Lights! Camera! Austen! The Five Best Screen Adaptations

by Guest Post on November 14, 2011

There have been ten English-language television and screen versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice alone in addition to movies and books clearly inspired by what is arguably Miss Austen’s most famous work (think the movie Bride and Prejudice and the novel Pride, Prejudice and Zombies). In a recent made-for-DVD movie called The 12 Men of Christnas, Kristen Chenowith plays a skinny jeans-wearing PR executive named Emma Jean Baxter (instead of Elizabeth Bennett). Her sweet-tempered best friend is named Jane, and the originally proud but ultimately candy coated man who warms her heart is Will (rather than Fitzwilliam). Is it a lack of originality that causes Miss Austen’s stories to be the clear inspiration for so many books and films today? While that may be a part of it, what Miss Austen did in her lifetime was create characters and stories that are so easily translated to each day and age, we can’t help but want to hear and read them time and again. I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend hours of my life reading and rereading her stories and watching the movies inspired by them. In my humble opinion, the following are some of the best screen adaptations of Miss Austen’s novels.

Mansfield Park (1999)

While my inclusion of this film may be controversial with hardcore fans of the novel, I believe it is one of the best versions of Jane Austen’s work. Many Austenphiles do not see this as a film adaptation as much as a hybrid work that incorporates Jane Austen’s personal letters to her sisters throughout the dialogue of the film. However, this artistic choice is appropriate as Mansfield Park is thought to be Miss Austen’s most autobiographical work. What the movie does brilliantly is keep us in our toes – not knowing which man is the protagonist and who actually deserves the affection of the heroine. While this version does take creative license, it does so in a way that gives tribute to this most complicated tale.

Emma (2009)

A friend of mine once remarked that Romola Garai is a woman who doesn’t seem to exist in modern time. The films she is most known for are all period dramas (I Capture the Castle, Amazing Grace, Atonement, Daniel Deronda). Thank goodness, however, that such people exist because it is Miss Garai’s portrayal of Emma which causes this movie to be most striking. Garai’s Emma goes on a much longer and life transforming journey than that portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1996 version.   Garai’s Mr. Knightley is played by Johnny Lee Miller with equal parts passion and gentlemanly reserve; one finds herself wishing that such a man could be found today. Between the expert casting, cinematography and artfully made costumes, this version of Emma transports you back to the 1800s and you may find yourself wishing you could stay there.

Northanger Abbey (2007)

Northanger Abbey is a lovely tale of a girl whose gothic ideas of romance and heroism are challenged when she spends a summer abroad. Not considered to be Austen’s most accomplished work (as the first tale she wrote, it is arguably the most simplistic), the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre version does an artful job of breathing life into a young Catherine Moreland’s gothic fantasies. One of the most compelling parts of the story is how it shows characters falling in love slowly – Frederick begins to fall in love with Catherine once (unbeknownst to her) he begins to realize that she is already in love with him. It might not be as overwhelmingly romantic as more dramatic tales, but the beauty and simplicity rings true for today’s heroes and heroines.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Little can be said that has not already been said about the masterpiece that is the Colin Firth’s and Jennifer Ehle’s five-hour version of this film. The attention to detail and specificity of the director is marvelous and sweeps the viewer into the story. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched the entire miniseries only to immediately begin rereading the book simply so I can stay in the story for a few hours longer. The high place this version holds in the hearts of those who love Jane Austen can be seen when one visits the Jane Austen museum in Bath, England, and finds that it would more accurately be named the Mr. Firth and Miss Ehle museum.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

While Emma Thompson’s screen adaption of Sense and Sensibility is not perfect, that which it gets right is so compelling that it’s difficult not to overlook the few omissions or modifications that were made to the story. Kate Winslet plays the romantic Marianne brilliantly, and Emma Thompson (though a few years older than Elinor would have been) plays the rational sister with great depth and compassion. Countless are the conversations I’ve had with friends after watching this version, categorizing ourselves as either an Elinor as a Marianne. After all, that is the purpose of great literature and great films – they put us into the middle of the story and beg for questions and discussions to be had.

Those familiar with Jane Austen’s work and the movies that have been inspired by it may disagree with my choices. My mom, for example, prefers the Laurence Olivier version of Pride and Prejudice. Whatever your opinions or disagreements may be, I rejoice that Jane Austen’s stories live on. And as long as her stories are being read, we can look forward to various adaptations that try to do justice to them.

Suzanne is a blogging Seattlite with an affinity for fashion and a healthy obsession with bootcut jeans. She loves helping others find their personal style and believes that every day is an opportunity to shine.

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