The First Hollywood Austen Adaptation Wasn’t Exactly Perfect


By Devoney LooserArizona State University

Laurence Olivier, known as a brilliant Shakespearean actor, was the first to play an Austen hero on the big screen: in MGM’s 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice. The Hollywood Austen adaptation grew directly out of a stage adaptation of the novel. The producer of the play, Max Gordon, mounted the Broadway production of Pride and Prejudice with the intention of eventually taking it to Hollywood.

A vintage movie projector
The Hollywood Austen adaptation was based on the stage adaptation, which was based on Austen’s novel. (Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)

Five Gorgeous Beauties

So, producer Gordon would make it the film based on the play based on the book. Gordon’s plans were reported in newspapers of the time. The first Hollywood Austen grew directly out of the Broadway production.

Portrait of Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier was the first actor to play Mr. Darcy on the silver screen. (Image: MGM studio/Public domain)

Olivier as Darcy was cast alongside Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet. Garson plays Elizabeth as a happy-go-lucky flirt, shopping alongside her sisters for a husband. And the film advertised itself to audiences with the ridiculous tagline, “Five Gorgeous Beauties on a Mad-Cap Manhunt!” It almost makes it sound as if Pride and Prejudice were written by its marriage-obsessed mother, Mrs. Bennet.

The film includes a famous, and entirely made-up, archery scene, in which Darcy and Elizabeth literally trade arrows with each other, alongside their sharp dialogue. Elizabeth, of course, turns out to be a perfect shot, after Darcy attempts to teach her, as if she’s a beginner. It allows her, at least, some physical strength, if not much seriousness of character, even at moments that call for more of it. Darcy, however, in striking dramatic poses and weightily delivered lines, is the center of the film.

Family-friendly Content?

The film was created as part of a larger attempt to address criticisms that Hollywood’s 1930s films weren’t family-friendly enough. Filming literary classics then was a deliberate project to improve Hollywood’s tarnished image. Pride and Prejudice was selected for Hollywood treatment on the heels of the successful film version of Little Women, from 1933. 

There were attempts to make the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film even more family-friendly than the original. For instance, clergyman Mr. Collins was transformed into a librarian, as according to the Motion Picture Production Code, members of the clergy couldn’t be portrayed as comic characters or villains. And the film also turns the awful Lady Catherine de Bourgh into a kindly fairy godmother, who was only ever out to test Elizabeth’s mettle. So the worst Austen characters are made less bad.

But interestingly, getting the film made at all took dozens of false starts, in directors, scripts, and actors. At one point, Clark Gable was considered for Darcy. And once Laurence Olivier was cast, there was debate over who should play Elizabeth. Olivier wanted his off-screen girlfriend, Vivien Leigh, but there was worry at the studio that such a pairing would be scandalous. Both were still married to other people, which was not what was wanted as “family friendly” at all. 

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane AustenWatch it now, on Wondrium.

A Few False Starts

The film had many false starts, including a long line of failed screenwriters and rejected scripts. A series of script writers tried to mix Pride and Prejudice’s story with every sort of popular film convention, such as mixing Austen’s characters and story with Westerns and putting a gun in Lydia Bennet’s hands. 

Although some critics will tell you that the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice was made as war propaganda, to try to get Americans to support the British and join the fight in World War II, that’s not true. The production files and rejected scripts do not at all suggest that interpretation as likely.

What does seem likely is that Hollywood and MGM set out to modernize and update Austen’s novel, but, more importantly, to use it as a vehicle that would echo and repeat previous family-friendly commercial successes on screen. Olivier was cast as Darcy, coming off of his success as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Garson was cast as Elizabeth, as she’d just been a success in Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Their subsequent roles in Pride and Prejudice were seen as continuing the spirit of those roles, in a new key. It was about bringing in dollars and audiences, not a Hollywood plot to turn Americans into Anglophiles for the purposes of fighting Hitler.

‘One of the Most Famous Pictures Ever Filmed!’

The 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice film enjoyed a decades-long run of pop culture dominance in Austen adaptation, far beyond the Second World War. It had an even more significant run than Jerome’s 1935 play. It was eventually broadcast on television. It was also theatrically re-released in the early 1960s. 

American schools then partnered with the film industry to bus their pupils to the movies, to see MGM’s 1940 Pride and Prejudice at the local theater. This is as good a sign as any of Austen’s cultural weight lining up with her mass popularity.

MGM’s Pride and Prejudice was originally advertised as “One of the most famous novels … One of the most famous plays … And now, it will be one of the most famous pictures ever filmed!” By 1962, on its rerelease, MGM changed that last prediction to an accomplishment. The new poster called the movie, “One of the most famous pictures ever filmed!”

Common Questions about the First Hollywood Austen Adaptation

Q: What was MGM’s reason for adapting Austen’s work for Hollywood?

The criticism directed toward Hollywood at the time was that its content wasn’t family-friendly enough. The Hollywood Austen adaptation was part of a larger attempt at addressing such criticism.

Q: What were some of the changes MGM’s film adaptation of Austen’s work made in order to make it more “family-friendly”?

The film adaptation made some changes to the characters. For example, Mr. Collins was changed from a clergyman to a librarian, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh became a sort of fairy godmother.

Q: Was MGM’s film adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice successful?

Though the film was made during World War II, it enjoyed a long run spanning decades after the war. It was broadcast on television and re-released in theaters in the 1960s when schools would bus pupils to see the movie.

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