Recently I have read a couple of articles which appeared to suggest that film adaptations are an acceptable substitute for reading Austen’s original works. Apparently her books are ‘heavy’ and ‘difficult to understand’, so spin-offs and big/small screen versions may be more palatable to the modern audience. I would suggest that if the modern audience believes that, then the modern audience is an idiot. Anthony Trollope is difficult to get through, Dickens takes his time to get to the point – Austen’s prose is tight, to the point and sharply, pointedly witty. No sentence is wasted – I actually bought my mother the Spineless Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice because that is a novel where every single sentence is important to the plot and where nothing is wasted. Jane Austen is not just a good story-teller as in her plots are good, but she is a phenomenal writer. So … read the books. But once you’ve done that, these are the best film and television adaptations.
Miss Austen Regrets (2008)
I have a special fondness for Becoming Jane (see below) but even I can’t pretend that Austen would have recognised much of herself from it. With Miss Austen Regrets, one has a sneaking suspicion that we are gaining an insight into the real woman. This version of Austen is witty, ready to poke fun at those around her but also affectionate and attached to her family. We catch her towards the end of her life, approaching forty and having her own thoughts on her past relationships, all while attempting to advise her niece Fanny Knight on how best to proceed towards matrimony. I saw this shortly after visiting Chawton and the look of the whole thing is perfect. It’s not a film with high drama, but it is one of deep feeling.
I always thought that the story of Lady Susan could make a great film and I am so glad to see that someone has attempted it – I’ve heard it as a radio play a few times and it has a kind of pantomime quality that Austen’s other stories are too refined to attempt. The big difference is that she was only a teenager when it was written – this is a story of a villainous lady who externally behaves as a delicate lady, while those around her tend to quickly fall victim to her wiles. The film is superb because it is led by Kate Beckinsale who is quite clearly having an absolute ball vamping it up – watching this was an experience of true fan-girl glee.
Emma (2009) and Emma (1995)
I struggled and failed to pick between these two – the Gwyneth Paltrow was my first ever Austen experience, my mother brought me along to see it at the cinema and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Paltrow captured Emma’s complacency and self-confidence but I think that Romola Garai picked up some more of her naievete and lack of self-knowledge – Emma is the girl who thinks that she knows it all but who alas could not be more mistaken. It doesn’t hurt that the 2009 adaptation features Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley – he grasps the blend of charm and grumpiness in a way that the ever smooth Jeremy Northam doesn’t quite manage. Still, I think there is also a sensitivity to the more recent version, an understanding for the plight of Jane Fairfax while the Gwyneth Paltrow one shows Harriet Smith as more foolish, Frank Churchill more creepy and Jane more smug – although its Mrs Elton was superbly obnoxious. Both have redeeming qualities – I can’t help but love the film that first made me love Austen but the 2009 version is something to relish.
I know what you’re thinking – As if? But no, I do mean it. This is very probably the best modernisation of a Jane Austen novel that there has ever been (Bridget Jones Diary notwithstanding) and is the reason why Emma Approved was never really going to work. Cher Horowitz is the Queen Bee, her unintentional selfishness and disastrous decisions more than live up to her eighteenth century equivalent, bafflingly still a sympathetic character no matter how much trouble she causes. A true classic.
Mansfield Park (1999)
Forget the Billie Piper version. Just forget it. Mansfield Park is always going to be a difficult book to put across because while you somehow retain sympathy for Fanny Price while listening to her perspective, onscreen you’re stuck with the fact that’s she’s quite annoying. A very clever critic once pointed out that inviting the new Mr and Mrs Bertram would make for a very dull evening and I would agree – so I completely understand why this adaptation makes Fanny Price a good deal more intelligent and actually allows her some wit. And casts Jonny Lee Miller (him again!) as Edmund. Good shout. I have such fondness for Mansfield Park with its arch villainess Mrs Norris and the ridiculous Lady Bertram, it is is so good to see it get some attention (even if this film is seventeen years old!) but this is the only adaptation that will do.
Northanger Abbey (2007)
Again, others have tried with Northanger Abbey but none are as good as this. Felicity Jones is the perfect Catherine, blending naivete with inquisitiveness and managing to pull it all off without seeming too ridiculous (being honest, Catherine Moreland is a character who runs the risk of ridiculousness for most of the novel). And Henry Tilney is well cast, which helps since he is one of Austen’s more interesting leading men. Carey Mulligan makes an early appearance here as a wonderfully ghastly Isabella Thorpe attempting to lead Catherine astray. I think though that one of the best things about this adaptation is that in the modern age we can finally accept that Catherine’s Gothic fantasies had a strong erotic edge, with the adaptation suggesting her fantasies through dream sequences – a bit steamy for the original but not out of place.
Becoming Jane (2007)
OK, so purists hate this one, and I do wonder if a big reason why I love it so much is that it stars James McAvoy. I accept that it has little basis in fact and that it is highly unlikely that Jane Austen ever tried to elope with anyone. But she did have ‘something’ with Tom Lefroy and although it is very unlikely to have gone like this, there’s still a fun story and an interesting insight into the Austen family dynamics. I am not one of the Hatha-haters, I think she makes a very good Jane and the film remains one of my ‘comfort films’, good for rainy days or being stuck in with a cold. Highly recommended.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2013)
I’ve mentioned more than once how much I love this web-series so I don’t want to repeat myself – but it is fantastic. Not only is it a great piece of staging with Ashley Clements playing many of the roles herself in the ‘costume theatre’ sections of the series, but it also manages to modernise the book surprisingly effectively. Jane is so sweet, then so heartbroken. Lydia goes out of her way to be outrageous and then has her heart brutally shattered. And through it all is Lizzie, trying to be a good sister, a good friend, determined to dislike Darcy and drawn to him nonetheless – everyone turns in a stellar performance and it’s all done with such enthusiasm. If you haven’t watched it yet, do.
Sense and Sensibility (1996)
The mid-1990s do seem to have been a real Golden Age for Jane Austen adaptations – Emma Thompson got the Oscar for Best Screenplay with this version of Sense and Sensibility. There was a more recent version about seven or eight years ago but their Elinor looked significantly more bedraggled – the point of Elinor was not that she was ‘sad’ but that she had sense. She made decisions not based off her heart, but her head. Emma Thompson had not intended to star, considering herself too old but the director Ang Lee urged her to, advising a version of Elinor who believed herself to be past matrimony. Kate Winslet shines as Marianne, managing to make her character’s sensibility believable while still making Marianne appear intelligent. Joanna Trollope’s recent modernised version of Marianne made her an asthmatic playing Taylor Swift songs acoustically while the original was never so shallow and the whole point of her was that she was a healthy girl who ruined herself though drama queen theatrics. That is what comes across here – it also doesn’t seem wholly ludicrous that she and Alan Rickman end up together, although the Colonel Brandon and Marianne have always struck me as a very odd pairing. And also – minor point perhaps – but the Margaret Dashwood here is really brilliant, far more interesting than her literary counterpart, with the 2008 version seeming more than anything to be copy-catting. Having just listed all these, I’m feeling the urge to watch this again … good job I have the house to myself all week.
No list would be complete without this – I do have a fondness for the 2005 edition too (closer to the real ages, Bennets seem more of a family, more sympathetic Charlotte etc) but … nothing beats the Firth/Ehle pairing. It just works. The Catherine de Bourgh is priceless, the wet shirt scene iconic and the Bingley sisters icily bitchy. If Mrs Bennet seems played slightly too much for laughs, so be it. There is barely an off-kilter moment in the whole six episodes – from the first second of that theme tune, the spirits soar and one knows that one is in for a real treat. I will say that Jennifer Ehle carries the series, her every glance perfectly in character but Colin Firth is definitely the best ever Darcy.
Sacrilegious though it may seem, for me this has always been the best Austen adaptation of them all – better even than the one immediately above. Previous and subsequent versions of Persuasion have made Anne look too plain, too dull, too depressed – Amanda Root is none of these. I’ve seen Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth and he seemed far too smooth – Ciaran Hinds is phenomenal as the man who has risen above his origins and he and Root have such a warm chemistry. I also absolutely adore Admiral and Mrs Croft – the Admiral even reminds me a little of my Grandpa. It’s the look of the thing though that is so perfect – the soft candlelight, the conversations after dinners, the windy day at Lyme. Sophie Thompson even carries off Mary Musgrove without descending quite so into the absurd as Alison Steadman did with Mrs Bennet – the whole film is utterly faultless.
So – did I miss any? What other classics are there out there?