BEFORE THE FALL: Lost In Adaptation
Although the idea of reimagining Pride & Prejudice with a same-sex couple, Before The Fall lacks the fiery spirit of the source material.
There are few books that have been adapted as often and as diversely as Pride and Prejudice. The two adaptations that spring to mind first are the Colin–Firth-In-A-Wet-Shirt 1995 miniseries, and the 2005 film version with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in the leading roles. And then there are the adaptations that come with a twist. Bridget Jones Diary turns the story into a modern rom-com. Bride And Prejudice takes it to Bollywood. Austenland turns it into a theme park. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies adds… well… zombies.
The latest of these adaptations is Byrum Geisler‘s Before The Fall, which has a comparatively low-key twist on the original novel. Elizabeth Bennet has been replaced by Ben Bennett, making the story now about a gay couple.
Before The Fall
Ben Bennett (Ethan Sharrett) is a successful lawyer, Lee Darcy (Chase Conner) a welder who has been wrongly charged with domestic abuse, thanks to the false evidence of a neighbour. Though they don’t formally meet in court, Lee overhears Ben make a derisive comment about him, and takes it to heart.
They are introduced some time later at a party and Ben realises that Lee heard his slight. At that same party, the best friends of the two men, Jane (Brandi Price) and Chuck (Jason Mac), meet and immediately fall for each other. Their courtship is marred by financial disparity; she is wealthy, and he is not.
Feeling guilty about his rudeness towards Lee, Ben decides to investigate his case, while getting pulled into the shady orbit of Lee’s lawyer, George Wickham (Jonathan Horvarth). As feelings between Ben and Lee heat up, Lee, who is still with his girlfriend Cathy (Carol Marie Rinn), must come to terms with his real sexuality.
Lost In Adaptation
Before The Fall excises a lot from its source material. All of the Bennett family but Jane are gone, which leaves no Lydia to have the affair with Wickham that provides the novel with so much of its drama. Charlotte Lucas is gone, as is Mr Collins. Caroline Bingley is largely removed, though facets remain in Lee’s homophobic girlfriend Cathy.
The sole storyline that remains more or less the same as in the book is the romance between Jane and Charles (who here goes by Chuck). Though it is sweetly played by Mac and Price, it never amounts to more than box-ticking. If that storyline hadn’t been included, Before The Fall just wouldn’t have seemed enough like Pride and Prejudice to be able to draw the comparison.
So what replaces all that has ended up on the cutting room floor? Well, much of the ‘action’ now revolves around Lee’s legal case.
Before he and Ben have their first real conversation, his trial is already over, and he is in the midst of his community service. Yet Ben takes it upon himself to make a witness recant her false testimony, which will… stop Lee going to prison? Nope. Clear his name completely? Nope.
Okay, so the witness recanting her testimony does mean Lee will find it easier to get a good job once he’s finished his community service. That’s not nothing. But it’s not enough to put at the dramatic centre of a whole film. The low stakes surrounding such an important plot point leave the drama feeling decidedly undramatic. And again, there’s an element of adaptation box-ticking involved. Excising Lydia from the action leaves Wickham, arguably the novel’s main villain, nowhere to enter the plot. This lethargic legal drama seems to have been engineered purely as a way of squeezing him in.
Ben And Lee
While the legal case may be the film’s dramatic centre, its emotional one is obviously the relationship between Ben and Lee. Geisler has unwisely decided to tinker with the integral traits that have made the leads of Pride And Prejudice such an enduring couple. And I’m not talking about their gender.
In the novel it is Darcy’s haughty comments that begin the action; in the film those lines are given to Ben. In the novel, Darcy and Elizabeth can match each other in the pride stakes, thus igniting sparks that have kept this story alive for centuries. In the film, Ben is only prideful for a moment and spends the rest of the movie regretting it. And Lee is about as far from proud as you can be. There’s none of the back and forth needed to make the relationship suitably fiery.
Lee is the film’s most sympathetic character, largely because he is so full of self-doubt. One of the few things that works about Before The Fall is Lee’s battle with his sexuality. It’s well played and convincing, and I wish it had been given more screen time.
So do Ben and Lee work as a couple? Well… not really. Geisler unwisely keeps them apart for most of the film’s first half, distracting Ben with Wickham, and Lee with his self-confidence issues. As they begin to circle around each other and eventually get to talking, it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s no spark. They’re nice together, and there’s a little scene involving a notebook that’s quite lovely. But there isn’t enough chemistry there to make you forget the film’s many flaws.
I’ve talked chiefly here of Before The Fall‘s lack of fealty to the book, and that might seem unfair. The film should clearly be judged on its success as a film, not in its success as an adaptation. There are, after all, many examples of loose book adaptations that have made great films.
But when almost every decision the writer/director makes in adapting is a bad one, then it becomes a real issue. If you declare your movie a ‘reimagining’ of Pride and Prejudice, then the ghost of Pride and Prejudice looms large over everything, and it exacerbates every wrong turn that Geisler takes. I suppose it’s fortunate that the one largely positive update from the source material is the film’s headline change: making the story about a same-sex couple.
Making Ben and Lee a gay couple opens up the meaning of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for the 21st century. The ‘prejudice’ part is obvious. But where this film works best is exploring the ‘pride’, and the journey Lee undertakes from seeing his sexuality as the shameful secret that it was for his father, to something he can be proud of. It’s actually quite moving. It’s just a shame that that one positive plot strand is smothered beneath a mountain of tedium.
What’s your favourite Pride And Prejudice film adaptation?
Before The Fall is out in the UK and the US on May 30th. For all other release dates, click here.
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