Monday, September 26, 2005

My Wife Hates Keira Knightly (or, Definitive Versions)

Well, she doesn't really hate her. But she's not going to go see her latest movie, coming out in November: a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. (Here's the trailer.) Why not?, I ask her. You love Jane Austen. Because it'll be travesty!, is her response. Two hours to tell the story of Pride and Prejudice?! They'll have to hack scenes and characters and dialogue right and left! They'll ignore subplots and subtlety! That's no way to treat a masterpiece! "Elizabeth Bennet is a modern woman..." (so the trailer says)--baloney! They've plainly no idea what the story is really all about! How cheap! And so on, and so forth.

As you might be able to guess, Melissa is a massive fan of the classic BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Is she simply ticked that the new version will not feature the smoldering, tousled good looks of Colin Firth? Admittedly, that may be part of it. But I suspect there is something more at work in her ferocious reaction. What it comes down to is this--as far as my wife is concerned (and clearly she's not alone) Pride and Prejudice has already been done. The miniseries was practically flawless; who could possibly want to watch--or be responsible for exposing a loved one to--an inferior adaptation when such an excellent treatment is still available? In short, we already have the definitive version of Pride and Prejudice; that's what people should be watching. For movie studios to waste their time creating another, likely bad adaptation of a such a classic piece of literature is not just is, in a sense, disrespectful of what the BBC achieved.

I'm not a fan of Jane Austen the way Melissa is, but I can see where she's coming from. I'm only going to compare the new version to the old, and I'm confident the new version will come up short, so why bother? Yes, yes, of course--copying and adapting and transforming old stories into new is what art is all about, right? I don't disagree, particularly when it comes to film, theater, and song. But even if I grant the importance of innovation and recreation, can't I also insist that some works of art are just so excellent, so complete, so full on their own terms, that one can be forgiven for wondering is there's anything besides the lure of a fast buck behind those who insist on continuing to rework these stories and songs and images even further? (Case in point: Madonna's atrocious cover of the classic "American Pie." Another case in point: Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie, an insulting remake of the flawlessly smart Charade.) I think Melissa is right when she says, in essence: there's no reason to offer me another Pride and Prejudice; Keira Knightly and Co. can't offer me a take (at least not a "realistic" take, which is what the BBC version and this new one both presume to be) on the story that's already been done about as well as can be done. So just don't bother.

Of course, not everyone will see it that way, as not everyone recognizes the same definitive versions of particular works of art. Some people insist that the original production is always definitive (I would argue this is almost always the case with the Beatles; I have only rarely heard a Beatles cover that is even comparable to the original), whereas in other cases a song or book or film fairly begs for more definitive treatment (I would argue this is the case with most of Bob Dylan--while his oeuvre has suffered from hundreds of crappy covers, more often than not it is other performers who really nail the spirit of his own songs: think Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower"). Sometimes an adaptation utterly transforms what came before (Bobby Darin's cover of "Mack the Knife"), thus setting the stage for a whole new raft of interpretations. And sometimes an artist will cover himself, thus putting an interesting spin on what constitutes a definitive version (which is the superior version of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much--the 1934 with Peter Lorre, or the 1956 with Jimmy Stewart?).

I can think of a handful of movies and songs that I consider definitive, basically unsurpassable--I'd rather listen or watch them over again than anything else that might come down the pike: Robyn Hitchcock's "Robyn Sings" (a complete cover of Bob Dylan's Royal Albert Hall concert); the 1959 Julie Andrews/Rex Harrison London recording of My Fair Lady; Harry Connick Jr.'s covers of "Pure Imagination," "Maybe" and other standards on "Songs I Heard"; the whole movie Singin in the Rain (every song in the film is a remake from the 1920s and 30s); Ray Charles's "Georgia on My Mind" and "It's Not Easy Being Green" (what, you thought that was a children's ditty? guess again!); Kenneth Branaugh's Henry V. I treasure them all, just like Melissa treasures her BBC Pride and Prejudice. What are your definitive versions? Do you have any?


Anonymous said...

I'll nominate two definitive versions:

Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails
Sammy Davis Jr. singing "Mr. Bojangles"

And I'll second your nomination of Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower" 

Posted by William Polley

Anonymous said...

One more: Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" 

Posted by William Polley

Anonymous said...

Every version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy  is definitive. Particularly the ones that contradict each other. 

Posted by Doug

Anonymous said...

I was upset a couple of years ago when Branford Marsalis released a rendition of John Coltrane's masterpiece suite, A Love Supreme . (Perhaps I need say nothing more than that I am currently wearing a t-shirt with the album cover from A Love Supreme printed on the front.) The question of "remaking" standards is an especially contentious one in the jazz world, because there's a mythology about the music that stresses its ability to get new work out of an old favorite. Marsalis's argument was basically that new artists should not treat Love Supreme as sacrosanct, but that the best way to show homage was to play it, make it a standard. I'm still not sure I'm convinced ... I guess I don't mind Marsalis recording the suite, but I was especially peeved by some of the reviewers who seemed to suggest that his version made improvements on the original. That I could not countenance. 

Posted by Caleb

Anonymous said...

To keep the theme and bring in Colin Firth, to my mind his _Valmont_ is vastly superior to the other film versions of Dangerious Liasons. (The list of his films linked above oddly leaves off the film of his that is my favorite- The Advocate.) 

Posted by matt

Anonymous said...

Bill--Good choices! I definitely agree about Sammy Davis, Jr. (sad that he doesn't get the respect amongst contemporary retro-hipsters that he should).

Doug--Way to put me in my place! Yes, it's true, some artists can always squirrel out of the label "definitive." Douglas Adams did. There's probably a bunch of other writers and filmmakers like that--never allowing something to remain, always remaking it, re-writing it, fiddling with it, contradicting what came before, driving the collectors nuts.

Caleb--Regarding Branford's cover of Love Supreme , I'm torn. There is an important sense that Coltrane's recording is sui generis, that it stands apart. Recording it sounds to me to be all about the money. Then again, you're right that so much of jazz is about approaching and improvising upon standards; it runs against much of the whole conceit of that musical genre to say that any song isn't raw material for something new.

Matt--I've never seen Firth's Valmont, but I've heard good things about it. I'll have to check it out. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Laura said...

May I just say thanks for all the links to Colin Firth. He's such a babe.  

Posted by Laura

birdchaser said...

OK, from the trailer it looks like the new P&P will not have the subtlety of the classic BBC production...perhaps that feature's greatest charm. Our family loves the BBC production, and I wouldn't watch it over and over myself if it weren't for the joy of celebrating understatement. The new version seems to be a modern make-everything-obvioius-so-the-audience-"gets"-it type of remake. If so, it throws out the baby with the bathwater. I supppose the hope will be that the filmmakers find other ways to make the story enjoyable.

Along those lines, I think the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great remake...adding new enjoyments (oompa loompa music, etc), while allowing one to still enjoy the previous version--as in Wilder's understated zaniness as opposed to the more explicitly weird and almost over-the-top Depp version.

Look forward to seeing if the new P&P can add to the tale, but don't forsee us owning and cherishing and repeatedly watching this version as much as the BBC classic. 

Posted by Rob

Anonymous said...

your right nothing beats the bbc version of p&p the new one just isnt sharp enough 

Posted by haynes

Leonard Colquhoun said...

Some of my definitive versions: Liza Minnelli's Cabaret; Franco Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet; David Suchet as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.

And, yes, agree 100% with the 'definitivisation' of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy - too often the BBC seems to be out to trash every worthwhile aspect of British culture it can get its hands on.

Still waiting for the definitive Macbeth - Polanski's risible 1971 effort degenerated, after quite a reasonable start, into a splatter flick in anachronistic armour.

Anonymous said...

I came across this by accident, and I would like to thank you for a very interesting read. Having seen both the versions of Pride and Prejudice(yes, curiosity got the better of me, I'm afraid) I have to admit that the new one was better than I expected, but if anyone asked me to choose, I would still go for the 1995 miniseries without thinking twice about it. For me, Benjamin Withrow is the definitive Mr. Bennett.

Barefoot Cassandra said...

I have to agree with your wife. I mocked the Knightly girl for months when I found out she was playing Elizabeth Bennett. she has a violent underbite! Also the BBC version is so charming and perfect I see no reason to hurt the story because there is a new British actress that is popular. But they did it, and I watched it with my sister, and we mocked till no end. I just didn't FEEL like Pride and Prejudice. Just felt like a period film. Sad.

And yes, Colin Firth is a God!