In the most recent issue of The Atlantic film critic Christopher Orr asks the question, “Why are romantic comedies so bad?” His answer reveals much about the current state of our cultural decline:
“…there’s more at work here than the vagaries of stars or studios. It’s not just them; it’s us. Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by. They used to lie thick on the ground: parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed–perhaps in Hollywood most of all–to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.”
Which explains why we’re not likely to see again a novel such as the one that in substantial ways defined the genre of romantic comedy for both fiction and film: Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. In this year 2013 we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the 1813 publication of Pride and Prejudice, a novel which, though still a delight to untold numbers of readers, in many ways represents a gone world.
To be sure, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy have their obstacles to overcome: class, family, and of course their respective attitudes of pride and prejudice. Jane Austen employed her prodigious talents to prod her social world beyond its limitations no less than contemporary screenwriters and chick lit novelists do. But it’s one thing to critique the pomposity of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as an unjust impediment to Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s union. It’s quite another to keep pushing the social envelope when class structures, family authority, and sexual taboos have all fallen by the wayside.
About sexual taboos in movies Orr reflects: “There was a time when carnal knowledge was the (implied) endpoint of the romantic comedy; today it’s just as likely to be the premise. In 2005’s A Lot Like Love–a dull, joyless rip-off of When Harry Met Sally–Amanda Peet and Ashton Kutcher meet cute by having sex in an airplane lavatory before they’ve spoken a single word to each other. Where’s a film to go when the “happy ending” takes place at the beginning?”
Orr is right to complain about A Lot Like Love, yet he’s content enough to accept a long-anticipated “hook up” as a sufficient “happy ending” of a romantic comedy. These fragments he would shore against our cultural ruin. But he’s really missing the whole point of what romantic comedy is all about.
The principal reason Pride and Prejudice is a masterpiece is not because two attractive lovers finally get together in the end. No. Pride and Prejudice is a masterpiece because it is a story about two young people realizing that they are morally flawed, and who, in working through their moral flaws, realize that they might just be able to pull off that virtuous friendship which is the only foundation of a successful marriage. “I was given good principles,” Darcy says to Elizabeth at the end, “but left to follow them in pride and conceit.” Elizabeth, too, has to overcome deficiencies in moral formation in order to recognize the goodness in Darcy. What is often missed is that, in neglecting their children’s moral education, the parents in Pride and Prejudice are the villains of the piece.
To put it mildly, the tradition of the virtues is no longer our reigning cultural paradigm. It is because of this that Orr can only predict that in scrounging around for dramatic obstacles rom com writers will have to resort to ever more outrageous elements. What could be more outrageous than for two lovers to be kept apart because each of them believes that premarital sex is contrary to the virtue of chastity? Will we ever see such a book or film outside the “Christian Fiction” section at Barnes and Noble?
Our admiration for Pride and Prejudice will go ever on, no doubt, because our desire for romance never dies. But in pursuing romance at any cost we have lost our appetite for true romance, for romance founded upon virtue, for romance that ends as all good comedies end: with a wedding.
Happy Birthday, Pride and Prejudice. We may never see your like again.
Books mentioned in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.