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!

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.

Brief Book Reviews (summer 2014)

starkmeme

A general guide for ratings:

5/5–I would buy this
4/5–I will re-read this
3/5–I might read this again
2/5–I have no interest in reading this again
1/5–I couldn’t finish this

In reading order:

Insurgent and Allegiant (Divergent sequels, Veronica Roth) 3/5–I’m going to give this series overall a solid 3/5.  I really like a lot of the ideas the books had, but the execution was lacking, especially in terms of prose and plot.  I liked most of Tris’s story arc, but I don’t believe the efforts of the group at the end of Allegiant would have had any meaningful impact on the world at large (as Tris and Four do).

Seraphina (Rachel Hartman) 5/5— This book is magical.  Dragons masquerading as humans, Renaissance music, and a slow-building love story.  I stayed up all night to finish it.  The writing, characters, and world building (especially the religious aspects) are exquisite.  I love the way Seraphina is described as “prickly;” I think a lot of my favorite female protagonists fit this description.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Rae Carson) 4/5–Another great YA fantasy.  I love love love the setting; something about the Spanish/Latin influences really resonated with me.  I really enjoyed the way the story went in some unexpected directions, and there was still plenty of adventure and romance.  The main character Elisa was good, though not my favorite, and I still don’t like first-person-present-tense narration.  I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Longbourn (Jo Baker) 3/5–This is the first Pride and Prejudice “spin-off” book I have ever read; I guess I like writing fanfiction more than reading it.  This story takes place during and after P&P from the servants’ viewpoint.  The connection to the original is intriguing but sometimes tenuous, and some of the Austen characters show a different side of themselves here.

The beginning was a bit slow, then I really liked the middle part as the love story kicked in, and then the last third went off in another direction entirely and petered out.  The war in Spain was interesting (maybe I just liked it because she mentions Salamanca?), but after that I really lost interest.  Downton Abbey fans especially may like this one as it has some similar themes.

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) 3.5/5–This book was extremely well-written.  I just think I am about 10 years too old for it.  I did not like the main characters; if I met Hazel or Gus in real life, I doubt I would be friends with either.  Hazel thinks V for Vendetta is a “boy movie,” and Gus pushes a friend to egg his ex’s car.  I just can’t even.

John Green, I am so sorry.  I think you are awesome, and I’m sorry this book made me roll my eyes and not cry.  Don’t feel too bad, I felt the exact same way about Catcher in the Rye (and I was even 17 when I read that one).  Also, I want you to know that when Hazel and Gus have that ridiculous conversation about their food in Amsterdam, in my head I heard you and your brother Hank saying those lines to each other and I laughed out loud.

The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker) 4/5–At this point, I was really ready for some grown-up books.  This debut novel takes mythical creatures from Hebrew and Arabic traditions and plops them in turn-of-the-century NYC, making for a wonderful combination of historical fiction and fantasy.  There are some very interesting twists and turns, and many great side characters in addition to the two titular main characters.

Leviathan Wakes (James S.A. Corey) 4.5/5–This sci-fi thriller/noir combo is pretty intense at times. The beginning blew my mind and it just kept going from there; I was saying “Holy shit!” out loud at least every few chapters.  The characterization is wonderful–my favorite scene was actually towards the end of the book where the ship’s crew is just having a meal together.  I’m pretty sure this book has just about everything you could want in a space opera.  I can’t wait to keep reading this series (called The Expanse).

Even Jane Austen’s mom agrees with me about Fanny Price

austen-jane-opinions-c07437-03

I’ve made no secret of the fact that Mansfield Park is my least favorite Austen novel, particularly because I dislike Fanny Price.  It seems I am in good company, because Austen’s own mother found Fanny “insipid.”

The British Library has made available Austen’s record of comments made by family and friends about Mansfield Park and Emma.  In her iconic hand, she records direct quotes (probably from letters?) and more generally commentary, some possibly relayed secondhand.  Many of the commenters compare the work to P&P (Pride and Prejudice) or S&S (Sense and Sensibility), which are probably still her most popular works.

Rebecca Onion has a nice transcript here on her The Vault blog for Slate (don’t worry–this article is worth reading, unlike the last one I linked from Slate).

It seems many people enjoyed the “Portsmouth scene,” in which Fanny visits her family and is visited in turn by Henry Crawford, which I admit is a highlight of the book for me.

It also seems that many people either like Fanny, or like Mrs. Norris, but no one seems to like them both!  I obviously fall in the Mrs. Norris camp.  My real complaint with Fanny is that she is so judgmental.  And, she’s in love with her cousin.  Gross.

austen-jane-opinions-c07437-04

Austen’s own family gave fairly unvarnished opinions (above).  But I personally find critique less harsh coming from people that really know me, so she may have appreciated the constructive criticism.

Austenland

AustenlandAustenland is a fun little book by Shannon Hale (one of my favorite authors) about a women obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, to the point that she take a trip to “Austenland,” a Regency-themed retreat at an English estate.

It was made into a movie last year, but had a limited release, so I only just saw it on DVD (my library actually has it!).

I thoroughly enjoyed it, but this is not a movie for everyone.  It stays firmly in the rom com category, and the “rom” part is a little thin, while the “com” part tends to the ridiculous, over-the-top variety.  I was dying through most of the movie, but my husband thought it was the kind of movie he was happy to see only once.

Austen fans will catch not only the obvious Colin Firth-as-Darcy cardboard cutout, but also the references to plot points from Persuasion (poor sailor suitor returns rich) and Mansfield Park (the play the group puts on).

Another thing I love about this movie is that it was headed by 3 women, a rarity in Hollywood: written by Shannon Hale and Jerusha Hess, directed by Hess, and produced by Stephanie Meyer, also a friend of Hale’s.

Jerusha Hess co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite with her husband, and that movie is an excellent litmus test–if you liked its absurd humor, as I did, Austenland will more likely be to your taste.

The casting is great:

  • Keri Russell: Always likable.  She’s a little bland here at times, but has some great moments.
  • JJ Feild: Has actually played an Austen leading man–Mr. Tilney in BBC’s Northanger Abbey
  • James Callis: Gaius Baltar. Enough said.
  • Jennifer Coolidge: Shannon Hale had her in mind for the role of Miss Charming from the beginning.  Her typical style of improv in on full display here, and she’s not even the most over-the-top in her performance.
  • Jane Seymour: And her sister plays her maid!
  • Rupert Vansittart: Played the wonderfully indolent Mr. Hurst in the 1995 P&P miniseries.   Currently in GoT as Bronze Yohn Royce.

If Austenland doesn’t sound appealing, but your gf/wife/otherwomanyoudon’twanttooffend has you captive, I propose the Austenland Drinking Game: Take a drink for every oddly-placed taxidermied animal you spy.  You will be so far from sober by the end that I’m sure the movie will be infinitely more enjoyable for you.