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The Best Jane Austen Movies

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In this brave new post-Pride and Prejudice and Zombies world, we’re not sure if we’ve reached a point of Austen super-saturation from which we will never fully recover.

That said, hope springs eternal: we are very excited for Whit Stillman’s upcoming Love and Friendship, which adapts Austen’s enthusiastically bitchy novella Lady Susan for the big screen, while also reuniting The Last Days of Disco co-stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevingy in the leading roles! To help tide us over until Love and Friendship hits theaters, now seems like the perfect time to revisit the best Jane Austen movies adapted for both small and silver screens.


Sense and Sensibility

jane austen movies
Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The Emma Thompson-adapted, Ang Lee-directed version of Austen’s first published novel 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.

Stream it on Amazon.

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Pride and Prejudice

jane austen movies
Photo: Courtesy of BBC

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 worth, the apocryphal wet shirt worn by Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy has become both cliché and relic.

Honorable mention: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries 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.

Stream it on iTunes.

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Mansfield Park

jane austen movies
Courtesy of Miramax

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 Mansfield Park 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.

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.

Stream it on Google Play.

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Emma

jane austen movies
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Each issue of GOOP has slowly erased whatever youthful enthusiasm we had for the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma. But our favorite adaptation of Austen’s masterpiece will always to be 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 90210style setting. This movie is both a nuanced adaptation of its source material and a perfect time-capsule of mid-90s media culture (“I’m having a ‘Twin Peaks’ 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”).

Stream it on Amazon.

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Persuasion

jane austen movies
Photo: Courtesy of Clerkenwell Films

Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that Persuasion 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).

Stream it on iTunes.

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Northanger Abbey

jane austen movies
Photo: Courtesy of Masterpiece Theatre

Adapted by BBC Pride and Prejudice screenwriter Andrew Davies, this 2007 take on Austen’s youthful nation (it 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.

Buy it on Amazon.

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Published on 21 Mar 2016

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