Austen’s Heroes in a Modern World

SEPT / OCT 2011: BY LYDIA WATSON

bride

If there is one author who could be said to have created some of the most memorable and desirable men in literary history, it would be Jane Austen. It is hard to find a woman who isn’t familiar with the likes of Mr. Darcy, Colonel Brandon, or Mr. Knightly. Whether our familiarity stems from many readings of her novels or film incarnations of the men played by striking British thespians, Austen created unforgettable characters.

They are so well written, they haven’t remained in Regency era England. She perfected the idea of a romantic comedy in many ways. Even if her books are not always considered as such, she created romances not only able to stand the test of time in her books but also in modern day films. In fact, many may have seen these great literary men in some of the most unlikely films without realizing it.

One of these odd places is a film that highlights the best and more often the worst of the 90’s fashion and pop culture and is now a pop culture flick in its own right, Clueless. Unless the viewer is aware they are watching a modern day interpretation of Emma, it might go overlooked. But on closer inspection it isn’t hard to see the similarities or understand why this film has retained its popularity.

Young Cher Horowitz is young and popular at her high school, wanting for nothing because of her rich lawyer dad and constantly annoyed by her former step brother Josh. Like Emma, Cher is very attached to her father as well as her social standing in school. When she makes a match between two older teachers, Cher begins to think of herself as a matchmaker. So when she meets Tai, Cher knows she has to rescue this poor girl out of her downward fashion spiral and find her the perfect man, not skater boy Travis.

Much like Emma of the novel, Cher stumbles in hilarious and embarrassing ways, finally learning in the end how to be a better person and finding true love in the person we all wanted her to love to begin with. Austen masterfully created the dynamic between Emma and Mr. Knightly in the novel, working the reader up to their final declarations of love. And much in the same way, Clueless does this as well. Josh (Mr. Knightly) suffers in many of the same ways as the character he was modeled after. Whether he’s watching Cher flirt with other seemingly more interesting guys or just trying to be her friend and in the end finding it too difficult, he still comes across as a romantic hero, and when Cher finally realizes where true love is, we all breathe a sigh of relief with Josh much as we did for Mr. Knightly.

Another Austen story turned into a modern day film is Bride & Prejudice. Though it has become more well known since its 2004 screen debut thanks to dedicated Austen fans passing it from one friend to another, it still remains relatively unknown despite being one of the most creative re-interpretations of an Austen novel.

Set in modern day India and staring one of India’s most popular and highest paid actresses, Aishwarya Rai, it transports the viewer from a traditional English setting to Amritsar, India along with many of the Bollywood film tropes. Whether it’s the random song and dance numbers in the middle of a scene to the fact that none of the lead actors and actresses kiss, watching this film is one of the most fun ways to see a different side of Austen.

However, you can’t have a Pride and Prejudice story without a Mr. Darcy. And if there is one film translation that provides a Mr. Darcy comparable to Colin Firth, it would be this one. Rich, handsome and distant, he is exactly what a modern day Darcy should be. Arriving in India with his friend Balraj (Bingley), Will Darcy isn’t sure how to handle the poorer side of India, and especially the traditional yet untraditional Lalita Bakshi (Lizzy). Their dynamic is instant. Whether they are arguing Indian politics, arranged marriages or finally falling in love, these two portray exactly what you think of when reading about Darcy and Lizzy, showing that Austen’s themes and characters have no bounds.

And where would Pride & Prejudice be without Mr. Collins and Wickham? Austen is best known for her dashing romantic leads but she could also write romantic foils, whether it’s Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility or the aforementioned men of Lizzy’s world. The figures of Collins and Wickham in this version demonstrate that no matter where the story takes place, these two characters are still essential and create some of the most memorable scenes.

Mr. Kholi (Mr. Collins) is living in America and has come back to Amritsar to seek a wife. His nice house, pool, and green card are something Mrs. Bakshi is desperate for one of her daughters to marry into. But of course just like the original story, Lalita will have none of that and Kholi provides for many laughs and as well as story development.

This film is much more obviously taken directly from Pride and Prejudice unlike Clueless or even Bridget Jones Diary (a far looser modern translation with morals to match) but it still adds its own unique contributions to the story. All Bollywood films have song and dance numbers and this one has some very memorable ones. After Mr. Kholi dines with the family and makes it clear that he’s seeking a wife, the sisters sing No Life, Without Wife, one of the film’s funniest and most quotable songs.

Though there are some odd musical moments, particularly when Lalita and Darcy are walking along a beach followed by a choir of gospel singers, it still remains a fun and cute interpretation of a classic story with a charming look at Indian culture and song.

No matter if it’s a look at the 90’s, life in India or one of the many other modern adaptations and translations of Austen’s works, it is clear that Jane Austen created characters, and especially romantic leads, that we all want to fall in love with. Though these films may not be for the Austen purist, for all else who enjoy seeing how well these dynamic figures translate into different times and locations, they are well worth a watch.

Whether you laugh at the fashion statements of the 90’s in Clueless, or sing along with the catchy tunes of Bride & Prejudice, it won’t take long for you to fall in love with Austen’s world—and her leading men—all over again. ♥

septoct2011

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