Why the film and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice get Mr Bennet so wrong

In both the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and Joe Wright’s 2005 film, Mr Bennet is cast and played as essentially a lovable and cuddly fellow, with a twinkle in his eye, and a winning sense of humour. Yes, he has a few foibles and weaknesses but basically both Benjamin Whitrow (BBC, 1995) and Donald Sutherland (Joe Wright 2005) are quirky teddy bears. Just look at them:Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 12.07.31

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Even today a Mr Bennet would probably be good company – if you like drily witty verging on sarcastic (which I kind of do). But though I might enjoy a conversation with him, I wouldn’t like to be his friend. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be intimate or dependent on him.

But it’s not just that he’s “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice”; he has more serious faults and Jane Austen cares very much about those failings. We’ve seen how he treats his wife – yes she’s annoying, but he’s really not nice to her and continues to punish her for not being who he thought she was. And his neglect of his children is highlighted in this scene, in which Lizzy begs him not to allow Lydia to go to Brighton. This is not just about whether he’s a nice person or not ( – not). What is demonstrated here is how his laissez-faire attitude is simply a rationalisation for his indolence. Lizzy adds more pressure to try and get him to act:

“Oh! my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?”

Mr Bennet saw that her whole heart was in the subject; and affectionately taking her hand, said in reply,

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known, you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of — or I may say, three — very silly sisters.”

He seems to understand Lizzy’s distress and is warm for a moment, but his response is to appeal to Lizzy’s vanity by simply comparing her favourably to her sisters. He is fobbing her off with flattery. This is now a more serious failing. It’s not just about whether he’s a nice person or not: what he avoids is the principle – the fact (of the time) – that reputation mattered to the respectability of the family, and that he was responsible for the moral character of his daughter. The overriding principle of his role as father at the time was to uphold the mores of society. He slithers out of his responsibility by turning a matter of principle into a personal matter.

Jane Austen sums him up through Elizabeth’s thinking:

Elizabeth however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.

But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.

Austen’s disapproval couldn’t be clearer.

So why is it that the adaptations let Mr Bennet off the hook by both the casting and the script-writing?

I think partly they prioritise the humour of making him a foil for Mrs Bennet – polarising her silliness and his rationality. But Austen doesn’t do that in the same way – yes, her Mrs Bennet is silly and hysterical, but her Mr Bennet is a much more nuanced, ambivalent character than the film people convey. Austen allows and encourages us to disapprove of him, whereas both adaptations make him the good guy, the emotional heart of the house; more of a lovable rogue than a weak, selfish and indolent man who has not looked after his family as he should.

But I think there may also be a historical problem: Jane Austen’s values are not today’s values. A man of that time who did not uphold the moral principles of society, a man who did not do his duty by his family was a reprehensible character. The values of Jane Austen’s time are not romantic values – they are moral and they are pragmatic. Love does not conquer everything, principles matter, character matters. The principles of Jane Austen’s time are not the principles of our time – and for the filmmakers to be upholding 19th-century morality would make them look like disapproving fuddy-duddies of perhaps their own fathers’ generation. We are nowadays generally much more ambivalent about authority, and have a lot more freedom and variety in our definitions of morality.

In some ways, the adaptations say more about the problems of today in being a man and a father than they do about the original text. What is a father today? How does a basically decent man aspire to be as a father? If you uphold principles, act as the representative of the wider world, does that still allow you to show kindness, affection, understanding? Is a father’s job discipline? Is it a father’s job to come between a mother such as Mrs Bennet and her children?

Certainly Mr Bennet has opted out of all these responsibilities, and Jane Austen is fully aware of both his attractiveness as a wit, and his failures of principle, and of duty of care to his family.

I think the adaptations slide away from confronting the moral and emotional problems that Mr Bennet poses to a modern audience, and they go for the easy option, of making him cute and lovable. In this day and age, we really don’t know how to think about Mr Bennet.








13 thoughts on “Why the film and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice get Mr Bennet so wrong

  1. An interesting take on Mr Bennet, and in the main I think you are perfectly right. He does have failings as a father and it’s made clear in the book. I’m not so sure he is portrayed as innocently as you suggest, though. In Joe Wright’s film, I think the casting of Mrs Bennet makes an enormous difference. The relationship between the couple is much more realistic and far more likely. Mrs Bennet is not the out-and-out fool, but merely a very harrassed mother trying to establish five girls on little or no fortune. She doesn’t suffer Mr Bennet to put her down and in fact there are moments of very real husband and wife bickering as well as that comfortable companionship that comes after years together. I think it’s a much truer portrayal of both characters than the BBC version.

    • I think it’s a more believable couple for us nowadays, and a rehabilitated Mrs Bennet seen through the forgiving feminist eyes of history, but I’m not sure how true it is to the book…I think in Austen the relationship is pretty cold. Having said that, I really like the version in Joe Wright’s film and I don’t think adaptations can or should avoid appealing to us now – because actually we can only see history through the eyes of the present.

      • You’re right. I think Joe Wright’s P & P is a “kinder, gentler” P & P where nearly everyone is good. In the special features, some of the actresses talked about how wonderful and loving the Bennet family was. And I thought wow, that’s not my reading from the book. The Bennets are dysfunctional.

      • I agree the Bennets are dysfunctional in the book, and even though it’s not really true to the novel, I have to say I enjoy the scruffy, puppies-in-a-basket quality of the Joe Wright version

      • I like it, too, but it is definitely a different version. I wrote a blog post about it years ago where I said it felt like Jane Austen on speed, but I still liked it. (I prefer the length of the 1995 miniseries and even wish that was longer….)

  2. Amy – what a great reflection on this complex character and how he has been portrayed. What does a child do when a parent disappoints by not holding himself up to ethical/principled behavior, to the detriment of the family? For some of us this father’s day, we must struggle with the accolades others afford their fathers, while we linger in the background, wondering what that sense of sureness in father would feel like. The best lines in both movies show that the father is NOT going to improve himself. He feels shamed and regretful, but tells Lizzie that these feelings will pass too quickly. Overall, Austen is spot-on in my view of such men.

    As for the portrayals, I think the actors are too old. If Mr. Bennett made his “youthful” discretion when he was 35-40, to match the ages of these men some 22 years after marriage, then his mistake in picking Mrs. Bennett appears absurd. He should be played by a younger man (45) and should be shown to be more heinously unkind to his wife and irresponsible in his leadership of his family. We can’t let a little charm from the guy excuse his deplorable laziness. And Lizzie’s struggle with her father and her relationship with him could be shown in movies to be her moving beyond his scope — not being able to accept his lack of principles and moving on.

    • Another interesting response. I think these anniversary days are very hard for anyone whose family doesn’t fit the bill (quite a lot of us), and there’s certainly an understanding of human nature in Austen’s Mr Bennet – and what it’s like to have imperfect parents.
      I like your point about the actors both being too old. By casting them older, it can seem natural for him to have given up on life, but if he’s in his early 40s, it puts a different complexion on it. He’s got a lot of years in front of him to be arid and snarky – and then lonely too as the girls leave.

  3. An excellent piece. You are absolutely right on all counts for mine, and I have always felt the same way about Mr Bennet. Lizzie’s growing disillusion is extremely well conveyed – the dawning realisation that hits all children even of worthy parents, that their parents have feet of clay and often very heavy ones. Austen is very good at nuancing her characters. Yes Lizzie still loves him and appreciates his pleasant companionship, but no she does not condone his neglect of her silly sisters or his patronising attitude to his wife. Especially when it is going to jeopardise both Lizzie’s and Jane’s chance at making a good and happy match. She cannot key into his indolence in this matter because it affects her, who is supposedly his favourite, and Jane, who is his next favourite. Thus she realises the limits of his affection. It is a clever juxtaposition then to make Mr Darcy who seems so terribly standoffish and uncaring a much more conscientious carer for those he cares about; his vigilant care for his younger sister, and the fact that he quietly undertakes Mr Bennet’s role in rescuing Lydia and her family from the scandal that could be attached to Lydia and Wickham’s liaison.

  4. I get frustrated with Mr Bennet for being so self absorbed where his daughter’s reputations are concerned However, loved Donald Sutherland’s portrayal – especially the part where Mary embarrassed herself with her piano playing at the ball and rushes from the room. He doesn’t make a fuss but quietly follows and comforts her – Such an understanding father.

    • I love that bit – he’s so tender. In fact I far prefer both Mr Bennets from the adaptations than JA’s Mr Bennet! They’re much more like the dad one would wish for

  5. This made me think about the fathers in Jane Austen’s books –Mr. Bennet is not the only poor example. Think about it. Sense and Sensibility — no father. Emma — Mr. Woodhouse. Northanger Abbey — we don’t see Mr. Morland and General Tilney is a tyrant. Mansfield Park — Sir Thomas, and Persuasion Sir Walter Elliot. All fathers either absent or seriously dysfunctional. Makes me wonder about Jane Austen’s relationship with her own father.

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