The empire-waisted wonders of Jane Austen's world once again get the cinematic treatment in Love & Friendship, out on May 13.
The immensely enjoyable film — directed by Whit Stillman — is based on Lady Susan, a posthumously published early epistolary novel of Austen's. Love & Friendship follows the always-plotting widow Lady Susan Vernon, played with a devilish edge by Kate Beckinsale. Lady Susan slides through society attempting to get exactly what she wants, no matter what the cost to others. She's an antihero with an Austen touch.
Of course, this is far from the first time we've seen Austen's work translated to a screen, big or small. During 1995 and 1996, the author was all the rage in Hollywood. Another revival in Austen-interest peaked in the middle of the last decade.
Here, we're cataloguing the most acclaimed adaptations and the ones that were widely panned. And just to be sure we stay somewhat objective, we sought the counsel of Claire Bellanti, president of the Jane Austen Society of North America. While Bellanti was careful to note that JASNA doesn't wish to "endorse" films — hoping that any and all versions will draw audiences to Austen's writings — Bellanti shared some comments regarding her personal favorites. Lauren Thompson, tour guide at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, also shared her recommendations with Refinery29.
So, read on, dear friend. And hey, we got through this without making a "truth universally acknowledged" reference.
This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
This Old Hollywood take on P&P
isn’t concerned with the specifics of Austen's era or even the novel itself. The costumes are all wrong and an early bit of dialogue references the Battle of Waterloo, which took place after the novel was published. Even though an Austen fanatic might roll her eyes at some of the missteps, it’s still a treat to watch Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier go head to head as Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy. Bellanti is a fan of Garson's performance. "[She] captured, to me, a great deal of what Elizabeth Bennet is about," she said.
Words of praise:
"Greer Garson is Elizabeth — 'dear, beautiful Lizzie' — stepped right out of the book, or rather out of one's fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be." — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
Sense & Sensibility (1995)
Emma Thompson is perhaps Hollywood's number-one Jane Austen fan. When she won a Golden Globe for writing the screenplay for Ang Lee's Sense & Sensibility
, she even accepted as
Austen. Thompson, doing double duty as writer and star, is splendid as the measured Elinor Dashwood and a pre-Titanic
Kate Winslet is equally so as Marianne, Elinor’s romantic sister. But we shouldn’t forget the men, played by Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. Thompson certainly didn’t. In fact, Bellanti told us that the film has “the value...[of] enhancing the male characters,” evolving them beyond the novel.Words of praise:
"Jane Austen scores the hat trick with Sense and Sensibility
, a witty and rollicking adaptation of the author’s first novel." — Todd McCarthy, Variety
When you really think about it, Clueless
is remarkable. Not only is it the gold standard of teen movies, it’s also a damn great Austen adaptation. Sure, Clueless
transforms Emma Woodhouse into Cher Horowitz and transplants the action from Regency England to 1990s Los Angeles, but it keeps what’s most essential: Its heroine’s journey from careless cleverness to self-recognition.Words of praise:
"Cher can sound off-putting and manipulative, but Silverstone emphasizes her good-hearted guilelessness until we have no choice but to embrace her, maxed-out credit cards and all." — Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Colin Firth gets his wet T-shirt contest moment in the BBC's P&P
and we get all hot and bothered. Every. Damn. Time. But outside of the delectable man candy in the much-heralded miniseries, this adaptation is remarkable for how loyal it is to Austen’s most famous novel. Even though proceedings do
get a little sexier than Austen's text, dialogue is ripped straight from the page.
Faithfulness does not breed tedium, however. Instead, this is the perfect P&P
for binge-watching. Meanwhile, Firth is such a good Darcy that he basically reprised the role in Bridget Jones' Diary
Words of praise:
"...this adaptation perfectly balances the novel’s satire and romance" — Caroline Seide, The A.V. Club
Yes, 1995 is a banner year for Austen adaptations. Persuasion
is maybe the most underrated of the bunch, but that doesn't mean it isn't beloved or should be ignored. Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds star as the central lovers, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, who are reunited after a very brief engagement years prior. "The screenplay was very well written; the characters, so well directed and acted," Thompson said. Words of praise:
"The details are right (in particular, we notice how dark the houses are), but this is not a costume piece; it is a film about two people who are shy and proud, and about a process of mutual persuasion that takes place between them almost without a word being spoken on the real subject." — Roger Ebert
Some of Gwynnie's goop-y characteristics actually make her the perfect choice to play meddlesome heroine of this traditional Emma
. Coincidentally, another Emma
adaptation also debuted the same year: A miniseries starring Kate Beckinsale. The New York Times
' Caryn James actually preferred
Beckinsale's take on the character in a review, saying her Emma "is plainer looking than Ms. Paltrow's, and altogether more believable and funnier." Words of praise:
, another richly entertaining raid (following Sense and Sensibility
) on the novels of the 180-years-dead Jane Austen, showcases Paltrow's talent, wit, and daring." — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Admittedly, this P&P
film is not as well-loved as the BBC miniseries that came a decade earlier. Still, Joe Wright’s take on the novel holds a special place in our hearts. Wright sumptuously photographs the English countryside in warm hues and Keira Knightley brings her trademark tough-girl attitude to her Elizabeth Bennet. (Her Lizzy has touches of Jo March.) And while Matthew Mcfadyen is no Colin Firth, Thompson actually said he nails Darcy's "social ineptness." For what it's worth, his delivery of “you have bewitched me, body and soul”
gets our hearts pumping.
Words of praise:
"[Knightley] gives a performance of beauty, delicacy, spirit, and wit..." — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Northanger Abbey (2007)
It’s worth watching this one, if nothing else, for the before-they-were-famous performances of Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan. Jones has the bigger role here, playing the Gothic literature-loving heroine Catherine Morland; Mulligan is her gossipy best friend, Isabella. Catherine’s Romantic with a capital-R fantasies are interspersed throughout the film, adding both humor and sexiness. Jenny Allworthy
(a pen name) of The Jane Austen Films Club wrote
, "This is now right up there with my most beloved adaptations." Words of praise:
"In some ways, Northanger Abbey
was made to be a television movie — it’s actually more fun than the book, which is as much a parody of Gothic novels as it is a parody of the sensibility that would develop in Austen’s five subsequent novels." — Ginia Bellafante, The New York Times
Love & Friendship (2016)
Whit Stillman is known as the WASP Woody Allen, but he may as well be known as the male Jane Austen. Stillman has long shown an affinity for the writer in his mannered comedies. His debut film, 1990’s Metropolitan
, name-drops Mansfield Park
. With Love & Friendship
, Stillman finally does a straightforward adaptation of the novelist he long admired, taking on the lesser-known work, Lady Susan
. Kate Beckinsale — a veteran of both Stillman and Austen — is divine as Susan Vernon, a wildly intelligent widowed schemer, who seeks to marry off her daughter and herself. Love & Friendship
is a laugh-out-loud affair. The doltish Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) actually made this writer snort during a screening.Words of praise:
"It’s flat-out hilarious – find me a funnier screen stab at Austen and I’m tempted to offer your money back personally." — Tim Robey, The Telegraph
Becoming Jane (2007) Becoming Jane
is not based on a specific Austen novel. Rather, it postulates that author herself had a whirlwind romance. It's only vaguely
based in truth and received middling
reviews upon release. While Thompson does "love" the film, she cautioned: "It's not to be too heavily relied on in terms of historical facts." She suggested Miss Austen Regrets
as an alternate biopic.Damning review:
"The very idea of Jane Austen with a broken heart may be thought vulgar and pedantic by her modern readers, and the way the story pans out is not convincing." — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Mansfield Park (2007)
Fans took affront to the casting of Billie Piper of Doctor Who
fame as the protagonist, Fanny Price. "I am a pretty easy audience when it comes to Jane Austen adaptations but I found this one particularly difficult to love," Allworthy explained
at The Jane Austen Film Club. "I think it mostly has to do with the casting of Billie Piper as Fanny Price. Buxom, bleached blonde (with dark brows), she seems to be all teeth and unkempt hair."
In all fairness, Mansfield Park
is notorious for being an Austen novel that hasn't allowed for a truly successful adaptation. Thompson said that she directs those seeking to watch an interpretation of Mansfield Park
to the 1983 BBC miniseries, because it conveys Fanny's "beaten-down" nature.
"...[Q]uite a lot of plot and plausibility... were jettisoned in favour of a thoroughly sudsy regency romp in which young girls did a lot of running and giggling and pouting and bitching, and tossing the tendrils of their lovely unfettered hair and heaving of far more of their peachy decolletage than was, I feel sure, entirely seemly or historically accurate, creating the effect of a bunch of Bratz dolls in empire lines." — Kathryn Flett, The Observer
Ostensibly an homage to Austen fandom, Austenland
features Keri Russell as an unlucky-in-love Darcy devotee named — what else? — Jane. She goes to an Austen-inspired theme park, where she hopes to find the man of her dreams. While Austenland
does have some fans
, critics weren't so fond of the comedy. Thompson, for one, "really really struggled" with it. "I thought there were so many jokes and puns to do with Jane Austen and with Pride & Prejudice
that could have been made, but they weren’t," she said. Damning review:
"...[F]rankly, as a woman who this is clearly meant to appeal to — I like love stories and Austen! — I’m insulted." — Kristy Puchko, Cinemablend
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
blasphemy. Sure, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup might have been a cute novelty item as a book, but did you really think adding zombies to one of history’s great pieces of literature would work as a movie? Well, it didn’t.
Damning review: "
Lumbering, lifeless, and — strange thing to say about a cadaver — almost entirely charmless." — Keith Uhlich, The Hollywood Reporter