Assigning us 18th Century classics in high school English class was probably not a great idea.
I certainly did not develop an appreciation for Melville, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. I couldn’t even understand what was going on in those books. They were inscrutable to me.
The experience of trying to fight through ponderous old prose changed my life. It began my transition from a kid who read books for fun to a man who never reads classics, and rarely reads books at all.
This is how I made it to middle age without knowing a single thing about Jane Austen.
The 1940 version of “Pride and Prejudice” is the exact opposite of “Moby Dick.” The movie is simple, direct, and tons of fun.
As the tale begins, the Bennet family is one heartbeat away from economic catastrophe. Upon Mr. Bennet’s death, English law demands that the family estate must go to a male heir.
But the five Bennet children are all female and all single. Drama queen Mrs. Bennet is feverishly scheming to get all her girls married off. Jane Austen observes that most young women don’t need economic incentives to want to get married, especially when a hot man comes along.
That hot man is Fitzwilliam Darcy (Laurence Olivier). He is dashing but snobby. When we meet him at a party, Darcy announces that he is bored by lower-class ladies. He is so full of himself, however, that he asks Liz Bennet to dance and expects her to swoon.
When Liz cooly turns him down, Darcy is taken aback. With just a look, Laurence Olivier perfectly communicates the character’s two feelings: he’s ashamed of his obnoxious snobbery, and he’s utterly smitten with Liz.
It would be normal in a story like this for the rich snob to be a jerk most of the movie but then finally soften up at the end. In “Pride and Prejudice,” we start to root for Mr. Darcy from the moment he meets Liz Bennet. The pure care and respect he feels for her instantly makes him want to be a better man.
“Pride and Prejudice” is a delightful, well-acted love story. Rumor has it that Olivier wanted his girlfriend Vivien Leigh to play Liz. Thank goodness they cast Greer Garson instead.
Garson was fantastic-looking but she was not a wide-eyed ingenue. She was 35 – older than Olivier – and ready to match him in wit and will.
Director Robert Leonard balances romance with laughter in equal measure. And I don’t just mean subtle, highbrow jokes; “Pride and Prejudice” has plenty of broad, silly comedy.
William Collins is the distant cousin of the Bennets who stands to inherit the family estate. He is trying to do the right thing by courting Liz to keep the estate in the family.
But Collins is a clueless dweeb who can’t take a hint. There is an ongoing joke where Liz has to literally run away from Collins, like the black and white cat running from Pepé Le Pew.
“Pride and Prejudice” is one of the most charming romantic comedies in the history of cinema. Jane Austen created a timeless masterpiece. I imagine her books are splendid, too, but I suppose I’ll never read them. 11th grade English class really did a number on me.
I wonder why the government pays teachers to turn avid young readers like me against books … perhaps it is a scheme to make us better workers, more compliant citizens, and more susceptible to ever-changing propaganda. If so: bravo, Uncle Sam; job well done.