I love books, but I also really like film and TV. I have watched a lot of book to movie/TV adaptations over the years, some good, some bad, some not at all like the book but still enjoyable. I thought it would be fun to end “Austen in August” by sharing some of the adaptations of Austen’s works that I have seen over the years. For most classic novels, the best adaptations are usually for the TV as the production has the best time to adapt and develop the characters, but there are a couple of very good feature film productions in this list as well.
This is by no means a complete list. Some of the ones pre-1980 are harder to track down, and while I know many are uploaded on Youtube, I could not find the time this month to watch all the ones I hadn’t seen this month.
To save additional space, I did not include the modern reinterpretation of the books such as Clueless for Emma, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Bride and Prejudice for Pride and Prejudice.
Sense and Sensibility
I have seen all three major adaptations of this: 1981 BBC series, 1995 movie, and 2008 ITV Series, and I actually liked all three of them.
My favourite is the movie because it very well directed, a good adaptation for two hours, and the cast is amazing: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Imelda Staunton, Gemma Jones, and Hugh Laurie. Honestly, you don’t really get such a calibre cast so often in such a good looking period piece too! I am a fan of Ang Lee as well, and it’s interesting to watch how a Taiwanese director make a British movie from a classic English book. It’s a lovely film.
The movie does overshadow the two TV series. I have a seen a couple TV adaptations from the 1980s or earlier and it is a bit difficult for modern viewers to get into. I have no trouble watching silent movies from the 1920s, but early tv productions and period pieces are sometimes even stranger. Part of it is that there was significantly less budget for certain productions so the production values are low and often, it looks like they just shot a stage production of it rather than made a proper TV production.
I actually think there is merit to the 1981 production. I don’t remember much other than some low quality production values and certain scenes. They removed Margaret Dashwood altogether. I remember being impressed with who they cast as Elinor. Also, I think this one had one of the most sympathetic Willoughbys and yet stayed true to the book in his character.
The 2008 mini series was adapted by Andrew Davies, who is one of the most well known book to TV screenplay writers. He also adapted the 2007 Northanger Abbey and the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (both below). In general, I like Davies’s things and am forgiving about his lack of subtext, notably in a rain scene with Edward (played by Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens aka Matthew) and Elinor. The highlight of this series for me was David Morrissey. I’ve liked him since seeing “Blackpool” and he was a really lovely Brandon. I won’t compare him to Alan Rickman (because who can compare to him), but this series was longer and one was able to learn more about Brandon and Marianne. I think this series tried to emulate the movie through casting a girl that looks a lot like Kate Winslet.
Jane Austen wrote that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Emma was born so she is suppose to be annoying to some degree. Emma is usually softenedas a result when adapted.
The most well known Emma is the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. I am not really a big fan of Paltrow’s and her performance here isn’t noteworthy. Jeremy Northam is not a bad Knightley. Blame can be put on the production and writing as well, but when you compare him to the other two Knightleys below, he doesn’t hit the mark. There is a decent supporting cast with Alan Cumming, Toni Colette, and even Ewan McGregor has like two scenes. The movie looked nice, but it feels rushed. Emma is Austen’s longest novel and when adapted to a movie, you can feel how much they tried to cram into a couple of hours.
The other movie of Emma is also from 1996; a TV movie from ITV starring Kate Beckinsale before she was a vampire. I remember this production having mediocre lighting and not the best in production values when compared to the other Austen adaptations of the mid 1990s. Once again, it felt rushed. The highlight for me and the reason I even picked it up was because Mark Strong is Mr Knightley. He looks older than he is at 32, and he was younger than Knightley’s age of 37 when he made the movie. The good thing with him was that in the scene where Knightley admonishes Emma, you really believe it because Strong has such a forceful demeanor. If I was Emma, I’d have felt ashamed too. Other than that, this is a rather forgettable adaptation.
My preferred Emma is the 2009 BBC mini series which I reviewed here. I liked both Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller going into this and liked them even more afterwards. I have a copy of this now because they took the time to fully adapt this into a series. You get a better understanding of all the characters and their relationships. This is the only adaptation who makes Emma just as annoying, spoilt, and naive as she is in the book. Romola plays her exactly as an irritating teenager. This is true to the book. Johnny Lee Miller was the exact age as Knightley was in the book when he made this, and they did a good job of developing the relationship in a way the other versions couldn’t. His Knightley is not as flippant as Northam’s and not as tough as Strong’s. I recommend this one if you are looking for a faithful adaptation of Emma aside from Clueless which is also fun.
The two mentioned here are the 1995 movie version and the 2007 ITV version; I like both too.
The 1995 movie was produced by the BBC and starred Amanda Root and Ciarian Hinds. Persuasion is a short novel and it adapted well to screen relatively to the other novels, but still not an easy feat. I think this may be the best adapted movie on this review based solely on its faithfulness. The director and screenwriter took grains to make it look authentic going so far as to forbid makeup for any of the actors. This is why Root almost looks ill for most of the film, but it feels real. The movie was also shot in chronological order. The movie captures the emotions of the book, and it’s quiet and poignant just like the book too. I recommend it if you are Persuasion book lover.
The 2007 TV series starred Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones. I’ve seen Hawkins in other things and she can act. She is nice in this, but this series is also pretty faithful to the novel. There is a random running scene at the end, and a tacked on ending to the Wentworth/Anne romance, but it’s not bad. They set it in Bath as well and it feels quite nice and period when you watch it. Penry-Jones is a better looking Wentworth than Hinds, but Sally is the real star here. I like both adaptations, but then again, I really like this novel.
I watched the 1986 version for this review so my opinions are fresh, and liked the 2007 one when I first saw it at its release.
This version is simply ridiculous. I laughed out loud a couple of times. There is always one or two things in every period piece that signifies the time it was made. Usually, it is the hair and costumes, but in this it was almost everything, especially the music. The music is really 80s; there was jazzy saxophones and prog rock wailing. It was annoying at times. The 80s did lend well to the gothic and horror component, but I think they overdid it and the costumes too. Those hats! The girl who played Catherine wasn’t bad, she had really big, somewhat scary eyes. The only person I recognized in this drama was Peter Firth who I have seen in “Spooks”. He was 33 when he played Tilney, but really, he looks older. Actually, perhaps it was the production values because Jonathan Coy who played John Thorpe was also 33 looks older too. It was discomforting watching Thorpe leer at Catherine the whole way. General Tilney is super creepy and ridiculous in this version too. There is some random bits which makes it hysterical and creepy at the same time such as the strange Marchioness and the random black slave boy cartwheeling. This version was so out there and weird that I had to rewatch the 2007 version to center myself again.
The 2007 ITV version stars Felicity Jones and J. J. Feild, also adapted by Andrew Davies. I saw this adaptation before the 1986 one and favour it as a result. I think Jones is able to be naive and sympathetic. She is silly, but she demonstrates growth when she realizes her mistakes. Feild is well cast as well, and makes me remember how much I like Tilney from the books. There is not enough him really (isn’t that always the way) or the romance. There is a really realistic, awkward and lovely kiss at the end. There is artistic license taken with Catherine’s fantasies and Isabella’s follow out, but it’s believable to me albeit dramatic. There is always some melodramatic or sexualized scenes with Davies adaptations. It’s rather amusing, but the ending feels a tad rushed. Upon rewatch, I noticed how well cast the supporting characters were and the detail in it. It’s a more faithful adaptation. I’ve had a soft spot for Felicity Jones since “The Worst Witch” so it was good to see her resurfacing again. I actually wish this had been longer because I did enjoy the characters so.
Pride & Prejudice
Last but certainly not least, the most adapted of Austen’s works. I have seen the 1940 movie, the 1980 BBC series, the 1995 BBC series, and the 2005 movie.
The thing that I liked most about the 1940 version was Greer Garson. I adore her and she has the looks and necessary grace to be Lizzie. I also like Laurence Olivier, but I found him rather unforgettable as a Darcy. I mean, he is very good looking, but he didn’t take to the role as well. Garson was the clear star in this. I really liked the adapted archery scene. Aldous Huxley who wrote Brave New World adapted the script for money. The movie is very compressed and altered. Notably, they changed Lady Catherine a lot in this movie. The movie is a bit strange for those who like faithful adaptations. The other change was the costumes. I saw Garson being interviewed about this in the 1990s or the 1980s. She said that Adrian the costume designer didn’t like the period of the time so they set the movie to twenty to thirty years ahead from the book. The costumes look decadent, but it isn’t Regency. All that aside, I’d rewatch this film just for Garson alone. I’ve always thought she has been underrated as a classic movie star.
I had seen bits of the 1980 BBC TV series before, but I saw the whole thing for this review. This is quite faithful to the book with five hours to tell the tale. It has its own charm. I think Elizabeth Garvie is a good Lizzie. She is the most introspective one yet, has a lovely singing voice and eyes, but she is not quite cheeky enough. She likes Wickham more than she does in the book. Then again, this blond Wickham is one of the best I think. He looks like such golden good boy that you believe what he says more easily. This version has the best Mary too; she is rather hilarious and treated as the comic relief. Good casting with Mr Collins and Charlotte too, maybe good enough to make you believe she’ll be quite happy with him. Also, this version highlights best what a neglectful parent Mr Bennet is. David Rintoul is the stiffest Darcy. He’s almost robotic; it’s too much. While other Darcys are repressed, this one is too wooden and lacks feeling except at the end. At least he smiled then!
The 1995 series is a classic. For those of us who love period piece dramas and mini series, this is often cited as one of the favourites and for good reason. I rewatched it this month and it inspired this review. It is long at six hours in total, but you get a sense of all the characters with this one. The casting in it is incredible. This role was the one that made Firth a sex symbol, and perhaps he really fought against that, but he does a marvelous job here. Davies and the director gave a lot of nice moments including the fanservicey ones. I like the little moments and details in it and you can see them if you have rewatched the series as much as I have. Jennifer Ehle is of course, the true star. She is the only Elizabeth Bennet from all the adaptations that has the “fine eyes”. They really sparkle. I also feel this version is the most honest version of P&P because it lays out how cold and proud Darcy is and how Lizzie is prejudice but not overly immature. I always liked how she was hurt by Darcy’s first impression of her, but she also has enough self-esteem to not wallow in it. She is more layered like she is in he book than compared to the movie.
In the many discussions of the 1995 series, there are constant comparisons to the 2005 version. I don’t hate this version, but I saw the 1995 one and the 1941 before it. I think the movie is beautifully shot and the Bennet girls have a lot of family chemistry in this version. I did watch this movie twice when I got it; the second time with the director’s commentary so I could better understand how they made it and the script changes. I didn’t mind Matthew MacFayden as Darcy; I think he did the best with what he could have with that script. I have never been a big fan of Kiera Knightley; I don’t find her particularly awful, but I don’t find her particularly talented as the industry seems to. I was surprised and yet not when she was nominated for the Oscar for this role. I felt this movie was more interpretive; you can hear it in the director’s commentary. As a result, it’s not particularly faithful. I didn’t like how they romanticized it such as in the altered proposal and ending scenes. It felt they were putting too much emphasis on style (or romance as style) over substance. I know many people love this version and they will continue to, and it is not without merits, but it is not for me.
“Lost in Austen”: In fandom speak, this is simply crack. Many conventional Austenites may not like this, but I have known a couple to appreciate the ridiculousness of it. It is very silly and over the top as it puts a big spin on most of the P&P characters. I think it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. It’s like a whole series dedicated to fanservice; it doesn’t make sense at all. It’s incredibly cheesy. If you get the chance to see this, you may be heartily amused by it like I was.
If anyone else is interested in my comparions between adaptations to their original counterparts, I have a whole tag for it here. I rather go out of my way to see them.
Which Jane Austen adaptations do you like the most?
What an apt post. I finally got to see the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility a couple of days ago and loved it. I totally agree with you about what all-star cast they managed to get together for it. I particularly Alan Rickman. Before I watched that film though my favourite Austen adaptation ever has to be the BBC’s 2005 Emma series which I thought was wonderful. I also loved Lost in Austen, I thought it was a lot of fun 😛
Hi Jessica! Can Alan Rickman do any wrong? I think not. Ha. By 2005, you mean the 2009 one I listed? I definitely think it is one of the best. Lost in Austen was super fun. It’s a great mindless, fluffy piece. Thanks!