TV and film companies love Austen. Maybe it’s the enduring appeal of the novels, maybe it’s the huge in-built audience of Austen fans that’ll guarantee success, maybe they just like the clothing, or maybe they’re just too damn lazy to find and utilise less known novels. Who knows? Either way, it means that the market place is flooded with films, tv series, plays, webisodes – period versions, modern-day versions, Bollywood versions, time travelling versions, versions with zombies… (and that’s just for one book!) basically pretty much any ‘twist’ you can think of.
Well before I read any Austen for myself I had seen TV and film adaptations of most of her books, some good some…not so good. Here are just 5 of my favourites – and yes, they are mostly (but not all) period versions, maybe later I’ll put together a list of my favourite modern-day versions but for today it’ my all time favourites and these are simply the ones I love the most.
Pride and Prejudice (1995), BBC TV series
I don’t think I even need to explain this one. The superiority of the 1995 series to any other adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is almost undisputed. At over 5 hours, it allows all of Austen’s plot threads to develop at a leisurely pace, the casting is almost universally perfect, and for some reason lots of people go batshit crazy for Colin Firth in a wet shirt (I’m not among them, it felt completely random to me, but smouldering away in a dry shirt he’s dead sexy). This is a series I probably watch almost every year now and an important part of sister bonding time with both my English lit PhD big sis and me ‘maybe read 3 books a year’ little sis (as in almost everything I sit somewhere in the middle).
The only thing I can really fault this on is the dire typecasting that Colin Firth got stuck with for years afterwards. Thankfully he’s got over it now but who thought it would be a good idea to play Darcy again in modern-day version, Bridget Jones, or that fucking awful homage to the ‘lake scene’ in Love Actually? I love Firth’s Darcy, but it took people finally casting him as other people for me to love Firth as well.
Sense and Sensibility (1995), Film
1995 was a good year for Austen adaptations apparently, with this lovely film version starring and written by Emma Thompson. Yes, she’s a lot older than Elinor (19) from the book, and it’s got a lot less time than TV series do to play about slowly developing the plot but it still manages to be a near perfect adaptation for me. In fact, having now read the book, I think I actually prefer the film. It’s probably because of Alan Rickman and my inappropriate lust for him, but his Colonel Brandon appeals to me far more than the rather dull, boring, character he came across as in the novel. Which makes the ending for Marianne a lot more palatable than the book’s rather unconvincing ‘and eventually she came to love him too’. I also like that the youngest Dashwood sister gets a little love as well, she hardly appeared in the novel.
Northanger Abbey (2007), ITV television-film
Ok, this one takes a fair few liberties with the book so I’m very glad I read the novel first but it’s still great – mainly in its ability to make me squeal with laughter. It tackles the silliest of Austen’s novels (and one of my personal favourites) and, instead of playing it completely straight, embraces the silliness, sexes it all up, and runs with it. Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) is a young woman with a fondness for gothic novels and an occasionally overactive imagination – which scriptwriter Andrew Davies decides to illustrate with frequent fantasy and dream sequences that have only a very small basis in anything Austen wrote but are hilariously brilliant. Catherine’s coach getting attacked by a highwayman, her being chased from a castle by a villain, Henry Tilney engaged in a duel while she poses ridiculously like a girl on the cover of a Mills & Boon book. It’s not exactly faithful, but it is fun, and Felicity Jones as Catherine is completely adorable. Watching this with big sis earlier this year (about the same time I reviewed the book) was a morning spent mostly cackling in incredulous glee.
Emma (2009), BBC TV series
Another BBC series but I’m not sorry at all. I love Romola Garai in pretty much anything and she was the perfect choice for the slightly spoilt, bossy, interfering Emma, who is probably my favourite Austen heroine of them all. Like Pride and Prejudice above (and unlike the Gwyneth Paltrow version) the storytelling doesn’t feel rushed due to being reduced down to movie length. The supporting cast is brilliant as well, with a particularly brilliant performance by Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse and Blake Ritson making a genuinely skincrawling Mr. Elton. Also Jonny Lee Miller – I hear many people who aren’t me find him attractive and even without fancying him I found he made a very nice Mr. Knightly, somewhat mitigating the slight ickiness I feel in the book at his progression from ‘brother figure’ to ‘romantic interest’. Out of all the adaptations in this list, this one is probably my favourite of the lot.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012-2013), Youtube webseries
And now for something completely different! A modern-day adaptation of Pride and Prejudice told though Elizabeth (Lizzie) Bennet’s video blog. While it took me a good few episodes to get into this series I came to really love it. For the most part it’s quite simply Lizzie Bennet, sitting in front of the camera, ranting about her life, her sister’s love lives, and performing ‘costume drama’ to show her (highly biased) version of events – Darcy doesn’t even appear in person until well into the series. Yet with just that simple set up (and the occasional interuption by other characters, it manages to tell almost the whole story (Lydia and ‘Gigi’ Darcy’s video blogs supliment Lizzie’s narrative in places especially with regard to the Wickham plot).
It’s almost certainly the best and most intelligent ‘modern day’ adaptation of Austen I’ve seen. As well as picking up the obvious romantic plot of the novel it recognises that Austen is more than that; emphasising and updating the financial pressures driving the Bennet’s (pressure to marry Mr. Collins now becomes pressure to take his job offer – a change which both makes sense in the modern setting and keeps the original theme in tact), and putting a very strong focus on sisterhood and female friendship which is probably what I love most about the whole thing (Charlotte Lucas gets a bit shortchanged, even in the book, and I really like that this series doesn’t demonise Lydia). In fact where it falls down for me is actually the central Lizzie/Darcy romance – I’m just not all that interested in it when compared to the great relationships between the female cast and I found the big romantic payoff a bit vomit inducing.
It’s a series with plenty of flaws; there’s a bit of slut-shaming towards the beginning and this version of Lizzie, with her prejudices more proudly on display than in most versions, is not the most likable Elizabeth Bennet but she does grow and matures over the course of the 100 episode series (concluded yesterday). Overall though I found it a very clever adaptation. I only discovered it a couple of months ago, but watching the last episodes as they came out, speculating with my friend over what was going to happen next and how suchandsuch would be adapted to work in a modern setting was suh great fun that I think it deserves a place on the list.
So, what do other people think? Favourite Austen adaptation? Any other recomendations? Anybody else seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?