Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) and Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Before Bridget Jones’s Diary, “chick lit” had a soggy connotation, like a Hallmark novel with an edgier cover. For this eventual mid-’90s bestselling bombshell, British writer Helen Fielding combined a series of columns she wrote for The Independent. Hired to write about her life as a single London girl, Fielding instead created an “exaggerated, comic, fictional character. I assumed no one would read it, and it would be dropped after six weeks for being too silly.” Instead, the book that resulted from the columns captivated readers (especially female ones) all over the globe.
Fielding’s book convinced the publishing world that a romance novel (loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice) could find an audience based just on a vibrant vocabulary and fervent wit. Fellow singletons quickly responded to the unflagging openness of Bridget’s diary, including her weight, as well as number of calories and cigarettes and alcohol units consumed: “125 lbs. (If only could stay under 126 lbs. and not keep bobbing up and down like bobbing corpse—drowning in fat), alcohol units 2, cigarettes 17 (pre-shag nerves—understandable), calories 775 (last-ditch attempt to get down to 119 before tomorrow).” Her devoted readers related to a woman who could instantly tell you the number of calories in a (peeled) banana, but who might not be able to find Germany on a map, to say nothing of a pair of clean tights with no holes. Bridget Jones’s Diary raised self-deprecation to an art form.
Fielding helpfully calls out the Austen reference straightaway, kicking off the book with Bridget and Mark’s first meeting at the infamous turkey curry buffet. This Mr. Darcy also is curt and rude and a bit dismissive of our Bridget: “It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking aloof at a party. It’s like being called ‘Heathcliff’’ and insisting on spending your evening in the garden, calling ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree.”
After that auspicious meeting, Mark Darcy only pops up briefly in the book at another party before reentering Bridget’s life in the fall of her diary’s calendar year, after she’s finally broken it off with that cad Daniel Cleaver, after catching him with a naked American giantess on the roof of his flat. For the rest of the year, Bridget is more focused on her parents, her friends, switching jobs, but above all, her diet. It’s hard to explain how revolutionary this was, in a world when many women would sooner throw themselves on a sword than show you that dreaded number on their driver’s license. The constant weighing and monitoring leads to some out-and-out hilarity, as when she gains a few pounds overnight (“What? Why? From where?”). In April, Bridget finally reaches her goal weight of 119 pounds by giving up practically everything but herbal tea, but is told by her close friend Tom (“who has taken to calling himself, unflatteringly, a hag fag”): “I think you looked better before, hon.” Despite that revelation, months later she is still searching for that elusive number on the scale, even though she’s already seen that automatic happiness will not accompany it. It’s a plight that far too many women are familiar with, and Fielding not only embraced it, but refreshingly poked fun at it. It’s as if she was saying, “I know you do this; I do this too. But when I write it all out like this, isn’t it ridiculous?”
Fielding called Bridget “the gap between how we feel we are expected to be and how we actually are.” This was nowhere perhaps more obvious than when Bridget attempts to host a few dinner parties, failing miserably as she serves blue soup and orange marmalade. In one instance, her friends go ahead and make a giant restaurant reservation ahead of time, rightfully predicting that she’ll mess up the meal preparations. But this imperfect heroine resonated with readers who also occasionally nestled beneath that low bar, taking two-and-a-half hours to pull together a simple outfit for the office, or frittering away an entire day supposedly spent working at home by looking at vacation brochures (followed by: “1:00 p.m.: Lunchtime! Finally a bit of a break.”) In a world where many chick-lit heroines and rom-com stars were often passed off as some sort of adorable type-A superwomen (like Jennifer Lopez’s super-organized Wedding Planner or Sophie Kinsella’s uber-ambitious Undomestic Goddess), the smoking, drinking, swearing Bridget Jones was funny, likable, and most of all, relatable. Many singletons of a similar ilk chose Bridget (or Fielding, more like) as their own personal heroine.
By the time news of the Bridget Jones’s movie rolled around a few years later, the women who had absorbed the movie into their own DNA furiously debated online who should inhabit that title role. The announcement of Renee Zellweger was a bit of a shock: She was American, for God’s sake, and rather on the thin side. But to nearly everyone’s surprise, Zellweger turned out to be about the perfect Bridget. She gained a few pounds, worked in a publisher’s office for awhile, and even still spoke in her English accent on set when she wasn’t shooting.
Past Zellweger, the casting of the men in Bridget’s life confirmed that the movie would be a rom-com classic, improbably improving on the roles in the book. Hugh Grant personified the role of the ridiculously charming but caddish Cleaver, in a part that Fielding said was much more like his actual personality than the foppish, lovestricken bumblers he often played on screen. (Cue the devastating introduction of Grant through the elevator door, to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”) He is so ridiculously handsome and hilarious, the viewer is soon as besotted as Bridget. By the time he cheats on her with the “American stick insect,” we’re as heartbroken as she is, only about 40 minutes into the movie. So when Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy swoops in soon afterward to defend her at the Smug Marrieds’ dinner, culminating with telling this self-improvement obsessive that he likes her just as she is, it’s a palpable relief.
Firth, who had previously depicted the greatest Mr. Darcy ever in the 1996 BBC miniseries, electrified the role of Mark Darcy. Colin Firth already knew how to glower and gaze longingly better than any man alive, making him perfect for another arrogant yet secretly romantic male lead. His dismissing of Bridget at the curry buffet, followed by some painfully cutting remarks, make her follow-up lines of “Yummy! Turkey curry, my favorite!” admiringly brave.
The movie then plays up Darcy’s role so that he appears more consistently throughout the movie. So book Mark Darcy isn’t present at that tortuous “Smug Marrieds” dinner party he and Bridget attend in the movie. Movie Mark also shows up at Bridget and Daniel’s mini-break, looking on longingly as the two yell out poetry while rowing on the estate lake, or inwardly sulking when Bridget leaves with Daniel at a party. Since Bridget’s diary is (obviously) only from her perspective, Firth’s Darcy is able to bring out more of his character’s side to the cinematic table, showing why lively Bridget is such a draw for his staid, semi-formal life.
Darcy is so silent and brooding that Firth appears to have only about half of the lines that Grant does. The rivalry between the two men is played up as well, to the climax of their epic, yet still politely English, fistfight, which ends with them smashing through a plate-glass window.
Daniel’s attempt at a reconciliation at the end of the fight enables Bridget to reject Daniel properly in the movie, which she doesn’t in the book: “That’s not a good enough offer for me.” With Bridget volleying between these two intriguing men, the filmmakers wisely expanded both their roles, so the movie focuses more on Bridget’s romantic relationships than anything else. Her diary shows up in occasional voice-over narrations and on odd signage, and is shoehorned in to the movie’s ending, but Bridget plays best against either, or both, of the two men in question. Bridget’s parents’ split in the book gets a bit complicated and even ensnarled with a criminal element, as her mother serves as the wayward family member that Mark Darcy has to track down, like Lydia in Pride & Prejudice. As the movie places more emphasis on romance, Bridget’s mother eventually realizes the error of her wayward ways and comes home on her own.
There’s still a lot of brilliance in Bridget Jones’s Diary’s source material that the movie smartly holds onto: the frequent drinks with friends Shazzer, Jude, and Tom; the bunny outfit at the tarts and vicars party; Bridget and Mark having some important relationship moments against the backdrop of his parents’ ruby wedding celebration. But it also added valuable humorous visual elements, like Bridget’s granny panties, the disastrous shot from the fire station, and the end-credits sequence in the American release that features a flashback to Bridget running around naked in Mark’s paddling pool at a childhood birthday party, foreshadowing their eventual relationship. Those credits make it abundantly clear what both bring to each other, while the book and its omnipresent narrator make the situation a bit more one-sided. At the end of the book, Bridget demands to know why Mark has gone to all this trouble to save her family, and he sighs, “Bridget. Isn’t it obvious?” Well, apparently not.
Start with: Both are excellent, but it’s likely that many people who have seen the movie have not read the book, and those people are urged to rectify this oversight immediately. The rom-com cinematic standard still holds up 15 years later (so much so that it’s soon getting yet another sequel, which apparently takes place before the book’s latest sequel, Mad About The Boy). It even hurdles the clunkiest line in a British ending scene since “Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed”: “Oh yes they fucking do.” It seems highly unlikely that Mark Darcy would run out to a stationery shop in a snowstorm while Bridget is undressing, but at least that gives the couple’s impressive first kissing session a nice setting, even though the movie ends with such a throwaway line.
As lovely as these two leads are, Zellweger is so nice as Bridget, we lose some of the character’s bite that she pours onto the printed page. A few voice-overs or scribbled diary lines make it difficult to fully display her obsessive “lurve” for Cleaver or initial venom for Darcy. The movie is charming, but unlikely to make the viewer howl with laughter like Bridget’s literary one-liners, as when she crafts the perfect comeback to her parents’ friends who keep asking her if she has a boyfriend: “How’s the marriage going then? Still having sex?” or translates what her mother’s constant attempts to fix her up really mean: “Darling, do shag Mark Darcy over the turkey buffet, won’t you? He’s very rich.”
But where Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary implies that Bridget is fine, actually great, just the way she is, we don’t really get a sense that she believes it herself. Although she ends the book with “an excellent year’s progress,” her enthusiasm over pounds lost (72) versus pounds gained (74) or her £12 in lottery ticket winnings, appear to indicate she will continue on this circuitous self-improvement path (which she does in both the book and film versions of the sequel, Edge Of Reason, where she finds that being locked up in a Thailand prison may solve her weight-loss problems). Movie Bridget is told outright by Mark, as well as all of her friends, that she is loved “just as she is,” and we can only hope that she finally believes it.
But we’re lucky to have both versions, as few page-to-film transitions are as successful as Bridget Jones’s Diary; both took the best advantage of the perks and drawbacks of each medium. That such a beloved book made a fairly seamless transition to the screen is nothing short of a rom-com miracle.