Another year, another Jane Austen adaptation. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is the latest in a multi-million dollar legacy for the beloved author who, though she saw some success in her lifetime, suffered a great deal of financial insecurity and died at just 41. Austen’s sharp, frequently funny observations of social mores and sexual politics have made her six-and-a-bit novels a rich seam for the film and TV industries to mine. But there is still the big question: of the super-successful adaptations, who takes the flower crown?
We all know the BBC did it best for television, with 1995’s Pride and Prejudice and Colin’s soaked shirt. But a miniseries has the room to breathe that a film doesn’t; it takes different skills to boil down the essence of each novel into under two hours. So it’s time to serve up the tea (with tiny cakes), and give the best contenders their ranking.
5. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
It’s considered near sacrilege to place Joe Wright’s muddy-hemmed Pride and Prejudice any lower than first place – and I’ve gone and made it fifth! But at the risk of coming off as a bratty Lydia Bennett in search of amusement, it’s lacking a little colour and life. Wright and writer Deborah Moggach made refreshing creative choices, grounding the film in a realist aesthetic and shifting the timeline to the late 18th century. Better still, the sexual tension is palpable. Yet it all seems to come at the cost of some of the comic flair that makes Austen such a treasure.
4. Emma (1996)
Does Douglas McGrath’s glossy take have sweeping cinematography, a beautifully nuanced lead performance or simmering passion? Eh, not really. But it does have an admirable grasp of Austen’s wit and a love of the ridiculous in its corner. The social climbing duet of Alan Cumming and Juliet Stevenson as the Eltons is as slick a comedy of class manners as it gets. And it has Jeremy Northam’s Knightley delivering his lines with the kind of mellifluous virility that will forever have viewers lining up to be chastened. Not so badly done, Emma.
3. Love and Friendship (2016)
Spun from Lady Susan, an unfinished novel written in Austen’s youth, Whit Stillman’s beautifully-crafted treat of an adaptation found a handsome match in Kate Beckinsale. Much of Austen sees older women cast as staid, pitiful or ridiculous, but here’s a woman in the prime of her life effortlessly pulling at the strings of the young men around her to secure her future in a world where marriage is power.
2. Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Ang Lee’s first English-language project, this much-loved movie secured a history-making Adapted Screenplay Oscar win for its star, Emma Thompson. She remains the only person to have won Oscars for both acting and writing – though Greta Gerwig has the heft to catch up if only the Academy will let her. Thompson’s words came to life in a clutch of impeccable performances from the writer herself, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and the late, great Alan Rickman. All balance the comedy and melodrama apparently effortlessly, so Lee’s famously unfiltered feedback (“be less subtle – do more”) obviously hit the mark.
1. Clueless (1995)
As if it could be anything else. Many films are given the adjective ‘iconic’; Amy Heckerling’s pin-sharp modernised adaptation of Emma genuinely deserves it. Still brilliantly quotable, and responsible for recurring waves of fashion inspiration, Clueless was as much a cultural phenomenon as it was social commentary. There’s simply never a bad time to watch it, so if you haven’t already I suggest you get it back into viewing rotation – I hope not sporadically.