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!

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.