Saturday, June 11, 2016

Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC series

Favorite Austen adaptations

In "What Would Jane Watch? A Fan's Guide to Austen Films," New York Times critic Mary Jo Murphy lists some film and television adaptations of Austen's novels. The article overlooks some key films, and I don't agree with some of Murphy's judgments. So what follows is my own survey of adaptations of Austen novels.

Sense and Sensibility

Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood and Charity Wakefield as Marianne in the 2008 BBC series
  • Favorite adaptation: The 2008 BBC production starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Charity Wakefield as Marianne, and Janet McTeer as Mrs. Dashwood.
The superb Hattie Morahan, an actress formerly unknown to me, carries this 3-hour Andrew Davies-scripted adaptation as the wise, kind Elinor; the other roles are also filled with excellent actors. Barton Cottage is perhaps more remote and more windswept than my image from Austen's novel, but it feels emotionally right as the correlative to the Dashwood women's decline in social standing. This was one of the few bright spots in the "Complete Jane Austen" series broadcast on PBS eight years ago.
Emma Thompson as Elinor, Kate Winslet as Marianne, and Gemma Jones as Mrs. Dashwood in the 1995 film
  • Honorable mention: The 1995 Ang Lee film starring Emma Thompson as Elinor, Kate Winslet as Marianne, Gemma Jones as Mrs. Dashwood, Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, and Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon.
This version is beautifully shot by Ang Lee, has a witty script by Thompson, and is well-performed by a cast of actors familiar from film and television. But there's no way around this: at the opening of the novel Elinor is "only nineteen" and Edward Ferrars twenty-four, but Thompson and Grant were in their mid-30s. Colonel Brandon, whom Marianne mocks for his "advanced years" and claims is "old enough to be my father," is thirty-five; at 49, though, Rickman really was old enough to be the 20-year-old Winslet's father. Having the characters appear older than they are intended to be changes our perceptions of them. In particular, it gives Edward's flirtation with Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs) a different character, and it makes Elinor's "strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment" less remarkable.
Aishwarya Rai as Meenakshi (Marianne) and Tabu as Sowmya (Elinor) in Kandukondain Kandukondain
  • Best updated version: The delightful Kandukondain Kandukondain (I have found it, 2000), a Tamil-language film starring Tabu as the thoughtful Sowmya (Elinor) and Aishwarya Rai as the impulsive Meenakshi (Marianne). 
In my full-length review of Kandukondain Kandukondain I wrote that it is "surprisingly faithful to its source while believably updating the story to the present." Plus, it has some excellent A. R. Rahman songs. Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can watch the full movie on YouTube, with English subtitles.
  • I'm curious about: The 1971 BBC production with Elinor played by Joanna David, later a wonderful Mrs. Gardiner in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (see below).

Pride and Prejudice

Julia Sawalha as Lydia, Susannah Hacker as Jane, Lucy Briers as Mary, Polly Maberley as Kitty, and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth in the 1995 BBC series
  • Favorite adaptation: There's no contest, of course: the 1995 BBC production written by Andrew Davies and starring a radiant Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, Susannah Harker as Jane, E & I favorite Julia Sawalha as Lydia, and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.
This series is perfectly cast, amazingly faithful to the novel, and rewards repeated viewings. This is the best adaptation of any Austen novel, and is a must-watch.
Greer Garson as Elizabeth and Laurence Olivier as Darcy in the 1940 film
  • Disappointing: The classic Hollywood version from 1940 featuring Greer Garson as Elizabeth and Laurence Olivier as Darcy. 
Garson is a lovely, if too mature, Elizabeth, and is almost reason enough to watch this version. But Olivier's Darcy seems oddly detached, the costumes are far out of period, and the ending and some of the characters are changed almost beyond recognition. If you are curious, you can read my full-length review.
  • Avoid: The 2005 film directed by Joe Wood, with a miscast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy. 
Deborah Moggach's unsubtle script has pigs wandering through the halls of Longbourn and Elizabeth and Darcy snogging in a rainstorm. As I've written elsewhere, this version "makes almost no effort to place its characters in the social context of the period...Austen's book is much more subtle, layered, nuanced, and funny than you would suspect from that simplistic and forgettable movie." If you think you like this one and haven't seen the 1995 version, you're doing yourself a disservice.
Martin Henderson as Darcy and Aishwarya Rai as Lalita (Elizabeth) in Bride & Prejudice
  • Bollywood-style version: Bride & Prejudice (2004), directed and written by Gurinder Chadha, starring Aishwarya Rai as Lalita (Elizabeth), Anupam Kher as Chaman Bakshi (Mr. Bennet), and Martin Henderson as William Darcy.
This film, written and directed by the creator of Bend It Like Beckham (2002),  should have been fun. But as I wrote in another post, it was "fatally handicapped by New Zealand actor Martin Henderson's lackluster Darcy and...Chadha's mediocre script." This "Bollywood-style" film (produced by Pathé and distributed by Miramax) could have used a jolt of real Bollywood showmanship.

Mansfield Park
  • Favorite adaptation: None.
Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price in the 1999 film
  • Honorable mention: The 1999 film directed and written by Patricia Rozema, starring Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price, Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram, E & I favorite Justine Wadell as Julia Bertram, and a menacing Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas.
Rozema makes explicit—perhaps too explicit—the slavery subtext of Austen's novel. She also turns Fanny into the young Jane Austen: we see her scribbling stories and anachronistically surrounded by balled-up pieces of paper (paper was very expensive in Austen's day and would hardly be wasted). More Becoming Jane than Mansfield Park.
  • Avoid at all costs: The 2007 ITV version, broadcast as part of PBS' "Complete Jane Austen" series, is mis-conceived on every level: mis-directed by Iain MacDonald, mis-written by Maggie Wadey, and starring a miscast Billie Piper as a bold and athletic Fanny. 
Deepika Padukone as Naina and Ranbir Kapoor as Bunny in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani
  • Bollywood versions: The "shy girl secretly in love with her male best friend" plot, (very) loosely based on Mansfield Park, has been used frequently in Bollywood films such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something is happening, 1998), Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow may never come, 2003), Ishq Vishk (Love and all that, 2003), and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These young people are crazy, 2013). All of these films are recommendable if you're open to Bollywood storytelling conventions.


Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley in the 2009 BBC series
  • Favorite adaptation: The 2008 BBC production starring Romola Garai as Emma, Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, and E & I favorite Jodhi May as Mrs. Weston. 
This adaptation, written by Sandy Welch (North & South) is expansive, lushly photographed, and fully justifies its 4-hour running time.
  • Honorable mention: I will get a fair amount of dissent from this opinion, I'm sure, but I found the less-than-perfectly faithful 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, Greta Scacchi as Mrs. Weston, and Toni Collette as Harriet Smith to be pretty entertaining, although I haven't been tempted to rewatch it since. 
  • Disappointing: The 1996 ITV version starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma, Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith, and Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax.
Despite an Andrew Davies script, this version fails to engage. The problem for me is Beckinsale, who in looks and characterization simply is not my image of Emma. (She seems a much better match for the character of Lady Susan in Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship (2016), although I have to qualify that judgment by confessing that I haven't yet seen it).
Paul Rudd as Josh (yes, he's reading Nietzsche) and Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless
  • Updated version: Clueless (1995), directed and written by Amy Heckerling, starring Alicia Silverstone as Cher (Emma) and Paul Rudd as Josh (Mr. Knightley).
I missed this teen comedy when it first came out, and may have waited too long to see it. Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) cleverly updates Emma to 1990s Beverly Hills High. But as with Aisha (see below), the updating places a key issue in stark relief: why should we care about this superficial and super-privileged character? Silverstone handles the (often slapstick) comedy adroitly, but I liked this movie less than I was expecting to.
  • Bollywood version: Aisha (2010), starring Sonam Kapoor as Aisha (Emma) and Abhay Deol as Arjun (Mr. Knightley).
In "Who cares if Tanu Weds Manu? The new Bollywood romantic comedy," I wrote that Sonam Kapoor "is pretty enough, but blank: her performance suggests that Aisha really is as shallow as she seems. By the end of the movie we've seen three couples united, and all of the romantic happy endings feel unearned."

Northanger Abbey

Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe and Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland in the 2007 ITV production
  • Favorite adaptation: The 2007 ITV production directed by Jon Jones and written by Andrew Davies, starring Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland, J. J. Feild as Henry Tilney, and Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe.
This version is too short at a mere 90 minutes, and takes some liberties with the novel. But the principles are perfect (and appear age-appropriate) for their roles, and despite the compression required to fit the story into a 90-minute frame Davies' script brings out a great deal of the novel's wit and charm.


Ciarán Hinds as Captain Wentworth and Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in the 1995 BBC production
  • Favorite adaptation: The 1995 BBC production directed by Roger Michell, written by Nick Dear, and starring Amanda Root as Anne Elliot, Ciarán Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth, and Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Croft.
Almost as great a miracle as the Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice adaptation of the same year, this version beautifully renders key scenes from Austen's novel (and, amazingly, is able to do so in under two hours). Both Root and Hinds are completely convincing as the estranged lovers who are suddenly reunited after eight years apart. It's clear, too, that great care has been taken in portraying locations, interiors, music, and other details from the novel. Not to be missed.
  • Avoid at all costs: The 2007 ITV production directed by Adrian Shergold and written by Simon Burke, starring Sally Hawkins as Anne and Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth.
A disaster from the start (when, at a dinner party, Anne casually utters lines from the novel's climactic letter scene) to the finish (when Anne sprints through the streets of Bath to publicly throw herself into the arms of Wentworth, something no woman of her time and situation would do). You can see my more detailed commentary in the post "The Complete Jane Austen: Unpersuasive." While I've admired Hawkins' work in Tipping the Velvet (2002), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), An Education (2009) and Never Let Me Go (2010), she is out of place here, and Penry-Jones is unconvincing.

Final thoughts 

Spending six months re-reading Jane Austen's novels (plus some of her letters and works unpublished during her lifetime) has been a remarkable experience for me. I hope in this series I've been able to convey some of my sense of discovery; I'm deeply grateful for the work of passionate readers and scholars who have revealed layers of meaning in her books of which I wasn't aware before.

But I also hope I've communicated the sheer pleasure of spending an extended amount of time in Austen's company, and perhaps inspired you to consider reading or re-reading her novels. Her books are inexhaustible; I know that I will be returning to them again and again.

Sources on Austen and her world consulted for this series
  • Henry Austen, "Biographical Notice of the Author," in Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, John Murray, 1818
  • George Boukulous, "The politics of silence: Mansfield Park and the amelioration of slavery." NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 39 No. 3, 2006, pp. 361-383
  • Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, William Collins, 2014
  • R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems, Oxford University Press, 1948
  • R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others, Oxford University Press, 1932
  • Edward Copeland, Women Writing About Money: Women's Fiction in England, 1790-1820, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2011, especially Chapter 1: Jan Fergus, "The professional writer"; Chapter 8: Juliet McMaster, "Class"; Chapter 9: Edward Copeland, "Money"; and Chapter 10: David Selwyn, "Making a living."
  • Frank Gibbon, "The Antiguan connection: Some new light on Mansfield Park." The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 11 Issue 2, 1982,  pp. 298-305.
  • Jocelyn Harris, A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen's Persuasion, University of Delaware Press, 2007
  • James Heldman, "How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy—Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice." Persuasions 12, 1990, 38-49.
  • Robert D. Hume, "Money in Jane Austen." The Review of English Studies, New Series (2013), Vol. 64, No. 264, pp. 289-310. doi: 10.1093/res/hgs054
  • [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201.
  • Brian Southam, Jane Austen and the Navy, Hambledon and London, 2000
  • Brian Southam, "The silence of the Bertrams: Slavery and the chronology of Mansfield Park." Times Literary Supplement, 17 February 1995, pp. 13-14.
  • Katherine Toran, "The Economics of Jane Austen’s World," Persuasions On-Line, 36(1), 2015. 

Other posts in the "Six months with Jane Austen" series:

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