on a street named Longbourn, and Lydia’s pet pug is named Austen. Considering the presence of Austen in Clueless, Jocelyn Harris notes, “[i]mitations (uniquely) do not obliterate the parent text. They recall it. Jane Austen is both absent and present in this movie” (65). Harris’s notion applies to Black’s 2003 version of Pride and Prejudice as pointedly as it does to other adaptations. Austen, it seems, is never far removed from the playful retellings of her classic stories. Instead, the revised tales begin to form an Austen-infused subgenre within the larger genre of contemporary Chick Lit.
Although it may be difficult to pinpoint the hallmarks of a new, fluid genre such as Chick Lit, the basic visual packaging (of novel or film) provides an interesting starting point. Chick Lit novels often feature “pastel covers and titles written in loose cursive script” (Gyenes). Chick Lit texts, as a whole, are often marketed based on their outward appearances. The cover illustrations of these books promise readers varying interpretations of a paradigmatic romantic relationship. Oftentimes, the central female character in a Chick Lit novel must choose between her career path and assorted romantic candidates. There is usually an additional dichotomy between a rakish character and an honorable male, with the central heroine forced to navigate her own feelings, desires, and personal concerns. In short, through book-jacket design, the genre of Chick Lit itself markets a wide assortment of similarly constructed stories in a visually compelling manner.
Just as Chick Lit’s trade-paperbacks are packaged with brightly colored covers and campy artwork, Black’s film utilizes these same colors constantly in the mise-en-scène through backgrounds, props, wardrobe, and intertitle cards. Of course, viewers of a film do not have the advantage of perusing a book jacket prior to experiencing the plot of a given story; however, a cinematic trailer accomplishes the same kind of persuasion through branding. Pastel hues serve to remind viewers that they are enmeshed in the world of Chick Lit, even though they may not immediately categorize the film as belonging to the emergent genre. Black’s color scheme labels the film as part of the Chick Lit marketplace.
Pastel colors remain constant throughout this modernized Pride and Prejudice, making their appearance in the first scene. The camera focuses on Elizabeth’s birthday cake, which is covered in colorful candles. The subsequent extended sequence, focusing on Elizabeth’s iconic, light-blue Volkswagen Beetle, quickly establishes the importance of color within this film, as do the brightly-painted pink, orange, and yellow walls of her roommates’ home. Similarly colored Post-It notes adorn the aspiring writer’s bedroom wall. The characters themselves are always clothed in pastel costumes; even the ice-cream that they consume is bright pink and neon blue. Charles Bingley’s television commercial for his wildly successful Classics for Canines collection features a pink background; the CDs themselves are marketed in pastel packaging. When chasing Lydia and Wickham to Las Vegas in order to stop their wedding, the central characters encounter neon signs that not only serve to establish place but also continue the bright hues. Black also utilizes pastel intertitle cards quoting Austen’s novel at various points during the film. The cards themselves foreground the pastel color scheme and connect it to Austen’s original text. The film’s use of a Chick Lit hallmark creatively connects its underlying themes with women’s writing for other women.
Just as stylistic elements of the updated film’s mise-en-scène ground it in the larger genre of Chick Lit, so too does the marked emphasis on social class and conspicuous consumption. The economic gap between Elizabeth and her classmates is highlighted in an early scene when she pulls into a school parking lot and sandwiches her beat-up Beetle in between two brand-new models. Elizabeth is constantly trying to keep up with the Joneses (or the Darcys) through her part-time work at a local bookstore. When Elizabeth refuses Collins’s ardent marriage proposal based on his assertion that they have spent extensive amounts of time together, she cries, “You’ve been paying me to cut your hair!” Instead of surviving on a comfortable income, Elizabeth is doing whatever odd job is necessary to earn extra cash. Her efforts to join the community of consumers are sharply contrasted to the behavior of her roommates. When discussing Charles towards the film’s beginning, Kitty remarks, “Lydia says he’s almost as rich as our dad!” Elizabeth, however, wishes to earn her own income, and this fact is highlighted through the amount of emphasis that Black places on her developing book manuscript. Elizabeth notes early on in the film that ever since childhood she has aspired to become a famous writer, and she tirelessly rewrites her first book during the course of the film. Ms. Bennet may eschew marriage as a route to consumption, but she is still in the economic marketplace, creating a text that she dreams will be critically acclaimed. Elizabeth is not immune to the lure of wealth although she consistently strives to earn her own accolades through hard work. In Black’s revision, economic status is just as relevant to the central characters as in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Instead of merely presenting all of the female characters as interested in marriage as a means of financial security, Black highlights a very tangible difference between characters willing to work for their income and women desiring a quick and prosperous legal union. Elizabeth continually strives to be self-sufficient, despite her roommates’ view of marriage as a commodity exchange. Lydia and Kitty appear desperate to marry and are interested only in wealthy bachelors. A man’s economic status, rather than his personality, is all that appears to matter to these women. While driving to a religious ceremony, Lydia chides Elizabeth for her rejection of Darcy by exclaiming, “I hear he’s loaded. Too bad you let him go.” Similarly, when Jane dances with the affluent Charles at a party, Lydia watches from the sidelines and exclaims, “Poacher!” Men, here, are objects to be consumed and avenues towards a greater degree of personal accumulation. Rather than accepting this view, Elizabeth reads a page from Lydia’s favorite book, The Pink Bible: How to Bring Your Man to His Knees, and exclaims, “Give me a break!” Male attention does not define Elizabeth, and when pressed on the topic of marriage by Wickham, she muses, “I have things I want to do with my life.” Of course, this line of thinking is attractive to schemers like Wickham, and he replies by saying, “That’s what’s so refreshing. You’re the only girl who isn’t on the hunt.” Though dating figures heavily in the film’s plot, it is not presented as the only pastime for the female characters.
Just as many traditional Chick Lit texts feature protagonists involved in glamorous professions, Black’s Pride and Prejudice highlights the wealth and the consequent ability to travel of its male characters. Charles moves in wealthy circles as a musical entrepreneur, and Darcy continually travels from Utah to California on business trips. When Charles has a misunderstanding with Jane, he leaves town to embark upon a scuba diving trip. Rather than undergoing an awkward conversation, Charles is able to flee town and occupy himself with thrilling adventures. On the road to Las Vegas to halt Wickham’s wedding, Elizabeth’s battered roadster is sharply contrasted with Darcy’s sleek sports car. Earlier, when Elizabeth arranges to meet a publisher interested in her work, she is euphoric at the prospect of attending a business meeting at Rosings, a posh restaurant. Elizabeth’s clunky car breaks down, however, and she is forced to tune the engine while wearing her cream-colored business suit. Predictably, arriving at her destination to find Darcy waiting for her, she is embarrassed at the grease stains on her outfit. When she orders from the menu without even glancing at it and Darcy asks her if she dines there often, a red-faced Elizabeth explains that she does not and that she “called ahead” to assess the menu. Instead of gracefully blending in to ritzy surroundings, Black’s version of Elizabeth is attractively awkward. Although the glamorous world inhabited by Darcy and Charles intrigues her, she is unable to blend in as easily or completely as she would like. Rather than highlighting women enmeshed in glamorous lifestyles, Black’s Chick Lit re-imagining of Austen aligns males with the coveted trappings of wealth and affixes the outsider role to women.
Aside from featuring sought-after career paths, Black’s film also emphasizes class differences through the pastimes and the commentary of the central characters. In one scene, where Charles and Darcy play tennis, Elizabeth and Jane cross their paths while jogging. Darcy offers to teach Elizabeth how to play the game, to which she replies, “No thanks. I just want to finish my run.” Tennis becomes an indication of wealth, and Elizabeth once again rejects easy entryways into the established class system. Though Elizabeth greatly desires prestige, she strives to climb the social ladder on personal merit alone. At Charles’s party, Elizabeth cites F. Scott Fitzgerald to an awestruck Jane: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Elizabeth remains on the periphery of the wealthy world of her classmates although she certainly appears intent on joining their ranks through literary success. Rather than sharing Lydia’s view that wealth comes through marriage, Elizabeth is aligned with integrity and the desire to work toward the attainment of her personal goals.
Black’s re-imagining of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice features a strong dichotomy between Elizabeth’s desire for a romantic relationship and her wish to attain a high level of professional success. Instead of featuring a female lead who pursues either goal single-mindedly, Black chooses to present audience members with a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional heroine. Rather than merely showcasing Elizabeth as a woman engaged in the politics of the marriage market, Black highlights her internal desire to accomplish distinction through her creative writing. While at the close of the film Elizabeth is shown embracing Darcy as a romantic partner, she does so only after finishing her first book, beginning her second, and teaching a college class in London. Instead of simply acquiescing to male desire, Elizabeth accomplishes some of her personal career goals before declaring victory over romance. Elizabeth becomes modernized, in one sense, via her ability to balance a personal life with a professional existence. Though Chick Lit heroines may often be defined as passive receivers of male desire, Elizabeth is not depicted as part of this problematic category.
Black’s empowering ending presents viewers with an alternate version to Chick Lit’s conventional conclusion. “[E]ven though shows like Sex and the City and movies and novels like Bridget Jones’s Diary offer arguably more progressive alternatives to their female readers and viewers,” asserts Rochelle Mabry, “they still ultimately emphasize that what a woman really wants is to find the right guy with whom to spend the rest of her life” (204). Women in this genre, according to some perspectives, want nothing more than to be married. Writing about the lack of active women in current Austen adaptations, Ferriss echoes Mabry’s point, noting that the films “emphasize contemporary women’s renewed desire to be rescued by men from the complications of life as an independent woman” (83). Black’s Pride and Prejudice, however, differs from this troublesome trend in that it depicts strong characters (such as Elizabeth) moving beyond the idea of becoming a wife and mother only. While Elizabeth may certainly embrace these domestic roles, she does not exist in a world where they are the primary options for her sex. Part of the reason that Black’s film is so socially relevant is that it balances the romantic and socio-economic aspects of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with the notion that women may desire to work outside of the home. Instead of depicting a strong female lead who sacrifices her dreams in order to attain a man, Black highlights the possibility that strong and intelligent women can find men who support their career objectives.
Through its branding by means of pastel colors, its emphasis on the conspicuous consumption and glamorous professions of its characters, and its resolution of the tension between women’s romantic desires and career goals, Black’s film reinvents Austen’s original text in a unique manner. Black revises Austen’s story by placing women’s current social experiences and desires at the center of the film. Black adopts contemporary Chick Lit conventions throughout the film in order to create a revised woman’s story for a largely female audience. Rather than moving away from Austen’s original tale, Black’s re-imagining reinforces the basic need for women to tell, show, and share their experiences, providing a light-hearted commentary hauntingly congruous with what Austen originally impressed upon the reading audiences of her day. In the closing sequence of the film, viewers are shown an Elizabeth without her trademark eyeglasses. Perhaps this stylistic move indicates that sight is restored, with the barriers of pride no longer creating their telltale romantic prejudices. In the end, Black’s film uniquely re-imagines Austen’s classic text through a set of Chick Lit tinted, rose-colored lenses.
“Casting Notice.” Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy. 2003. Bestboy Pictures. 12 August 2007 <http://www.ldsfilm.com/Pride/PrideAndPrejudice2.html>.
Ferriss, Suzanne. “Narrative and Cinematic Doubleness: Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 71-86.
Gyenes, Kelly. “Chick Lit: Sex, Shoes—and Substance.” CNN Entertainment. 8 Sept. 2006. 12 August 2007 <http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/books/09/07/chick.lit/index.html>.
Harris, Jocelyn. “‘Such a Transformation!’ Translation, Imitation, and Intertextuality in Jane Austen on Screen.” Jane Austen on Screen. Ed. Gina Macdonald and Andrew Macdonald. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 44-68.
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. New York: Abrams, 2002.
Mabry, Rochelle A. “About a Girl: Female Subjectivity and Sexuality in Contemporary ‘Chick’ Culture.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 191-206.
Nachumi, Nora. “‘As If!’ Translating Austen’s Ironic Narrator to Film.” Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2001. 130-39.
Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy. Dir. Andrew Black. Perf. Ben Gourley, Kam Heskin, and Orlando Seale. 2003. DVD. Excel, 2003.