14 Facts About Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice
While shooting the scene in Pride & Prejudice in which Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) makes his way across a foggy field and proposes to Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) in the dawn light, director Joe Wright heard a nearby makeup artist whisper, "I wish that was my life."
Soon after Pride & Prejudice arrived in theaters in 2005, it became clear that she wasn’t alone. Sure, some people still prefer the Colin Firth-starring miniseries from 1995, and Jane Austen purists like to wail about the omission of certain details from the book. But Wright’s adaptation birthed a whole new generation of fans, and it also caused plenty of longtime Austen aficionados to fall in love with the story all over again. Here are 14 fascinating facts about the making of what screenwriter Deborah Moggach considers the “muddy-hem version” of Austen’s classic novel.
1. Joe Wright hadn’t read the book nor seen the 1995 BBC miniseries when he signed on to direct Pride & Prejudice.
When production company Working Title Films first offered Wright the director’s chair for Pride & Prejudice—his first feature film—he’d neither read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice nor seen the BBC’s beloved 1995 miniseries based on it. In fact, the only adaptation he’d watched was the 1940 movie starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. He also didn’t think he’d care much for the story. He was wrong. "I took the script to the pub and by about page 60, I was weeping into my pint of lager," Wright told The Harvard Crimson.
Once he accepted the job, Wright still refrained from watching the BBC miniseries, just so that he wouldn’t be too influenced by it. Instead, he studied other Austen film adaptations, including Sense and Sensibility (1995), Emma (1996), and Mansfield Park (1999), as well as some other period dramas.
2. Pride & Prejudice purposely isn’t set during the Regency period.
Since Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, following a substantial revision, it’s often considered a quintessential novel of the Regency period (which technically lasted from 1811 to 1820). But Austen wrote the initial draft, then titled First Impressions, around 1797—and that’s the year in which Wright chose to set his film.
He made this decision for a few reasons. For one thing, it helped separate his version from previous adaptations. It also allowed him to explore the French Revolution’s aftershocks in British society; 1797 was just a few years after the Reign of Terror, and highborn Brits started thinking it might be a good idea to ingratiate themselves with the masses and defuse any rebellious sentiment. “Hence, the Assembly Rooms dances in village halls, which people of Darcy and Bingley’s class would now attend. There, they would mingle with people they wouldn’t previously have ever met socially. It was a whole new era for society,” Wright explained.
And lastly, Wright just really hated dresses with empire silhouettes, which were all the rage during the Regency era. “I find empire line dresses are very ugly,” he said. “So we used the fashions of the earlier period, where the waist on dresses was lower and more flattering.” Caroline Bingley was the exception, since she’d have been wealthy and fashionable enough to adopt certain styles before everyone else.
3. Keira Knightley was almost deemed too beautiful to play Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice.
At 20 years old, Keira Knightley was both the right age to play Elizabeth Bennet—which Wright considered a crucial casting factor—and famous enough from 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean to satisfy producers’ desire to cast someone with name recognition. She was also a lifelong Pride and Prejudice superfan, having grown up listening to the book on tape and playing with dollhouse replicas of Pemberley and Longbourn.
But Wright was worried that Knightley's beauty might overshadow Elizabeth’s more important characteristics. “And then he met me, and said, 'Oh no, you’re fine,'" Knightley recalled on The Graham Norton Show. When they had met at a dark bar in Toronto, where Knightley was on location for 2005’s The Jacket, Wright realized her tomboyishness and “scruffy independent spirit” were much like Elizabeth’s. “[She] was not going to say what she thought you wanted her to say. She was going to say exactly what she thought,” Wright told Film Journal International. “That—and her humor—made her a perfect Elizabeth.”
4. Matthew MacFadyen was the first choice for Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice.
Wright had been a self-described “huge fan” of Matthew Macfadyen since having seen him in TV programs like 1998’s Wuthering Heights and 2001’s Perfect Strangers—and he was just the type of “great big hunk of a guy” Wright envisioned to play Fitzwilliam Darcy. “He was our first choice,” producer Paul Webster told The New York Times. But knowing that studio execs would be keener on a more famous name, they conducted a full search anyway. “[It] was exhausting and pointless, as we came full circle back to Matthew,” Wright said, and Macfadyen’s electric chemistry with Knightley pretty much sealed the deal. Had they chosen a lesser-known actor as Elizabeth, however, Wright thought they might not have gotten the green light to cast Macfadyen.
It ended up being a good decision; MacFadyen brought both gravitas and a subtle humor to the role. He and Tom Hollander (who plays Elizabeth's cousin, Mr. Collins) actually came up with the bit where Mr. Collins keeps trying—and failing—to get Mr. Darcy’s attention at the ball, then dodges Darcy’s elbow when he finally turns around. According to Wright, Macfadyen is also a “lovely dancer” (though his horseback riding is apparently “appalling”).
5. Julian Fellowes helped Carey Mulligan get cast as Kitty Bennet in Pride & Prejudice.
After getting rejected from acting school, Carey Mulligan wrote a letter to Gosford Park screenwriter (and future Downton Abbey creator) Julian Fellowes, whom she’d met when he gave a lecture at her school. Fellowes invited her and some other thespian hopefuls to dinner and introduced Mulligan to a casting assistant for Pride & Prejudice. Three auditions later, Mulligan landed the role of Kitty Bennet. It was Mulligan’s first-ever film role, but she wasn’t the only rookie on set. Talulah Riley (Mary Bennet) and Tamzin Merchant (who played Georgiana Darcy—and also originated the role of Daenerys Targaryen in the unaired Game of Thrones pilot before Emilia Clarke took over) were both making their silver screen debuts, too.
6. Emma Thompson did some uncredited script doctoring on Pride & Prejudice.
Wright, looking for advice on tackling an Austen film, had the production company connect him with Emma Thompson (who had won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for 1995’s Sense and Sensibility). “I turned up nervously on her doorstep with my briefcase, and she had her walking boots on and said, ‘We’re going to Hampstead Heath,’” he recounted during a 2005 panel. “We sat down on a bench and opened the script, and I asked her questions, and she acted bits out for me and explained things to me. It was a brilliant shoulder.”
She edited the script, too; Thompson actually wrote all the dialogue for the scene in which Charlotte tells Elizabeth she’s engaged to Mr. Collins. And when Elizabeth is struggling to tell Mr. Darcy and the Gardiners that Lydia has run off with Mr. Wickham, it was Thompson’s idea for Elizabeth to enter the room, rush out to collect herself, and then return.
7. Joe Wright used a little profanity to persuade Judi Dench to play Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride & Prejudice.
Wright didn’t try to downplay Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s general unpleasantness when offering the role to Dame Judi Dench—in fact, he used it to his advantage. “I love it when you play a bi***,” he wrote to her in a letter. Needless to say, the tactic worked.
8. Sardines—the game—helped Pride & Prejudice's main cast members get comfortable with each other.
The three weeks of rehearsals before shooting helped all the actors establish a familiarity with each other. To make sure those portraying the five Bennet sisters really felt like a family, Wright had them and Hollander hang out in the Bennets’ house, Longbourn—a real-life private estate called Groombridge Place. They played sardines, the reverse version of hide-and-seek. “That was one of the happiest days of my life,” Hollander said. Each member of the Bennet family was assigned their own bedroom, too, where the actors would kill time between scenes instead of trekking back to their trailers.
9. Joe Wright considered an imposing set of pig testicles “necessary to the plotline” of Pride & Prejudice.
Many a first-time Pride & Prejudice viewer has been taken aback by the rather close-up shot of a certain pig’s massive testicles. “That’s not something we thought of before we saw the pig,” Wright told IndieWire. “Then when we met the pig, we were incredibly impressed by him.” Though the filmmakers hadn’t expressly asked for such a well-endowed hog, they had needed a male that would have been used for breeding. As Wright explained, the Bennets were the type of family who’d pay someone to bring over a boar to mate with their sows.
“I felt the pig testicles were necessary to the plotline,” Wright told Hot Press. “The truth is that the Bennet family were country people surrounded by animals. Their existence really wouldn’t have been all that dainty. I wanted to take Austen out of that genteel drawing-room setting.”
10. Elizabeth Bennet's swing scene almost got cut out of Pride & Prejudice.
After finding out about Charlotte’s engagement, a contemplative Elizabeth spins around on the swing for a while, and we see the Bennets’ mucky, livestock-filled yard through her eyes. The sequence was a spur-of-the-moment addition that wasn’t in the script, and it almost ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead, Wright decided to nix a scene in which George Wickham and the militia march out of town, leaving behind a heartbroken bunch of young women.
“It wasn’t very well directed, and I usually take out anything that’s going to show me up,” Wright said. “It was a toss up between that scene and the swing sequence, and I preferred the swing sequence. But that’s probably a mistake—maybe we’re a little bit light on Wickham.”
11. Rosamund Pike and Simon Woods were real-life exes.
Wright had directed Simon Woods in the BBC miniseries Charles II: The Power and the Passion, and he knew Woods would make a “perfect” Charles Bingley. But since Rosamund Pike—Woods’s ex-girlfriend—was already set to play Jane Bennet, Wright “tried very hard not to cast” him. “Finally I rang Ros and asked if she’d mind, and she said ‘Absolutely not,’” Wright told The Guardian. “They hadn’t seen each other for two years but the next day they were dancing together. It was lovely.” (Pike later ended up dating Wright.)
12. Mr. Bingley’s proposal practice was improvised in Pride & Prejudice.
Mr. Bingley was always meant to call on the Bennets, leave after chickening out of asking for Jane's hand, and then return mere moments later once he’d practiced his proposal with Mr. Darcy. But the proposal practice itself was originally a much briefer interlude. Woods improvised the whole endearing thing, and the filmmakers liked his work so much they decided to just make it a longer scene.
13. Pride & Prejudice was Initially supposed to end with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s wedding.
Moggach’s first crack at a closing scene depicted Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s wedding, where the camera would linger for a satisfying moment on every individual character. But as Moggach later explained, “we didn’t want Elizabeth to come off as the girl who became a queen at this lavish wedding, or for it to be corny.”
Wright wasn’t keen on it either. In fact, he considers the real ending to be Mr. Darcy’s misty morning proposal, where the sunrise parallels the sunrise from the very beginning of the film. But knowing that viewers would expect to find out how the Bennets reacted to Elizabeth’s betrothal, the filmmakers developed the scene between Elizabeth and her father.
14. American viewers saw a different ending to Pride & Prejudice than British ones did.
Depending on which version of the film you’ve seen, you may be familiar with a different finale: The newly married and “incandescently happy” Darcys kissing on a bench at Pemberley. American test audiences appreciated what Moggach called the “rather sickly scene” much more than British ones did, so it was only released in the U.S.
The decision caused controversy on both sides of the pond. Members of the Jane Austen Society of North America got to attend an early screening, and many of its members abhorred the mawkish ending. “It has nothing at all of Jane Austen in it, is inconsistent with the first two-thirds of the film, insults the audience with its banality, and ought to be cut before release,” society president Elsa Solender griped. Meanwhile, British fans launched a petition to have the scene added back in. “What did us poor Austen aficionados (in the country of her birth no less) do to deserve such injustice?” it read. Fortunately for all sappy romantics, the contentious scene is now freely watchable on YouTube.