Inspiration: Jane Austen Adaptations

It’s amazing how many creative minds have taken Jane Austen’s brJane Austenilliant Regency-era novels and re-imagined them on film. Below is an ever-increasing list of period adaptations, modern reworkings, and films about Jane herself and “Janeite” culture, ranked by my own arbitrary criteria.

Northanger Abbey

The novel was written circa 1798-99, although it was finally published posthumously in 1818. It was the first novel she completed for publication, although she had already started drafting the works that would eventually become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The novel differs a bit from Austen’s others: it is in the genre of the Gothic novel, and yet subtly parodies it at the same time. Northanger Abbey is a particularly difficult work to adapt, partly because it contains so many literary references and allusions contemporary to its time, and partly because the best parts of the book take place in the heroine’s mind.

3. “Pup Fiction,” an episode of the 1990s PBS children’s TV show Wishbone. The show gets most of the major plot points right–other than the casting of a Jack Russell terrier as Henry Tilney! The inclusion of a rather dopey (even for a kids’ show) modern-day B-story is standard for the show. IMDB/Library

2. Northanger Abbey (1987): This BBC “Screen Two” production from 1987 is curiously fastidious on some points–costumes in particular–and oddly anachronistic in others. The 1980s Euro-synth soundtrack and surrealist dream sequences frequently undermine the Gothic roots of the novel. Amazon/Library

1. Northanger Abbey (2007): This Andrew Davies adaptation features some excellent casting (including a young Carey Mulligan) and satirical wit, although it does hit some false notes with both Catherine Morland’s daydream sequences and the tryst (rather than mere flirtation) between Isabella Thorpe and Frederick Tilney. Amazon/Library

Yet to be seen:
“La Abadia de Northanger” (1968):
TV novela.

Sense and Sensibility

The difficulty in filming this story seems to be finding a way to make both Marianne and Elinor Dashwood appealing characters. Some versions seem sympathetic to Elinor and her “sense” and therefore Marianne comes off frustratingly silly, or else Elinor is dull and stern and Marianne lively and fun. Perhaps only the top film comes close…

4. Scents and Sensibility (2011): Oof, I turned this off about 15 minutes in the first time I tried watching. The cheek of two spoiled sisters turning up their noses at an awesome vintage Toyota truck! For the sake of this post, I returned to it. The rich-fish-out-of-water trope is common in movies, but it’s hard to make the characters likable. In this case, the Dashwood sisters are quite one-dimensional, and their magic lotion business makes very little sense indeed. Amazon/Library

3. Sense and Sensibility (2008): This Andrew Davies adaptation begins a bit confusingly with an up-close, fire-lit seduction scene (“Did I rent the right movie? Who is getting seduced?”) but finds its stride. The actresses in this miniseries seem closest in age to the characters in the book, and the precariousness of their situation comes across well. Yet the performances fade into memory, unlike the earlier two versions.  Amazon/Library

2. Sense and Sensibility (1971): This version is quite enjoyable. Although the youngest Dashwood sister is completely absent, and Marianne is irritatingly flighty (she says goodbye to the curtains!), many of the other castings are pleasant surprises. The lovely Joanna David (later Mrs. Gardiner in the 1995 P&P) plays Elinor very sympathetically, and Patricia Routledge (Hyacinth Bucket on Keeping Up Appearances) is delightful as Mrs. Jennings. Amazon/Library

1. Sense and Sensibility (1995): Finally, a set of Dashwoods that you want to root for: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Screenwriter Thompson adapted the story in ways that made sense for a film with wide appeal. The cast is really stellar, and includes a pre-House Hugh Laurie in a funny minor role. But all those assets aside, what really makes this film surpass all others is Alan Rickman’s perfect delivery of the amazing line, “The air. was. full. of. spices.” Amazon/Library

Yet to be seen:
Sense and Sensibility (1981)

From Prada to Nada (2011)

Pride & Prejudice

So many P&P adaptations! Long before Colin Firth’s pond scene, it seems this was always the novel of choice for film- and miniseries-makers…

9. Lost in Austen (2008): This is pretty wretched, actually. It started out as a promising concept–a modern-day Janeite (complete with P&P 1995 ringtone) gets to trade places with Lizzie Bennet. Yet the vulgar and dimwitted heroine, Amanda, has no idea how to behave in society (what exactly did she get out of the books/movies she supposedly loves?)–which doesn’t stop every man she meets from falling for her, awkward behavior and all. The fish-out-of-water bit goes on way too long, only to give way to Amanda telling everyone how things are “supposed” to go, according to the book. Amazon/Library

8. Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (2003): This re-imagining of Lizzie Bennet as a Mormon in Utah is fairly easy for non-LDS folks like myself to follow: the experience of living in a society with strict social norms translates pretty well. The supporting characters like Jane–Elizabeth’s schoolmate from Argentina, rather than sister–and Collins often steal the show from the two leads, who are both very attractive but under-written. Elizabeth seems rather simple, rather than the “connoisseur of human folly” we all know and love, and Darcy’s offenses towards her are minor indeed. It is laced with quotes from the book between scenes, and has some fun allusions–a posh restaurant is called “Rosings,” and so on. Amazon/Library

7. Bride and Prejudice (2004): This Bollywood treatment of P&P begins in India, with detours to London and California. Elizabeth’s character becomes Lalita, a middle-class girl from Amritsar, Will Darcy is a UK-born hotel magnate, Bingley transforms into Balraj, a barrister who has lost touch with his Indian roots, etc. In the most 2004 of all details, Ashanti appears in the film for several of the musical interludes. Actually, the entire film made me nostalgic for the fashions and technology of the early 2000s (MSN Messenger plays a pivotal plot role!). From an Austenian perspective, the film is less satirical than it is straightforwardly critical of the post-colonial race and class distinctions in India, the U.K., and U.S.: as a viewer, it is easy to sympathize with Lalita’s frustrations. Amazon/Library

6. Pride and Prejudice (1940): This isn’t the most faithful adaptation, but for fans of Old Hollywood Glamour–or of screenwriter Aldous Huxley, it’s a must. The film features Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier at the peak of their careers. The costumes, while not period-appropriate, are beautiful and intricate, with details that come through even in black and white. Marsha Hunt’s comedic portrayal of Mary Bennet, squinting and singing off-key, ended up in the DNA of many later Marys. Amazon/Library

5. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001): This is sort of a modern retelling of P&P if Lydia Bennet were to end up with Darcy. Bridget is a likable character, but she’s not really a Lizzie. The author of the Bridget books, Helen Fielding, seems not unlike the heroines of Lost in Austen and Austenland: someone who can appreciate Colin Firth in a wet shirt (or a funny sweater) more than someone obsessed with Austen’s writing. But the brilliant casting of Austen-film alums Colin Firth and Hugh Grant makes up for the bumbling vulgarity of our heroine and the physical comedy of the film. Amazon/Library

4. Pride and Prejudice (2005): Perhaps no other adaptation is as divisive among Austen fans as this one, for good reason: there is very little as far as characters, setting, and plot that hasn’t been tweaked from the original novel–and from the canonical earlier film adaptations. Individually, I don’t object to any of the changes–from a later 19th-century setting to a more independent Lizzie to a socially-anxious Darcy to more passionate dialogue to a more loving Mr. and Mrs. Bennet–but taken as a whole, and compressed into feature-film length, it simply doesn’t compare to some of its competition. Amazon/Library

3. Pride and Prejudice (1980): This Masterpiece Theatre version is quite faithful to the book’s dialogue, and can drag in places. The run-time of 226 minutes is daunting. The casting is also problematic–for one thing, Jane and Lizzie look so much alike it can be confusing, and the lead actress’ delivery of lives is more appropriate to the stage than to a film. David Rintoul as Darcy takes the haughtiness to an extreme degree, one from which it is hard to recover. I’d say this one is for diehard fans or kids with a book report due (though reading the book may be faster). Amazon/Library

2. Death Comes to Pemberley (2013): This is sort of the reverse of Lost in Austen–a concept that does not sound terribly appealing, made stellar by great characterization and great acting. Lizzie and Darcy, now married with a young son, find their lives turned upside down by a murder on the grounds of their estate. Not only does this film address the very practical implications of how difficult life would be for Darcy to have Wickham as a brother-in-law (not to mention having Mrs. Bennet around the house), and for Lizzie, in the eyes of others, to have risen above her station to become mistress of Pemberley, but its characters remain consistent with their previous depictions, flaws and all. Anna Maxwell Martin gives an excellent, nuanced performance. Amazon/Library

1. Pride and Prejudice (1995): This, my dears, is how you adapt an Austen movie. This is also why I keep mentioning Andrew Davies. I have nothing editorial to say here; just go watch it! Amazon/Library

Yet to be seen:
Pride and Prejudice (1938)
Pride and Prejudice (1952)
Pride and Prejudice (1958)
Pride and Prejudice (1967)
“Furst Impressions” (1995), an episode of Wishbone
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012-13)

Mansfield Park

Much like Northanger Abbey, it seems like the best Mansfield Park adaptation has yet to be made. The two widely available versions both have serious shortcomings.

  • Mansfield Park (1999): This is probably one of the most-hated Austen adaptations, and not without cause. It takes the names and some of the plot from the novel and re-imagines it all into something darker and more racy, yet far less sympathetic or witty than Austen. It ranges from depicting the evils of colonial slavery to illustrating the importance of women’s writing (Fanny almost becomes Jane herself) to having Fanny barge in on Henry and Maria in flagrante delicto in the room next to Tom’s sickbed. Mary Crawford is portrayed as a coldblooded gold-digger, and Edward’s continued attraction to her makes him seem weak and unworthy of Fanny. Amazon/Library
  • Mansfield Park (2007): Fanny Price, where are you? Billie Piper is playing someone, but not her. Blake Ritson is also better as a villain (Mr. Elton in Emma) than a hero, or perhaps it’s just the weakness of the script. On the whole, it’s far less problematic than the 1999 version, although it’s less interesting as well. Amazon/Library

Yet to be seen:
Metropolitan (1990)

Mansfield Park (1983)

Emma

  • Emma (1996) (Miramax): Although Gwyneth Paltrow captures the spoiled aspect of Emma Woodhouse, and Jeremy Northam plays one of the most likable Knightleys, the adaptation on the whole leaves a lot to be desired. Although the adaptation is one of the most comedic, Paltrow’s pouty faces are particularly off-putting. Amazon/Library
  • Emma (1972): Doran Goodwin is regal and mature in this 1970s BBC adaptation- so much so that Emma’s foibles scarcely register. John Carson’s Mr. Knightley is also self-possessed even at the character’s most trying moments. The dialogue does seem to stick the closest to the book. Amazon/Library
  • Emma (1996) (BBC): This Andrew Davies adaptation is often overshadowed by its contemporaries, the Miramax version of Emma, Clueless, and Davies’ Pride and Prejudice. While Kate Beckinsale as Emma lacks the humorous turns other versions try to preserve from Austen’s mannered comedy, she does capture the youthful snobbishness that Emma eventually outgrows. While Mark Strong’s Knightley is a bit too stern for my taste, overall the supporting cast is excellent. Amazon/Library
  • Clueless (1995): As a teen in the 1990s, the clothing, music, and even speech patterns popularized by this film were de rigeur. Yet it is much more than just a style manifesto. The charming cast and engaging script, with its clever modernizations of the original novel, hold up well over time. For many years, it ranked as my top Emma adaptation… Amazon/Library
  • Emma (2009): … Until, of course, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller starred in this miniseries, which is second only to P&P 1995 in my affections. Garai manages to capture all of Emma’s most unappealing qualities (as set forth by Austen) and yet make her a winning heroine. The series’ slow pacing affords it the opportunity to show the long-time bond between the Woodhouse, Knightley, and Bates families. Indeed, Tamsin Grieg is superb as Miss Bates, turning an annoying character into a heartbreaking example of how tenuous and income-dependent social status was for a woman in Regency England.  Amazon/Library

Yet to be seen:
Emma (1948)
Emma (1960)
Aisha (2010)

Persuasion

Persuasion is Austen’s last completed novel. She began it soon after she had finished Emma, and completed it in August 1816. She died, aged 41, in 1817, and Persuasion was published in 1818.

  • Persuasion (2007): ITV tried a second time at Persuasion, this time with a weaker, more passive performance from the two leads, but only a slightly less irritating supporting cast. I rather liked the gentler Lady Russell and more menacing Sir Walter Elliott, but they were not enough to compensate for the other strange modifications, including the infamous “Bath Marathon.” Overall, it’s a pretty dismal adaptation. Amazon/Library
  • Persuasion (1971): This ITV production features Ann Firbank as a more conspicuously beautiful and more self-assured Anne Elliott, an interpretation that may seem surprising to those more used to later, mousier interpretations of Anne. While I don’t object to our heroine being a little more feisty, the incredibly annoying supporting cast makes it almost unwatchable. One rather wishes that Louisa, Henrietta, and Mary Musgrove would all take a tumble off the wall at Lyme. Amazon/Library
  • Persuasion (1995): This version ranks among the very best Austen adaptations, in this fan’s opinion. The small changes and historical inaccuracies do not detract from the stellar performances of Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. The script allows more lightly funny moments than other moments (the characters of Sir Walter Elliott and Mary Musgrove are particularly comical), and many supporting characters are better-developed and less one-dimensional.  Amazon/Library

Yet to be seen:
Persuasion (1960)

Janeism

  • The Jane Austen Book Club: This movie means well, I guess, but I think it misses the mark of what it’s trying to be: a film whose characters’ lives come to resemble those they are reading about in Austen. Rather than the subtle satire or wit of Jane, however, there’s just a lot of one-dimensional people pontificating about mundane events, as well as some really stilted and hokey dialogue: “We were never allowed to have them when we were kids: dogs and books.” What?   Amazon/Library
  • Becoming Jane: I think Vulture says it best: “…it commits the travesty of suggesting that Austen’s work was inspired by a man who trifled with her affections, fed her her cleverest lines, and then left her alone so she could marry her work. But it’s also a travesty because, well, we know Jane Austen. And Anne Hathaway, you are no Jane Austen.” Amazon/Library
  • Austenland: I haven’t read the book on which this film was based, so I am not sure what the author’s intention was: to poke fun at the overly commercialized world of Janeism and its devotees, or to create a sort of meta-Northanger Abbey in which the heroine learns she must distinguish fiction from reality. There are some funny, slapstick moments (and fun supporting turns by Jennifer Coolidge and Bret McKenzie), but like Lost in Austen, it seems that the heroine is more obsessed with the 1995 Pride & Prejudice than anything else, making her seem like a teenage girl in a 30-year-old’s body. Amazon/Library
  • Miss Austen Regrets (2008): This movie treads similar territory to Becoming Jane, and is better in every way. Although a purist will still find it much too fictional (though so little is known for sure about Austen that any biopic would have to be somewhat fictional), Jane as played by Olivia Williams seems as intelligent, witty, warmhearted, and self-controlled as one would imagine the author to be. The supporting cast is excellent, including Phyllida Law and Hugh Bonneville, so that the main complaint about the film matches Miss Austen’s chief regret: there is just not enough time. Amazon/Library

Yet to be seen:
Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980)

 

This post first appeared on junglelandvintage.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Comment