My Top 5 Adaptations of Jane Austen Novels

With a new version of Emma hitting theaters, I thought it would be fun to talk about my favorite film and TV adaptations of Jane Austen’s works.

Northanger Abbey (2007)

Northanger Abbey is probably the least-known of Austen’s six main works, so it was such a pleasant surprise to see this competent movie adaptation; it was written by Andrew Davies (more below) and originally aired on PBS Masterpiece in the US.  I particularly liked how they portrayed Catherine’s crazy Gothic fantasies. Henry Tilney is my favorite Austen hero, and I felt this production did him justice, with JJ Feild portraying him as properly genial, level-headed, and quietly charming.  The cast also includes nice turns by Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan.

Felicity Jones in Northanger Abbey (2007)
Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland

Favorite scene: Catherine is investigating her room at the Abbey by candlelight during a stormy night and finds a mysterious document…which is revealed to be a laundry list in the morning light.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Sense and Sensibility is one of Austen’s more popular works, and I have no doubt that it is due in part to this movie.  It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and won for best adapted screenplay (which was written by its star, Emma Thompson); it helped make director Ang Lee into a household name here in the US.  There’s just so much to love about it: the production quality, the acting, the humor, how it lets not only the love stories but also the Dashwood sisters’ relationship shine through.  

Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Emilie François in Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Marianne, Margaret, and Elinor Dashwood

Favorite scene: After her mother and two younger sisters have all retreated to their rooms in tears for various reasons, Eleanor sits down quietly on the stairs with a cup of tea.  (Also, every scene with Hugh Laurie as Mr. Palmer.)

I also greatly enjoyed the 2008 BBC miniseries Sense & Sensibility written by Andrew Davies; I think it is one of the best of their newer round of adaptations.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Ever since I saw this movie in theaters I have been in awe of how well it condenses Pride and Prejudice into approximately two hours.  (This also happens to be my husband’s favorite Austen adaptation, and he has been known to watch it even without me!) The characterization is marvelous, and there is not a weak spot in the entire cast.  Lizzy’s parents come across as quirky but likeable, and Matthew Macfadyen’s introverted Darcy is just so good I have no words.  I love how the costumes and scenery make the world seemed “lived in.”  The score is also highly memorable, meriting an Oscar nomination (it garned four in total).

As an adaptation of the novel, my only complaint is the ending: while it is lovely and romantic, it is a bit too Romantic for Austen.  I cannot see her characters ever wandering about the moors en deshabille.

Definitely not Austen…but do we care?

Favorite scene: When Lizzy and Jane leave Bingley’s home of Netherfield after Jane’s illness, Darcy hands Lizzy into the carriage then turns his back and walks away, flexing his hand slightly.

Persuasion (1995)

Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel, partly because Anne Elliot is the heroine whom I am most like (let’s say…retiring).  It was the last novel Austen wrote, and consequently seems a bit more mature in tone, dealing with second chances for Anne, the oldest Austen heroine.  The movie adaptation perfectly captures this thoughtfulness while still delivering a romance that will have you gripping chair backs as much as Anne does.  The use of the settings of Lyme and Bath is lovely, too.

Image result for persuasion movie anne bath

Favorite scene: At tea with the Musgroves, her sister’s in-laws, Anne sits thoughtfully and silently as each member of the family takes a turn confiding their various interpersonal squabbles to her.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

The year was 2003; I was doing a group project for my 11th grade British Lit class, based on Pride and Prejudice, which we read for class.  One of the girls was quite artistic, so we made a giant movie poster-style banner with Lizzy and Darcy in front of Pemberley.  And while we drew and painted in my parents’ basement, we decided to get inspiration by watching all six VHS tapes of the BBC miniseries, which I procured from the library.

I now own two or three different copies of it and have watched it probably a hundred times.  You just can’t improve on perfection.

Written once again by the esteemed Andrew Davies, this adaptation follows so closely to the book, I really think it takes the majority of its dialogue straight from there.  It takes six episodes, 5.5 hours in total, to develop the plot and characters perfectly, treating even side characters with warmth and humor to make up a rich tapestry that perfectly encapsulates Austen’s view of life in country society at the time.  Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are an iconic Lizzy and Darcy.

Favorite scene: Anything featuring Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Me to my toddler, everyday

Honorable mention: Mansfield Park (1999)

Okay, I don’t think many people would claim that this movie is an excellent, or even good, adaptation of Austen’s novel (which happens to be my least favorite of hers anyways).  It is targeted to modern sensibilities, sexing up the story and making the heroine Fanny a bit too spunky when she’s really just quiet and judgy.  But I will say that this movie made me engage with and appreciate the story more, which is really one of the goals of any adaptations.

Favorite scene: The ending, where the narrator (kind of a mix of Fanny and Jane Austen) recounts how all the characters end up, saying “It could have turned out differently, I suppose…” [All the characters pause and look thoughtful] “…but it didn’t.” [Characters go about their business being ridiculous]

You may notice I haven’t included any version of Emma on this list; while it is not one of my favorite Austen stories, I have seen three versions of it (Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsdale, Romola Garai) and enjoyed all of them.  I am looking forward to seeing the new version once it comes to DVD.

I also want to give a shout out to Love and Friendship, the witty 2016 adaptation of the epistolary novella Lady Susan; I’d really only recommend it for Austen superfans, but I found it entertaining.

Which of these adaptations is your favorite?  Several are available on streaming so you can enjoy them over the next few weeks of social distancing!

Regency Romance…with a bit of Magic

So I recently went on a months-long Regency Romance kick.  It’s been a wonderful escape from everything going on in my life and in the world.

The “Regency” period refers to a time in the early 1800s when Britain was ruled by the Prince Regent (later King George IV), because his father George III was deemed unfit. (This era also includes the Napoleonic Wars.)

Not actual Austen books

Jane Austen is of course one of the most famous authors of the Regency period, and I have read all six of her completed novels many times (my favorites being Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice).  So it’s no surprise that in the twentieth century a whole genre developed around writing similar novels, now as historical fiction.

Georgette Heyer essentially created the Regency romance genre, doing meticulous research to provide readers with accurate information about the period, using the same phrases people of the time would have used, and with the same worldview.  This has spun out into a large, varied genre whose books have varying degrees of historical detail, humor, intrigue, sex, and even sometimes a little magic.

Georgette Heyer

As I said above, for Regency Romance, there is no better place to start than the works of Georgette Heyer.  I am currently working my way through her thirty-some historical romance novels, and there are so many things to love.  She comes very close to Jane Austen in her dry wit and love of the ridiculous in her characters.  I am constantly laughing as I read them.  I love that she writes with 8367225such historical detail; I’ve learned so much about the culture of that time.

I also love that she has many varied plots and characters: she has some Gothic novels, some mysteries, settings in London and in the country, main characters that are young and silly, or older and more sensible, couples that have known each other forever or have just met.  Her romance is very clean, usually with some kisses at the end.

Here are a few of my favorites so far:

The Grand Sophy: The second of her novels that I read, and the one that got me hooked.  Sophy is a tour-de-force main character, the kind of person that can manipulate everyone around her into doing what’s best for them.  The ending gets a little ridiculous, 11727810but it’s so funny you won’t care.

The Quiet Gentleman: I liked that this one has some mystery in it as well as romance; the main character suffers several attempts on his life after returning home to claim his inheritance.  It was pretty easy to figure out who the culprit was, but I still enjoyed it.  I also liked that the heroine is very unromantic and sensible—a girl after my own heart.

Bath Tangle:  This novel features several couples, all with varying (but entertaining) 11689134personalities, and it is set mostly in Bath as the title implies.  I really enjoyed the interplay between as the characters as they all struggle to figure out what they really want.

The Alastair-Audley series: The three main books in the series (These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, and Regency Buck) are absolute classics.  The heroes are not always particularly likeable, but the heroines are always capable of handling them.  These books probably have the most history in them, too, dealing with many important figures and events of the day.  The first two are actually set in the Georgian period just before the Regency which gives the series even great scope.

Lester Family series by Stephanie Laurens

The Reasons for Marriage • A Lady of Expectations • An Unwilling Conquest • A Comfortable Wife

24406970This is a series of “reformed rake” stories all centering around one family.  It’s not really necessary to read them in order, but I liked that they were all connected, and many of the same characters appear throughout.

The first book, The Reasons for Marriage, was probably my favorite.  It features an apparent marriage of convenience that turns into something more.  I particularly liked that the heroine Lenore was intelligent, independent, and even a little introverted; her eventual pregnancy is also part of the plot, which resonated with me currently.

These are actually the first Harlequin romance novels I have ever read, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed them.  Though more racy than Heyer’s novels, they are fairly tame in terms of adult content.

I also started reading Laurens’ Cynster family series, and those are much more explicit in a bodice-ripper style.  As I told my husband, I was 7% of the way into the first book and there was already a hot shirtless guy running around.  For reasons.  Anyways, the Cynster books are not as much my cup of tea, but also feature some entertaining characters.

Love, Lies, and Spies by Cindy Anstey

25320766I loved the intrigue and adventure in this recent, lighthearted YA romance.  It was just wonderfully fluffy and charming.  I also loved that the heroine Juliana is a scientist trying to get her work published!

The book was nothing particularly groundbreaking, but it was entertaining from the very first chapter.  The main couple was very cute.  There was quite a lot of stuff like Miss Telford had very nice eyes and a nice smile but Spencer wasn’t going to think about that right now.

The author also published another YA Regency title this year, Duels and Deceptions, which I have on hold at the library and hope to read soon.

Now…onto the magic!

Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix

24737347On my quest to read more of the authors from the twisted fairy tale anthology I enjoyed last year, I uncovered this gem (pun slightly intended).

This one has all of the charm of a Regency romance, plus dangerous magic, adventure on the high seas, and assumed identities thrown in, too.  It was a wonderful mix of genres; I think it leans a little YA also.

The first chapter, in which Lady Newtington’s (Newt’s) emerald is stolen, read a bit like a short story, and then the rest of the book kind of goes off in a different direction in searching for the emerald, with a bit of shift in tone.  It was a little weird, but the book was so entertaining it didn’t bother me much.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the first in a series about a family of sisters that have some talent for glamour, aka8697507 magic, which is kind of considered a womanly art.  I really, really liked how the concept of illusionary magic was done here; it was interesting and could easily be explored further in the series.  Although the tone is more adult, I don’t recall anything more than a bit of kissing.

However, the characters and plot were rather average.  I read this several months ago and can’t even remember all that much about it.  The heroine Jane was interesting enough, but I did not take to the hero at all, finding him at turns boring and confusing.

So, in short, I don’t plan on reading any more of the series.

Do you guys have any favorite Regency stories (of any genre!) to recommend?

Love & Friendship. Or Lady Susan. Either way, it’s a new Jane Austen movie.

Jane Austen published only published four full length novels during her lifetime: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma.  Two more, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were published a year after her death at the age of 41.

I’ve read all of them at least once, and seen multiple film and television adaptations of every one.  So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about the release of a new Jane Austen movie, based not on any of the six novels, but on an entirely new-to-me story!

Lady Susan is a short epistolary novel, sometimes even called a novella or novelette, written in Austen’s youth and published after her death.  The epistolary format, popular at the time, means that the entire story consists of letters written between the characters.  (Sense and Sensibility was originally drafted in this format as well.)  It’s not necessarily a style that lends itself well to adaptation into screenplay, as it generally lacks dialogue.

Love & Friendship poster.pngBut director Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) was up to the challenge.  His movie adaptation Love and Friendship, which borrows the name of another piece of Austen juvenilia, is pure Austen and pure entertainment.

Recently widowed, Lady Susan arrives, unannounced, at her brother-in-law’s estate to wait out colorful rumors about her dalliances circulating through polite society. While there, she becomes determined to secure a new husband for herself, and one for her reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica, too. As Lady Susan embarks on a controversial relationship with a married man, seduction, deception, broken hearts, and gossip all ensue.

Now, a word of caution: if your experience with Austen involves only things like Colin Firth jumping in a lake, you may find yourself a bit lost with this one.  Our main character, Lady Susan, cannot properly be called a heroine at all.  She is smart, scheming, and manipulative; recently widowed, she is young young to still be beautiful and charming, but old enough to have a sixteen-year-old daughter (whom she only views in terms of benefits to herself–in fact, that is her attitude towards people in general).

She is the center around which all the characters orbit, willingly or not.  Kate Beckinsale is absolutely wonderful in the role; in fact I really preferred this to her turn as the titular character in Emma twenty years ago.  Lady Susan is a bit like Emma, except that she ends without redeeming herself at all (despite what the credits say).

The rest of the cast and characters were also enjoyable, and they nearly all get some funny lines and scenes (several taken directly from the source material).  There are a few characters added, enhanced, or slightly altered compared to the novella, and I found them to be positive changes.

The film is only about an hour and a half long, and the pacing is very quick, with a lot of action happening off-screen.  In this way, I think it stays true to the novella, but you do have to work to keep up.  The beginning in particular is confusing, as we are introduced to a great number of characters in a short amount of time, and all the relationships between them are very important to setting the stage for the rest of the movie.

L&F also has a different feel from the polished BBC and movie adaptations of Austen’s other works.  The soundtrack is lovely, as is the scenery (it was shot in Ireland), but the cinematography and editing give it the feel of an “indie” movie.  It was clever at times, but a bit disconcerting at others.

I’m not sure why they felt the need to change the title, as it doesn’t really relate to the story and is confusing for Austen fans who may have read the actual Love and Freindship [sic], which is also epistolary.  Perhaps it just seems more “Austen” to those used to S&S and P&P.

In short, if you like Austen for the romance, you’ll probably be disappointed.  If you like Austen for the sharp wit and satire, you’ll be in heaven.  While Lady Susan is not Austen’s most satisfying work, I think Austen fans will generally find the film (and the novella on which it’s based) worthy of their time.

Review: What Matters in Jane Austen?

One of my goals for this year is to mix some more nonfiction into my reading selections, and I figured my mild obsession with Jane Austen was as good a place as any to start.

15793663What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan delves into the subtext of Jane Austen’s six published novels (and her drafts of unpublished ones).  It’s very well researched, discussing many Regency cultural elements her original readers would have been familiar with, such as mourning practices, salaries, pastimes, and (gasp!) sex.  Even more fascinating, it discusses Austen’s brilliant narrative style, including use of dialogue and character POV.

Each of the twenty titular questions has its own chapter, which makes it very convenient reading because I could easily pick up the book and read a chapter on its own, then put it down for a month, etc., all while reading a fiction novel concurrently.  (I think it will be a bit long-winded to be used as a reference book in the future, though.)

The book uses multiple textual examples from each of Austen’s published works, so it really helps if you are already familiar with at least the majority of them.  I personally have read all six; I’ve not read Sanditon, The Watsons, or Lady Susan, but these are only discussed briefly.  If you’ve only read Pride and Prejudice, I would recommend a good annotated copy of that instead, as you might be overwhelmed by the amount of information here.

Mullan also uses Jane Austen’s own letters to support his points, which is a very interesting and helpful source of information that I’m not as familiar with.

I found the chapters on Austen’s writing techniques to be the most interesting.  It was more novel to me than the cultural aspects, and while I had some small differences of opinion with some of his points, it really made me think about why I enjoy Austen’s writing so much, and how I can apply that to my own writing as well.

I wouldn’t claim that this is essential reading for Janeites, but I certainly enjoyed it, and I think it enhanced my enjoyment of Austen’s works as well.  I think I really need to give Emma another chance now.  Or maybe I could just re-read all of them…

4/5 stars

Seasonal Reads: Pride and Prejudice

Do you ever find yourself coming back to a certain story at a certain time of year?  I often re-read books during a specific month or season that I feel is inextricably tied to the book.  Here’s what I’m reading right now to get in the spirit of the season.

 Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

P&P

Pride and Prejudice is probably the non-YA novel that I’ve reread the most.  I have multiple copies of it, and it was one of the few English novels I took to Spain with me during my study abroad.  I’ve even psychoanalyzed its characters.

For me, spring is a wonderful time to re-read P&P.  The story takes place over the course of a year, so really any time is a good time, as all seasons contain some significant event, from Mr. Bingley’s arrival at Michelmas, to the Gardiners’ summer trip to Derbyshire.  The beginning of April brings one of the defining moments of the story, Darcy’s ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth at the parsonage at Rosings.  It is a perfect “Act II” moment, the low point in their relationship, but it becomes the starting point for change and growth in both characters.

I also associate the book with spring because that’s when I first read it in my junior year of high school.  It was not actually my first Austen novel (I’d read Emma two years before), but it is the book that made me a Janeite.  For my Brit Lit class, we had to do a multimedia group project, and one girl in our group was a talented artist, so we painted a big movie-poster-style piece of Elizabeth with Darcy and Pemberley in the background.  I admit it was heavily inspired by the 1995 BBC miniseries, of which we watched all 6 VHS tapes, borrowed from the library, as we worked.

As the prototype of modern rom-coms, P&P is ultimately a happy, optimistic book–I think that’s another reason I enjoy reading it in spring, a time of new beginnings.  Despite its cutting depictions of characters such as Lady Catherine and Elizabeth’s parents, and its sardonic quips about societal expectations, it still seems full of hope.  It never fails as a pick-me-up, and hence I will keep rereading it whenever I’m in need of some cheer.