Pride and Prejudice: A History of Onscreen Fan Fiction

Austen's classic not only serves as a template for most romantic comedies, but it has a rich history of onscreen fan fiction adaptations.

When most people hear the words “fan fiction,” they think of Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling and poorly-written E L James erotica that started out as Twilight fan fiction.But, at its most basic definition, fan fiction is a story that borrows its characters and elements of its structure from an already-established work. Usually, the fan fiction author is a fan of the original work and, usually, the fan fiction shifts the story in some way — for example, by adding zombies.

Fan fiction has a rich history as both a non-commercial art form and as canonized onscreen stories like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, andit’s time that mainstream media got a bit more comfortable tossing around the words “fan fiction” without cringing. After all, it’s everywhere. More than that, a lot of it — whether legitimized by its connection to money (i.e. the making of it) or not — is quite good…

Let’s start by recognizing the many onscreen fanfic adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Note: These aren’t straight adaptations of Pride and Prejudice— i.e. Joe Wright’s 2005 film starring Kiera Knightley or the beloved 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation starring Colin Firth. Those fall firmly into the category of adaptation. These stories, which are inspired by the world and characters of Pride and Prejudice (aka fan fiction),deserve their own category. Here are some of the best examples…

Bridget Jones Diary (aka The Modern Day Fic)

Out of all of the modern day, onscreen fan fictions on this list, Bridget Jones Diariesis the one that strays fartherst from the themes and characters of the original novel. This 2001 film (based on the Helen Fielding book of the same name) stars Renee Zellwegger, Hugh Grant, and — in an effect of intense meta, given his role in the BBC miniseries — Colin Firth as Mark Darcy.

Zellwegger plays the title character, a single 30-something struggling to figure out her career and her love life. As a Pride and Prejudicefan fiction, Bridget Jones is less interested in transposing the story of Lizzie Bennet to modern times as it is in using the same loose romantic plot — though, notably, devoid of the same kind of financial stresses inherent in the original novel.

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Bridget isn’t particularly like Lizzie Bennet. After all, she has no sisters. Though Pride and Prejudiceis often conflated into a romance, much of the novel is about the relationships between Lizzie and her family members — something Bridget Jonesis not very interested in.

It should be noted that this film is seemingly as much a reaction to the Austen novel as it is to the BBC miniseries. Fielding, the author of the Bridget Jones’ Diary, cites the miniseries as an inspiration, and Andrew Davies, co-writer of the Bridget Jonesscript, was also the scriptwriter for the BBC miniseries. Sure, the miniseries was a straight adaptation of the novel, but its place in pop culture is its own kind of iconic.

Bride & Prejudice (aka The Other Modern Day Fic)

Director and co-screenwriter Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) crafted this inspired 2004 Bollywood version of Pride and Prejudice.Filmed almost entirely in English, it tells the story of Lalita Bakshi, an independent young Indian woman. Though Lalita is content helping her father run their family’s farming business, her mother is desperate to find rich men for Lalita and her three sisters to marry. Enter Will Darcy, a wealthy American businessman…

Unlike Bridget Jones, Bride and Prejudiceis much more interested in maintaining many of the same character and broader plot elements of the Austen novel. The decision to set the story not in modern-day England, but rather in India, actually works very well. Will and Lalita’s diagreements and differences are based on class and culture, just like in the original novel, but in a much more global scope.

Bride and Prejudicealso demonstrates an important function of fan fiction: the inclusion of the “other” in mainstream media. One of the chief functions, in my opinion, of fan fiction is to amend the severe lack of diversity — in identities, setting, experience, the list goes on. Most examples of fan fiction that are granted the validity of mainstream media through a film, publishing deal, or TV miniseries reinforce the status quo. Bride and Prejudice, however,manages to bring some much-needed diversity to mainstream media.

Lost in Austen (aka the Mary Sue Fic)

In fan fiction, there is a character (and larger story genre) know as a “Mary Sue,” a seemingly perfect original character placed in the world of a beloved story usually to a) save the day, b) fall in love with the central protagonist, and c) just be general wish fulfillment for the author. It’s not impossible for a story featuring a Mary Sue to be good, but the trope is often associated with amateur storytelling and uninterestingly-motivated author insertion.

Lost in Austen, a 2008 ITV miniseries about a modern day British woman who is accidentally transported into the world of her favorite book, Pride and Prejudice,is a classic example of a Mary Sue. But that doesn’t make Lost in Austen any less fun. (It does, however, make for a lackluster ending.)

Lost in Austenis saved by its own sense of self-awareness (it totally knows its character is a Mary Sue and has fun with it), and the strength of a quirky, hilarious actress in Jemima Rooper. But the dramatic irony of having a character and audience with inside knowledge of the plot of Pride and Prejudicecan only sustain itself for so long and, while entertaining, Lost in Austendoesn’t quite stick its landing.

Becoming Jane (aka the Real-Person Fic)

One of the more stigmatized subgenres of the fan fiction world (even though Shakespeare was doing it 450 years ago…) is the real-person fic — aka stories written about people who exist or who have existed in real life. In mainstream media, this takes the form of the biopic or a film “inspired by” the events of a real life person’s life.

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In the world of Jane Austen, we have the case of Becoming Jane, a 2007 film starringAnne Hathaway as Jane and James McAvoy as Thomas Lefory, a lawyer Austen knew in her early years. Though there is only proof that Austen and Lefroy danced together at three Christmas balls, the film imagines the two falling into a complicated love.

Becoming Janeas a film is a somewhat forgettable one, but it is interesting as a piece of Pride and Prejudicefan fiction in that many of the plot points and character elements imagined onto what we do know about Jane Austen’s life are inspired by Pride and Prejudiceand Austen’s other novels…

Here, Austen is very much like her fictional character Lizzie Bennet. Austen’s mother has the same well-intentioned desperation for her daughter to marry well, just like Mrs. Bennet. And Lefory’s romance-hidden-by-arrogance is the same character trait that makes Mr. Darcy so popular. Becoming Janeis an amalgamation of Austen’s life with her most enduring story.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (aka the Other, Other Modern Day Fic)

If you haven’t seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, then you’re not only missing out on one of the best Pride and Prejudiceadaptations in recent years — you’re missing out on one of the best examples of transmedia storytelling in the YouTube era.

The Lizzie Bennet Diariesis a vlog-style retelling of the Pride and Prejudicestory from the point of view of Lizzie, a 20-something media grad student struggling to find a place in the world amidst a mountain of student loans and her mother’s pressures to find a job and/or rich husband so she can movie out of the family house.

It is told over the course of 100 YouTube videos and across multiple social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr where Lizzie Bennet characters interacted with one another and fans.

Though The Lizzie Bennet Diariesmay take the most radically-different format from the original novel, it stays pretty close to the plot and characters of the book — albeit transposed onto modern-day California.

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In this version, there are only three Bennet sisters — Lizzie, Jane, and Lydia — but their characterizations are all on point. The Bennet sisters’ relationships with one another — as well as Lizzie’s relationship with best friend Charlotte, who co-produces the vlogs with Lizzie — are at the heart of the story. (Though the Lizzie/Darcy relationship is still a big part of the narrative.)

Because of its fascinating form, I find The Lizzie Bennet Diaries the ultimate Pride and Prejudiceretelling for the modern era. 

Death Comes to Pemberley (aka the Continuation Fic)

On the other end of the Pride and Prejudiceonscreenfan fiction spectrum from the very modern Lizzie Bennet Diariesis the very traditional Death Comes to Pemberley,a 2013 BBC adaptation of P.D. James’ book continuation of the Pride and Prejudicestory.

Death Comes to Pemberleyis a three-part miniseries that picks up six years after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie and Darcy are happily married and hosting a ball. Things turn akward when, during the course of the weekend, Wickham is found clutching the murdered body of a friend. A murder mystery and Lizzie/Darcy romance ensues.

Death Comes to Pemberley is an enjoyable continuation of the Austen story, albeit one that understandably strays from the most important themes of Austen’s original work. The formation of the Lizzie/Darcy romance, a structure that has served as a template for countless romantic comedies and dramas over the last two centuries, has been resolved by the end of Pride and Prejudice.  

As a result, Death Comes to Pemberleyhas to prioritize a different structure. It chooses the murder mystery. The result is a well-acted, beautifully-shot return to the world and characters of Pride and Prejudice, but one that feels distinctly divorced from the interests of the novel. Conclusion: mediocre fanfiction.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (aka the Zombie-Alternate Universe Fic)

The latest addition the tradition of onscreen Pride and Prejudicefan fiction is the just-released Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,an adaptation of the 2009 Seth Grahame-Smith novel by the same name. The book itself is a lot of fun, but the kind of fan fiction I am generally the least interested in.

Firstly, it is so close to the original version that Austen herself is credited as a co-author, resulting in an uninteresting redundancy. Secondly, it doesn’t seem to come from a genuine passion for the original story (which makes sense given that it was originally conceived by a publisher pairing a popular public domain work with “popular fanboy characters” like zombies). This results in a lack of understanding of what makes the original novel so enduring.

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The movie actually moves closer to the plot and themes of Pride and Prejudicethan the book its technically adapted from, which makes for an interesting Pride and Prejudice/Pride and Prejudice and Zombiesadaptation hybrid.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to commit fully to either, making the mash-up ultimately unsuccessful. There are a lot of fun moments in the flick and big fans of either Austen or zombies will probably find something to like from it, but there seems to be a glimmer of something that could be great in this premise that the movie does not deliver.

As far as an example of fanfic, like the book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombiesthe moviedoesn’t seem to understand what makes the Austen novel such an efficient, effective story. The Lizzie/Darcy romance is devoid of connection, and the social/financial tensions that give Pride and Prejudiceits sense of stakes are rendered silly in the face of the zombie apocalypse, stripping the film of most of its most interesting character dynamics.

Why is Pride and Prejudice Still So Popular?

So what is it about Pride and Prejudice that inspires such prolific onscreen fan ficiton adaptation? Well, one of the biggest logisitical reasons is, of course, the fact that the novel is now in the public domain. This means that anyone can use it without paying for the rights.

This also makes adapting Pride and Prejudice in some form a good bet financially. The Austen novel has a built-in fanbase and name recognition without any of the financial hassle of buying the film rights from its author or publisher. This is also true of Sherlock Holmes, currently enjoying some time in the pop culture limelight as onscreen fan fiction for the BBC.

Of course, there are plenty of stories in the public domain but there is something special about ones like Pride and Prejudice(and Sherlock Holmes— but that deserves its own article). For one, Pride and Prejudice is a damn good story with well-realized, likeable, and relatable characters.

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Lizzie Bennet is funny, clever, and flawed. She is often described as a very modern character or a woman ahead of her time. This may be true to an extent, but I think it is also important to note that she is one of the few examples of a female character from 200 years ago — or, even, now — that is written by a woman. We still love Pride and Prejudice— and it’s many adaptations — because we’re hungry for more stories that take female characters seriously. Sadly, more often than not, that only happens when women are involved in the writing of them.

In my mind, this is why non-canonized fan fiction continues to be both so popular and so important. So many diverse identities — whether you’re talking about gender, sexuality, class, race, etc. — are not represented in mainstream media. This is where fan fiction comes in. It fills in the immense gaps that mainstream media often ignores. It allows all kinds of people to be agents in their own popular culture, and to insert all kinds of diverse experiences and identities into the stories we have chosen to be our modern myths.