Jane Austen on Screen

A drawing of Jane Austen.

Earlier this fall, area movie screens played Austenland, yet another movie exploiting the seemingly endless interest in English novelist Jane Austen. Austenland stars Keri Russell as an American woman who obsesses over Pride and Prejudice, or more specifically, Mr. Darcy, as most famously portrayed by Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation. She uses her life savings to venture to England in order to visit an adult-aimed theme park that recreates Regency era England in hopes of finding her own Mr. Darcy. Reviews for the film weren’t particularly strong, but I suspect that for the targeted audience it probably delivers what’s expected.

Well before the release of Austenland, I’d often thought about the frequent use of Jane Austen’s works, personal life, and mythos to create film and television productions. Still, until I checked the Web, I had no idea how many Austen-related titles were actually out there. Dating back to 1938, when the BBC aired a 55-minute version of Pride and Prejudice, there have been over fifty Austen-related productions. That may not surprise you considering that there have been over 400 adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays. There’s a big difference, however, as The Bard wrote 37 plays, while Austen’s relatively short life limited her to just six completed novels.

Austen was forty-one when she succumbed to an unknown disease in 1817 following a long illness. Her six novels were Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion (1818). Unfortunately, she received neither critical nor popular acclaim in her lifetime. Her meteoric climb to prominence seems to have begun after a nephew published a biography of her in 1869, shedding light on her trailblazing importance and the exquisite quality of her work. A century and a half later, she is one of the most-read authors in the English language.

Prior to 1995, there had been over two dozen adaptations of Austen’s works. Aside from a lavishly mounted 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice and 1980’s quasi-Austen movie Jane Austen in Manhattan, every other adaptation of her work during that time was made for television. For whatever reason, 1995 proved a watershed year for Austen adaptations. In the eighteen years since, there have been as many adaptations of Austen’s works as were made in the previous fifty-seven years. What’s more, as many theatrical films have been made as have telefilms.

Persuasion DVD coverSurprisingly, the film that got the Austen bandwagon rolling in the United States was Clueless, writer/director Amy Heckerling’s modern, teen comedy take on Austen’s Emma. Next was Persuasion, which was originally intended as a standard BBC Two telefilm. Additional last-minute funding by U.S. and French backers, however, led to an increase in production values, including it being shot on 35mm film. Although it appeared on British television in April, it was released to U.S. theaters in September and then to movie houses worldwide. Sense and Sensibility, adapted by and starring Emma Thompson, was released theatrically in December, while the previously-mentioned landmark miniseries Pride and Prejudice debuted on BBC TV in September before premiering here on PBS in January 1996. Rather than a mere coincidence or a minor fad restricted to 1995, the Jane Austen craze has continued ever since.

The Des Moines Public Library has over two dozen DVDs that are either adaptations of Austen’s novels, productions based on her life, or films inspired by her characters. The following list gives you a rundown of her novels, and the choices you have among filmed adaptations in our collection. The quality of these titles, with very few exceptions, is superb.

Sense and Sensibility:

  • Sense and Sensibility, a 1981 BBC-produced seven-part TV series;
  • Sense and Sensibility, a 1995 movie by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee;
  • I Have Found It (Kandukondain, Kandukondain), a 2000 movie made in Bollywood (India);
  • Sense & Sensibility, a 2008 BBC mini-series; and
  • From Prada to Nada, a 2011 movie providing a modern-day Latino take on Austen’s first novel.

Pride and Prejudice:

  • Pride and Prejudice, a 1940 MGM production starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier;
  • Pride and Prejudice, a 1980 miniseries jointly produced by the BBC and Australia’s ABC;
  • Pride and Prejudice, a 1995 BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth;
  • Bride & Prejudice, a 2004 film set in the present with an Indian, British, and American cast; and
  • Pride & Prejudice, a 2005 movie starring Keira Knightly.

Mansfield Park:

Emma:

  • Clueless, a 1995 movie that moves the action to current-day California;
  • Emma, a 1996 Miramax film starring Gwyneth Paltrow;
  • Emma, a 1996 telefilm co-produced by the A&E network, starring Kate Beckinsale; and
  • Emma, a 2009 four-part miniseries produced for the BBC.

Northanger Abbey:

  • Northanger Abbey, a 1987 telefilm that aired as an episode of the BBC series Screen Two; and
  • Northanger Abbey, a 2007 telefilm produced by Granada Television for Britain’s ITV.

Persuasion:

  • Persuasion, a 1995 telefilm/theatrical film primarily produced by the BBC; and
  • Persuasion, a 2007 telefilm originally aired by Britain’s ITV and starring Sally Hawkins.

Becoming Jane DVD coverSome would argue that Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) belongs on the above list as a loose adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, while others are vehement in their denial. Certainly, there are referential nods to Austen’s work, but as for it being an actual adaptation, well, I’ll let you decide.

If those aren’t enough Austen titles to satiate you, there’re more still that use Austen’s life, or her works, as a departure point for still further screen amusement. These include Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980), Becoming Jane (2007), The Jane Austen Book Club (2007), Miss Austen Regrets (2008), and Lost in Austen (2008). And finally, if you want the straight dope on her life (or as much as is known), watch A&E’s Jane Austen, an episode of that network’s old Biography TV series.

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