Hollywood seems to have discovered Austen in the last two decades, but which adaptations and inspirations are the must-sees?
For an author who died almost 200 years ago, Jane Austen has an amazing number of fans. Maybe it’s costume drama like Downtown Abbey, Bridget Jones pining for her real-life Mr. Darcy, or the love of all things British from Harry Potter to Doctor Who fueling the surge, but people are discovering Jane Austen like never before.
Everyone seems to have heard of the love story of Pride and Predjudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy, but Jane Austen’s other novels and even her real-life story have inspired adaptations. Here are the best of the best.
There are other adaptations from a 1930’s black and movie movie, to a fairly recent Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen flick, but none is on par with the 1995 BBC miniseries. Everyone seems to know about Colin Firth, that infamous pond, and oh so clingy shirt. Even though Mr. Darcy didn’t take a spontaneous dip in the Pemberly pond in the Austen novel, the rest of the adaptation is spot on. Colin Firth’s brooding Mr. Darcy launched his career from relative unknown to household name. One of the best things about this adaptation is that since it is a miniseries rather than a two hour movie, lots of attention was able to be paid to character development and side stories. Every intricacy is explored from Lizzie and Darcy’s love-hate relationship, to Lizzie’s confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Best Scene: Any time Lizzie is arguing
Sense and Sensibility works amazingly well given its number set of firsts. It was the first Western film directed by Ang Lee. It was Emma Thompson’s first attempt at writing a screen play. It was one of Kate Winslet’s first films. The result was that it swept the BAFTA’s and snagged seven OSCAR nominations, including a win for Thompson. The cast includes many who are now major stars, but then were little known U.K.-based actors such as: Hugh Laurie, Alan Rickman, and Imelda Staunton. The two key love stories are between Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant’s Eleanor and Edward, and Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman’s Marianne and Brandon. Both couples have amazing chemistry. If you’ve only ever seen Alan Rickman as the cold-hearted Snape, here he plays the ever faithful yet unrequited love.
Best scene: Colonel Brandon begging Eleanor to “give him an occupation”
Just in case you think Jane Austen is only costume drama and can’t be updated, think again. Clueless was inspired by the Austen novel Emma. Emma is an incorrigible matchmaker in the novel, and her counterpart, Cher, played by Alicia Silverstone in the movie, is just as bad. Matchmaking has been around for centuries, and clearly the meddlesome matchmakers’ techniques and insights haven’t improved any over time. True love tends to find you when you least expect it, and often it’s right under your nose. The movie’s standouts are Paul Rudd as Cher’s best friend and eventual love, and the late Brittany Murphy’s Tai.
Best Scene: Josh and Cher finally admitting their feelings for each other
Who doesn’t love a movie musical? What could be better than a Pride and Prejudice themed musical only Bollywood style. It’s a whole Indian culture meets Western culture mash-up with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the darling of Bollywood, as the Lizzie Bennett character and Martin Henderson as Darcy. Naveen Andrews, of LOST, plays Bingly, but a much more assertive one than is in the novel. If you’ve never seen a Bollywood film this is a good way to test out the genre.
Best Scene: Dance sequence featuring Naveen Andrews. He does all his own dancing though he has never had formal training.
Jane Austen was brought swiftly into the modern day in this witty adaptation that turns Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennet into a video blogger. Clever use of transmedia elements, like spin-off web series and social media accounts, allowed the audience to enter the world of Austen in a unique way. But the particular the strength of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries lies in the focus on the supporting characters, and especially on Lizzie’s relationship with sisters Jane and Lydia, and best friend, Charlotte. The Lizzie and Darcy romance is still key (and don’t worry, you’ll get your swoon-worthy moments), but in this story romance is not the only important thing – and we love that.
Best scene: Lizzie tells Lydia she loves her after they reconnect
What would you do if you suddenly discovered that all you had to do to go back in time was open a door in your bathroom? That’s exactly what happens to Amanda when she finds Lizzie Bennett in her bathtub enjoying flowing hot water and a bubble bath. She swaps places with Lizzie Bennett, who wants to live in present-day London, and meanwhile, she tries to fit in at Pemberley. As you can imagine, things don’t go well from Wickham being not at all what she expected to Caroline Bingly confiding she’s a lesbian and making a pass at Amanda. Fights, near fatal wounds, and four episodes later all is finally resolved in a not quite predicable ending.
Best Scene: Amanda asking Darcy to reenact the Colin Firth pond scene
So how exactly did Jane Austen get to be Jane Austen? Relatively little is known about Austen save for the material found in her private journals, and frankly they weren’t all that revealing. In Becoming Jane, Anne Hathaway plays Jane whose life plays out as a cross between actual, historical events, and the events of her novels. There are homages and parallels to all of Austen’s novels most notably Pride and Prejudice. James McAvoy plays Tom Lefroy, a real-life beau of Austen’s who many speculate was the model for Mr. Darcy. The story isn’t so much historical as it is a romance with lots of twists and turns.
Best Scene: Twist ending which we won’t spoil
Mansfield Park is a tough novel to adapt. Many people don’t like the heroine, Fanny Price, because they find her a bit too preachy and stiff. However, director/writer Patricia Rozema came up with an interesting solution. She used the story of Mansfield Park as a guideline, and then inserted pieces from Austen’s early writings and her actual life. Instead of a preachy and moralistic Fanny that no one likes, the result is a charming, young women trying to discover where she fits in a world of unrequited love and unfeeling relatives. Jonny Lee Miller of current Elementary fame plays Fanny’s unrequited love, Edmund.
Best Scene: Edmund and Fanny after Fanny discovers something she is not supposed to late one night
Along with Mansfield Park, Persuasion doesn’t get nearly enough love from adaptations. Anne Elliot was persuaded not to marry the love of her life, Frederick Wentworth, because at the time, he was a man of inferior prospects. Now, ten years later, the tables are turned. Anne is considered to be an “old-maid” and her family’s fortune is endangered. When chance throws Anne and Frederick together, can their romance be rekindled, or will they each be persuaded again not to follow their hearts? Ciarán Hinds plays the dashing Captain Frederick Wentworth.
Best Scene: Anne reading a very key letter
Matchmakers have been around since the beginning of time. Nothing seems to be able to stop them from their meddling. They don’t even seem to learn their lessons when one disaster strikes after the next. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the charming Emma who keeps trying to get Harriett, played by Toni Colette, a match. Predictably, it doesn’t work. Jeremy Northam plays George Kinghtly, the neighbor who Emma has always considered an older brother, but who now might be something more.
Best Scene: Emma having a meltdown in the garden