Excessively Diverted: Austen Books into Movies

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By Diana Cheng

To wrap up a week of Jane Austen celebration, here’s an annotated list of adaptations of her works on both the small and big screens, productions that Jane would have approved. She would have been pleased to see her writing being transposed into another art medium two hundred years later, something that she never could have imagined. Some of these works are direct adaptations in their period setting, some are spinoffs with a contemporary twist.

The earliest Austen adaptation dates back to 1938. Interestingly, it’s a TV movie of Pride and Prejudice. Two years later, Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson starred as Darcy and Elizabeth in the first big screen, full feature of an Austen novel, screenplay written by Aldous Huxley. With that, Huxley had created a brave new world of Austen adaptations.

For modern viewers, however, our collective memory seems to kick in with the year 1995. Thanks to screenwriter Andrew Davies, whose faithful adaptation plus a little imagination brought us the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. A wet Colin Firth emerged as the definitive Mr. Darcy. Thus, begins a global movement of Austen fandom.

This is not an exhaustive list of course, but one of my own selection of quality productions. Sorry, zombies will have to step aside, for while Jane just might embrace the new word ‘postmodern’, she’d probably still want to use ‘preposterous’ for this one. Without further ado, here’s the list in reverse chronological order of their year of release. As there are so many titles, I’ll just stop at 1990.

2016 – Love & Friendship

Writer director Whit Stillman opens a new page of Austen adaptations by going outside of the author’s six novels. This film is based on one of Jane’s Juvenilia, Lady Susan, likely written when she was only 18 or 19. Here’s an excerpt from the prodigious author in her youthful, satirical style:
“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! Just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.” (Letter 29, Lady Susan Vernon to Mrs. Johnson)

To which Stillman responded with Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon, deadpan and dead-on. Beckinsale portrays an astute Lady Susan, newly widowed, not too young to be gullible, not too old to flirt for her own gains

2009 – Emma (TV miniseries)

Romola Garai got a Best Actress Golden Globe nod playing Emma in this four-episode TV miniseries. Sir Michael Gambon is Mr. Woodhouse. How do we know the Austen fever has contagious effects globally? The miniseries received a nomination for Best TV Film at the 2010 Shanghai International TV Festival.

2008 – Sense & Sensibility (TV Miniseries)

2008 is a bumper year for Austen TV productions. This one has an excellent cast. Hattie Morahan won Best Actress at the Shanghai TV Festival for her role as Elinor Dashwood. Marianne is played by Charity Wakefield, Mrs. Dashwood Janet McTeer. Dominic Cooper is a natural Willoughby, David Morrissey, the hawk-taming Colonel Brandon, a visual metaphor that had stirred up some ripples of discontent. But I think Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars covers many fallouts from that controversy.

2008 – Lost in Austen

Before she won the 2011 BAFTA Rising Star award, Gemma Arterton played Elizabeth Bennet in this Austen spinoff. Her latest is a moving performance in Their Finest (2016). Lost in Austen is a well scripted time-warp fantasy. Modern day Londoner Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) travels back through a portal and switches places with Lizzy Bennet. The rest is pure fun.

2008 – Miss Austen Regrets

I’m including this BBC/Masterpiece TV drama for the scenario it explores. A darker and deeper journey into Jane Austen’s mind and heart as she becomes mentor to her niece Fanny Knight and ponders about her own life. Are those missed chances of marriage? Or rather, her own choice of remaining single while solely devoting herself to writing? Intelligent and engrossing, with a wonderful cast: Olivia Williams, Hugh Bonneville, Phyllida Law, Imogen Poots, Tom Hiddleston, to name a few.

2007 – Northanger Abbey (TV Movie)

Screenplay by Andrew Davies, Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland, Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe. Both are now Oscar nominated actresses. I’d like to see the two switch roles though in this Austen Gothic parody.

2007 – Persuasion (TV Movie)

A very restrained Sally Hawkins played Anne Elliot and won a Best Actress award at the Monte-Carlo TV Festival while Adrian Shergold got a BAFTA nom for Best Director. Filmed right in Bath where Jane had lived for five years, and in the Assembly Rooms mentioned in the novel. Well worth seeing the sites.

2005 – Pride & Prejudice

While Pride and Prejudice has had many TV versions, this is the only full-length film adaptation in its period setting since Olivier and Garson back in 1940. For this, it’s a landmark achievement, as well for first feature director Joe Wright, who later brought us Atonement and Anna Karenina, all with his star Keira Knightley. So, can Matthew MacFadyen’s Darcy and Knightley’s Lizzy replace Janeites’ adoration for Firth and Ehle? As for me, first impressions last. However, I do like the other sisters a lot: Rosamund Pike as Jane, Jena Malone as Lydia and Carey Mulligan as Kitty.

2001 – Bridget Jone’s Diary

So we all know Helen Fielding had Colin Firth in mind as Mark Darcy when she wrote her Bridget Jones’s Diary, but do you know Mr. Bingley is in the movie too? No, he isn’t riding a horse but we can see Crispin Bonham-Carter mingle with Salman Rushdie as they attend the Kafka’s Motorbike book launch, hearing Bridget’s infamous opening speech.

1999 – Mansfield Park

Some interesting casting. Frances O’Connor is a delightful Fanny, bubblier than the Fanny we know from the book. Harold Pinter plays Sir Thomas Bertram, yes, that Harold Pinter, playwright and Nobel Laureate (2005). As for Fanny’s love interest, the oblivious Edmund Bertram is played by Jonny Lee Miller, known now as Sherlock Holmes in the TV series “Elementary”.

1996 – Emma

Jane’s famous line about her heroine Emma Woodhouse is: “a character that no one but myself will much like.” Has Gwyneth Paltrow succeeded in making herself unlikeable? If so, maybe that explains why there’s been no other takers after that. I don’t mean those modern versions switching the setting totally out of Regency England. Paltrow seems to rule as the authentic Emma, but with much help from the supporting cast of course. Where are they now? Jeremy Northam (Mr. Knightley, now “The Crown”), Alan Cumming (Mr. Elton, now “The Good Wife”), Toni Collette (Harriet Smith, Oscar nominee since and in numerous other roles).

1995 – Clueless

Before Gwyneth Paltrow embarked on her matchmaking aspiration, Austen’s Emma got a modern day, Americanized makeover in this popular teen movie. The scheming and mentoring task falls into the hands of high schooler Cher (Alicia Silverstone). Her eventual Mr. Knightley is Josh, played by Paul Rudd. The movie’s popularity had propelled writer director Amy Heckerling into creating “Clueless” the TV series for a few seasons after.

1995 – Sense & Sensibility

In my view, this is the definitive adaptation, so far. Time for a remake? Maybe, but it has to surpass Ang Lee’s sensitive direction, Emma Thompson’s Oscar winning screenplay, and Patrick Doyle’s impressive dramatic score. I admit, there can be other choices for Hugh Grant’s role as Edward Ferrars, but who can replace Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon?

1995 – Pride & Prejudice

Not every man who jumps into a lake can cause such ripples among viewers. Who could foresee that a wet shirt Colin Firth could be turned into a lasting icon even with a statue of his own? Now that’s a scene that Jane would have regretted not having written herself. Certainly, it’s not just one man’s charisma that sends out such electrifying vibes, the whole brilliant cast, with Simon Langton directing and Andrew Davies’s imagination are what make this a most worthy adaptation.

1995 – Persuasion

Amanda Root may not be a stellar Anne Elliot – well, she’s not supposed to be and so wearing no makeup – but Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth definitely is worth waiting for. This has to be Jane’s most heartfelt work, written in her illness in the last years of her life. The production is in itself a moving tribute to the author.

1990 – Metropolitan

Five years before the pivotal BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, New York born director Whit Stillman had already set the stage for a U.S. Austen fever, although a slow burn to start. Metropolitan may be about some preppie NYC debutantes – characters that may well represent Stillman’s circle – the offspring from the upper crust of society, they are, on another level, performing a modern-day version of Mansfield Park. The not so subtle part is this scene:

At a party, Audrey and Tom discuss books. Audrey says Persuasion and Mansfield Park are her favorite Austen books, Tom is incredulous.

Tom: Mansfield Park! You got to be kidding.
Audrey: No.
Tom: But it’s a notoriously bad book. Even Lionel Trilling–one of her greatest admirers–thought that.
Audrey: If Lionel Trilling thought that, he’s an idiot.

And let this be the cue for us to indulge yet again on all things Austen.

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Diana blogs as Arti at Ripple Effects