PBS’s Masterpiece is currently in the middle of its The Complete Jane Austen season. Four of the adaptations are new, which of course leads to Jane Austen fans comparing them with their favourite adaptations of the past.
Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)
Now, I know this adaptation starring Keira Knightley has its enthusiastic fans, but I must admit I almost dropped the film from this list altogether. One of my closest friends would be appalled because she was completely entranced by Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy. I’m afraid that I found myself drifting off into reveries of Colin Firth frolicking about the countryside. I guess what I’m saying is that it just doesn’t measure up to the intensity of feeling and attention to detail of the 1996 BBC version.
Pride and Prejudice (Robert Z. Leonard, 1940)
This adaptation is absolutely dreadful in terms of fidelity to the plot. Jane Austen must have been rolling in her grave at how fast and loose MGM played with her novel. Book aside, this is a great movie to watch. Greer Garson and Maureen O’Sullivan are charming as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, and Lawrence Olivier makes a very dashing Mr. Darcy. Mary Boland as Mrs. Bennet and Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine de Bourgh will have you in absolute stitches.
Mansfield Park (David Giles, BBC, 1983)
This film is doubly fascinating today, than it was when I saw it as a child because of all the movie connections. Sylvestra Le Touzel, who stars as Fanny here, plays Mrs. Allen in the most recent adaptation of Northanger Abbey, and Johnny Lee Miller, who stars in the 1999 film of Mansfield Park, has a bit part in this one. There are other crossover actors as well, but I leave that for you to discover yourselves!
Mansfield Park (Iain B. MacDonald, ITV, 2007)
This ITV adaptation had the edge over the 1983 BBC version because the locations and cinematography were simply wonderfully done. My only criticism was the hair. Fanny Price’s hair always looks un-brushed and she always wears it down… even after her “coming out” party. This is just historically wrong – it wasn’t okay for grown women to wear their hair down until the early twentieth century! As for the men, poor Edmund looks like his head’s been dipped in a vat of vegetable oil and Henry Crawford looks as though he hasn’t had a haircut in years. The neglect of character appearance can really distract from one’s enjoyment of the acting.
Emma (Douglas McGrath, 1996)
McGrath’s adaptation of Emma is a visual treat, but Gwyneth Paltow falls into the trap – so easy with Jane Austen heroines – of playing Emma a tad too superficially and turning her into a caricature. This is made glaringly evident in contrast to Jeremy Northam’s smooth handling of Mr. Knightley. Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor, and especially Alan Cumming and Juliet Stevenson (whom I Truly, Madly, Deeply adore) make the film more comedy than romance, but they are also the reason I will watch this film again and again.
TIE: Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)
Sense and Sensibility (John Alexander, BBC series, 2008)
These two adaptations tie, for the first is a good movie, and the second is a faithful adaptation. It is difficult to adapt novels into feature films and Emma Thompson deserved her Oscar for this enjoyable romp. As much as I love Alan Rickman, he was much too old for his part and it spoiled the believability of the romance between Col. Brandon and Marianne for me. This year’s BBC series (debuting March 30th on PBS) is truly a delight, and benefits from the extra time given for character development. The Devon coastline is spectacular and the cinematography is exquisitely done.
Northanger Abbey (Jon Jones, ITV, 2007)
This novel is not adapted as often as the others due to the difficulties inherent in filming Catherine Morland’s flights of fancy. ITV did a terrific job of capturing the mood and satire of the original novel, and Felicity Jones ensured that the character of Catherine avoided becoming a one-dimensional caricature.
TIE: Persuasion (Roger Michell, BBC, 1995)
Persuasion (Adrian Shergold, ITV, 2007)
I really could not make up my mind with these two adaptations. They both capture the tension between Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth with its mixture of repressed passion and obligation to duty. Great viewing for a night in with your girlfriends and a nice hot cup of cocoa.
Mansfield Park (Patricia Rozema, 1999)
Now many Jane-ites will disagree fervently with me for ranking this film so highly, but I think that it is brilliantly done. Rozema incorporates Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Mansfield Park into the film and is successful because of the brilliant performances by Harold Pinter, Frances O’Conner, and Johnny Lee Miller. Alessandro Nivola somehow managed the difficult task of transforming Henry Crawford from a mere cad into a man you know is bad for you but you find difficult to resist.
Pride and Prejudice (Simon Langton, BBC mini-series, 1995)
Television seriess have the advantage of time over feature films. Screenwriters do not need to whittle down the plot so much, and the camera can indulge itself in the landscapes and beautiful old homes of southern England. Jennifer Ehle is radiant at Elizabeth, and the supporting cast ensure that each and every scene is memorable for its wit and charm. Of course, the real reason for this adaptation’s success is the scene when Colin Firth as Darcy emerges dripping wet from a spontaneous dip in his pond. Millions of women around the world swooned and have never fully recovered themselves from this incident.
- Bride and Prejudice (Gurinder Chadha, 2004)
- Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)
- Bridget Jones’ Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)
- The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord, 2007)
These four films get nods for being very clever adaptations of Jane Austen plots to contemporary settings. They didn’t make into onto my top ten because although they may capture the spirit of Jane Austen, they cannot beat her for witty dialogue. Bride and Prejudice might not be for hard core Jane-ites but it is a brilliant concept: transferring the basic plot of Pride and Prejudice to Bollywood, complete with dance sequences and outlandish locations like a random Mexican restaurant.