In the adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley, as in the book, the story is set six years after the end of the events in Pride & Prejudice. The story centres around Denny being murdered after getting out of a carriage and running into Pemberley woods. Wickham is found with his friend’s blood on his hands, and says that he has killed him. This is taken to be a confession, and Wickham stands to be accused of murder, but Wickham later clarifies that his meaning was that he was to blame for Denny’s death, by arguing with his friend, which is what caused him to leave the carriage and run off into the woods. Despicable as Wickham has been in the past, has he really stooped to murder? And if he’s innocent, how will he escape hanging when the circumstances around the death all point to his guilt?
There were things I liked and things I didn’t about this adaptation. First things first, let’s look at the casting.
For most Austen fans the most important parts in this would be Elizabeth and Darcy:
Elizabeth is played by Anna Maxwell Martin, who I recognised as Bessy Higgins from North and South. I think she was the wrong choice for the role, for several reasons. Firstly, Elizabeth in DCtP is supposed to be 26 years old. Ms Maxwell Martin is 36 and in this age of naturalistic makeup in period dramas and high-definition TV she looks 36.
Secondly, I don’t think the actress makes a good Lizzy even if she had been the right age – the physical description we have of Lizzy from Pride & Prejudice isn’t that detailed but we are expecting dark eyes and a light figure. We know she was the second prettiest girl in the Bennet family, ‘second in birth and beauty to Jane’ and one of the ‘brightest jewels’ in Hertfordshire. Ms Maxwell Martin is slim but she doesn’t fit the other criteria. In addition to this, although the Lizzy in the DCtP book was like cardboard cut out, most viewers will be expecting to see a vivacious Lizzy and Ms Maxwell Martin doesn't play her that way, aside from only once in the three episodes, when she gets to give Lady Catherine some stick. Most of the time she slinks about looking equal parts exhausted and haunted. Another thing that is very odd is that Lizzy, though seen on several different days in the adaptation, only appears to own two dresses!
There are quite a few things that are changed from the book. I don't want to spoil it for anybody who hasn't seen it yet, so without giving too much away I will say that the focus of the story shifts. The book is really centred on Darcy and they gave a lot of his part of the story to Elizabeth. This has the advantage of making her character more central but the flip side of this is that it pushes Darcy to the side a bit. He is quite a different character in the adaptation from the book, which I thought was a shame, because the character of Darcy was about the only thing I liked about the book! The dynamic between Darcy and Elizabeth is also very different, as is Darcy's attitude towards his sister. I felt that though Elizabeth's character was built up for the adaptation it was at the expense of the character of Darcy. There was also a sex scene in the adaptation that wasn't in the book, and though I don't generally object to sex scenes I didn't like it, to me it felt intrusive.
As for the mystery, since I'd read the book I already knew what happened on the night poor Denny got killed, so it's hard to know if I'd have worked it out in advance. In the book I worked out places where things were a bit fishy but that is pretty much as far as I got, I enjoy cosy mysteries but it doesn't mean that I'm particularly good at working them out!
On the whole, the adaptation is fairly entertaining. If I was less of a fan of Austen’s work I think I would have enjoyed it more though, because there were things which kept flagging up as wrong or unlikely that I may not have noticed if I wasn’t so familiar with the characters. I would definitely recommend watching it, although it’s not an adaptation I can see myself buying to watch again and again. I’d give it 3½ stars.
And now for the spoiler section! Look away now if you haven't seen the adaptation yet, but if you'd like to come back after you've seen it and share your thoughts on it then I'd love to know what you think.
No really, you'll spoil it for yourself...
What I thought of it in a bit more detail:
The main change for me is how much the focus changed from Darcy to Elizabeth. Elizabeth is like wallpaper in the book, seen and there, but lifeless. In the adaptation she does a lot of investigating into the events surrounding Denny’s death. I didn’t think this was a good change because Darcy is a magistrate, and part of this role would include investigating into the cause of deaths. He has additional cause to do it here, because Wickham is connected with his family through marriage, and because despite all his past with Wickham he cannot believe that Wickham would become a murderer. The fact that he does half a job makes him appear to be pretty ineffectual and willing to let down a lot of people.
He is also shown, unfairly, to be trying to push Georgiana into a ‘suitable’ marriage rather than marrying a husband of her choice. This would be so hypocritical of him, since he married the woman of his choice. However, in the book, he isn’t pushing Georgiana at all. It really annoyed me that the filmmakers would sacrifice Darcy’s character in this way, and make him a lesser man. There were many things I didn’t like about the book of Death Comes to Pemberley, but one thing I think P. D. James did well was to capture Darcy’s character, and I wouldn’t say that about the adaptation, he is more like Darcy at the beginning of Pride & Prejudice rather than Darcy at the end of the book.
The Darcy’s marriage also gives the impression of being an unhappy union, with Elizabeth worrying that he has regretted marrying beneath him. However, this is not something that I felt from the book, if anything, Darcy worries that Elizabeth may have had feelings for George Wickham. This is another reason why I didn’t like Elizabeth doing all the investigating, as her efforts to save Wickham may have given credence to her having feelings for him. The adaptation also features a sex scene. Now, I don’t mind sex scenes in general, but this one came out of nowhere. To me it felt intrusive and unnecessary. I can only imagine that it was included to show some closeness between Elizabeth and Darcy, but the book never gave me the impression that their marriage was unhappy or that they were not close.
Oddly, the Wickhams appear to have a happier marriage than the Darcys, with true affection between them. This is not something I feel likely from Pride & Prejudice, where it is said ‘His affection for her soon sunk into indifference: her's lasted a little longer’ but it was actually nice to see and quite touching. It’s just a shame that Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage is shown to be unhappy.
Another character I thought was portrayed differently to the Death Comes to Pemberley book is that of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is extremely hard and unlikeable in the book. Here, although he isn’t shown to be lovely, he doesn’t come across in the same way.
What did you think of the adaptation? If you leave a comment containing spoilers, please flag them up so people can avoid reading them if they haven't watched it yet :)