I’m usually a few paces behind when it comes to current fiction, bypassing the Best-Sellers table at B&N for the less-crowded, ambiguously titled “Literature” section. But last summer, I was relatively with it when I finally read Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary poolside. Granted, I was reading it four years after everyone else, but like everyone I knew who’d read the chronicle of a neurotic, obsessive, “singleton,” I loved it and could hardly wait for the film version. Why did I love it? Besides the fact that Fielding’s writing is clever and hilarious and I had the same “that’s me!” moment that millions of other women apparently had, I felt that my dozen or so readings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (speaking of obsessive) were finally validated. For Bridget Jones’s Diary is in fact a modern adaptation of that Austen classic.
But, we’ll get to that in a minute…
Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger—and yes, I was worried too at first by this casting decision, but she’s perfect!) is a single British woman in her early thirties who struggles with, among other things, her weight, her family, her job, her self-esteem, and her lovelife, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. At the start of the New Year, she begins keeping a diary in an effort to get control of all of the above and develop “inner poise.” Among Bridget’s obsessions is her boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). Despite her resolution not to “form romantic attachments to any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, people with girlfriends or wives, misogynists, megalomaniacs, chauvinists, emotional fuckwits or freeloaders,” she pines for Daniel who, naturally, embodies all of the above. He eventually begins flirting with Bridget via instant messaging, which leads to an affair and something like a relationship. The happy result of said relationship is Bridget losing weight, limiting all her cigarettes to post-coital ones, and most importantly, having (at long last) a positive response to the question incessantly posed to her by family and friends: “So, Bridge, how’s your love life?”
While Daniel is the man that Bridget loves, the one she loathes is Mark Darcy (Colin Firth): a smug, rich, condescending barrister and acquaintance of the Jones family. She first meets him at a New Year’s Turkey Curry Buffet where they both have the misfortune of being foisted upon one another by well-meaning but clueless relatives. It’s not enough to say that Darcy has no interest in Bridget. He remains standoffish and cold toward her attempts at small talk. Bridget describes him this way in the book (one of my favorite lines, sadly not included in the film): “It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree.” In both book and film, Bridget keeps running into Mark Darcy at particularly embarrassing moments for her, such as when she’s making a disastrous speech at a book party or shows up dressed as a Playboy bunny at a formal garden party. If all of this wasn’t bad enough, she learns that Mark and Daniel were once best friends, until Mark ran off with Daniel’s fiancee. Now Bridget can hate Darcy on Daniel’s behalf as well, and not just for his attitude toward her.
Things for Bridget never seem to go as planned, so it’s really not surprising when the fabulous Daniel lets her down or the icy Mark begins to warm up to her. Her woes leave her hopeless for a while (resulting in weight-gain and heavy drinking) and then motivate her to “self-improvement” (weight loss, new job, self-help books). After all her attempts at reinvention, she finds that one man loves her just as she is, an option that sadly enough never occurred to her before.
So, how is Bridget Jones’s Diary a reiteration of Pride and Prejudice? Fielding has said more than once that Austen was her inspiration, and her sequel to the Diary, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, draws from Persuasion. For the film, Colin Firth’s casting as Mark Darcy is inspired in more than one way: Fielding based her Mark Darcy on his wonderful portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the 1994 version of Pride and Prejudice (written by Andrew Davies, who co-wrote Bridget Jones with Richard Curtis). The Mr. Darcy thing is only the most facile Austenian reference. His first meeting with Bridget at the Turkey Curry Buffet, when Mark Darcy makes a rude reference to Bridget loud enough for her to hear, mirrors the scene when Austen’s Mr. Darcy does the same to Elizabeth Bennett; Mark Darcy struggles against falling for Bridget just as Mr. Darcy does against falling in love with Elizabeth; and Daniel Cleaver is Austen’s Wickham, Mr. Darcy’s childhood friend and the one Elizabeth prefers to Mr. Darcy until she learns who the real bastard is. But these are easy one-to-one connections.
The women in Bridget Jones’s Diary reveal a slightly more complex and thought-provoking dependence to their predecessor. Bridget’s mother (Gemma Jones) certainly corresponds to the flighty Mrs. Bennett, but she’s also part Lydia Bennett, the rebellious daughter in P&P who runs off with Wickham and (gasp!) lives with him before they get married. Mrs. Jones is more a response to Austen than a reflection, as she abandons her roles as wife and mother, and runs off with the host of a home shopping cable television show.
And then there’s Bridget. She, like Elizabeth, is opinionated, strong-willed, impulsive, passionate, and embarrassed by her mother. Sure, we could never imagine Elizabeth (who despite the above qualities is ultimately constrained by propriety) smoking, drinking, or referring to herself as a “wanton sex goddess” (Lydia, maybe), but we stop short of congratulating Bridget Jones with a hearty “you’ve come a long way, baby.” After all, Bridget Jones’s Diary, like Pride and Prejudice, is preoccupied with marriage. It’s pretty funny to watch as every family member she runs into asks when she’s going to settle down, but there is really little difference between them and the host of older characters in Austen’s novel who constantly scheme and plot marriage connections for their daughters. Despite her resentment of the “smug marrieds” who pity her seemingly permanent status as a “singleton,” marriage appears to be what Bridget really wants. Regardless of her efforts toward self-acceptance and inner poise, she is ultimately preparing for the same happily-ever-after with which Elizabeth Bennett was rewarded nearly two centuries ago.