I’ve been a devoted Jane Austen fan since I was 13, when the BBC aired its version of “Pride and Prejudice” on Masterpiece Theatre. Since then, I have read most of her novels, and seen at least one dramatized form of each of them. My favorite of her novels (which for me means the one that rivals Pride and Prejudice most closely) is Persuasion; Anne is so passionate, yet so sensible (a rare combination in the Austen world), and all the girls love a sailor.
Over the intervening decades (nearly three) since then, it has been interesting to see the many movies and series that have come out attempting to capture Austenland. I have not seen every one, but I’ve seen enough, I think, to provide some thoughts and recommendations (or pans, as the case may be) about what has crossed my screen.
Pride and Prejudice
This is the one everyone loves to make, and the jewel in the crown of Jane Austen’s repertoire. To this day I remain in love with the first “P&P” I saw on television, the 1980 version with Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth and David Rintoul as Darcy. Garvie is plucky and pretty without being beautiful. She personifies Lizzie’s vanity and sense of indignity perfectly, and Rintoul is tall, dashing, and although quite wooden in his demeanor, not excessively so for one of his character and social position in the story. Fay Weldon’s screenplay sticks closely to the novel and does it justice. Mrs. Bennet is flighty and nervous without being hysterical, very close to Austen’s portrayal of her in the novel. Lady Catherine is played by the deliciously snooty Judy Parfitt, a natural for the part. To give this haughty character a sharper edge than even Jane Austen gave her, Fay Weldon gave her an excellent speech. When she is entertaining Lizzie and the Collinses at Rosings, she asks Lizzie about her family. “Five children? And all girls? What can your mother have been thinking? If I’d had more than one child, they would all have been boys, and remarkably well-favored!”
A&E’s much better-known 1995 version, starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie, to my mind, came nowhere near the Fay Weldon version for screenplay quality. This one was written by Andrew Davies, who usually nails English novels for the screen. (His “Middlemarch” , “Moll Flanders” , and “The Way We Live Now”  are only a few of his screenwriting triumphs.) Davies missed the mark with this screenplay by repeating salient points in the plot throughout the story, making me as a viewer feel annoyingly patronized. It’s difficult to describe exactly how he does this, since it’s been some time since I’ve seen the series, and could not bring myself to see it a second time. I’ll just say that in my opinion, the acting is not an improvement on the 1980 version (Julia Sawalha’s Lydia appears to be on crack and Jennifer Ehle spoke so fast at times I couldn’t understand her—despite the fact that she’s American) and the writing is significantly poorer.
The 2005 version, with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in the principal roles, also left me cold. It strayed from the story more than the others, Knightley was more giggly than I thought Lizzie should be, Macfadyen’s haircut for the film was the worst, most distracting clip job I’ve ever seen, and while Donald Sutherland did a creditable job as Mr. Bennet, it was very strange to see him in a role as an England country gentleman. This version also, I felt, patronized the viewer by making Lizzie have a great epiphany at the end, and shout, “I misjudged him!” The writing in this film did not lead me to that same conclusion at the time, and I found it overall to be awkward and unpersuasive. While I recognize that its portrayal of Mrs. Bennet (played beautifully by Brenda Blethyn) is more sympathetic than I think Austen intended, I appreciated her being given the line, when Lizzie asks why she can’t think about anything but marrying off her daughters, “You have five unmarried daughters and see what else you can find to think about!” However, I have one thing to praise in this movie, and it is not a small thing: the buildings look worn, the grounds muddy, and the characters truly unwashed. While my favorite is still the 1980 version, the characters in that one look as clean and scrubbed, and the sets all as clean as in a soap opera. Not so realistic, methinks.
As for the other versions, including the 2003 “Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy” (is it about Mormons?), and all the TV series made in the 1950s and 1960s, I haven’t seen them. I was forced once to watch the version made in 1940, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, and written by none other than Aldous Huxley. The costumes, following the success of 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” no doubt, were American ante-bellum style rather than Empire; the actresses shrieked their lines rather than spoke them and acted more like hens running around a barnyard than Englishwomen in the early 19th century; and the very un-Austenian plot twist, where Lady Catherine actually schemes to ensure that Lizzie and Darcy marry was unforgivable. I do not recommend this version.
Sense and Sensibility
This is my least favorite novel and I have to admit, in the interest of full disclosure, that I began it but never finished it. This may in part have been because my first experience of it was seeing Emma Thompson’s award-winning version in 1995, with her and Kate Winslet as the sisters Elinor and Marianne. I liked the casting of this film, with Hugh Grant as a beautifully awkward Edward Ferrars, Alan Rickman as an older, but still smoldering, Colonel Brandon, and Greg Wise as the lively but seriously shady Willoughby. Emma Thompson was 10 years too old to play Elinor, but I forgave her for that because of her great performance.
This made me dubious about how I would feel at watching the newer (2008) version with Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as the sisters. I ended up loving it. Andrew Davies came through beautifully on the screenplay, and while I found the Colonel Brandon completely unappealing (which may be how Austen preferred him to be, actually) and Dominic Cooper too much of a boy to be the rake that Willoughby turned out to be, the two principal actresses were magnificent, and I may prefer Hattie Morahan’s Elinor to Thompson’s after all. The locations were beautiful and the other performances steady (though I couldn’t help thinking that the Edward looked more like a lumberjack from Colorado than an heir to an English family fortune). As of now, I think I like both versions equally, though if I want to see the whole story in one sitting, I need to go back to the Emma Thompson version; the Davies must be watched in two or three sittings.
I have seen three versions of this. Despite its popularity, I do not care for the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version. I found her Emma to be pretty and vain, a creditable performance if a little overacted. I adore Jeremy Northam and found his Mr. Knightley adequate. But something about the whole movie bothered me. Perhaps it was the lighting, which was inexplicably dark, obscuring the actors’ faces during scenes of intense conversation. Perhaps it was the casting of familiar faces (Phyllida Law, Greta Scacchi, Jeremy Northam) who frequently appear in British costume dramas. Or perhaps I’d just seen too much of Gwyneth Paltrow at the time, and was tired of her (just as I grew tired of Julia Roberts when she made six movies in two years in the early 1990s.)
I welcomed the other version of “Emma,” released the same year but eclipsed by the glitz and marketing of the Paltrow version. This quieter version starred Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in the principal roles. The other names were less well-known, and Andrew Davies’s writing satisfying.
But I have a new favorite. My mother-in-law, who snaps up anything Austen for me when she sees it, gave me the newest (2009) version starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. Garai was also in “Atonement” and Kenneth Branagh’s awful, awful “As You Like It.” She also had a bit part in “Amazing Grace,” which I watched primarily for another glimpse of Ioan Gruffudd. I was unsure what to expect: another “Emma”? The series was written by Sandy Welch, whose “Jane Eyre” and “North and South” I loved. Jonny Lee Miller conveys intelligence, warmth, ruggedness, and noblesse oblige as Mr. Knightley. (He is one of my new favorite actors.) Michael Gambon plays her wonderfully doddering and nervous father, to whom she and Mr. Knightley are given time to show their devotion in this version. And Garai’s Emma is marvelous. Pretty and vain, like Paltrow, she appears more nuanced in this version (a credit both to her acting and to Welch’s writing). The more leisurely pace of this series over the Paltrow film also allows for much more development of character and subtlety of relationships. While I love Toni Collette’s acting, she played Harriet as stupid compared to Louise Dylan’s innocent, indecisive Harriet. Where the Paltrow version overall felt like a sledge hammer, this was a fine, well-balanced chef’s knife. Writing this review, I’m tempted to go back and watch it again tonight. Man, it was good.
I have only seen one version of this novel on film. The mid-1990s saw a flurry of Austen novels made into films. This one in 1995 starred Amanda Root, best known at the time for her Shakespeare roles, and Ciaran Hinds as Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth, respectively. The writing by Nick Dear was beautiful, and the performances by actors well-known (Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, and Fiona Shaw) and lesser-known superb. Root and Hinds have plainer faces than viewers, especially American ones, are used to seeing. But the Irish Hinds is dashing nonetheless, and Root is made up and coiffed prettier as the story goes on, reflecting the re-warming of her relationship with Wentworth, whom she was pressured to refuse nine years earlier. I love Anne’s character for its steadiness despite being surrounded by a flaky, dandified father and a snooty, bitchy elder sister. Except for outbursts of reason, she seems to blend into the woodwork for much of the novel, until the end where she not only surprises and upsets others, but is assured of getting exactly what she wants and living happily ever after. (I don’t think that’s giving the end of an Austen novel away too much, is it?)
I first saw the 1983 version many years ago. It starred Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny and Nicholas Farrell (of “Chariots of Fire” fame) as Edmund. I don’t remember much of the 6-episode series except that the story was not my favorite, and it seemed somehow washed-out, uninspired. I think the BBC had a period in the past of being a factory for transferring novels and plays to film. As an English major, I saw many Shakespeare plays on film a la BBC and found them serviceable but very much of a uniform style and stamp. Without recalling much more detail, this is how I felt about the first version of “Mansfield Park” I saw.
I was never entirely satisfied to leave Mansfield Park in that unelevated state in my mind. A colleague of mine in my teaching days was a great fan of Jane Austen, and Mansfield Park was his favorite of her novels. I decided to give it another try.
I was pleased to see it had been remade in 1999, with Frances O’Connor (whose title role in the 2000 “Madame Bovary” I thought excellent) as Fanny and Jonny Lee Miller (see glowing praise above for “Emma”) as Edmund. The characters in this version had more depth, the mystery in the house was darker, and the danger to Fanny more palpable. For me, this film redeemed the story.
If the 1990s were the decade of dramatizing all of Jane Austen’s novels, it seems the 2000s are remaking all of them. Northanger Abbey is a smaller-scale novel than most of the others, with fewer characters, less adult involvement, and a much less clever heroine. The BBC came out with its stock version decades ago, but there is a new one made in 2007 that I found quite good when I saw it recently. Catherine, while not the sharpest tool in the shed, has a clear moral compass, and was acted well by Felicity Jones. The other actors are (to Americans, at least) unfamiliar. (Sylvestra Le Touzel is back, playing the older Austen generation now.)
There are a few subjects on which I’m a DVD junkie: English novels, Elizabeth I, and anything by Mike Leigh. As long as they keep makin’ ’em, I’ll keep watchin’ ’em.