Ah, Jane Austen – perhaps the only British author who can boast of giving Shakespeare a run for his money in terms of both international profile and popularity. And where timeless personal quandaries and witty dialogue moves its readership, the film industry will surely follow! Some of these cinematic adaptations detailed below are classy, timeless and inventive, and others are… less so. Some contain more (and rather, less) Austen than you would, at first, expect. Two disclaimers: There are no television adaptations included in this article, so that does mean no Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (sorry). Secondly, nowhere does this piece profess to be a definitive study of every film that Jane Austen ever influenced because there are dozens and dozens and, quite frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that! Here the focus is on those that made a recognized impact (positively or not) on the cinema scene.
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
With Greer Garson, one of the most admired actresses in Hollywood at the time, as Lizzie, and a dashing Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy, Hollywood wanted to go as English as possible for the first major screen adaptation of an Austen novel. So many English people were employed on the set that they stopped for a tea break promptly at 4pm every day. There were, however, still liberties taken – the period was moved to the 1830s in order to allow for more opulent gowns from costume designer Adrian, and the success of the screwball comedy genre created taglines such as “Bachelors beware! Five gorgeous beauties are on a mad-cap manhunt!”. It was also based more on Helen Jerome’s stage adaptation of the novel, so despite admiral chunks of verbatim dialogue, there was rather a lot of added explanatory detail and copious uses of “Oh, Mr. Darcy!” and “darling!”: A product of its time.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
A mere fifty-five years later (television had already pumped out its first glut of Austen adaptations) and Sense and Sensibility arrived, with a screenplay crafted by Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her efforts) and a cast rounded out by Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman. Thompson took much of her inspiration from the letters of Jane Austen over the actual book; there are very few lines from Sense and Sensibility that make it into the film. The director Ang Lee was apparently deliberately chosen for not being English so he could marshal all the historical accuracy and not become overwhelmed by sentiment (or something) – he hadn’t even read the novel before being sent the script to peruse.
(There is an infamous moment in this film, remembered fondly by many and even parodied in The Vicar of Dibley: Thompson’s grunting ‘happy tears’ when she finds out that her love for Grant’s Edward Ferrars – as Elinor – is reciprocated.)
Clueless: The same year, but a different novel and wildly different approach. In the first curve-ball entry on this list, Austen’s novel Emma gets a Beverly Hills facelift when Alicia Silverstone’s Cher takes over the main role in a 1990s high school teen flick. All the detail remains, however, including her obsession with popularity and playing the social game and the unexpected (and slightly incestuous?) happy ending with close-to-home suitor Paul Rudd. Being honest, though – most people remember Clueless fondly for Cher’s amazing wardrobe App and bringing sayings such as “surfing the crimson wave” into common parlance. Mankind, you’re welcome.
Continuing the trend for adapting Jane Austen’s fourth novel (a television version was also aired the same year, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong, who totally owned his “badly done!” chastisements of Emma), this fluffy Miramax adaptation starred Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, alongside a high-calibre ensemble that included Ewan McGregor. Frolicsome and lavish in that peculiar mid-nineties rom-com way, it’s a perfectly decent presentation of Austen – if a little chocolate-box sweet.
Mansfield Park (1999)
This first screen version of Mansfield Park provides an interesting shift to a somewhat darker tone. An impressive cast (Jonny Lee Miller and, um, Harold Pinter) is tasked with the challenge of not only bringing their respective character from the novel to life but also imbuing them with a sense of people from Jane Austen’s life, as director Patricia Rozema wished to spice things up by adding autobiographical elements to the film. Austen is seen as the writer heroine Fanny Price, but there are also shades of her brother, sister and suspected sweetheart in the film’s characters. Austen’s early letters and journals were used both onscreen as Fanny’s writings and used to re-shape the plot of the film. It may not treat Austen as gospel, but this Mansfield Park certainly has flavour.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Haha! Surprise… mainly for men, we’ll wager. Possibly one of the most famous adaptations of a Jane Austen novel, although not necessarily famous for being so, Helen Fielding’s comic creation of the ultimate nineties singleton – Bridget Jones – finds herself in a loose but fun adaptation (if a little dated now) of Pride and Prejudice. She even gets her own Mr. (Mark) Darcy with Colin Firth, who, in very meta casting, remains the most popular Mr. Darcy from the BBC’s enduring 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series. Bridget has her Wickham-esque rake in Hugh Grant, the embarrassing family and friends, the pride and the misunderstandings – and he, of course, has his Darcy aloofness and prejudice.
Bride & Prejudice (2004)
Well, this one was a gamble. With Bend It Like Beckham’s director Gurinder Chadha on board, and the most successful Indian actress in the world, Aishwarya Rai, playing the Lizzie Bennet character of Lalita, this Bollywood version of Pride and Prejudice had the publicity drive and verve to go far. It ended up off-piste, however, with wooden leads (Martin Henderson is impressively forgettable as a bland update of Darcy) and naff dialogue, which no amount of lavish song-and-dance routines could save.
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
It’s okay, because the next year brought Joe Wright’s celebrated version of Lizzie and Darcy’s love story to the big screen. Sweet and sincere, but nicely muddy around the edges, this was a more rural (and beautifully shot and scored) take on Regency splendour. It saw Keira Knightley prove her acting chops (and earn an Oscar nomination in the process) as Lizzie, and Matthew Macfadyen give Colin Firth a close run for his money as the definitive Darcy. Setting Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn loose on the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet proved inspired – oh yes, and Judi Dench is in it too.
Becoming Jane (2007)
Becoming Jane unveiled aspects of Austen’s life to audiences as she became the heroine in a mostly-biographical tale. Focusing on her alleged almost-romance with the dashing Irishman Tom LeFroy, and her struggle to free herself from society’s conventions in order to focus upon her writing, events may be vamped up but it’s certainly enjoyable to view Austen in circumstances so similar to her heroines. Anne Hathaway may field accusations of being annoying (and she’s an American! The horror!) but she actually turned in a decent and passionate performance as Jane Austen, with James McAvoy admirably adding to his 2006/7 career-making plethora of adorable leading men here (Penelope, Starter for 10, Atonement).
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Exactly as you’d imagine (and based on a novel itself) – a book club forms to read and discuss a Jane Austen novel per month. Its members start to see uncanny similarities between their own love predicaments and the narrative of Austen. We struggle to recall details of much else – and that can’t be good.
Probably the kind of film you only watch once. If you’re female. And you really like Jane Austen. An American super-fan of Jane Austen travels to England for the “world’s only immersive Austen experience” after a relationship break-up, and vows to leave with a ring on her finger. An interesting-ish idea with a good cast (Austen veteran JJ Field, Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge) is somewhat cheapened by lazy writing and character arcs, and a tongue not sure whether it wants to be placed in cheek or not.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
A concept so outrageous that it works? Although not exactly garlanded with roses upon its release earlier this year, the book-to-book-to-film adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s ‘gorified’ version of Austen’s timeless romance makes no bones about what it is. The weird imbalance of genres fluctuates throughout the film, successful in parts and jarring in others. There is a great interpretation of that famous (first) proposal scene, though.
Love & Friendship (2016)
Hurrah! A Jane Austen adaptation that we’ve not yet seen! Based on her epistolary novella Lady Susan, unpublished until 1871, Kate Beckinsale gets to sink her teeth into the scheming and unscrupulous role of Lady Susan Vernon, on the hunt for a husband for herself and her daughter. An entertaining premise and a fresh story lead to high hopes for this new adaptation in cinemas now.