Last summer, when I learned that the Hallmark Channel would celebrate Christmas by broadcasting a movie based on a Jane Austen fanfic titled Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe, I snapped up the Kindle edition of the book and started reading:
A Taylor Swift cover of “Last Christmas,” originally recorded by Wham! in 1986, strummed from the stereo of the sleek, black town car, where Darcy was sitting in the back seat.
It is never a good sign when you crack open a new book and your inner copy editor begins screaming at the very first sentence – pointing out, for example, that “strummed” is a verb that requires a direct object, or that the recording history of “Last Christmas” is a topic best left to the liner notes of the CD.
Such, however, are the joys of Melissa de la Cruz’s extraordinarily terrible P&P spinoff, which updates the story to the contemporary Midwest and swaps the genders of the protagonists. Darcy Fitzwilliam, the daughter of the richest family in Pemberley, Ohio, has left her hometown to make it big at a New York hedge fund. Local carpenter Luke Bennet was once her high school nemesis. Darcy comes home when her mother gets sick, locks lips with Luke under the mistletoe at her family Christmas party, and . . . oh, you know the drill. Her best friend and his brother – a same-sex couple, in this version – fall in love; the arrogant-but-secretly-insecure Darcy suggests romance, but Luke turns her down; she rescues his younger siblings from the consequences of their misbehavior; he acknowledges his love for her, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The story is limp and poorly paced, hitting the major beats of Jane Austen’s plot without a shred of wit, playfulness, or originality. And at times the prose rises (falls?) to an awe-inspiring level of badness. (My personal favorite: “She would barely be able to eat anyway, she knew, with the storm of knots and butterflies brewing in the pit of her stomach.”)
So my expectations were low when I tuned in Friday night for Hallmark’s filmed adaptation, the second P&P-inspired movie in the channel’s ongoing Countdown to Christmas series.
Blog readers will recall that Hallmark began venturing into Janeite territory nearly three years ago, with the airing of Unleashing Mr. Darcy, still the gold standard – or perhaps the dross standard – of Bad Austen-Themed Filmmaking.
Less than a month ago, the channel brought us its first holiday-themed Austen movie, Christmas at Pemberley Manor, which gave new meaning to the term “loosely,” as in “loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.” In fact, except for the names of its characters, Pemberley Manor bears virtually no relation to Austen’s original: instead, it is the story of a driven workaholic named Darcy who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.
But given its roots in Austen fanfic, Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe – Hallmark has dispensed with the extra “and” – seemed likely to hew more closely to the original. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that de la Cruz’s by-way-of-Austen plot had been largely discarded in favor of a story about a driven workaholic named Darcy who falls for a creative free spirit while they jointly plan a community Christmas gathering.
In this version, Luke (Brendan Penny) is a restaurateur who agrees to cater the annual benefit for the local youth center, which Darcy (Lacey Chabert) and her mother have agreed to organize at short notice. Gone are the rejected proposal and the troubled-sibling rescue, while the same-sex romance has been replaced by a heterosexual one: presumably, Hallmark wanted to avoid offending its most conservative viewers. (Meanwhile, Darcy's duplicitous business partner is a woman named -- in what I can only conclude is a spirit of gratuitous anti-Janeite insult -- Austin.)
It’s hard to know how to feel about the semi-radical transformation on display here. (Except for the craven gay-to-straight move; I know just how to feel about that.) On the one hand, I cannot lament the loss of de la Cruz’s plot, because it is terrible.
But on the other hand, the bait-and-switch is breathtaking: You lure viewers with the promise of P&P, and instead they get a generically written and tepidly acted Enemies-to-Lovers rom-com in which Girl and Boy trade a few vaguely hostile witticisms before settling into an exchange of soulful glances and heartfelt platitudes (“You’re every ounce the man your dad was”), sprinkled with holiday-tinted saccharine (“Christmas isn’t just a day or a season – it’s a state of mind.”).
I suppose it could be said that by repeatedly tuning in to these mediocre-at-best Austen spinoffs, we Janeites – and by “we” I mean “I” – deserve whatever we get. Like the “fond mother. . . in pursuit of praise for her children” whom Austen describes in chapter 21 of Sense and Sensibility, we may perhaps be “though . . . the most rapacious of human beings . . . likewise the most credulous; [our] demands are exorbitant; but [we] will swallow anything.”
Because you know that if next year’s Countdown to Christmas includes Holiday at Hartfield or Yuletide Abbey, I’ll be there.