There has been a long history of adaptations of the novels of the world’s most famous female author – Jane Austen – starting circa 1940. However, it was in 1995 that the double-whammy of the Pride & Prejudice BBC television series (which made a huge star of Colin Firth) and the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film of Sense & Sensibility led to a explosion in Austenmania. Plus the perfection that is Clueless (based on Emma) also came out in that year. The rash of adaptations dipped again slightly before another huge resurgence around 2007-08. British writer Andrew Davies has been behind many of these adaptations (mainly the television ones), being something of a literary behemoth. He is behind Middlemarch (1994), Pride & Prejudice (1995), Emma (1996), Vanity Fair (1998), Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001), Bleak House (2005), Northanger Abbey (2007), Sense & Sensibility (2008), Brideshead Revisited (2008), War & Peace (2016) and Sanditon (2019) – to name just some of the classics he has adapted.
Unfortunately, of the fourteen Austen film-and-TV adaptations that we’ve had in the 25 years (yikes) between 1995 and the release of Emma. (2020), only one – Mansfield Park (1999) has been directed by a woman. A woman’s perspective and gaze on a writer who has always had women and their concerns (mostly of a romantic nature) at the centre of her writing is something we have needed for a long time now. Fortunately, on Valentine’s Day 2020 we get to celebrate just that with the release of Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. So, what of the adaptations that have come before? Well – I’ve spent the last month re-watching (and in a few cases, watching for the first time) all of the filmed Austens I could get my hands on. Brace yourself for strong personal opinions on casting, as we enter the manors and estates of the English countryside in the early 19th century. There will of course be bonnets, breeches and bonny bosoms aplenty…
Pride & Prejudice (Film, 2005)
dir: Joe Wright, cast: Keira Knightley as Lizzy, Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy, Rosamund Pike as Jane, Simon Woods as Bingley, Rupert Friend as Wickham
I was definitely skeptical of this version and I still am very unsure of Macfadyen’s Darcy (as we shall discover, I am suspicious of any Darcy who isn’t Firth to be honest). However, I enjoyed this more on recent re-watch than I did when it first came out. The Bennets’ home is lovely in this version and Dario Marianelli’s score is a delight. One questionable aspect is the hairstyles – particularly on of all the Bennet sisters – which are bizarrely terrible, although perhaps unsurprisingly, Keira Knightley comes out of this unscathed. This film features an early Carey Mulligan role (as the perpetually giggling Kitty) and Jena Malone as Lydia. Director Joe Wright was unsure about casting Knightley because of her beauty and it is true that she’s too beautiful for Lizzy, but I like Knightley in this role. This is dear to the hearts of many people who were tweens or teens when it came out and I can understand why.
Pride & Prejudice (TV mini-series, 1995)
dir: Simon Langton/AD, cast: Jennifer Ehle as Lizzy, Colin Firth as Darcy, Susannah Harker as Jane, Crispin Bonham-Carter as Bingley, Adrian Lukis as Wickham
The platonic ideal of an Austen adaptation – the benchmark by which all others are measured. Admittedly, its a little unfair to compare television series with films, when they have 4-6 episodes to develop the characters and to get the audience invested. We all know that Firth’s infamous dip in the lake broke all of the women and girls watching, making us fall in love with Firth’s Darcy and basically ruining all other men. Unfortunately Ehle’s career has not had the same boost as Firth’s, which is wrong because her performance as Lizzy is utterly radiant. The real scene-stealer here is Alison Steadman’s Mrs Bennet, who screeches her way through the entire series, but still manages to be endearing. This is the ultimate in comfort TV, like returning to an old friend.
Sense & Sensibility (TV mini-series, 2008)
dir: John Alexander/AD, cast: Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Charity Wakefield as Marianne, Dominic Cooper as Willoughby, David Morrissey as Brandon, Dan Stevens as Edward
I only had time to watch the first of the four episodes, which featured the great Janet McTeer as Mrs Dashwood and a lovely seaside location to the Dashwood cottage. To be honest, the ages of everyone involved is more appropriate than the film version, with just the 17 or so years between Marianne and Brandon instead of 30 (thirty!) in the film. It’s never going to live up to Thompson, Winslet, Rickman and Lee, but still worth watching. Oh – and it features Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton as Margaret Dashwood.
Sense & Sensibility (Film, 1995)
dir: Ang Lee, cast: Emma Thompson as Elinor, Kate Winslet as Marianne, Greg Wise as Willoughby, Alan Rickman as Brandon, Hugh Grant as Edward
Despite the ages of the cast being extremely questionable (we can see you Emma Thompson at age 35, casting yourself as a 19 year old), everyone is so charming, it wins us over. Winslet perfectly captures Marianne’s yearning to be swept off her feet, Grant makes a endearing Edward Ferrars and Thompson is simply wonderful, especially in the heartbreaking moments. With a master like Ang Lee at the helm, it is going to be gorgeous to look at and the 35mm grain works really well here. Should be held up as the true cinematic classic that it is.
Mansfield Park (TV movie, 2007)
dir: Iain B MacDonald, cast: Billie Piper as Fanny, Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram, James D’Arcy as Tom Bertram, Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford, Hayley Atwell as Mary Crawford
Billie Piper doesn’t seem quite right for Fanny, looks-wise, but she is convincing as a girl taken out of ‘low-born’ circumstances and raised in a big house as the perpetual poor-relation. Atwell is delicious as Mary Crawford and D’Arcy is great as Tom. Blake Ritson appeared in two Austen adaptations close together (he was Mr Elton in the Garai Emma) and has the same hilariously 2000s haircut in both, making it hard to take him seriously. Unfortunately, this story has you rooting for two cousins (who have basically been raised as siblings) to get together but it was a different time and all that. Perfectly fine.
Mansfield Park (Film, 1999)
dir: Patricia Rozema, cast: Frances O’Connor as Fanny, Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram, James Purefoy as Tom Bertram, Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford, Embeth Davidtz as Mary Crawford
Frances O’Connor (who unfortunately seems to have disappeared from our screens) is absolutely sublime as Fanny Price and her chemistry with Austen-fave Jonny Lee Miller is on fire. Add in Alessandro Nivola and you have a top-notch (hot) cast all around.
Persuasion (Film, 2007)
dir: Adrian Shergold, cast: Sally Hawkins as Anne, Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth, Tobias Menzies as Elliot
This is the only one I unfortunately couldn’t find streaming anywhere. Based on the casting alone, I fully support Hawkins as Anne but Penry-Jones is not Wentworth to me.
Persuasion (TV movie, 1995)
Here we have yet another actress playing an Austen heroine who then seemed to either disappear or certainly not have a comparable career to her male co-stars. Root is great as Anne, who still yearns for her old love Wentworth, but cannot let on. It is good to see an Austen heroine who isn’t in her early 20s, which is also the best thing about Love and Friendship. Ciaran Hinds is off-the-charts hot as Wentworth, perhaps – dare I say it – even more so than Firth’s Darcy? Directed by Roger Michell, who has certainly had an eclectic career – best known for Notting Hill but also directed the recent excellent Du Maurier adaptation My Cousin Rachel.
Northanger Abbey (Film, 2007)
dir: Jon Jones/AD, cast: Felicity Jones as Catherine, JJ Feild as Henry Tilney, Carey Mulligan as Isabella
This really leans into the enjoyable Gothic silliness that is Northanger Abbey, with lots of Ann Radcliffe references (one woman author paying homage to another – we love to see it) and fantasy/dream sequences. Felicity Jones makes an amiable tomboy heroine and Carey Mulligan sinks her teeth into the morally dubious Isabella. The impossibly-spelled Tom Hiddleston-alike JJ Feild also appears in a spin-off – Austenland. He is great as the sort of all-round nice guy who usually bags the heroine’s sister – Henry Tilney.
Love & Friendship (Film, 2016)
dir: Whit Stillman, cast: Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan, Chloe Sevigny as Alicia
I first watched this on a plane and was frankly disappointed by a film which should have been tailor-made for me. Giving it a second chance this week has unfortunately not improved my opinion. Whit Stillman re-teaming with his Last Days of Disco stars Beckinsale and Sevigny in an Austen adaptation centred on a woman in her 40s – all the ingredients are there! However, it just seems too unAustenlike for my tastes, like it’s trying to be an Oscar Wilde. Everyone’s hair is impossibly and annoyingly big, Tom Bennett is there doing his perpetual Gervais impression, the whole thing is annoying – I’m sorry! Even Xavier Samuel cannot salvage it.
Sanditon (TV mini-series, 2019)
Creator: Andrew Davies, Cast: Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood, Theo James as Sidney Parker, Crystal Clarke as Miss Lambe
At eight episodes, Andrew Davies is certainly stretching the material of this unfinished novel to breaking point. They have shown 6 episodes in the US so far (on PBS) and it definitely feels like it could have been shorter. There are elements that appeal – the seaside setting, the refreshingly diverse cast (including a main character who is a black woman) and the chemistry between Williams and James is good. I have heard that it ends in a disappointingly unAustenlike fashion, so have been bracing myself…
Emma. (Film, 2020)
dir. Autumn de Wilde, cast: Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma, Josh O’Connor as Elton, Johnny Flynn as Knightley, Mia Goth as Harriet, Callum Turner as Frank Churchill, Amber Anderson as Jane Fairfax, Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, Gemma Whelan as Mrs Weston
Now we come to whole reason for this appraisal of Austen adaptations, the release of this year’s Emma. They’ve added a helpful full-stop to distinguish it from all the others, but there are other reasons why it stands out. It’s certainly the most stylish and colour-cordinated adaptation we have had, with de Wilde bringing her experience with both music and fashion to the fore. If you were dubious about the Knightley casting (as I was), I would say that Johnny Flynn might surprise you. Mia Goth is a great Harriet, probably the best of these four. Putting two of my favourite actors – Josh O’Connor and Callum Turner – in an Austen adaptation means I was sold on this from the start. YMMV.
Emma (TV mini-series, 2009)
dir: Jim O’Hanlon, cast: Romola Garai as Emma, Blake Ritson as Elton, Jonny Lee Miller as Knightley, Louise Dylan as Harriet, Rupert Evans as Frank Churchill, Laura Pyper as Jane Fairfax, Tamsin Greig as Miss Bates, Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse, Jodhi May as Mrs Weston
This adaptation of Emma belongs in the same breath as the 1995 P&P and S&S (as does Rozema’s Mansfield Park). Romola Garai really transforms the character of Emma from other adaptations – making her much more complex and sympathetic. Like with Firth’s Darcy, Garai has ruined me for other Emmas. She is delightful in her scenes with Gambon’s Mr Woodhouse and we truly understand her attachment and loyalty to him. It’s almost unfair that Jonny Lee Miller has played two such good Austen heroes and played them so well. Tamsin Greig is also the best Miss Bates, she always makes me cry. This is 4 episodes (available on Hulu in the US) and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Emma (Film, 1996)
dir: Douglas McGrath, cast: Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, Alan Cumming as Elton, Jeremy Northam as Knightley, Toni Collette as Harriet, Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill, Polly Walker as Jane Fairfax, Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates, Denys Hawthorne as Mr Woodhouse, Greta Scacchi as Mrs Weston
I’m afraid this my least-favourite of the Emmas, with Alan Cumming and Sophie Thompson being the few bright spots of casting. Considering this came out at the height of my Ewan McGregor obsession and I even felt at the time that he was phoning this performance in does not bode well. Paltrow is never going to be a sympathetic Emma, I’m afraid and Collette seems miscast.
Emma (TV movie, 1996)
dir: Diarmuid Lawrence, cast: Kate Beckinsale as Emma, Dominic Rowan as Elton, Mark Strong as Knightley, Samantha Morton as Harriet, Raymond Coulthard as Frank Churchill, Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax, Prunella Scales as Miss Bates, Bernard Hepton as Mr Woodhouse, Samantha Bond as Mrs Weston
This has probably the best Jane Fairfax of the four (Olivia Williams would go on to play Jane Austen) and it’s always good to see Samantha Morton in anything, if a little difficult to buy her as Harriet. Beckinsale and Strong have good chemistry. This has a weird ending that goes on far too long, but other than that, it’s good. Definitely better than the Gwyneth version.
Spin-Offs in the Extended Austen Universe:
There have been many unconventional adaptations and spin-offs in the Austen universe, including some attempts to include Austen herself in the stories. It seems that women can be trusted with twists on the characters, as five out of the ten listed here are directed by women. I’ve stuck to films, but there have been some TV series as well (Austentatious, Lost in Austen).
Metropolitan (1990, director: Whit Stillman) based on Mansfield Park
Clueless (1995, director: Amy Heckerling, starring Alicia Silverstone) based on Emma
You cannot improve on perfection.
Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001, director: Sharon Maguire, starring Colin Firth as Mark Darcy)
Bride & Prejudice (2004, director: Gurinder Chadha, starring Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson)
A fun Bollywood take on the tale from a great British director (Bend it Like Beckham, Blinded by the Light).
Becoming Jane (2007, director: Julian Jarrold, Anne Hathaway playing Jane Austen)
Hathaway makes for a surprisingly convincing Jane.
The Jane Austen Book Club (2007, director: Robin Swicord, starring Emily Blunt)
Miss Austen Regrets (2008, director: Jeremy Lovering, Olivia Williams playing Jane Austen)
Also stars curly young Tom Hiddleston and Imogen Poots. Williams is great, as ever.
Death Comes to Pemberley (2013, director: Daniel Percival, starring Anna Maxwell Martin as Lizzy, Matthew Rhys as Darcy, Matthew Goode as Wickham, of course James Norton is in it)
Maxwell-Martin is a perfect Lizzy, Rhys is a perfect Darcy, Goode is perfect – but not as Wickham!
Austenland (2013, director: Jerusha Hess, starring Keri Russell & JJ Feild)
This is actually really fun and features a rare non-Conchords role for Bret McKenzie.
Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (2016, director: Burr Steers, starring Lily James as Lizzy, Sam Riley as Darcy, Douglas Booth as Bingley, Jack Huston as Wickham, Bella Heathcote as Jane)
I will get irrationally angry about the miscasting of Austen adaptations, no matter how silly the premise! IN WHAT WORLD IS DOUGLAS BOOTH A BINGLEY?! This casting director needs putting on a black-list. Lily James is also not a Lizzy. Jack Huston is a perfect Wickham, I will give them that.
There we have it, thank you for reading and making the truly insane number of hours I’ve spent watching Austen all worth it!
My favourites (in order):
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Mansfield Park (1999)
Northanger Abbey (2007)
Pride and Prejudice (2005)