Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! My picks of 5 essential Austen film adaptations

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Born in Hampshire, England, today would’ve been Jane’s 247th birthday. Everyone who’s read this blog fairly regularly knows I’m an ardent Jane Austen fan or what one would call an Austenite. I’m a member of JASNA, that is the Jane Austen Society of North America and earlier this month, the Minnesota Region hosted a birthday celebration honoring Jane and I was happy to take part. It was fun getting dressed up in Regency attire (I got that cute feather headpiece at the event!) and we were treated to a presentation by an author of historical novels and a sumptuous brunch.

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My love for Austen went all the way back to my college years when I visited my cousin in Pennsylvania. I was actually introduced to Austen’s work through film instead of novels, though watching that film inspired me to read her books (I still haven’t read Northanger Abbey or Lady Susan yet, however). You’d have to read the list below to find out which Austen film it was that I first saw, let’s just say it’s a must-see!

Now, when I say ‘essential’ I mean it’s a largely faithful adaptation of her novels, so it’s not an ‘inspired work’ or a ‘reimagining’ of her work, so I’m excluding movies like Clueless, Austenland, Bridget Jones’ Diary or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, though I do enjoy all of those.

So here are five films I consider essential for any Austen fan or even those who like good dramas or dramedies:

Persuasion (1995)

This was a BBC TV movie directed by Roger Michell and it’s severely underrated but I find it to be so moving in its quiet gentleness. It’s not a flashy adaptation, perhaps too understated and low-key by today’s standards which is what’s so refreshing about it. The scenes are mostly shot with natural light, and the actors barely wore any make-up, though the Regency costumes and set pieces are wonderfully authentic.

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The theme of second chances is beautifully realized by Amanda Root (in her feature film debut no less) and Ciarán Hinds, as Anne Elliot and Fredrick Wentworth, respectively. I especially love the way they convey SO much emotions with just their eyes and body language. I sure hope that young’uns who discover Austen for the first time via the ghastly Netflix version that mischaracterizes Anne completely would seek out this one. Just on that front alone, this one is a far superior adaptation.

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In any case, I love the story of Persuasion so much that it inspired my own film project Hearts Want, which centers on two previous lovers who reunite in a play after seven years apart.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Whenever people ask me what movie I’ve watched the most times, this Ang Lee-directed adaptation easily reigns at the top. It might be sacrilege to say but I think Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning script elevates Austen’s text. I immediately love the Dashwood family, especially the two sisters Elinor and Marianne who approach love in their own way while navigating the strict rules of society. 

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This is my first intro to Austen in my early 20s and though I didn’t initially warm up to it, it has become my absolute favorite film of all time. I love the superb cast, especially Thompson and Kate Winslet in the lead roles… the Shakespeare Sonnet scene is practically iconic. Hugh Grant is perhaps too handsome and too bumbling as Edward but he’s undeniably endearing!  

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Alan Rickman is inspired casting as Col. Brandon despite looking much older than the age the character is supposed to be (35), but I fall head over heels for him from the moment he’s besotted with Marianne. He remains my favorite Austen hero, yes even beating Mr Darcy! Everything about this adaptation is so exquisite, including the score by Patrick Doyle.

Pride and Prejudice (2005) 

I know most Austenites regard the Colin Firth version as the quintessential P&P adaptation, For me though, this Joe Wright-directed masterpiece is my absolute favorite and Matthew Macfadyen is my definitive Mr. Darcy. Filled with pent-up passion and sexy longings, Wright brilliantly captures Darcy and Lizzie’s budding attraction in various seemingly simple but palpably sensual scenes, such as this ravishing hand-touch scene [fan self]

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You can practically cut the sexual tension with a knife… starting with the dance at the ball, all those stolen glances every time they meet that lead up to THIS! I mean who could forget this glorious proposal-in-the-rain… matched only by the phenomenal score by Dario Marianelli. 

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I wasn’t always a huge fan of Keira Knightley but she is perfect as the high-spirited and witty Lizzie Bennet. Her chemistry with Macfadyen is legendary, but I also adore the sweet sisterhood between her and Rosamund Pike as Jane. I love the quiet moments between them when they’re just chatting in their room beneath the sheets, or when Lizzie stands atop a cliff with her skirt blowing in the wind– absolutely breathtaking.

Love and Friendship (2016)

This one is based on Austen’s epistolary novel (meaning it’s written as a series of letters) and features an unscrupulous heroine. Lady Susan Vernon is a beautiful recent widow described as the most accomplished coquette/flirt in England. Kate Beckinsale has played another Austen heroine in 1996’s ITV adaptation of Emma, but she clearly revels in playing a shameless scheming woman and looks darn good doing it!

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Apparently, director Whit Stillman found Lady Susan included in the same edition as Northanger Abbey and became fascinated with the story. I’m glad he decided to adapt it and it’s so much fun to watch! I love the friendship between Lady Susan and her American bestie Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) which features some of the funniest dialog.

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I was charmed, as all the men are, by Lady Susan throughout the movie. None of the men are all that memorable here except for the hilarious Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin. I also remember Morfydd Clark (yep Galadriel in Rings of Power) as Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica whose mother keeps outshining her in her search for a suitor.

The movie flows with such fun, upbeat energy, definitely something I could watch over and over for years to come.

Emma. (2020)

Handsome, clever, and rich. Emma Woodhouse is far from being my favorite Austen heroine or even a female cinematic character in general. Yet Anya Taylor-Joy is delightful here and this gorgeous, decidedly mirthful adaptation by theater director Autumn de Wilde actually gets better on subsequent watch. 

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I have to say I’m still partial to Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley… Johnny Flynn is a fine actor but his look with his messy, unkempt hair is so distracting here. I do love Josh O’Connor’s performance as Mr. Elton, definitely more appealing than any other actors playing that role previously, and Mia Goth is quite a revelation as Harriet Smith.

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It’s the perfect escapist entertainment for period drama fans… it’s inventive while still faithful to Austen’s text and captures her humor. The cinematography is simply stunning, it’s visually distinctive right from its opening scene… the mansions and grounds have never looked more stunning and the costumes are impeccable. 


Honorable Mention:
Mansfield Park (1999)

I know this is a pretty controversial film for Austenites as the Fanny Price character is unlike in the novel and Patricia Rozema’s take on it is a bit risque. Yet I do enjoy the movie despite not being faithful to the novel, largely because of Frances O’Connor’s portrayal of Fanny and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram. I love the tentative relationship between them that grows from friendship to love (on Edmund’s part anyway as Fanny’s been in love with him since they were kids).

I also enjoy Alessandro Nivola as the hunky cad Henry Crawford. The score by Lesley Barber also ranks as one of my favorites from Austen adaptations.

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So in honor of Jane Austen, what are some of YOUR fave Austen’s cinematic adaptations?

5 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! My picks of 5 essential Austen film adaptations

  1. So far…

    1. Sense & Sensibility (1995)
    2. Pride & Prejudice (2005)
    3. Love & Friendship (2016)
    4. Emma (2019)

    Those are the ones I’ve seen though I would also mention Clueless and Bridget Jones’ Diary as well. I’d also like to shout-out The Jane Austen Book Club and Austenland. I would love to see what a conversation between Jane Austen and Charles Bukowski would be like. I remember there was an episode of Gilmore Girls in the 2nd season where Jess brings food to Rory and Paris as he and Paris are having a conversation on writers including Austen and Bukowski where Jess believes those 2 would have an interesting conversation.

    1. Woo wee!! Glad you place SnS 1995 at the top of your list! I’d rank them the same as you. I do love those movies you mentioned too that are reimagining of Austen’s work. Ooooh now I gotta see that Gilmore Girls episode you mention, hopefully it’s on YouTube!

  2. Pingback: Pleased Birthday, Jane Austen! My picks of 5 important Austen movie diversifications – FLIXCHATTER FILM BLOG – Ykine

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