Review of Austen Adaptations
Updated: Dec 6, 2019
Ever since I was 5 years old, I've watched what seem like hundreds of Jane Austen adaptations. Some have been incredible, others subpar, but all right for an hour's watching, and others outraged every fiber of my Austenite being! In this somewhat exhaustive post, read my review of every major film (by order of year) I've ever seen that tried to capture the sprightliness, shrewdness, and prosaic reality of Jane Austen's world. Brew some tea, and settle down for your pick of visual Austen!
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1811) ADAPTATIONS
Sense and Sensibility (1981) is very much a product of its time. The actors speak in an affected, stylistic accent which can be distracting at times. Irene Richard (Elinor Dashwood), and Tracey Childs (Marianne Dashwood) could play affective, believable sisters, except for the formality and sedateness they exude. There is no Margaret Dashwood, no extraneous kid sister - within the world of this play, she does not exist. It's also a seven-part miniseries, and after having to watch it through multiple times, I'd sell my country, my passwords, SSN, and family just to avoid a repeat. Robert Swann's careful enunciation as Colonel Brandon over teacups has to be seen and endured to be believed!
Points for trying with the costumes, and generally putting effort into the production. Still, it is a long, weary journey until the sisters' happy ending. I like to think that such 70s-80s adaptations paved the way for shorter, and better things!
BEST FILM VERSION OF NOVEL*
Hands down the best adaptation of the novel ever - in fact, due to its current availability on Netflix, you've probably already seen Sense and Sensibility (1995). The Academy-Award winning screenplay was written by actress Emma Thompson (Elinor Dashwood) who beat out Braveheart and Titanic's screenplays to win the award - no mean feat! Though for once Hugh Grant's stammering typecast performance rings true in the role of Edward Ferrers, the true highlights are Alan Rickman (Snape in Harry Potter, guys!) as the tortured Colonel Brandon, and a young Greg Wise (Emma Thompson's future husband!) as handsome, sonnet-reading John Willoughby.
With an incredibly lovely score by Patrick Doyle, gorgeous scenery in greenest England, people dancing intricately or playing the piano forte, gentlemen in top hats dashing around on horses at breakneck pace, and beautiful Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood) pining successively over her father's death, foreclosure, men, no mail, men, and breakups, this film is a must for any true Austenite. After all, when choosing an Austen Adaptation to view, Angst and Amusement must always be powerful Inducements.
Sense and Sensibility (2008) is a mini-series written by Andrew Davies, of Pride and Prejudice (1995) fame. Hattie Morahan perfectly depicts Elinor Dashwood's maturity, concern for her family, and private longings for her own happiness, while Charity Wakefield captures Marianne Dashwood's immaturity, charm, and gaiety. One of my favorite actors, David Morrissey (Our Mutual Friend), is a delightfully grave, intense Colonel Brandon, while Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) tries to be Edward Ferrers without being Hugh Grant, which appears to be a thing of difficulty!
I liked it as an adaptation, but not enough to rewatch it. I felt Davies tried too hard to equal the runaway success of P&P by crowding in as much fast-paced excitement as possible, like sword-fights and flashbacks, in an adaptation that shines most in its quiet, reflective moments.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) ADAPTATIONS
Obviously, they HAD to make a Pride and Prejudice (1940) with Laurence Olivier! While Olivier's sideburns are frankly magnificent, don't try to date the film from the costumes, because they seem to range three centuries, including the 20th. The tagline should be: MGM does Austen! Prepare for a benevolent Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver), a very haughty, almost 40-year-old Elizabeth Bennet (Greer Garson), and a Mr. Darcy (Olivier) who, while looking the part, seems rather cowed by than disdainful of an overbearing, flamboyantly-attired, puffed-sleeve-wearing Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland).
For its time, I understand it was rather good, and there is some fine acting in places. The screenwriter makes fast and loose with the plot, but MGM probably had placed a hit on him in the event of doing it faithfully. And after watching the later versions, I must admit, I am slightly PREJUDICED.
This five-part mini-series was the BBC's final Pride and Prejudice (1980) before they got it right (see below). At times, the indoor furniture/ outdoor scenery is extremely reminiscent of the 1995 version. The characters are rigid, prim, and proper - I want to throw some balloons and confetti on the set to ease everyone into humanity! While David Rintoul's Mr. Darcy seems to be forever clenching his teeth and sucking in his cheeks to achieve the required Darcean dignity and arrogance, he only succeeds in causing the viewer to marvel at his ram-rod straight, unyielding, slat-thin figure encased within tight Regency attire striding remorselessly across English gardens. In contrast, Elizabeth Garvie's inconsistent Elizabeth Bennet appears by turns sly and soft, placid and demure, then suddenly unable to break intense eye contact. I found myself wondering with a slight shudder what the children resulting from this union would act like.
BEST FILM VERSION OF NOVEL*
In what new way can I gush about this six part mini-series when so many have gushed before? Simply put, THIS IS PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1995). If anyone ever makes a better and more faithful adaptation, I'll personally devour every top hat in this film without salt, pepper, or lemon. Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy - sensitive, yet arrogant, brooding, with a deeply buried sense of humor only the spirited Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) can provoke. Every role is perfectly cast, particularly those of Mr. Bennet (Benjamin Whitrow), Jane Bennet (Susannah Harker), and Mr. Collins...David Bamber as the Bennets' unforgettably greasy, officious clergyman cousin.
This is the kind of unique film experience you undertake with a group of squealing female friends, or by yourself when you want to drink six pots of tea over half-a-day and fully immerse yourself in the delightful world of Jane Austen!
And now for Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), a British woman's novel that was the answer to...another British woman's novel. Inspired, as we all were by the BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995) miniseries (see above), Helen Fielding sat down and typed an update to Jane Austen's novel, AND not only managed to cast Colin Firth again as Mr. Darcy, but also snagged Hugh Grant (formerly Edward Ferrers in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility) as Daniel Cleaver/Mr. Wickham.
The first film is sometimes cautionary albeit amusing look at how P&P could translate in the 21st century...[continue reading in MOVIE TRAILER VOICE]..."in a modern world in which Elizabeth Bennet's character (Renee Zellweger) stresses over her weight, her parents' issues, finding a man, and is constantly desperate for a shag while chronicling the entire adventure in her openly visible diary which anyone could just leaf through!" But I did enjoy the movie, unlike its sequel, which I found to be fairly pointless.
Translating the Pride and Prejudice story into modern Indian culture in Bride and Prejudice (2004) worked a lot better than I initially expected, possibly because its themes of poverty and female dependence are so immediately relevant to that country. Starring Ashwarya Rai as Lalita Bakshi, and Martin Henderson as William "Will" Darcy, this Bollywood musical manages to retain the embarrassing family dynamic Lalita suffers through, while showing the culture clash between Western and Indian ways of life.
In order to win the irrepressible (and rather good-looking) Lalita's heart, Darcy must overcome Western snobbery, culture shock, a just fear of her family, and Lalita's bad first impression to win the woman of his dreams. Oh, and there's lots of Bollywood dancing and singing and eating. And a snake dance. Not for the faint of heart or weak of limb!
My review of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, "the Keira Knightley version," probably won't win me many friends among the millennial and Gen Z crowd. You grew up on this one - I get it - and you might not mind the overwhelming discrepancies between the novel and this film. I concede the camera work is good, and the scenery spreads in all directions glowing in bright colors as if to say "this sceptered isle, this England", but the screenplay could have been better. The scene where Matthew Macfayden (Mr. Darcy) materializes in the Collins' home to give a nightgown-attired Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) his explanatory letter for why he is a jerk simply could not have happened in the Regency period.
The Bennets were not rich, but they were comfortably middle-class during the life of Mr. Bennet. Had they failed to make successful marriages, the girls could very well have seen themselves living in a rubbish-strewn farmyard after Mr. Collins inherited their property, but this wasn't yet the case in Austen's novel. Knightley and Macfayden are good at their slow, intimate, natural moments together, but the "your hands are cold" Nightgown Scene II doesn't ring true emotionally for me. I don't mind watching the film once every six years, but my heart is given to Another.
MANSFIELD PARK (1814) ADAPTATIONS
Definitely the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date, I must admit I liked the 6-episode Mansfield Park (1983). It feels incredibly lengthy, and definitely suffers from its long-winded, stylistic scenes, but there's something very accurate about how powerless Fanny appears, and the tension in the characters' interaction. A young Sylvestra Le Touzel (Northanger Abbey, 2007) stars as an excessively timid, kept-down Fanny Price, protected somewhat unsuccessfully by her cousin Edmund Betram (Nicholas Farrell, Chariots of Fire).
Poor and utterly without means, Fanny Price is sexually vulnerable, and very much up for sale, as her name suggests. This adaptation nails that fact on the head, though not as explicitly as it perhaps could have done. Fanny has no charm, manners, social graces, or education that would free her from the Bertrams's charity, and is in fact their domestic slave. Worth watching, especially in conjunction with Mansfield Park (1999).
BEST FILM VERSION OF NOVEL*
My personal favorite of the Mansfield Park adaptations: Mansfield Park (1999). It's not overly-faithful to the plot, I admit, but it has solidarity, and I appreciated Frances O'Connor's understated turn as Fanny Price. Though Fanny is madly in love with her cousin Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller, who had a minor role in the 1983 Mansfield Park), he only sees her as a relative (a wise and judicious course for us all to maintain regarding our cousins). This film convincingly shows Price as an orphan longing for love and stability of her own after a lifetime of caring for others and feeling unwanted.
I absolutely loved the prominence of the slavery/plantation plotline. It's in the novel, and it was time a director realized that the dark underside of the Regency world, most notably hinted at in Emma and Mansfield Park, needed to be exposed. Currently available on Netflix.
During the entirety of Mansfield Park (2007), while Billie Piper constantly romps around and tosses her golden curls, her confused expression seems to ask, "Why am I cast as Fanny Price in an Austen adaptation?" As an unabashed Doctor Who fan, I love Piper as Rose Tyler, but a convincing Austen heroine she is not! Blake Ritson as Edmund Crawford, however, captures some of the affectionate tenderness I associate with his character in the novel, as well as his steadfast attempts to be true to his own convictions despite severe temptation. Instead of serving a turn as the alcoholic heir Thomas Bertram, James D'Arcy would've made an intense Henry Crawford. Joseph Beattie, who plays Crawford, resembles a smug French poodle with a profuse, overblown mop of curls, which also frequently tosses in the wind like Fanny's hair. Hayley Atwell appeared as mischievous and worldly wise as Mary Crawford is supposed to be, but ITV's adaptation on the whole lacks consistency, heart, historically-accurate wardrobing, and chemistry amongst its cast.
EMMA (1815) ADAPTATIONS
Welcome to Beverly Hills, where Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) reigns supreme, looks fabulous, and makes it her life's work to interfere in other people's business - for the best reasons, of course! After meeting the hapless, unfashionable Tai (Brittany Murphy), Cher remakes the girl in her image - with disastrous results. Managing to misinterpret and meddle in several different plot lines at once, Cher finds her collegiate ex-step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd) a constant source of support and annoyance in these troubled times.
Made in a very good year for Austen adaptations, Clueless (1995) is a cult classic for very good reasons. Its heroine's well-meaning mischief and the early 90s quirks, jargon, and clothes make this a good viewing choice. Hardly spot-on, or faithful, but a consistent, hilarious adaptation proving that Austen's characters are hard to manage! Currently available on Netflix.
BEST FILM VERSION OF NOVEL*
The best Emma (1996) for my money is this Emmy-awarding winning Andrew Davies ITV version, starring Kate Beckinsale (Emma Woodhouse) and Mark Strong (Mr. Knightley). Their casting realistically illustrates the characters' affectionately irritated back-and-forth repartee, emphasizes their easy familiarity as in-laws, while faithfully depicting their drastic age gap. As for the cast - they're all very, very good, particularly Olivia Williams as Emma's more talented rival Jane Fairfax, and the roguish Raymond Coulthard as Frank Churchill. Samantha Morton really makes Harriet Smith's dependency on the elegant, spoiled Miss Woodhouse so obvious it pains. Thanks to Beckinsale, you end up hating and loving the titular heroine at the same time, which is exactly as it should be. Highbury, it's weals and woes, the outrageous chicken thieves, and the social clash between high and low play out convincingly on this set.
Another Emma (1996) came out the same year as the ITV version, this time produced by Miramax, with Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse) and Jeremy Northam (Mr. Knightley) in the main roles. In this version, Emma's beauty and wealth are more prominently displayed to emphasize her social power in contrast to Harriet Smith (Toni Collette). Though I enjoy this version very much, Northam and Paltrow only have a comfortable kind of bantering chemistry, though heartfelt in a calm way. Ewan McGregor plays a tolerable Frank Churchill, but the real stars here are Sophie Thompson as the voluble Miss Bates, and an outrageously creepy Alan Cumming as the ambitious curate Mr Elton, actors who do a much more amusing turn than their counterparts in ITV's Emma.
A beautiful Academy-Award winning score by Rachel Portman and clever camera-work make this film worth viewing. Currently available on Netflix.
A lengthy novel, Emma easily supports a mini-series, so it was a surprise to no one when the BBC's Emma (2009), a four-part mini-series, came out starring Romola Garai (Emma Woodhouse), and Johnny Lee Miller (Mr. Knightley). After a strong start to what could've been a charming series, the momentum somehow falls apart a bit in the middle. I loved Garai as Emma, but there were times when I felt a more sombre note was needed than how she interpreted the character. Miller, though kind and familiar as Knightley should be, felt like a miscast even in his most intimate moments with Garai. Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton was appropriately snobby - for once, the character was played as desirable, wealthy in her own right, and downright nasty. Michael Gambon did well as Mr. Woodhouse, and I liked Jodhi May as the maternal, tolerant Mrs. Weston, Emma's ex-governess. I'd watch the series again...
NORTHANGER ABBEY (1817) ADAPTATIONS
Oh, BBC's Northanger Abbey (1986) - the stuff of legend, and graduate level drinking games. Besides the fact that Peter Firth (an extremely creepy Henry Tilney) appears to be rapidly closing in on 50, while Katherine Schlesinger (Catherine Morland) looks convincingly 17, this film is generally accepted among fans to be one of the worst Austen adaptations of all time, including the future.
However - the music in the final scene is pure 80s glory replete with mood synthesizer and dreamy voices singing as Firth rides up through rock machine mist to behold his lovely Katherine's tangled 80s bangs shining in the morning sun, and her eyes glistening out of the depths of brown eyeliner, and whispers reassuringly, "Don't be afraid. I promise not to oppress you with too much remorse...or too much passion. But since you have left, THE WHITE ROSEBUSHES HAVE DIED OF GRIEF. Catherine? Are you still a disgrace to your sex?" RUN, Catherine, RUN!
BEST FILM VERSION OF NOVEL*
With Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland and JJ Feild as Henry Tilney, Masterpiece Theatre's Northanger Abbey (2007) both accurately shows the characters as young, and not too far apart in age, and as getting along rather well despite vastly different maturity levels! Catherine's fascination with the Gothic is explored in several graphic, mysterious scenes, cleverly showing us the excitable mind of the sheltered teenager released for the first time into a practical, unforgiving world.
Feild shines as the easy-going, occasionally disappointed Tilney, who begins by being amused by Catherine's naïvety instead of immediately falling passionately in love with her! Who can forget the dark secrets that lurk within Northanger Abbey after watching this tale of terror and woe set in the watering resort Bath and the prosaic English countryside!
PERSUASION (1817) ADAPTATIONS
Somehow, the actors in the BBC 1971 Persuasion manage to sport huge 70s hair in period attire, which relieves any guilt I might have over forcing actors to change their appearance temporarily while filming a period piece. Our couple is composed of the perpetually smiling, but secretly heart-broken Anne Elliot (Ann Firbank) and Captain Wentworth (Bryan Marshall), who is the hero only because he grows more hair on his pate than anyone else. Even Sir Walter Elliot (Basil Dignam) has a curly mop that would be the envy of Liberace himself.
Print dresses are rife in every wrong color, and though Anne is supposed to be on the wrong side of 25 in the novel, Firbank appears to be approaching 40. A certain amount of reserve and discretion should always characterize Anne Elliot, but the actress overdoes it here to the point of appearing wooden. The cast does the best with what they have. If you watch this adaptation as if it was a theatre production, it is tolerable, I suppose...but not handsome enough to tempt ME!
BEST FILM VERSION OF NOVEL*
When I'm sick, I usually roll myself into a blanket, and watch the BBC Persuasion (1995) while eating chicken soup. That's how much I enjoy this film. Why? Because it captures the spectacular premise of Austen's final novel: at the beginning, due to her own understandable mistake, the heroine has lost everything - love, youth, hope, and now her beloved family home. It can only get better from there, right? Watch Amanda Root (Anne Elliot) and Ciarán Hinds (Captain Wentworth), a pair of star-crossed lovers reconnect after nearly a decade of anger and bitterness, only to encounter new challenges from family, friends, and foes as they begin to establish some cordiality. It's a film about last chances in an unkind world for women like Anne, who haven't yet realized their desperate position as dependent females.
Loads of nautical allusions, annoying children, ships, ports, Bath, Lyme Regis, annoying teenage girls, British rain, weird cousins, and a rather large stone wall all appear to drive the action as required. Admittedly, this slow, beautiful, mature film appeals to me for the same reason the novel does, because for once I love watching an Austen heroine try to escape from a dreaded social event instead of primping for it.
The decision to cast the fine actors Sally Hawkins (Anne Elliot) and Rupert Penry Jones (Captain Wentworth) in ITV's Persuasion (2007) had all the hallmarks of success besides the fact that they are really too incredibly good-looking to play this literary pair. And then came the Running Scene and the Forever Kiss at the End. Let me explain. Earlier on, I liked the film. There was a lot of piano playing and intense glances, but I coped, and bided my time. Then the director chose to use Austen's discarded first-draft ending of Persuasion in conjunction with the usual one. Still interesting.
Then Hawkins starts running down a street for a very long time for no apparent reason, supposedly letting her heart tell her where to find Penry Jones while unusual music plays. Unsurprisingly, she's out of breath for the next ten minutes after finding him, which might have something to do with how long it takes their two heads to come together at a slant for a two-second kiss that cuts out at once. Maybe she's trying to gain time until she can safely go without breath again? Regardless, it's absurd how long it takes. The interval seems like minutes, while lips grope for each other like desperate fishes out of water trying to suck in air - but not touching. If you ignore that scene and reach the last one, the adaptation isn't too bad. But...if you want to see a slow kiss done right, try the 1995 Persuasion's (see above) which got it done in less the time... infinitely more feeling, chemistry, and intimacy.
LADY SUSAN (1794) ADAPTATIONS
The most recent adaptation of Jane Austen's works is Love & Friendship, a retitled depiction of the events in Austen's novel Lady Susan, written in 1794, published in 1871. Lady Susan Vernon is the female equivalent of P&P's George Wickham, but is far more cunning. While carrying on a secret dalliance with a married man, Mr. Manwaring, the widowed Lady Susan attempts to marry off her daughter, Frederica and find a suitable husband for herself as well. She confides her schemes to a close friend who is nearly as clever as herself, Mrs. Alicia Johnson (played by Chloë Sevigny). Kate Beckinsale brings Lady Susan's conniving nature to brilliant life, rendering her amusing, interesting, and even slightly sympathetic. After all, she's got limited funds, is trying to ensure that her daughter is financially taken care of, and, well, might as well have some fun herself throughout this process! The pace of this film is excellent, each scene makes its comedic point, and the short run-time ensures that viewers master the plot of this small novella without feeling that it has been unduly stretched out and enhanced.
In Becoming Jane (2007), Anne Hathaway's Jane Austen falls hard for James McAvoy's charming Thomas Langlois Lefroy, who with that name couldn't be anything but what he is... a transplanted Irishman. After a rocky first impression...they fall madly in love and gradually reach an Understanding. During the course of this mad love affair, Jane begins writing the initial draft of First Impressions (get it?), which later develops into the Pride and Prejudice we know and love.
However, real life does not imitate the fiction that at first imitated that self-same real life. Confusing, isn't it? Wanting a better and richer prospective bride for the talented young man, Lefroy's relatives contrive to break the two lovers apart, and it remains to be seen whether the course of true love will eventually run smooth!
In this 2008 film about the end of the novelist's life, Jane Austen is elegantly portrayed by Olivia Williams, who also incidentally played an incredible Jane Fairfax to Kate Beckinsale's Emma in the 1996 ITV version. The premise requires Miss Austen to be reminded by her niece (Imogen Poots) and her suitor (Tom Hiddleston), and her long-lost love Rev. Brook Bridges (Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville) of how much she has lost by remaining single...while forgetting how much English literature has gained.
It's an interesting recent trend to pair Austen off in biopics with a succession of gentlemen she may have loved or lost, real or fictional...when she might've just enjoyed the single life, her writing, tea, frequent trips to sea port towns, and been too preoccupied with her fragile health to think of matrimony. However the case might have been, this film does a delicate, and beautiful job of showing Austen as simultaneously emotionally fragile, and too brilliant for her own good in her time period.
OTHER AUSTENIAN FILMS
Meh. Lost in Austen (2008), a four-part mini-series, relies on a fantasy all Austenites may have experienced at some point in...all right, we've all had this wish while reading any of the novels (Except, perhaps, Lady Susan, which is why no one's adapted it yet): "Wouldn't be amazing to exist as the heroine within an Austen novel?" In this series, one very lucky woman gets to live out such a wish, though somewhat against her will.
A very lucky Londoner, Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), stumbles into the world of Pride and Prejudice, and switches places with Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton). Of course, this causes massive chaos, and destroys the book's plot, which Price desperately tries to keep intact. As Price falls for Mr. Darcy (Elliot Cowan), she risks losing her heart to the Austenian hero and destroying his legendary literary romance with Elizabeth Bennet. Will she do the noble thing and get back to the 21st century with its delightful fish and chips?
It was an amusing premise, which could become a feature film one day, but I didn't find myself relating to Amanda or believing she could survive in the Regency world - both doubts possibly being to the character's credit, not mine, or the Regency's.
BEST OTHER AUSTENIAN FILM*
All right...I finally watched Austenland (2013), fairly grudgingly. My expectations were relatively low. Look at the cover. You end up cringing, because at some point, you would've bought that purse. Or, you actually DO own that purse, if not a life-size cut out of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in an Austen-themed bedroom like Keri Russell's character Jane Hayes. After finding herself disappointed in life, Austen-obsessed Jane spends her life savings on a trip to "Austenland," a (you-guessed-it) theme park of sorts dedicated to recreating the experience of being wooed and won by an Austen hero. Unfortunately, Jane only purchases the "copper" package, which leads to a succession of mistaken assumptions, confusion over whether she is intended to be wooed by aloof gentleman Mr. Henry Nobley (J J Feild AKA 2007 Northanger Abbey's Tilney), or sweet servant Martin (Bret McKenzie AKA LOTR'S "Figwit" AKA Flight of the Conchords's Bret), a journey which ultimately concludes in self-realization. Jane Seymour as the mercenary park's owner Mrs. Wattlesbrook is hilarious, and some of the other actors are easily recognizable, having themselves previously starred in genuine Austen adaptations.
I can't reveal much about the plot without giving the whole story away - however, I was surprised how much this film kept me guessing up until the very end. And despite my initial reservations, and intense hatred of Miss Charming and Amelia's characters who, with their abysmal British accents and garish colors represent the very worst breed of Austenites, I really enjoyed this film! If undoubtedly stereotypical in some portrayals, the film captures Austen enthusiasts' bipolar culture - the joy and despair, the love and the pain, the high and low teas.
COMING SOON - reviews of ITV's Sanditon (2019) and Emma (2020)!