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Picturing Mr. Darcy

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Books and films have an uneasy alliance. If you truly love a book, you may passionately want to see it brought to life in a film… or you may not. In fact, some of the most vehement reaction to a book adaptation comes from some of the book’s biggest fans.

When you are first reading a book, you picture the characters, visualize the scenes as they unfold. For me, it is like watching a movie in my head. My actors do as they are told, as they turn the page. In fact, there have been a few times where I remember a “scene” in a movie, when in fact it was only in my head from reading the book.

Though the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) is as beloved as Jane Austen’s classic (#13 in Amazon’s top bestsellers), I defy anyone to watch it and then reread the book and not see this:

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy

Arguably, seeing Colin Firth in your head for long stretches of time is not a bad thing. However, I can’t even remember what my original Mr. Darcy looked like. I’m fairly certain he had dark hair and flashing eyes and a haughty demeanor, as all Darcys of the Austenian world are wont to have. Other than that, I can only ever see Colin Firth.

It is a tribute to Firth’s acting skills that he has replaced the actor in my head; he was voted the Best Darcy by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. But what of my long, lost Darcy?

Once a book’s character is codified into the face of an actor, there’s few ways to reset it: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter are actors who permanenty define their character hereafter.

We are a deeply visual culture, so we delight in the ease and immersive experience of watching a movie. No one denigrates the joys of a classic, well-done film. But reading a book requires us to conjure faces and feelings in our own imagination, subject to no person except ourselves. I have resisted watching the new Jane Eyre thus far, to avoid replacing the Mr. Rochester in my head with this:

As for you, which characters are now inseparable from the actors that have made them famous? Does this please or dismay you?

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