In this brave new post-Pride and Prejudice and Zombies world, you would think audiences would have had their fill of Jane Austen, and started moving on to similar books. But classics never go out of style, as proved by the recent Autumn de Wilde directed version of Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and Johnny Flynn (Lovesick, Stardust). If you didn't get a chance to see it yet, you can watch the trailer here. Critics agreed—the remake is handsome, clever and rich in comedic moments.
Of course, as Jane Austen herself wrote in the original 1815 novel, "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other." Ergo, some people are going to declare this remake flawless, while others will surely insist the truest Austen fans prefer the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version (or our favorite adaptation, listed below).
We think these are the best Jane Austen movies, but if you disagree, well...we'll just let Ms. Austen herself take it from here.
Sense and Sensibility
The Emma Thompson-adapted, Ang Lee-directed version of Austen’s was part of the 1995 wave of Austen adaptations that helped introduce her to a wider audience. But credit is due to the feminist scholars of the 1970s and 80s for recuperating Austen and teaching her writing to a new generation of screenwriters and filmmakers … although the adaptations do have a troubling inclination to reduce Austen to courtship and countryside. But sometimes we just want to put our reductionist concerns aside, and watch Alan Rickman channeling some angst, dammit.
Honorable mention: Thirteen years later, BBC released a television series that writer Andrew Davies called "more overtly sexual" than previous Austen adaptations. While this likely didn't hurt the show's ratings, it wasn't enough to eclipse the 1995 version. According to New York Times critic Ginia Bellafante, "There's nothing glaringly wrong with this new Sense and Sensibility, the last in Masterpiece's winter-long homage to Austen; it is both lush and tidy. But it alters the emotional chemistry, and the result is an adaptation that feels more arid than Mr. Lee's effort."
Pride and Prejudice
Sure, Joe Wright gave us a darker, grittier Pride and Prejudice, but we defy anyone to argue that his version is superior to the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Andrew Davies’ teleplay deserves particular credit for keeping much of Austen’s splendid prose intact.
Since the miniseries could unfold over a more leisurely, five-plus hour pace than a feature-length interpretation (Wright’s film is particularly whiplash-inducing), this adaptation also stays especially true to the novel. Although, for better or worse, the apocryphal wet shirt worn by Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy has become both cliché and relic.
Watch it on Amazon.
Honorable mentions: might actually be the Austen adaptation we’re most likely to re-watch these days. This vlog version of Pride and Prejudice does a brilliant job of updating Austen’s most adapted-novel to present-day America, staying true to both its source material, and the ways in which gender roles and social mores have (and haven’t) changed. The thoughtful way the Lizzie-Lydia relationship (and the Lydia plotline in general) has been updated deserves particular credit. Also, Bride and Prejudice, the 2005 Bollywood remake, is a fun, contemporary, cross-cultural take on the classic English novel.
Austen’s weirdest, hardest-to-love novel hasn’t inspired a wide array of adaptations, but Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film offers an interesting take on the story. Clearly influenced by post-colonial scholarship, which attends to the brutal reality of plantation slavery that provides much of the Bertram family’s wealth, this does not turn a blind eye to the darker, often overlooked side of Jane Austen’s England.
We’re more conflicted about how the film turns the frustratingly passive Fanny Price into a burgeoning authoress who closely resembles Jane Austen, although we’ll take Frances O’Connor’s Austen over Anne Hathaway’s any day.
Watch it on Amazon.
Honorable mention: BBC Radio 4’s 2003 adaptation featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edmund Bertram, Felicity Jones as Fanny Price, and David Tennant as Tom Bertram. Before your head explodes with glee, this is a radio drama, which means it’s audio only. But Benedict Cumberbatch does have a mighty fine voice.
Each issue of GOOP has slowly erased whatever youthful enthusiasm we had for the Gwyneth Paltrow . But our favorite adaptation of Austen’s masterpiece is Amy Heckerling’s brilliant Clueless. Proof that you can not only adapt a novel into a feature length film, but do it in a brisk and yet unhurried 97 minutes, Clueless hilariously updates Emma to a Beverly Hills setting.
This movie is both a nuanced adaptation of its source material and a perfect time-capsule of mid-90s culture (“I’m having a ‘’ experience”), LA geography (“Ew! My life is turning into a bigger disaster than Malibu”), as well as some perfect mélange of the two (“Actually, Kato, that’s exactly what it means”).
Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that is probably my favorite Austen novel, none of the Persuasion adaptations can count us as particularly ardent fans. While we liked some aspects of the 2007 ITV-produced version starring Sally Hawkins, we couldn’t get over my frustration with how it ended: Captain Wentworth buys Anne Elliot’s spendthrift father’s estate (this completely misses the point of the novel’s end, which is all about how Anne and Wentworth are about to embark on a new, mobile life unfettered by the expectations of the decaying landed aristocracy).
The 1995 film starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds isn’t perfect, but the acting is great, and this version deserves credit for being perhaps the only Austen adaptation featuring actors who look like normal humans (not counting the woodenly-acted BBC adaptations from the 70s and 80s).
Watch it on Amazon.
Adapted by BBC Pride and Prejudice screenwriter Andrew Davies, this 2007 take on Austen’s youthful imaginings (Northanger Abbey was her last published novel, but Austen drafted it over a decade prior) preserves much of its madcap delight. The then-unknown Felicity Jones brings unlikely heroine Catherine Moreland to life with exactly the right combination of bumbling credulity, sweetness, and righteous indignation.
Though it borrows its title from one of her juvenile stories, Love and Friendship actually adapts Austen's enthusiastically bitchy novella, . To be fair, this adaptation didn't have competition: there haven't been any other adaptations of Austen's lesser-known novella. But this film convinced us that we've been sleeping on Austen's shorter works.
According to New York Times critic A.O. Scott, director Whit Stillman "is perfectly at home in Austen’s world. He approaches his literary source not with the usual reverence but with an appreciation for its freewheeling sense of fun. At times, most often when Mr. Bennett is onscreen, Love & Friendship is howlingly funny, and as a whole it feels less like a romance than like a caper, an unabashedly contrived and effortlessly inventive heist movie with a pretty good payoff."
Watch it on Amazon.
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Featured promotional poster of 'Emma' via Focus Features