I’m a sucker for a good Jane Austen adaptation. In fact, I think I’ve seen just about every one in existence, apart from those awkward 1970s BBC ones that are about as exciting as cohabitation with Mr Collins. So, naturally, this week’s Classic Remarks topic is right down my alley. But since I’ve been watching Austen adaptations since I was about thirteen, it’s kind of tough to pick my favourite. So, instead, I’ve decided to group my selections to cover all the bases you might use for evaluating an Austen adaptation.
I’ve already written a review of it, so I won’t bang on too long, but I think that in terms of creativity, Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park takes the prize for the most creative engagement with the source material. I know a lot of people hate this version, because it’s a pretty grim take on Austen’s novel which takes a lot of licence with the original, but I’m very impressed with the intellectual engagement present in this film. It’s not the most enjoyable of viewing experiences, but it’s very interesting creatively, and although it may require a little more effort, it’s well worth it.
You hear a lot about adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and to some extent Sense and Sensibility. But if there’s an Austen adaptation that doesn’t get as much press as it deserves – well, actually, it would probably have to be a tie between the 2007 Northanger Abbey, with the tireless Andrew Davies as screenwriter, and the 1995 Persuasion. Northanger Abbey could give 1995’s Pride and Prejudice a run for the title of ‘Sexiest Austen Adaptation’, although it’d still probably lose. But it’s a great adaptation of one of the least-filmed Austen novels. As for Persuasion, this BBC production manages to capture the more mature, pensive mood of Austen’s later novel perfectly. It’s understated, intelligent, and secretly wonderful – much like its heroine, Anne Elliot.
I love re-watching the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow Emma – not because I think it’s the best adaptation of Emma (personally I think the Kate Beckinsdale version was a bit more understated but perhaps a bit better acted and written) – but because it was the first Austen adaptation I ever watched, and may perhaps be responsible for my Austen obsession in the first place. There you go. If you need someone to blame, blame Douglas McGrath.
Okay, I’ll admit it, this one’s a complete tie. Because to be honest, I can’t decide between Clueless (based on Emma) and Bride and Prejudice (based on Pride and Prejudice). Both movies are funny, clever, and enjoyable to watch. Clueless sets Austen’s Emma in an American high school, and is so delightfully 90s it makes me want to cry (Cher’s computerised closet, the ridiculous outfits, the grungy skater kids – sigh. What a time to be alive). Bride and Prejudice is a Bollywood-inspired take on Pride and Prejudice, and highlights cultural difference as a key point of friction between the Darcy and Elizabeth/Lalita characters. Plus it has incredibly catchy tunes. Seriously. I only have to listen to about ten bars of ‘No Life, Without Wife’ and it’s stuck in my head for days afterward. You’ve been warned….
What I think makes these modernisations so great is that both of them have fun with the source material and with the characters they create. They’re both joyful and playful and embrace the ridiculous. And there’s not too many awkward moments where the screenwriters desperately try to make an Austen plot point work in the twentieth/twenty-first century. They play fast and loose with Austen’s plots, and it works. They may seem like fun, relaxing comedies on the surface, but like Austen’s novels themselves, both movies actually use comedy to explore contemporary issues in a clever way. And now… I’m off to re-watch Bride and Prejudice, and hopefully stop humming ‘No Life, Without Wife’ under my breath.
Come on. You knew it was coming. Where else would the 1995 Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice adaptation be? Despite the wealth of interesting and fun Austen adaptations out there, somehow I always seem to come back to this one as the cream of the crop. It’s probably not surprising. This adaptation set a new standard for Austen on-screen, and it’s come to define our understanding of what ‘Jane Austen films’ look like. It’s well-acted, well-scripted, and well-filmed. But 1994’s Sense and Sensibility follows close behind. Emma Thompson won an Oscar for the screenplay, and it’s easy to see why. It picks up on the joyful energy of mid-nineties literary adaptations (think Much Ado About Nothing, for example) and plays around with historical details and sub-plots that don’t necessarily catch your eye in the original novel. These two adaptations have just come to define the genre. With strong female leads and smart scripting, they’re an excellent example of toeing the line between entertaining and intellectually stimulating.
What’s your favourite Jane Austen adaptation?