Austen on Film

Commentary by James Berardinelli
August 21, 1996

Who's the hottest movie writer these days?

Joe Eszterhas, the scribe of Basic Instinct and Showgirls? No.

John Grisham, the man behind The Firm, The Client, and A Time to Kill? Nope.

How about Michael Crichton, screenwriter of Jurassic Park and Twister? Not him, either. In fact, the answer isn't a "him" at all; it's a "her". As in Jane Austen, one of the best-known and best-loved female writers of all time. Suddenly, midway through the 1990s, we're being bombarded by movie after movie based on the works of a woman who wrote before many of our great-great-great-great grandparents were born.

For the record, Jane Austen completed six novels during her lifetime (1775-1817): Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. I won't go into details about when each was written and published, and how many editions existed -- that's the job of a literary scholar, not someone who's writing a short column about the amazing success of a 200-plus year old author.

As near as I can tell, there have been 12 TV and/or movie productions based on Austen's novels. All six books have been filmed, although Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park have only gotten the treatment once each, as mid-eighties British productions. Pride and Prejudice leads the pack, having been filmed three times -- once in 1995 (a BBC/A&E TV mini-series), once in 1979 (a BBC TV mini-series), and once in 1940 (the Lawrence Olivier/Greer Garson theatrical version). Emma has also had three versions -- this year's, last year's Clueless, and a 1972 BBC mini-series. Both Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion have had two screen adaptations, the latter in 1995 and 1971 (a Grenada TV mini-series), and the former in 1995 and 1985 (a BBC mini-series).

As is obvious, not only to anyone looking at the above list, but to anyone who has any idea what has been showing in theaters during the past twelve months, nearly one-half of these adaptations are 1995 or 1996 productions. In less than a single calendar year, we have been exposed to two Emmas, one Sense, one Pride (on TV), and one Persuasion. And there's another Emma on the way! (A British TV mini-series with Kate Beckinsale in the title role.)

Not having seen all the different varieties of Austen on screen, I'm not in the position to present a comprehensive discussion. I have read the six novels, although it's been over 15 years since I last turned the pages of Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park (I "refreshed" my memories of the other four just before their movie versions came out). Of the pre-1995 film versions, I have only seen two: the 1985 Sense and Sensibility and the 1940 Persuasion. I caught some of both Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey, but I didn't stick with either, so, for the purposes of this commentary, I'll pretend I missed both in their entirety.

There are two issues I want to touch on in the next few paragraphs: Why is Austen so popular now, and, of the seven screen adaptations I've seen, which are the best? First of all, let's consider public reaction to the recent Austen films.

The first to be released, last year's Clueless, a set-in-Beverly Hills, '90s-style reworking of Emma (starring Alicia Silverstone), was popular enough to spawn a weekly TV series. Persuasion (starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds), the initial "straight" adaptation of Austen's recent wave, was very well received by critics, and became something of a mild art house hit. Sense and Sensibility (written by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, and starring Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Grant) garnered seven Oscar nominations and made a bucket of money. Pride and Prejudice (starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) was a huge hit when it aired on the BBC last year (the final episode captured 40% of the U.K. TV audience), and was A&E's highest-rated program ever. Finally, Emma, which just opened a couple of weeks ago, is doing healthy box-office business -- over $5 million in less than three weeks of limited release.

There are several factors why Austen is suddenly so popular. The biggest is obviously romance. People, both men and women, have always enjoyed a good love story, and the better-written it is, the better- accepted it will become. The Austen films are extremely well-written, primarily because the screen writers have largely resisted the temptation to "improve" upon the original material. Each of these pictures is overflowing with romance, from Anne's second chance in Persuasion to the multiple- couple pairings of Sense and Pride to Emma nearly missing her perfect match. Yet, because of the intelligence of the stories, these are not mere Harlequin page-turners. They are thoughtful, insightful, and built upon a solid character-based foundation.

"Family values" have recently become a big selling point for large portions of today's audiences. And, while in her day, Austen was extremely progressive, that was two centuries ago. By today's standards, she's tame, and "tame" means "safe." No sex, no nudity, no foul language. Chaste kisses are as passionate as things get. Such simple, old-fashioned romance has become popular these days. Look at the popularity of three "clean" romantic comedies: Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping, and The Truth about Cats and Dogs (okay, so there was phone sex in the last one, but it wasn't that explicit).

Even though American audiences don't always pay attention to critics, they don't ignore them, either (look at the popularity of Siskel & Ebert and Sneak Previews). All five recent Austen films have gotten raves across-the-board. There is a segment of the movie-going population that is inclined to see a picture when it's recommended by Siskel, Ebert, their local newspaper critic, and a bunch of other reviewers (such as those of us who write on the Internet).

Strong production values, top-flight marketing, and a little "star power" have also helped. Persuasion, which has two "unknowns" in the main roles and didn't get much of a push from its U.S. distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, made the least money. Sense and Sensibility, which had a tremendous marketing campaign, is headlined by four "big" names, and looks great, made the most. Clueless features Alicia Silverstone, one of today's hottest young actresses. Pride and Prejudice is incredibly lavish, and stars Colin Firth (who, admittedly, was more of a selling point in the U.K. than on this side of the Atlantic). And the Miramax-backed Emma has Gwyneth Paltrow, who is the flavor du jour of the acting world.

In fact, there's no denying the quality of any of the recent Austen productions. They are good in every sense: well-made, well-acted, clean, fun, and for the most part, undemanding. Literate viewers can cull more from the films -- Austen's biting wit comes through in each, and there are keen observations about the nature of society and the role of women therein. But, all things considered, which adaptation is the best? (This, of course, is a distinctly different question than "which novel is the best?" I will not attempt to address that query here.)

Of the seven I've seen, my least favorite is the 1940 big screen Pride and Prejudice, the first movie to be made from a Jane Austen novel. The film is extremely uneven, much of Austen's wit is lost, and there's an understandably rushed feel to the entire production (which has a running length of just under two hours). Laurence Olivier makes a capable (if not charismatic) Darcy, but I never bought Greer Garson as Lizzie. The motion picture is passable, if you're in the right mood, but it almost works better as a lampoon of Austen than as a serious adaptation.

vSecond from the bottom is last year's Clueless, which, despite its interesting twist on the story, struck me as rather shallow. It's a fun movie, but, in my opinion, somewhat overrated. Alicia Silverstone shines as the heroine, but the inherent cleverness of transposing Austen's original setting to something more modern wears out after roughly thirty minutes. Part of the fun for Austen fans, I suppose, is identifying all the changes made to the story and characters, and whether the alterations remain faithful to the spirit of the original

The 1985 Sense and Sensibility was an accurate adaptation of the novel -- which is part of its problem. Sense has always been among my least favorite of Austen's books, and such a strict adherence to the storyline does little to redeem the weaker parts. This is in direct contrast to the 1995 movie, which tightened things up and made some effective changes that resulted in a better cinematic telling of the tale. Both Senses are worth seeing, but the newer one is shorter and more vibrant. Beware, however: some Austen die-hards are reportedly up in arms about the liberties taken by Emma Thompson's "unfaithful" script.

The new Emma is among the weakest of the recent Austens. Part of the problem is undoubtedly the tone: Emma is going for a light, romantic comedy while the other films have tended to be a little more thoughtful. Part of this is a result of the source material (which was the most openly comic of Austen's novels), but much has to do with choices made by the film makers. One accusation leveled against the film is that it tries too hard to reach a broad audience, softening the book's edge in the process.

Persuasion, the most serious of the Austen adaptations, is scrupulously faithful to the tone and spirit of the original (if not all the specific plot details). It is by far the least glamorous of the big screen adaptations, relying on mostly "no name" actors (the stars are almost all better known for their stage work than any previous movie roles) and realistic settings to establish the mood and develop the narrative. The result is a fine, but atypical, motion picture.

Finally, there's Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 BBC mini-series that stands above any other recent Austen adaptation. Granted, with nearly five hours to convey the story, it has the luxury of being able to remain largely true to the original without trimming subplots or rushing scenes. Acting and pacing are excellent, and the film has all the sumptuous period detail we have come to expect from the BBC. If you can see only one Austen adaptation, this is the best choice. Unless you're hopelessly prejudiced against this sort of literate costume drama, it will leave you uplifted and searching for more.

So, will there be any further Jane Austen screen productions? At this point, it's hard to tell, but movie makers are running out of material. Northanger Abbey could be made into a movie; however, as a satire of gothic romances, it's not clear how well it would be received. And, because of the nature of Mansfield Park (which has an unusual heroine in Fanny Price), I'm not sure that any studio would chance making a big-screen version of that. Of course, there's always Juvenilia (a series of early, miscellaneous writings) and the two novel fragments that Austen never finished (The Watsons, which she dropped partway through, and Sandition, which she was writing at the time of her death). Unless the market is desperate for new Austen, however, I doubt these materials will be touched.

At this point, it looks like the Jane Austen rush is over... at least for the time being. And, in addition to giving us five fine productions, the sudden upsurge in the "late, great" author's popularity has re- confirmed the timelessness of her writing.

For an exhaustive look at the works of Jane Austen on-line, check out The Jane Austen Information Page.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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