Unspoiling “Death Comes to Pemberley”

It is a good thing that I am a lapsed football fan.  Last night, I could have watched the Steelers put a whupping on the Ravens.  But instead, I yielded to the female side of the household and watched the BBC adaptation of P.D. James’ novel “Death Comes to Pemberley. ”

In case you are tempted to watch this mini-series, I humbly offer you this review.  If you are a Jane Austen fan, or a P.D. James fan, or both, I strongly caution you to have several drinks before watching this.  Then you may find it humorous.

Warning:  This review contains spoilers of the mini-series, but not of the book.

P.D. James’ novel is a fictional account of the world of “Pride and Prejudice”, set about 6 years in the future.  Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy have married, and they are settled at Pemberley, living happily ever after.  But since this is a P.D. James novel, at least one murder must occur, and it happens on the grounds of Pemberley.  Many of the old characters from Pride and Prejudice make an appearance here as the local magistrate attempts to solve the crime, and the residents of Pemberley undergo a severe crisis.

Jane Austen fans will have their opinions about how well P.D. James does at portraying Jane Austen’s characters at this later stage in their lives.  However, there is no doubt that the BBC adaptation does violence both to P.D. James’s novel and to Jane Austen’s characters that the novel is based on.

Here are just a few of the problems with this mini-series, where it varies from the novel in a bad way:

1.  First, the minor stuff.  Elizabeth Darcy is not pretty enough.  Mr. Darcy fell in love with a woman of much lower social standing than himself because he noticed her, and he noticed her because of her fine eyes, among other things.  Mr. Darcy might have fallen in love with this Elizabeth, but first he would have to notice her, and he would not have noticed her because of the social barriers between them.

I contrast, Lydia Wickham looked too well.  I understand that Mrs. Wickham would be one to spend too much money on fancy clothing, but the fact is that after living in relative poverty with Mr. Wickham for 6 years, she should look a bit more careworn.

The married women in this adaptation do not wear bonnets.  Come on, BBC, you know how women dressed during this period.  But now on to the more serious stuff.

2.  In the novel, Elizabeth does not become “the detective.”  She is a much more of a “supportive wife” throughout the book, not Nancy Drew. Oh, and she and Mr. Darcy’s relationship is not strained by this event.

3.  In the novel, Mr. Darcy does not push Georgiana into an engagement with someone she does not love, even though she loves someone else who is quite respectable.  Nor does he reverse himself shortly thereafter,  causing the engagement to be broken.  That is just not something Mr. Darcy would do.

4.  In the novel, there is a minister at the prison who plays an important role in solving the mystery.  He is completely cut out of the mini-series.  Without this character, Elizabeth has to resort to being Nancy Drew.

5.  In the novel, no cravats were loosened, no bodices were ripped (ok, I am exaggerating a bit here, but not much), and there was no pillow talk between a shirtless Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.  Ewww!

6.  In the novel, the chief suspect’s neck was not literally in the noose when Elizabeth runs up to the gallows with the signed confession, saving an innocent man from a hanging.  This is not an American Girls’ novel, and Elizabeth does not save the day.

Now, do not say that I have not warned you.

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7 thoughts on “Unspoiling “Death Comes to Pemberley”

  1. In the novel, the illegitimate baby does not get to continue to live happily ever after on the Pemberley estate with every hope of stepping into his respectable grandfather’s shoes as head coachman in 20 or 30 years. He gets sent off to live with his aunt and uncle after his uncle is paid off to be willing to raise another man’s son in his own home.This is the best possible 19th century outcome for children born out of wedlock to families of the servant class; living happily ever after, raised by his own mother with the circumstances of his birth forgotten and bright future prospects among those who know his origins, is not in the cards.

  2. And yes, the lack of indoor caps on married women, and bonnets on women outdoors generally (there were some bonnets worn, but not consistently), was the first thing that warned me that, despite the vast array of Regency-era period dramas that have been made in the last 20 years, no one worked on this production who knew the first thing about making them.

  3. From an engineer’s perspective, one thing I noticed in the BBC/PBS trailer is that the couple is kissing in front of a water fountain, which was basically impossible at the time because the motor-driven pump had not yet been invented.

    Geek I am, Geek Proud.

    I also notice in the pictures (thank you google for sparing me the time) a distinct lack of wigs on the men. Um, even in those barbarian colonies, middle and upper middle class men generally wore wigs. And the attire was generally a bit nicer, even when well worn.

    But who would ever think that movie-makers would think they’re better story-tellers than the originals. It’s not like the BBC produced a version of “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” that looked like a couple of Greek houses got a costume chest from a Renaissance fair and a few kegs. Except they did.

  4. Hmmm…I think wigs were out of fashion for younger men by the time of this setting. This is early 19th century, not late 18th. By that time, wigs were mostly used for ceremonial occasions and to hide graying hair or balding heads, or as part of servant livery. The attire is in keeping with the period, I think.

    BBC productions were always very low-rent until the 90s, and tended to look like filmed stage plays with one big common wardrobe for every production, so the LLW production was in keeping with that, but my beef with this is that in the last 20 years they’ve learned how to do it much better (cf. Pride and Prejudice 1995 and the entire raft of Jane Austen miniseries done in the 00’s, Little Dorritt, Wives and Daughters, the list goes on), but didn’t bother to, in this case.

    I did wonder about the fountain. I suppose there might have been some windmill or water mill somewhere powering it — the lengths country house owners went to for ostentation sometimes were incredible. But it’s probably not likely.

    One thing that bothered me was the language. They weren’t as appallingly slangy as on Downton Abbey, but they sounded much more upper crust 1950s American than 18-anything British in their speech patterns, not to mention their topics of speech. The language was much more direct and less stylized than literary language of the period (who knows how people really talked) but that’s because it was (loosely adapted) PD James dialogue, not Jane Austen.

  5. Yes, but the boilers tended to explode, and then there was the wonderful haze from burning all that coal…..they were a God-send in keeping mines emptied of water, but otherwise something you just might not want……

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