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“If a book is well written, I always find it too short”: Our Ongoing Love Affair with Pride and Prejudice

Every Austen fan has a favourite Mr Darcy. For me, it will always be Mathew MacFadyen and that hand scene in the 2005 film. For others, Colin Firth may be the one who made longing stares and social awkwardness sexy, or even Martin Henderson, who plays Darcy in the (seriously underrated) Bollywood film.

Each adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has its own take on Austen’s famous romantic hero, yet the most recent retelling has done away with the main man altogether. Instead, the character taking centre stage in the new one-man play is none other than Mr George Wickham.

Written by Adrian Lukis and Catherine Curzon, Being Mr Wickham is set to stream to audiences on 30th April to 1st May. After debuting at the Jane Austen Festival in 2019, the performance will now be broadcast to viewers around the country with Lukis reprising his original role from the 1995 BBC series. It is promised that the soldier turned scoundrel will sit down to “set the record straight” on the evening of his sixtieth birthday, discussing everything from his childhood at Pemberley to his experiences at the battle of Waterloo.

Being Mr Wickham is the latest in a long line of retellings of Pride and Prejudice. Previous adaptations include several films, and TV series, a Bollywood and even a YouTube spin-off. There are also several slightly more left-field additions such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Aspects of these adaptations have become famous in their own right. In the 1995 BBC series, for example, the sight of Colin Firth emerging from a lake in a dripping wet shirt and breeches caused the British public to collectively swoon.

The clip has been watched over 9 million times on the BBC YouTube channel. Titled “The Lake Scene (Colin Firth Strips Off)”, it seems that someone in the marketing department was a fan of more than just Colin’s acting. The scene has been parodied in several other films Firth has starred in, including St Trinian’s 2 and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Both see his characters floundering in fountains in a gentle mockery of the original scene.

As someone who has seen most of the spin-offs, I can understand why we keep coming back to Pride and Prejudice. It’s always comforting to return to an old favourite, and fun to see it redone in different ways. Yet some may wonder whether we need another adaptation of this particular classic. Arguably, there are hundreds of other important and slightly more topical stories that could do with screen time.

In an attempt to appear fresh and exciting, new adaptions are straying further and further from the original story. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the knife-wielding Bennett sisters must try and secure a suitable match whilst sporadically fighting off hordes of the undead. The film (adapted from Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 book of the same name) received lukewarm reviews when it was released in 2016, with Variety’s Andrew Barker describing it as “awkward and unsatisfying”.

Satisfying an audience is a challenge for any adaptation. People arrive with a preconceived idea of what they’re going to see, and some don’t like to be contradicted. In Being Mr Wickham, Lukis and Curzon have had relatively free reign to develop the titular character, given that Austen doesn’t reveal much about Wickham’s past other than his involvement with Darcy. For all we know, he could have abandoned Lydia, moved to the Bahamas and taken up knitting.

This is the beauty of adaptations. They can take an old story and make it new in unexpected ways. They also allow us to return to the books we love and approach them from a different angle, challenging our preferences and preconceptions at every turn. It remains to be seen, however, whether a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is really necessary. Being Mr Wickham may prove popular, but perhaps it’s time to turn elsewhere for inspiration?

Image Credit: Elizabeth Jamieson via Unplash.

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