It Ain’t Jane Austen, But Bridget Adapted Well

Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary , from a screenplay by Helen Fielding, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Ms. Fielding, bounces across the screen as an entertainment that charmed me on the whole largely because of the magical gifts of Renée Zellweger, who turns out to be enchanting at any weight. Still, I wish that I could have been a fly on the wall when all the discussions were being held about changes and choices, additions and subtractions, in the adaptation of a best-selling novel into a movie with a reasonable prospect for commercial success. Whatever happens, it cannot be said that an author had her work hijacked by Hollywood philistines in the front office. The writing credits alone suggest a high degree of input from a source novelist into the finished cinematic work that is still less the rule than the exception in filmmaking.

Yet, after reading the book and seeing the movie, I can understand why a few critical voices have already been raised in protest, particularly over the insertion of a hand-to-hand combat scene between the Jane Austen–ish hero and the Jane Austen–ish cad. In neither Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice nor Ms. Fielding’s openly derivative Bridget Jones’s Diary do hero and cad come to blows over the heroine, and that is perhaps as it should be. On the other hand, the movie’s Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) is considerably less of a fairy-godmotherish Mr. Fix-It in the movie than he is in both the Austen and Fielding novels, in which, in addition to rescuing a member of the heroine’s family from disgrace, dishonor and worse, he saves the rest of the heroine’s family from financial ruin. Talk about Hollywood happy endings!

It can and probably will be argued that there is much more to Ms. Fielding’s novel than its borrowed plot contrivances. There is, most of all, the sardonically sassy tone of the heroine’s book-length inner monologue. There are also the satiric blasts at many of the more ludicrous aspects of contemporary British fashions and foibles. Indeed, what has almost completely disappeared in the adaptation to the screen is the craftily essayistic substructure of the book.

Yet people who have not read the comparatively short (271 pages) novel cannot appreciate how much information Ms. Fielding dispenses with her fragmented diary entries, which can start anywhere and end anywhere without being accountable to any logic of continuity beyond the inexorable progression from one Christmas to the next. From the outset, most everyone concerned with the project must have realized that to transform every last sentence of Ms. Fielding’s sensibility to the soundtrack would have risked, if not insured, a deadly turgidity on the screen.

There is also a more generic problem that haunts all attempts to reproduce the beauties of one medium in another. I have always argued that theoreticians made a mistake in suggesting that novels are closer than plays to the essence of cinema. What the novel gains in its freedom of space, time and movement, it loses many times over in the transparency of its characters, vis-à-vis the opaqueness of the actor on the screen. To be specific, Bridget Jones is often nasty and bitchy on the printed page-at least in her thoughts. There is a wild passage on mothers and babies in which Ms. Fielding takes Bridget way over the top with Rabelaisian glee. No actress could get away with that scene on the screen, and the filmmakers wisely do not try.

The book gets away with something the movie can’t because readers do not identify the wild and wicked and occasionally disgusting humor with the character as much as with the author. On the screen, Ms. Zellweger’s Bridget bears the brunt of the audience’s reactions, and if the audience falls out of sympathy with the character, that’s all she wrote.

Much of the advance publicity for the movie has centered around the casting of Ms. Zellweger, an American actress from Texas, as Ms. Jones, a British folk icon on the printed page. Why not Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett instead? I suspect that Ms. Winslet or Ms. Blanchett would have extracted more of the dark humor in Bridget, and much more of the pain than has Ms. Zellweger, but also much less of the buoyant optimism and resilience. It is not a question of better or worse, but different.

(Playing cast-your-own-movie has always been one of the reviewer’s favorite guilty pleasures. I have never forgiven Samuel Goldwyn and William Wyler for not casting Vivien Leigh as Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1939) instead of the cold-eyed Merle Oberon, but as much as I admired Ms. Leigh and Margaret Sullavan after seeing their tests for the unnamed heroine of Rebecca (1940), I am convinced that David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock were smart to cast Joan Fontaine as the mousy heroine. The trouble with Ms. Leigh was that she was too beautiful to be anyone but the first late Mrs. de Winter, the legendary Rebecca herself. Ms. Sullavan, however, projected such a strong will that she would have had Mrs. Danvers doing windows in no time. The jury is still out on Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) as a last-minute replacement for the pregnant Vera Miles. Would Ms. Miles have been less ethereal and more emotional than Ms. Novak? We’ll never know.)

Anyway, the British can now appreciate how we Yanks felt when a comparatively unknown British actress born in India was cast as Scarlett O’Hara. Yet we cheered afterward. I hope the Brits feel the same way about Ms. Zellweger. Obviously I cannot pretend to be objective about the subject. I was not even distracted by the weight she reportedly gained to enable her Bridget to be plausibly obsessed with fad diets and the readings on bathroom scales morning and night. Her fiercely focused eyes did not gain any weight, and her remarkable unflappability in the midst of the most embarrassing situations attested to a moral and spiritual toughness she brought intact from Texas.

Still, I suspect that people who have not read the book will enjoy the movie more than people who have. We can talk all we want about the banality of heroes and cads encountered on the road to conventional matrimony, but when the hero is played by a charismatically unselfish actor like Mr. Firth, and the cad by an appealingly attractive actor like Hugh Grant, who has gone both ways in the past with deceptively easy aplomb, then you are blessed with a dream cast that could transcend a much sappier Cinderella story than Bridget Jones’s Diary . The chemistry of dreamlike screen characters is where movies soar above the most well-chosen words we can use to describe them.

But returning to that fly on the wall, I can imagine that the decisions made by the filmmakers to make the movie they did, and not one more acerbic or ironic or sarcastic or more aggressively feminist, had to do at least partly with today’s dumbed-down movie audience, and the transatlantic problem of not seeming too parochially British for the all-important American market. Ms. Zellweger’s Bridget has been criticized, for example, for working in a publishing house and not having the foggiest idea who F.R. Leavis (1895-1978) was, nor that he had died some time ago. Most people in the audience laugh at Bridget’s embarrassment without knowing who Leavis is either, much less that he is dead.

I was recently lecturing on Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) when I realized by a show of hands that the students had laughed at a joke involving Marshall McLuhan (1911-80) without knowing who McLuhan was, or that he had coined the expression, “The medium is the message.” All that had cued the laughter was Mr. Allen’s trademarked comic attitude. Likewise, the book’s Bridget gets away with murder by posing as a loser while thriving on the author’s corrosive wit. The movie’s Bridget does not have that option. She remains a loser, but without most of the book’s clever wisecracks and smugly dismissive descriptions. I didn’t really miss them though, because they are better read than heard, except possibly in a book on tape.

Could-or rather, should-the movie have run longer to accommodate more of the book’s twists and turns, and more of the scathing caricatures of family, friends and rivals? I’m not sure. In the delicate balancing act between romance and satire, romance has clearly prevailed. The brain trust behind the movie may have looked at the box-office failures of two recent superior satires of academic life, Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) and Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys (2000), and decided to embark on the easier and more popular road of romance. One thing they decided-since Ms. Fielding’s book seems to have been auditioning for a movie cast, with inside jokes about Mr. Grant’s real-life scandalous behavior and pages devoted to Mr. Firth’s portrayal of Darcy in the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice -was to continue the book’s self-parody. Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer make cameo appearances as literary lions on the loose in celebrity-worshipping London.

Mostly, Ms. Zellweger’s Bridget has been aptly compared to Calista Flockhart’s Ally McBeal, but the advantages of serial television in developing characters through sheer length of exposure becomes evident in the comparison. Still, Ms. Zellweger makes the most of what she’s given and manages to triumph time and again over her pratfalls and public rump displays. In a word, she’s terrific.