“Which Darcy is your favorite?”
It’s a right of passage question for Janeites, a.k.a. obsessive Jane Austen fans. Get a group of Austenland wannabes on your hands and suddenly the room is filled with “Are you a Matthew Macfadyen Darcy person? Or maybe a little adventurous and appreciative of Sam Riley’s performance? Or maybe an old-school Mr. Darcy type with Laurence Olivier? Let’s not forget Colin Firth! That white shirt…”
Yeah, I don’t know if the internet is ever going to recover from that adaptation addition to the original Pride and Prejudice story.
But what surprises me the most about these exchanges–I’ll admit it: I’m a Janeite– is the lack of discussion regarding
He Who Must Not Be Named Mr. Wickham. Without a talented Wickham, Elizabeth and Darcy could be played by the most talented actors in the world and still fail to make an impact on their audience. (See Wickham #7)
Why Wickham Has Weight
Austen does not create pointless characters. Even fools such as overbearing parents, clueless chaperones, and foolish suitors have purpose to move the story along and critique the culture of the society in which she lived. Before deciding on a winning Wickham, it is imperative to know how the author described her and how she used him in Pride and Prejudice.
He’s a Foil for Mr. Darcy
Darcy comes off as supercilious and rude for many excellent reasons, but Elizabeth learns later in the novel that his character runs deeper than the front he puts forth in company. Wickham, however, is the definition of charming from the very moment they bump into him on the street:
“This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversation—a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming; and the whole party were still standing and talking together very agreeably…” Pride and Prejudice, Volume I, Chapter 15
Without Wickham’s charm, readers and audience members might not judge Darcy as harshly as they do. Thus, Wickham’s capacity for charm limits the amount of change the Mr. Darcy can accomplish within the arc of the story.
An Ideal Wickham Support Elizabeth’s Character
It’s hard to resonate with Elizabeth and why she defends Wickham so vehemently if you do not understand why she finds him attractive. Austen pulls out all the stops when introducing Wickham and he is a gentleman to a fault to all of the sisters from the beginning:
“Mr. Denny and Mr. Wickham walked with the young ladies to the door of Mr. Phillip’s house, and then made their bows…” Pride and Prejudice, Volume I, Chapter 15
Readers and the audience must understand the attraction Elizabeth feels for Wickham and this can only be accomplished by an incredibly gentlemanly and cunning man.
Wickham Carries the Climactic Action
Which Pride and Prejudice character does Austen have bring the story to its climax? Whose deviousness threatens the happiness of everyone involved and threatens to end the story on a sour note? Mr. Wickham. He does this all while remaining fully human just quite manipulative and selfish. And it his very humanness as a villain–his inability to think beyond his own scramble for more–that needs to come through in the falling action. Austen uses a conversation between Elizabeth and Wickham after he marries Lydia for what Darcy offers him to drive home his lack of change:
“[Wickham:] “I mention [the village of Kympton], because it is the living which I ought to have had. A most delightful place!—Excellent Parsonage House! It would have suited me in every respect.”
[Elizabeth:] “How should you have liked making sermons?”
“Exceedingly well. I should have considered it as part of my duty, and the exertion would soon have been nothing. One ought not to repine;—but, to be sure, it would have been such a thing for me! The quiet, the retirement of such a life would have answered all my ideas of happiness! But it was not to be. Did you ever hear Darcy mention the circumstance, when you were in Kent?”
“I have heard from authority, which I thought as good, that it was left you conditionally only, and at the will of the present patron.”
“You have. Yes, there was something in that; I told you so from the first, you may remember.”
“I did hear, too, that there was a time, when sermon-making was not so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared your resolution of never taking orders, and that the business had been compromised accordingly.”
“You did! and it was not wholly without foundation. You may remember what I told you on that point, when first we talked of it.”
They were now almost at the door of the house, for she had walked fast to get rid of him; and unwilling, for her sister’s sake, to provoke him, she only said in reply, with a good-humoured smile: “Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past. In future, I hope we shall be always of one mind.” She held out her hand; he kissed it with affectionate gallantry, though he hardly knew how to look, and they entered the house.” Pride and Prejudice, Volume 3, Chapter 10
A truly talented Wickham will reveal in his demeanor in the final scenes a whiff of defeat, the stagnancy of a flat character, and hint of power to continue to threaten the happiness of everyone involved with his rampant selfishness.
Few actors are up to the task of becoming a Winning Wickham of Austen proportions. Even fewer adaptations of the ever-popular Pride and Prejudice succeed in developing such a charming foil, support, and challenge for the other leading characters. Using the criteria gleaned from Austen’s original text as a guide, Adapt That decided to rank some of the Wickhams available in popular culture today.*
8. The Undead Wickham: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
This film, admittedly not a direct adaptation of P&P, deserved a mention for how it manipulates the antagonist’s storyline with some cleverness. Mr. Wickham of 2016 went truly off the scale in the “bring the story to a climax” category by attempting to rule the known world with a herd of pacified Undead. Although Jack Husten does an admirable job with the material he was given, his character’s Undead status destroys his ability to be a proper foil in the end for Mr. Darcy. It’s creative, to be sure, but doubtful Austen would have ruined the potency of her antagonist by turning him into a mere zombie.
He does, however, look like he belongs in regimentals.
7. 1940’s Wickham: Maybe it’s the mustache?
He’s handsome enough. He’s polite enough. He’s charming…ish.
Mr. Wickham is Edward Ashley plus mustache in this version. And he’s no match for Lawrence Olivier’s confusing Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth knows it. The audience knows it. And even he seems it. Our attention remains elsewhere. The creators should have taken some of that pomade out of Wickham’s hair and used it to polish some suaveness into his portrayal of one of literature’s smoothest-talking manipulators.
6. All beauty no brains? Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Don’t get me wrong–I was thrilled when I heard that Rupert Friend was cast as the ever-complicated guy everyone loves to hate in Focus Features’s Pride and Prejudice. He’s rather convincing as Prince Albert in the The Young Victoria. And he is quite easy on the eyes too…
Yet he falls so flat as Wickham in this adaptation. I don’t know if it was the limitations of the script, the direction, or a lack of understanding on the part of the actor, but his Wickham delivers his lines with a mindlessness that makes me wonder how he turned incredibly intelligent Elizabeth’s head.
Maybe it was that face (those muscles!) in that uniform. However, 2005 Wickham is far from the portrayal of an overly charming, gentlemanly, selfish smooth-talker.
5. Jack: Pride and Prejudice–A Latter-Day Comedy (2003)
Okay. So, there’s a few things going on in this adaptation. We are first introduced to
George Jack at a party, and his recent absences are observed with the remark, “You don’t even go to church anymore!”
Now, considering the culture of the characters in the film, this makes sense. But Henry Maguire’s “Jack” goes from a church skipper who is a total jerk to Elizabeth on a date to a serial bigamist and gambler with several warrants out on his arrest in the state of Nevada who convinces girls to marry him in Las Vegas in order to steal their money.
Yup. (Jack is the guy in green looking at another girl while he has one draped around his neck. Fitting.) Now, this isn’t necessarily a far-fetched modernization. However, church skipper to gambling addicted bigamist who insists on going to the same Vegas chapel for all his gals is a leap a bit too far.
4. Johnny? Bride and Prejudice (2004)
Um, well, modernizing a classic is a challenge. And this sometimes comes through in the names. For example, George Wickham is obviously way too old and not sexy enough, so I give you:
Johnny. Johnny Wickham.
Oh, yes. Daniel Gillies tops the wet white shirt trope and goes shirtless.
And apparently, Lalita (the Elizabeth character) thought it matched Firth’s iconic, white-shirt glory. (Come on! It’s glory when an item gets it’s own museum tour.) Because the charm and connection between them is palpable. The only criticism I have of this adaptation is how they conclude things with the character of “Johnny Wickham.” A caper around the London Eye followed by a punch-out in a movie theater? Yeah, it adds to the comedic musical whimsy of the adaptation, but it destroys the latent agency of Wickham present at the end of the story and the power he still holds of Lydia.
3. The 1980’s Wickham: Beautiful and Wicked
I feel like BBC’s 1980 model of Wickham is the whole package for the most part. Peter Settelen gave the world a beautiful, charming, and gentlemanly portrayal and the has everyone down to the dour Mary Bennet in his pocket.
But where other adaptations fail to make Wickham charming enough before he is dastardly, this adaptation of P&P almost presents a Wickham so charming it is hard to believe that he would do what he did. There’s no raw spirit bubbling under the surface and the cunning nature of the climax suffers a bit as a result. I wonder in the end if Lydia might actually be genuinely happy later in life despite the allusions of manipulation he throws to Elizabeth in his final scenes.
2. A Wickham for the Digital Age: Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)
I am pretty much constantly in awe of the creative genius of the Lizzie Bennet diaries, so it should be no surprise that they came up with one of the best interpretations of Wickham in existence. The dashingly handsome reformed frat boy has nearly everyone convinced that it’s more than just a line. That he’s determined to better himself. That he loves Lydia. Right up until the moment when he threatens to expose Lydia’s vulnerable moment to the world on a website scheduled to go live on Valentine’s Day. He’s beautiful, he’s charming, he’s convincing, he’s sexy… and he will do anything to continue living the way he thinks he deserves to live. And there’s always the hint of wonder at the end if he will resurface with some new, unexpected threat.
Seriously! Watch his seduction of annoying-yet-naive Lydia on her channel and tell me where the lines stop and the truth begins:
And I believe just how Austen might have written it. If only she knew what frat boys were. In any case, the only reason Wes Aderhold did not clinch the #1 Best Wicked Wickham spot with his portrayal remains that his romantic pursuit if Lizzy always seemed lacking in… chemistry for lack of a better word.
1. Greatness is Born of Greatness: Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Adrian Lukis takes the cake with his portrayal of Mr. Wickham in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (1995). He is handsome in a slightly rakish sort of way, utterly charming and gentlemanly, and meets Elizabeth wit for wit. He remains a perfect foil for Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy because he gradually reveals less and less to like about Wickham as Firth puts forth more and more to like about Darcy. And, in Wickham’s final conversation with Elizabeth, we note him still trying the old manipulative tricks of sympathy before whipping the black coat of charm back on to conceal his intentions and camouflage as a gentleman until a less knowing victim appears.
And he does look very well in his regimentals.
*Pride and Prejudice Adaptations Evaluated: Pride and Prejudice (1940), BBC’s 1980 Miniseries Pride and Prejudice, BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice Miniseries, Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (2003), Bride and Prejudice (2004), Pride and Prejudice (2005), Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
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