The 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, while not solely responsible for the enduring erotic fascination with Austen’s characters, nevertheless reignited popular interest in the author. “Many fanfic authors date their interest in writing Austen-inspired stories to the 1996 broadcast in the United States of a BBC adaptation ... starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle,” wrote The New York Times in a 2000 story on the resurgence of interest in Austen’s work. But the adaptation also took significant creative license in drawing out the main themes of the book, described by the producer Sue Birtwistle as “sex and money.” In an interview with the BBC, Davies described his motivations in wanting to make the story more accessible to a modern audience:
We wanted lots of energy in the show, and the book justifies it, because Elizabeth is always running about and going on long country walks and getting all flushed and sweaty and getting the bottom of her petticoat muddy, which seems to be quite a turn-on for Darcy. So we thought, let’s make it as physical as we can without being ridiculous about it. [emphasis mine] Let’s remind the audience that this isn’t just a social comedy—it’s about desire and young people and their hormones—and let’s try to find ways of showing that as much as possible. So for the girls I wrote a lot of scenes where they’re backstage, so to speak: They’re getting dressed, they’re in their nighties, talking about love. And we wanted the guys to be doing lots of physical things: riding horses, fencing, having baths, jumping in the lake. Any legitimate excuse to get some of that kit off.
I own the miniseries and love it, but it's interesting how what worked at such a legendary level to revolutionize period piece costume drama in television seems so desiccated in feature length film. When Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have five or six hours for a subtext of growing mutual desire to be discovered it's charming and makes for classic television. When it's Keira Knightley and whats-his-name in a 2 hour film that compresses everything the subtext is transformed into text and for a story that is centuries old there's no "joy in the journey" left of it.
I think Austen has been misconstrued by a lot of people in our era as a writer of romance. Yes, well, sort of but I think she was more a social satirist who used the conventions of courtship and romance from her time and place as a narrative frame for what she was really interested in exploring.
I'm just going to be slightly a punk this weekend and say Austen's stories may resonate with us now not because of the erotica we've transformed her work into but because she was relentlessly steering back toward how romance sounds lovely on paper but in the real world not everyone can afford it and what we lately call "sexual selection" is a most pitiless game. That's why the happy endings she wrote for her characters seem like quotidian but nonetheless cosmic triumphs against a potentially hostile universe, right? ;) When people find that special someone it feels like a miracle. It might be because of the socio-economic world in which we all live, not just the flush of brain-altering hormones. Austen didn't seem to ignore that that hormonal rush happened, she just seemed determined to remind us we shouldn't uncritically trust it.