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A new version of "Pride and Prejudice" opens in theaters today. It's based on the novel by Jane Austen, who commands a loyal following almost two centuries after her death. That loyalty must be one reason the movie seemed like a good idea, but it also means the new movie will face intensive scrutiny from Austen's admirers. Here's NPR's Kim Masters.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

When the Jane Austen Society of North America had its annual meeting in Milwaukee last month, one highlight was the screening of the new "Pride and Prejudice." Once again, Ms. Elizabeth Bennet shocked her proud, handsome and rich suitor, Mr. Darcy, with her reaction to a very advantageous marriage proposal.

(Soundbite of "Pride and Prejudice")

Mr. MATTHEW McFADYEN: (As Mr. Darcy): Did you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your circumstances?

Ms. KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Elizabeth Bennet) And those are the words of a gentleman? From the first moment I met you, your arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others, made me realize that you were the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.

MASTERS: No one in the Jane Austen Society expected that attitude to last. They were familiar, to say the least, with the source material. In fact, this was a tough crowd. Jane Austen was a master of precision and discipline in her work and many of her followers are attentive to every syllable that she wrote. To be sure, many members of the Jane Austen Society enjoyed the film, but others felt it missed some important points. There was Elaine Bander of Montreal.

Ms. ELAINE BANDER (Member, Jane Austen Society of North America): I didn't like the fact, and I never like this when it happens, that the writers decided to drop Jane Austen's dialogue--no one wrote better dialogue than Jane Austen--and substitute their own extremely lame and often out-of-period dialogue.

MASTERS: There was Fredericka Jarrett(ph) of New York, who felt that the heroine's family was not portrayed correctly.

Ms. FREDERICKA JARRETT (Member, Jane Austen Society of North America): The Bennets are landed gentry and I thought the attempt to make it, quote, unquote, "realistic" made their social status too down-scale. You know, they wouldn't have had the pigs quite so close to the house.

MASTERS: There was Kimberly Brangwin of Seattle, who objected to the grooming.

Ms. KIMBERLY BRANGWIN (Member, Jane Austen Society of North America): Throughout the entire movie, whether they were at the ball or first thing up in the morning, and just to be in their family boudoir or whatever they might be, their hair was a mess.

MASTERS: And Veronica Yaeger(ph) of Milwaukee.

Ms. VERONICA YAEGER (Member, Jane Austen Society of North America): He did not delve into the depths of Jane Austen like we do. Jane Austen, to us, is almost sacred scripture.

MASTERS: Little did members of the Jane Austen Society know that the screening almost didn't happen. Back in August, the group's president, Joan Klingel Ray, had offered her own appraisal of the film in an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian. Among other things, Klingel Ray found fault with the actor who plays Darcy in the film, Matthew MacFadyen. `He was too sulky,' she said, `and not nearly as delicious as Colin Firth,' who casts himself at Elizabeth Bennet's feet in a much-loved 1995 BBC version.

(Soundbite of BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice)

Mr. COLIN FIRTH: (As Mr. Darcy) Almost from the earliest moments of our acquaintance, I have come to feel for you a passionate admiration and regard, which despite all my struggles has overcome every rational objection, and I beg you most fervently to relieve my suffering and consent to be my wife.

MASTERS: Klingel Ray's biggest complaint was that the new "Pride and Prejudice" was imbued with a romanticism more typical of Charlotte Bronte than Jane Austen. After those comments were published, she heard from the studio releasing the film.

Professor JOAN KLINGEL RAY (President, Jane Austen Society of North America): Focus Features was very, very upset with me and had actually threatened not to show the movie to our Jane Austen Society of North America annual general meeting.

MASTERS: Klingel Ray says the studio representative explained his concern.

Prof. KLINGEL RAY: He said, you know, `This is a critic-driven movie.' The lucky thing for him is that most of the critics have not read the novel.

MASTERS: The studio won't comment on the incident, but Klingel Ray's interview didn't stop "Pride and Prejudice" from becoming a box-office champion in England. Director Joe Wright says he wasn't even aware of Klingel Ray's critique and doesn't much care about what Austen's most ardent fans might think.

Mr. JOE WRIGHT (Director, "Pride and Prejudice"): They can, I don't know, go and jump in a lake. I don't know. I'm not really that interested in quibblers like that. I didn't make the film for them; I made it for myself, really.

MASTERS: Wright says he didn't think he had to follow the text without deviation.

Mr. WRIGHT: I tried to be faithful to the narrative events of the book, but also I tried to be faithful to the spirit of the book. I think that was just as important to me.

MASTERS: But in some cases, Wright says, he departed from the text from necessity. In one revealing scene in the book, for example, Elizabeth Bennet ponders a portrait of Darcy. In the film, that portrait is transformed into a sculpture.

Mr. WRIGHT: One of the problems when you're looking for locations prior to the Victorian revolution is the amount of horrific kind of refurbishment that the Victorians did. They really destroyed a lot of the great stately homes of England.

MASTERS: Unable to find a picture gallery that hadn't been tampered with, Wright opted for the sculpture. But other choices were more deliberate. Wright chose to set the film in the 1790s, even though "Pride and Prejudice" wasn't published until 1813. He points out that Austen wrote a draft that would become "Pride and Prejudice" in that earlier period and he liked the fitted dresses of the time more than the shape-concealing, high-waisted frocks that came later.

Back at the Jane Austen Society meeting, the members noticed that and more. They had plenty to debate. There was Vickie Henshaw(ph) of Milwaukee.

Ms. VICKIE HENSHAW (Member, Jane Austen Society of North America): Keira Knightley, who is--who plays Elizabeth Bennet, the primary heroin, is luminously beautiful and she's a very fine actress. I was actually surprised at what a good actress that she is.

MASTERS: And again, Elaine Bander.

Ms. BANDER: I didn't like Keira Knightley. Her posture was so different from that of a Regency lady. Instead of having an erect carriage, she had a modern-novel carriage, concave, bent over, her neck protruding and her bottom lip hanging flat the whole time.

MASTERS: Perhaps the last word goes to William Phillips of Chicago. Yes, there were differences from the novel, he says, but he doesn't mind that.

Mr. WILLIAM PHILLIPS (Member, Jane Austen Society of North America): If I wanted the story only, I'd read the book again, which I do all the time. I want the movie to raise new questions for me. And this one did in ways that I found very interesting.

MASTERS: That's all well and good, says Klingel Ray of the Jane Austen Society. But in her capacity as professor at the University of Colorado, she adds this warning.

Prof. KLINGEL RAY: If a student decides to skip reading the book and watch this movie, she will fail the exam.

MASTERS: Call it a hunch, but when it comes to that exam, Klingel Ray's students might also want to stay away from the CliffsNotes. Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Credits)

INSKEEP: I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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