Jane Austen continues to have enduring popularity as a writer of fiction more than two hundred years after her untimely and unfortunate early death in 1817. After Shakespeare, she is among the best known English language authors of all time. In addition to the widespread popularity of her novels, she has been the subject of many adaptations to the silver screen and to television. In The Jane Austen Good Woman, we suggest possible reasons for her popularity. Here, we take a look at those screen adaptations -- albeit from a purely personal viewpoint.
The personal nature of that viewpoint is nowhere more evident than in the criteria that our assessment is based on. It must be said that all such judgments, whether these or anyone else's, are personal and subjective. Therefore, it logically follows that some, perhaps many readers, will see things differently -- and that's OK. So long as there is a sound and rational basis for advancing a thesis, it merits consideration -- but not necessarily concurrence. Here are mine.
Austen Adaptations Evaluated
We begin with an overall letter grade for the adaptations we have personally watched. That is followed by a brief synopsis of the character of each production, based on the criteria introduced above. Warning for those who haven't seen a particular production: there may be spoilers in the analysis of each work. We do assume some familiarity with Austen's novels, so not every point is elaborated in minute detail, primarily for the sake of brevity. Spinoffs are included as a separate list at the end.
Regarding production values, a clear pattern quickly emerges, one that is broadly applicable to many genres in British films. Adaptations made prior to the 1990s have a very theatrical and sound stage-like appearance. Acting is often either emotionless or overly dramatic. But, beginning in the 1990s, the production art underwent a profound change for the better, with lavish sets, more outdoor scenes, much more subtle acting and an altogether more believable presentation. This will be evident from the reviews that follow.
Pride and Prejudice is undoubtedly Austen's most popular novel and her most enduring love story. Its opening line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," is one of the most recognizable in all of literature. As such, Pride and Prejudice has received frequent attention from producers seeking to develop an adaptation. And, it can be said that there are no poor adaptations of this novel. They are all watchable and one is outstanding. Thankfully, none violates the third and instantly disqualifying evaluation criterion, that is, using Austen's work to promote modern agendas and messages inconsistent with Austen's text.
1940 Sir Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson: B Given the era in which this was made, it is not a bad adaptation and is still watchable as a classic movie. That barely (but just) keeps it out of the C range despite numerous departures from Austen's plot flow and dialog -- as well as some complete scene reversals compared to the novel. The most notable example of the latter is Lady Catherine de Bourgh's visit to Elizabeth Bennet near the end of the novel, which turns out to be a stratagem to see if Elizabeth will accept a second Darcy proposal -- rather than the novel's classic "I am most seriously displeased" de Bourgh purpose underlying the visit.
1980 Elizabeth Garvey and David Rintoul: B This adaptation is quite faithful to the original, and therefore earns a B grade. And yet, like all of the 1970s and 1980s productions, it is theatrical set oriented (although there are outdoor scenes) and of limited production quality compared to 1990s and subsequent adaptations, for which the production values are generally superb. Detractions include poor casting -- Rintoul's portrayal of Darcy is about as wooden as an old weather-beaten backwoods barn, and Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins aren't much better. One of the highlights of the production, a scene often omitted from other versions but that I consider vital to the author's message, occurs when Elizabeth asks Darcy how he came to love her despite his initial reservations. After some puzzled fumbling by Darcy, she answers for him, intuiting that her impertinence and liveliness of spirit attracted him. To me, this is a uniquely Austen insight into the workings of human nature, and a dramatically critical one in any production.
1995 Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth: A++ This Andrew Davies adaptation is the gold standard by which all other Austen adaptations should be judged. More than that, it was groundbreaking, setting the model for every succeeding adaptation. The double "++" reflects this version's place as first among (near) equals. Davies' ear for Austen's dialog is flawless, as is his plotting. This is perhaps the most faithful of all adaptations to Austen's original dialog, and the results for an Austen lover are without peer. Ehle and Firth are superbly cast as the heroine and hero. While there are a few scenes that do not appear in the novel, they contribute seamlessly to understanding the characters and their period. Firth's wet shirt scene made him an international sensation, with a legion of adoring lady fans. The only nits I can find is that Wickham, Lydia and Mr. Collins are a bit too old for their parts. Also, Davies unfortunately omitted from the script the scene where Elizabeth questions Darcy as to how he came to love her. But these are minor points; this adaptation created in the public mind the very essence of Elizabeth and Darcy, and it undoubtedly fueled a strong resurgence of interest in everything Austen as well as setting the standard for future adaptations. For that, every Austen fan should be eternally thankful.
2005 Keira Knightly and Matthew McFadden: A This production, were it not for the comparison to the 1995 version, would be considered one of the best of all the Austen adaptations. The star power rivals that of Emma Thompson's 1995 Sense and Sensibility. It is well worth watching; it is just not quite as compelling as it's predecessor. Being a movie rather than a TV series, the run time is much shorter, resulting in left out and compressed scenes. The diaglog strays considerably from Austen's sparkling repartee, perhaps simply to give the movie a more modern sound and distinctive personality of it's own. There are a few contrived scenes, but as with other adaptations of Austen's work, they usually serve to advance viewer understanding of the characters and the period. The production does feel closer to Hollywood rather than Austen 's Regency England. By way of example, Darcy's second proposal takes place as an early morning foggy landscape encounter between Elizabeth and Darcy. The sun breaks over the horizon and illuminates the space between them just as they touch heads in affection. But it's all in good fun, and for the most part this version remains sufficiently faithful to the novel to earn a solid A mark.
Sense and Sensibility is a bit more difficult to adapt than most of Austen's novels, in large part because the novel drops the reader into the middle of the story without first introducing the leading male character, Edward Ferrars. When the novel begins, Edward is already on the scene, and there is no first encounter, as there is with Pride and Prejudice. Thus, the screen writer is left with the task of inventing scenes that introduce Edward to the audience and lay a foundation for the romance that follows between Edward and Elinor Dashwood. Nevertheless, Sense and Sensibility remains a favorite departure point for adaptations. The story of two almost destitute sisters who suffer anguished disappointment in their quest for love before finally finding happiness is perhaps Austen's most compelling dramatic creation.
1971 Joanna David, Ciaran Madden: C This version is among the most soundstage-like of all the 1970s-1980s adaptations. In it's favor, it is relatively faithful to the novel. However, the acting is as weak as any in the group. Ciaran Madden as Marianne Dashwood has a tendency to overact, and the casting is pedestrian at best. The 1981 version is better.
1981 Irene Richards, Tracey Childs, Bosco Hogan: B The ten years between this adaptation and the previous one produced a visibly better product. Fidelity to the Austen story line is good, with virtually every important scene reproduced. Most cast members are well chosen and give good performances. Richards, who also appeared in the 1980 version of Pride and Prejudice, gives an understated but satisfactory performance. Tracey Childs as Marianne plays her part well. Unfortunately, Bosco Hogan is as deadpan as David Rintoul in the 1980 Pride and Prejudice. One wonders what Elinor saw in him. Peter Woodward is especially good as John Willoughby, the villain of the play. As with other 1970s and 1980s productions, the production quality is typical of the austerity of that era.
1995 Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman: A For sheer star power, no adaptation tops this one. Besides filling the role of the longsuffering Elinor Dashwood, Emma Thompson won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film also won many other awards, and is perhaps constrained only by the two hour movie time limit. As a result, a few crucial scenes from the novel were omitted. Among them are the dramatic appearance of Willoughby at Cleveland during Marianne's illness, seeking to apologize and ask for forgiveness. This scene in the novel is fundamental to the evolution of both Elinor and Marianne's character. Another missing scene is the evening party wherein the arrogant and imperious Mrs. Ferrars expresses her haughty disdain for Elinor and Marianne. About the only other criticisms one can make is that there is no Lady Middleton in the script, and that Thompson herself is a bit old to play Elinor, who is barely entering young womanhood at the time of the novel. But for all that, the cast is outstanding, and all render excellent performances, none better than Winslet as the romantically fixated Marianne.
2008 Hattie Morahan, Charity Wakefield, Dan Stevens, David Morrissey: A+ This is another superb adaptation by screen writer Andrew Davies. Freed from the two hour limit that constrained the Emma Thompson script, Davies delivers a screen play that approaches in quality that of his 1995 Pride and Prejudice effort. Morahan and Wakefield are superb as the sense and sensibility sisters. Dan Stevens, who also filled a leading role in the early years on Downton Abbey, plays Edward Ferrars with a brooding but robust thoughtfulness that is appropriate to his hidden relationship with Lucy Steele -- a portrayal diametrically opposed to the limp rendering by Bosco Hogan. Dominic Cooper is a much darker Willoughby than Greg Wise in 1995. The settings are outstanding, the production values as high as any Austen adaptation, and once again, the few non-Austen scenes Davies adds contribute materially to the plot as well as to understanding of the characters. This adaptation just barely edges out Emma Thompson's 1995 version for the simple reason that screen time is longer, albeit of the same high quality, containing therefore a more compete telling of Austen's original text.
Emma is the most frequently adapted of Austen's novels, with five versions now extant. Emma, described by Austen herself as a heroine that only she as author could love, is, at an age of nearly twenty one, "handsome, clever and rich," a self-assured and preternaturally mature (so she thinks) young woman in charge of her father's Hartfield estate. As a result, she is utterly confident in her ability to "make matches" of the romantic kind among the inhabitants of the little village of Highbury where Hartfield is situated. Her ensuing misadventures on the bumpy road to self-understanding constitutes ever-enticing material for the many adaptors who have tackled this novel in the last fifty years.
1972 Doran Godwin, John Carson: C Three Austen adaptations were produced in the early 1970s, and like the other two, this version suffers from indifferent casting, stage-like sets and locations (there are a few outdoor scenes) and indifferent acting. I found Godwin particularly unconvincing as the title character, and Debbie Bowen is downright silly as Harriet Smith. Donald Eccles' Mr. Woodhouse is perhaps too frail and tedious, while Robert East's portrayal of Frank Churchill would never inspire anyone to love. But of all the leading characters, Ania Marson is dispiritedly insipid as Jane Fairfax -- once again, not someone to inspire affection. The plot does remain faithful to the entirety of Austen's Emma text, and perhaps that is the best that can be said of this earliest Emma play.
1996 Kate Beckinsale, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Olivia Williams, Raymond Coulthard : A+ Andrew Davies delivers the most faithful screen play to Austen's story line of all the Emmas. His script is surprisingly complete despite being limited to only the two hour run time of the movie. Kate Beckinsale's performance is exactly on point with Austen's Emma -- there isn't a trace of teenage silliness or immaturity. She is the self-assured and competent mistress of Hartfield at a young age, a portrayal that Beckinsale carries off superbly -- not true of every Emma interpretation, sadly. All the supporting roles are well cast, and Raymond Coulthard is a particularly strong and convincing Frank Churchill. The sets and outdoor settings are just right and the production values unexcelled. In my estimation, this is the best of all the Emmas, no small feat in a field that includes several worthy renditions.
1996 Gwyeneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam: A- Paltrow's Emma is similar to Beckinsale's, rather than the Romola Garai interpretation a decade later. The script, production values, and acting are generally at high level. But, Toni Collette, a physically large woman, is miscast as Harriet Smith, whom Austen described as "short, plump and fair. . .with a look of great sweetness. Samantha Morton fit the role to perfection in the 1996 production; Collette simply did not physically match the part -- nor does her demeanor convey "great sweetness." But nevertheless, the movie was well received, both critically and at the box office, and it remains one well worth attention.
2009 Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller: A+ This bicentennial tribute to Austen's novels is one of the best Austen productions ever made. The four episode screen play is expansive, the cast is excellent and the acting is for the most part exceptional. The settings and production values are about as sumptuous as it is possible to imagine. Several scenes appear in the script that are not in the book; however, for the most part they serve to illustrate the character of the principle participants. As one example, there are unspoken hints on screen that Mr. Knightley loves Emma long before this is revealed in the novel. This variation, and others, could be considered to be helpful foreshadowing. There are a couple of small points worth noting, as I see it -- although many perhaps will not agree. Romola Garai's interpretation of Emma is a less mature (more teenager-ish) rendition of Austen's Emma than that of Kate Beckinsale. At times her behavior is almost giddy -- surely not the restrained and self-confident upper class Mistress of Hartfield that Austen created. In one scene near the end, Emma/Garai runs panic-stricken into Mr. Knightley's Donwell Abbey office, frantically wailing that she cannot marry him because she can never leave her valetudinarian father. If one does not object to these admittedly minor departures from Austen's novel, this is one of the finest Austen adaptations in existence.
2020 Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn: Not reviewed Movie trailers and written reviews suggest that this Emma strays from Austen's Regency perspective -- in short, a more modern portrayal of the Emma narrative. The Emma previewed is not the self-assured and kind-hearted but misguided Emma of the novel. As with some other recent adaptations, there are a few scenes that would never occur in an Austen work. One guesses they are present in order to appeal to those who favor the less traditional aspects of modern culture -- or absence thereof.
Persuasion was the last novel Austen completed, and was not published until after her death in 1817. The story line is the original of the 'young lovers rekindle a relationship after years of going separate ways' genre. Hollywood has created a myriad of spinoffs from this general plot theme (it's practically a Hallmark Movie staple). But none comes close to Austen's original. It is not widely known that Austen wrote two next-to-last chapters for Persuasion. The first had Captain Wentworth, Anne Elliot's lost love, approach Anne on behalf of Admiral Croft, the renter of her father's estate at Kellynch Hall. Croft was, through Wentworth as go-between, offering to vacate Kellynch if Anne were to marry William Walter Elliot, as was being rumored at the time. Dissatisfied with this ending, Austen rewrote the penultimate chapter in favor of the enduring scene where Anne Elliot talks about love with Captain Harville while Wentworth overhears from nearby. Wentworth then writes her one of the most beautiful letters in all of literature, professing his continued love. Adapters abandon this narrative sequence at their peril -- which one screen writer did, as we shall see.
1971 Ann Firbank, Bryan Marshall: C This production, along with the 1971 Sense and Sensibility version, was one of the earliest post-war Jane Austen adaptations. As a result, it suffers from the same lackluster casting, scripting and production values as the other 1970s productions. It is, however, in the main faithful to Austen's novel, and for that there is reason to watch. But Ann Firbank's performance is uninspired -- although perhaps not inconsistent with other performances of the era. There is one scene near the end that is cringe worthy, when heroine Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth finally come together after being separated eight years prior. Anne/Firbank looks at Wentworth/Marshall and sighs, "Oh, Frederick, Frederick." You have to see it to understand, but -- yeuch!
1995 Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds: A+ 1995-96 was a banner period for Austen adaptations. In two short years, a total of five A level movies appeared: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma (2), and this version of Persuasion. Amanda Root is superb in a difficult and demanding role, portraying the forlorn and regretful 27-year old Anne Elliot who, eight years earlier turned down a proposal of marriage from the love of her life, Navy man Frederick Wentworth. Although a standard movie plot these days, none are so well acted as Amanda Root's performance in this adaptation. The movie script, follows Austen's plot faithfully. Yet, one of the nice touches is that the script cleverly includes both of Austen's next-to-last chapters -- first the Admiral Croft offer to vacate Kellynch and then the discussion of love, during which Wentworth writes his eloquent renewed proposal letter. Dramatically, it works well without disturbing Austen's narrative. The only negative I can find to complain about -- and a purely personal one at that -- is that I never quite warmed up to Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. A fine Shakespearian stage actor, his gruff and weather-beaten countenance seems more fitting as a longshoreman than a navy captain and war hero.
2007 Sally Hawkins, Rupert Penry-Jones: A This might have been the best of the Persuasions were it not for a couple of poor screen play choices -- more in a moment. Production values -- settings, costumes, music score, etc. -- were consistently high throughout, and for the most part, casting was on point. Rupert Penry-Jones is perhaps the best Navy Captain Wentworth. Sally Hawkins' portrayal of Anne Elliot was more overtly emotional than Amanda Root's in 1995 -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, Simon Burke's screen play was mixed. A number of scenes were missing or did not occur as Austen wrote them. However, the variations did not substantively disrupt the narrative flow. But, there were three scenes that are difficult to similarly dismiss. First, Anne Elliot's marvelous conversation about love with Captain Harville (Austen's rewritten next-to-last chapter), which inspired Wentworth to renew his proposal, takes place much earlier, at Lyme. Worse, it takes place between Anne with Captain Benwick instead, where it is overheard by no one. The most dramatic scene in the novel is reduced to almost a throwaway filler. (In Austen's Persuasion, the Lyme visit has Anne discussing love and poetry with Benwick, a conversation which Wentworth notices in the 1995 production, the earliest hint Wentworth has that Anne may still care for him.) Having discarded Austen's preferred ending to no visible effect, Burke brings the movie to its climax with the ending that Austen rejected. Once the second proposal letter is received, Anne/Hawkins sets out on a desparate hegira, bounding to and fro (with unseemly parade, as Austen might have assessed) through the streets of Bath, seeking the elusive Captain Wentworth. Once found, Hawkins has her own "Oh, Frederick, Frederick" moment, gushing out, "Oh, Captain, Captain." The endless close-up kissing gourami clinch that ensues is as cringe-worthy as Hawkins' pereginations around Bath's Royal Crescent. Double yeuch. It's a melodramatic non-Austen finale that makes one wonder what Burke was thinking.
Mansfield Park is undoubtedly the most difficult of the Austen canon (six novels) to adapt. Mouse-shy and utterly financially dependent, Fanny Price is almost the anti-heroine. In today's cultural climate, it would appear that it is simply impossible to accurately portray the shy and diffident Fanny and yet retain enough viewer interest to release a profitable adaptation. Price is brought from her poor and overcrowded home in Portsmouth into wealthy and titled Sir Thomas Bertram's manor, to be raised by her uncle and two aunts. Given that the Bertram family already has four children of their own, the naturally reticent Fanny is seen as fit only to be useful to her two aunts -- always taking second place to the two daughters and two sons. She soon falls in love with second son Edmund, who befriends her from the beginning. Although Fanny is not popular today as a heroine, perhaps readers and screen writers should take a look at the Fanny Price that Jane Austen actually created. Utterly dependent on her Uncle and Aunts and with a non-assertive personality, Fanny nevertheless refuses to allow those around her to involve her in their own dubious conduct. Most importantly, she resists with unbending inner strength being forced into an undesirable marriage, even suffering the "punishment" of being banished to her poor and chaotic Portsmouth former home. But in the end, it is Fanny who proves to be the best judge of character and proper behavior -- an immovable rock of moral certainty as the Mansfield Park household falls into disarray as Sir Thomas Bertram's natural children all commit acts of folly, some of them with irreparable consequences.
1983 Sylvestre Le Touzel, Nicholas Farrell: B Sadly, there is only one adaptation that comes anywhere close to preserving Austen's hidden gem of a story, and the 1983 adaptation is it. The script in this production is good, if a bit slow and pedestrian, saved only by its fidelity to Austen's original. However, there are flaws. Production values (settings, costumes, etc.) are unremarkable -- albeit no worse than other adaptations of this era. Casting choices were a mixed affair, not surprising given the difficulty inherent in dramatizing the material by modern standards. Sylvestra Le Touzel is given a difficult part to play as the extremely reticent Fanny Price, and perhaps she over does it at points. One wishes for a little less addled fluttering and a little greater display of quiet inner resolve. Nicholas Farrell is a bit of a milquetoast, leaving one to wonder at Fanny's everlasting love for him. Angela Pleasence dreadfully overdoes her role as the passive and dependent Lady Bertram. However, the daughters, played by Samantha Bond and Liz Crowther, are well done. Anna Massey is a suitably waspish Aunt Norris, and Robert Burbage and Jackie Smith-Wood give creditable performances as the morally dubious Crawford siblings. The best performance is perhaps that of Bernard Hepton, delivering a Sir Thomas that closely follows Austen's novel. If you have to watch only one adaptation of this novel, let this be the one.
1999 Embeth Davidtz, Jonny Lee Miller: D When modern agendas meet Austen, the 1999 adaptation, written and directed by Patricia Rozema, is what happens. This movie gets high marks for casting and production values -- and that's about it. The Fanny Price portrayed here is an independent and even self-sufficient young woman, with not a spec of diffidence -- nothing like Austen's Fanny. She's also an aspiring novelist, perhaps intended as a misguided homage to Austen herself. But these flaws pale in comparison to Rozema's obsession with overlaying modern messaging onto the script. As a result, both Sir Thomas Bertram and older son Tom Bertram are portrayed as evil, vile, uncaring men, without redeeming virtue. This is an unpardonable inversion of the Sir Thomas that Austen actually wrote. Perhaps worst of all, it vilifies the son in a most terrible way. His flaws as an entitled wastrel in Austen's Mansfield Park were bad enough, but Rozema's dark protrayal is dispicable. This script tack utterly abandons fidelity to Austen's Regency era depiction. Sadly however, this tendency is likely to only increase in the future.
2007 Billie Piper, Blake Ritson: C Like the four other late 2000s productions, this Mansfield Park was a part of a coordinated celebration of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's life. Only Pride and Prejudice was not produced, no doubt because no one could figure out how to top Andrew Davies' stellar version starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Unfortunately, the result was a bit of a mixed affair dramatically. Northanger Abbey (2007), Sense and Sensibility (2008) and the 2009 production of Emma were all excellent efforts. The 2007 Persuasion was also good, notwithstanding the screen play flaws noted in that review. This Mansfield Park, a disappointingly lightweight production, fell short of the mark. The run time is so short that many critical scenes are completely left out. The story that remains is a sadly truncated Mansfield Park. Billie Piper's boisterous tomboy Fanny is hardly the diffident young woman that Austen penned. Piper is a multi-talented actress and singer, but her wild hair and pouty expression seem better suited to the Sally Lockhart of The Ruby in the Smoke. If one is willing to completely forget Austen's text, this movie isn't terrible, but it could have been so much better.
Austen fans are fortunate that both Northanger Abbey adaptations are not only watchable but quite true to Austen's narrative. Many consider Northanger Abbey to be the lightest weight of Austen's six published novels, perhaps because it is in part a parody of the Gothic novels of her day. And while this may be so, a closer examination reveals a more layered story, with depth and insight not unlike other, better known novels. Like Austen's other works, Northanger Abbey is simultaneously a love story, a work of social commentary and the chronicle of a woman's journey to maturity and understanding. And, it is a good story as well.
1986 Katharine Schlesinger, Peter Firth: B Although the production quality is little if any different than any other of the 1980s Austen adaptations, the story is well crafted, and virtually the entire cast is well chosen for their respective roles. Katharine Schlesinger plays the naive and sheltered starry-eyed Gothic-novel devotee, Catherine Moreland, to perfection. And, Peter Firth as Henry Tilney brings just the right level of amused sophistication to his part. Some may question the inclusion of Catherine's dream sequences, wherein she imagines herself as a helpless and imperiled Gothic heroine, beset by villains at every turn. But these are not inconsistent with the story line, and they serve to illuminate Moreland's immature and imaginative character. The 2007 script included similar fare.
2007 Felicity Jones, JJ Feild: A Felicity Jones is a fetching and convincing Catherine Moreland, naive daughter of a country vicar with a large family. Enamored of Gothic novels, she is invited to vacation in the resort town of Bath, a center of dancing and adventure. Jones' portrayal of Catherine is outstanding, as is JJ Fields' appearance as Henry Tilney. Like the 1986 version, the casting, screen play and dialog remain faithful to Austen's narrative and message. Moreover, in this case, production quality (settings, costumes, casting, acting, etc.) is every bit as good as the top Austen adaptations, and well worth watching. Perhaps this should be no surprise since the screen writer is, once again, Andrew Davies, making the fourth of Austen's six novels for which he has written the script (excluding only Persuasion and Mansfield Park) -- and that does not include his role in the production of Sanditon, Austen's last novel, abandoned due to her terminal illness. There are enough good adaptations of Persuasion such that his deft hand is not needed there. But, given his skill as a screen writer, perhaps he could have saved Mansfield Park from the ignominy that has followed it to this day.
The underlying Austen text from which this screen play is drawn is Austen's novella, Lady Susan -- which should not be confused with another work, Love and Freindship (Austen's spelling). The title of the latter was filched for the 2016 movie, perhaps for dramatic reasons. Lady Susan is not widely read today; the epistolary form (exchange of letters) has long since fallen out of style. But in Austen's day, letters were the predominant form of communication among people separated by a distance too great for convenient travel.
2016 Kate Beckinsale: A This little gem differs in other ways from Austen's six novels. It is primarily a biting satirical comedy rather than a love story. Furthermore, the leading character, Lady Susan Vernon, is not a nice woman. Rather, she is recently widowed, and therefore by necessity a predatory husband seeker who must find a rich replacement husband for herself and another for her daughter. Her scheming leads her to slyly court a very eligible (and youthful) prospect while trying to foist her daughter off on a bumbling older man who would pursue Lady Susan instead. In addition, she has seemingly caused marital discord in the household of another man -- with whom she seems to have formed a bond of, shall we say, mutual interest. The whole tangled mess eventually resolves itself with Lady Susan's comeuppance and her daughter's union with the young suitor that Lady Susan had tried to secure for herself. It's all good comedic fun, the script is based on Austen's narrative, the settings and production quality are first rate, and Beckinsale is her usual outstanding self.
The Watsons (unfinished)
No adaptations have ever been attempted for The Watsons. Nor is there likely to be, given the inconclusive arc of the narrative. Austen herself seems to have lost interest in the story, begun while she lived in Bath but then abandoned for reasons that remain unclear to this day.
Austen only got twelve chapters into Sanditon, the story of an attempt to turn a sleepy coastal town into a resort and vacation hot spot, before being forced to abandon the manuscript due to the effects of her ultimately fatal illness. As a result, the story was barely underway, and what is present gives readers almost no hint as to what would have followed. Most assume that wealthy gadabout, Sidney Parker was intended for the heroine, Charlotte Heywood. But Parker had only just been introduced into the story, so there's no way to know for sure (and some think otherwise), leaving anyone attempting an adaptation (or a continuation, of which there have been many), a bit of a problem as to how to proceed.
2019 Rose Williams, Theo James, Anne Reid: C When it was announced that celebrated screen writer Andrew Davies would produce a completed script for the unfinished Sanditon, much anticipation ensued. And, in many ways, the resultant script, as well as the assembled cast, the production quality, and all the rest, fulfills those expectations. But, there is a problem. Davies' eight episodes are not Austen but rather a complete fabrication of his imagination. In fact, the entirety of Austen's twelve chapters are consumed long before the end of the first episode. It starts with Austen's characters and situations but then strikes out into uncharted territory. To its detriment, the direction is one that bears little resemblence to Austen's prior works. Production quality and casting are certainly worthy of an A rating. However, the screen play is redolent with modern subtexts and situations, with virtually no fidelity to Austen's prior art. The play soon devolves into a sequence of R rated scenes inconsistent with anything Austen ever wrote. For that, we reluctantly down rate what otherwise could have been an excellent interpretation.
Austen's works have been a rich source of material for modern spinoffs. Many of these are pure Hollywood, having nothing directly to do with Austen. Rather, they use Austen's plot concepts (and character names) as a point of departure. Here, we choose to leave them unmentioned, in part because they, unlike Austen's novels, are no more than lightweight and forgettable filler, of little lasting substance, and partly because some of them fail our third evaluation criterion. However, there are a few that, because of either their connection to Austen's stories or because they relate directly to Austen's life, deserve more attention.
2007 Becoming Jane: B Anne Hatheway starred in the title role in this bicentennial biopic, a movie celebrating the life of Jane Austen. The casting, script (independent of historical reality), acting and production values are first rate, and every bit as deserving of an A review as any of the many recent Austen adaptations. However, unlike Miss Austen Regrets (reviewed next), the story arc in Becoming Jane is largely a work of fiction. The story centers around Austen's early infatuation with young Irish lawyer Tom Lefroy. That much is known for sure from her letters and from other sources. There is even evidence that they discussed the risqué novel, Tom Jones. However, the script then veers off into fiction -- and a plunge into a local lake that Austen would never have written. It then follows with an attempted elopement, which ends with Jane, beset by doubts, returning home. Twenty years later, after she is famous, she is shown at a concert, where Lefroy appears with daughter in tow. The young girl asks Jane to read from her works. At the end, we are told that the daughter's name is Jane. It all makes for great drama. But, neither the elopement nor the later encounter with Lefroy happened. The reality, that Lefroy's relatives kept him away due to Austen's penury, would likely not have been enough to sustain a movie. The rating above simply reflects the fact that much of Becoming Jane is invented from whole cloth, with little historical foundation
2008 Miss Austen Regrets: A Olivia Williams is outstanding in this history-based dramatic view into the life of Jane Austen. Taking a different approach than Becoming Jane, many of the events portrayed in Miss Austen Regrets are real, and those that are not are consistent with what we know of Austen's all-too-short life. Many events portayed in the movie are based on documented events and people in her life: the early proposal of marriage which she first accepted and then withdrew from, the attempts to get her novels published, the relationships with sister Cassandra and brother Henry, the frequent interactions with niece Fanny Knight concerning affairs of the heart, the visit with Prince Regent librarian James Stanier Clarke, the encounter with surgeon Charles Thomas Haden during brother Henry's sickness, the illness and death. For the most part, Miss Austen Regrets eschews imaginary melodrama in favor of historical realism. One cannot but feel a pang of regret for the loss so early of a timeless writer whose poverty undoubted left her in a constant state of low level anxiety for her future and that of her family. This is a powerful, fitting and long overdue testimonial to one of the greatest artistic geniuses of her, or any age.
Death Comes to Pemberley 2013: A This extended TV series is based on the similarly named novel by best-selling mystery writer PD James. Set at Pemberley years after the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy, it follows the efforts of husband and wife to solve a murder for which long time nemesis George Wickham is the accused party. Script, acting, production values all are outstanding in quality. The exterior was filmed at Chatsworth, and interiors there and at other Yorkshire estates. This is an outstanding production in every aspect but one. Most of the cast is very well chosen. But the two lead characters, Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys, seem less than ideally suited for their roles. Rhys is adequate but never comes close to Colin Firth's timeless 1995 performance. An early Darcy outburst of temper seems out of character with Austen's hero. Anna Maxwell Martin displays little of the high spirited and impertinent Elizabeth Bennet portrayed by both Jennifer Ehle and Keira Knightly. To be sure, Martin is an outstanding actress. She was perfectly cast as the central character, Esther Summerson, in the dramatization of Dickens' Bleak House, in which she turned in perhaps the performance of her career. She also starred as ex-code breaker Susan Grey in The Bletchley Circle, turning in an equally excellent performance. But she is temperamentally different from Austen's Elizabeth, and her portrayal of Elizabeth is of a kind with the always reflective and introspective gravitas she brings to other presentations. If you can ignore these casting misfits -- or come to accept them as the story unfolds -- Death Comes to Pemberley is one of the best of the Austen spinoffs.
Austen's six novels have staying power far beyond their scant numbers. In The Jane Austen Good Woman, we suggest possible reasons why this is so. Austen's work has fascinated readers for generations -- and producers and screen writers as well. Beginning in the 1970s, adaptations have come forth at a seemingly regular pace. Many are among the best dramatic presentations available from the movie and television art. We have our favorites, and surely other Janeites have theirs as well.
The 1970-80s adaptations were marked by high fidelity to Austen's works, albeit being mediocre in casting and production values. The 1990s productions carried on this approach while raising script, casting and production quality to a very high level, led in no small part by the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Many of the early 2000s bicentennial tribute adaptations continued this tradition, although by this time Austen's dialog began to be diluted with more modern phraseaology. (In my opinion, this compromises the authenticity of the original, unnecessarily given the timelessness of Austen's command of language.) Moreover, we must with regret note a tendency in recent adaptations to impose modern cultural messaging on Austen screen adaptations. Mansfield Park 1999, Sanditon 2019 and Emma 2020 all suffer from a tendency to abandon Regency sensibilities, failing to remain true to Austen's era and milieu. Sadly, we worry that we may never again see a faithful adaptation of the novels of one of the most talented authors of all time. Which makes it all the more important to preserve those that came before -- it may be all we are left with.