“Of events her life was singularly barren,” her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote. “Few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course.” This didn’t stop the creators of Becoming Jane (2007) who made Austen (played by Anne Hathaway) the heroine of her own love story, losing her heart to a handsome Irish rogue, Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). Will the budding young authoress choose love or literature? The choice, of course, is a false but cinematic one.
It’s odd, in a way, that Hollywood has had such an enduring love affair with Austen. Her novels are conspicuously short on guns, stunts, sex, and male camaraderie, the cornerstones of high-concept moviemaking. Films, likewise, are constructed out of images while Austen’s novels are notoriously short on visual detail. On the few occasions that she does dwell on the physical world, it is always to illuminate a character rather than a place, as when Elizabeth visits Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice and discovers, in its handsome home and elegant grounds, her own budding affection for its owner.
One can’t help but suspect that it’s the countryside, as much the country houses, that draws contemporary viewers. How eager filmmakers are to thrust her characters into the open air — to show them wandering alongside shady brooks as Emma and Knightley do in Douglas McGrath’s Emma (1996), or smooching in sunlit fields as Elizabeth and Darcy do at the end of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005). Albion has never looked more Edenic. And yet, however much filmmakers may idealize Austen’s world, they also often improve it by adding life to scenes that, if set indoors, would tend to feel uncomfortably confined. I could do without the shot, more Brontë than Austen, of Keira Knightley standing atop a windswept bluff in Pride and Prejudice, but I think Wright was correct to move Darcy’s initial proposal to Elizabeth outdoors. The exchange, one of the most dramatic in all of Austen’s oeuvre — beginning with a declaration of love and ending with a fight — cries out for a grander backdrop than the Collins’s drawing room, someplace better suited to the high emotions of the two leads. Wright duly obliges, staging the sequence under the portico of a neo-classical temple in Rosings Park, rain pouring down around the couple as they pour out their feelings for one another. This, one feels, is how lovers are meant to quarrel.
The scene illustrates how much one can change Austen without seeming to change her at all. One of the pleasures of watching Austen, as opposed to reading her, is seeing the features of her world filled in, from the high-waisted empire dresses, to the candle-lit dances, to all those servants who, in the novels, always seem to be kept offstage. Even the changes — the additions, the omissions, the bits of historical exposition — are fun to observe, putting a mirror up to our culture as well as to Austen’s. Both Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Iain MacDonald’s Mansfield Park (2007) show the use of bleeding as a curative — a practice that, however common in the early 19th century, was not mentioned by the author in either novel. In Patricia Rozema’s version of Mansfield Park (1999), we discover the reason for Lady Bertram’s perennial drowsiness, which Austen apparently was too delicate to mention: she’s an opium eater. And in the Diarmuid Lawrence TV dramatization of Emma (1996), the camera shows us what Austen’s prose never did: all the servants who have to tag along to the picnic on Box Hill, staggering under the weight of the furniture the gentlefolk have forced them to carry.
It’s Ang Lee’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1995) — written by Emma Thompson, who also plays Elinor — that does the best job of simultaneously creating and critiquing Austen’s England. Austen had no need to explain that women had fewer legal rights than men, whereas Thompson, if she is to make the story comprehensible to modern viewers, must establish the rules of Regency society,
Elinor: You talk of feeling idle and useless. Imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice in any occupation whatsoever.
Edward: Our circumstances are therefore precisely the same.
Elinor: Except that you will inherit your fortune. We cannot even earn ours.
The most substantial change that Thompson makes to the story — as well as the most intelligent — is what she does to the male leads: she makes them attractive. Male protagonists were Austen’s Achilles’ heel. She was deft at drawing peripheral male characters, particularly fathers and clergymen. (Her own father was a clergyman.) But she struggled at creating equally vivid romantic leads. Her heartthrobs tend to come off as killjoys. Edward Ferrars, Elinor’s suitor in Sense and Sensibility, doesn’t speak a word until the 16th chapter of the book. Until then, all we have to go on are a few passing references by the Dashwoods and the narrator’s rather tepid description of his person,
He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself, but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behavior gave every indication of an open affectionate heart.
Rather than hurrying the action to Barton Cottage as Austen does, Thompson lingers in Norland Park, the Dashwood’s former estate, thus giving us a chance to get to know Edward from the beginning of the film. He turns out to be quite a winning fellow — bashful and awkward, yes, but charming nonetheless. How can he not be when he’s played by Hugh Grant? No other actor is so good at being both sheepish and attractive. This Edward has a way with children, engaging in stick duels with Margaret Dashwood and indulging the girl’s fantasies of high seas adventure. “She’s heading an exhibition to China, shortly,” he informs Elinor. “I’m to go as her servant, but only on the understanding that I will be very badly treated.”
Darcy — the male lead in Pride and Prejudice — has been more of a challenge for filmmakers. This may, at first glance, seem strange, for he is probably Austen’s most glamorous hero, graced with youth, intelligence, taste, good looks, and 10 thousand pounds a year. He’s the Regency beau idéal. From a performance perspective, though, he’s hardly a great catch. As a man of few words and, seemingly, fewer emotions, he doesn’t offer much for an actor to latch on to. Performers who essay the role generally end up doing a lot of mute staring and scowling. That’s about all that Matthew Macfadyen manages to do in Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. The only difference between Macfadyen’s dour Darcy at the beginning of the movie and his amiable one at the end is that the latter has abandoned his cravat. Colin Firth didn’t bring much more to the character, either in Simon Langton’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries or in Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), which moves Austen’s tale to present-day London. Both seem to think the trick to playing a shy, prideful man is simply to furrow their mouths into a perpetual grimace.
The only actor, thus far, who has managed to bring Darcy to life on the screen is Laurence Olivier. He’s by far the best thing about MGM’s studio-era adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The film isn’t bad, just dated. The problem is the date is 1940. It’s still set in the early 19th century mind you, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the costumes. The dresses, enormous frothy affairs, scream Gone with the Wind (1939). We are reminded of the defeat of a land-hungry European tyrant: Napoleon, a transparent proxy for Adolf Hitler. And, this being the Breen era, not an ill word can be spoken about the church. Thus, does conceited Mr. Collins go from being a clergyman (heaven forbid such blasphemy!) to a librarian.
Olivier, though, is superb. He gets some help from the screenwriters, who do a lot to soften the character. Even at his most caddish, though, Olivier’s affection for Elizabeth (Greer Garson) shines through. He’s the one Darcy who’s able to be supercilious without seeming stiff. Like other screwball comedy heroes of the ’30s and ’40s — Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (1941), and Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire (1941) — he’s a self-important fellow frozen from the waist down until a vivacious young lady comes along to melt his reserve.
It’s doubtful whether Austen would have approved of any of this. She wrote her novels in reaction against the Romantic movement that swept Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She believed in rationality rather than romanticism, in sense rather than sensibility. In her novels, it is the emotionally extravagant men — Wickham, Willoughby, Henry Crawford, Mr. Elton, and William Elliot — who get their comeuppance, while reserved men like Darcy, Colonel Brandon, and Captain Wentworth get the girl. One of the lessons Austen teaches is to distrust first impressions. The person you adore at first sight will eventually turn out to be a heel, while the grouchy fellow you initially can’t stand will, if you just give him a chance, be your true love.
This has been a problem for filmmakers who, like most of us, tend to come from the sensibility school of relationships. We are told to share our emotions, to follow our hearts, and we are warned against lovers who brood and keep secrets. As a result, filmmakers have a habit of flipping Austen’s ethos on its head. Adrian Shergold’s 2007 adaptation of Persuasion concludes with Anne (Sally Hawkins) sprinting down the streets of Bath in pursuit of her one true love — a public display of affection more suited to Woody Allen’s Manhattan than Jane Austen’s England. The 2007 dramatization of Mansfield Park ends much the same way with Edmund (Blake Ritson) racing after Fanny (Billie Piper) so they may share a passionate kiss. And in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), it is Elinor who is made to change over the course of the film, not Marianne. When Willoughby (Greg Wise) first rejects Marianne, the Dashwood women all run to their rooms to weep — all, that is, save Elinor, who sits on the stairs, quietly sipping a cup of tea. At the end, though, when Edward reveals that he has not, in fact, wed Lucy Steele as the Dashwoods mistakenly believed — thus making him available for marriage — it is Elinor who bursts into happy tears. It is the ultimate triumph of modern sensibility over old-fashioned Austenian sense.
So, which is the best Austen film? Most reviewers will tell you that it’s the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. And there is much to recommend it. At nearly five and a half hours long, the series is able to accommodate much more of the novel than most Austen adaptations. Susannah Harker is a bit bland as Jane, though she possesses — if such a thing can really be said to exist — a quintessentially 19th-century face with features that look as if they might have been painted by Ingres. It is Jennifer Ehle, though, who makes the movie. She is the ideal Elizabeth Bennet: attractive and vivacious, proud and pigheaded, smarter than everyone around her, yet obtuse enough to be taken in by Wickham (Adrian Lukis). No film has ever been truer to an Austen novel.
But I asked not which is the best adaptation, but which is the best film. As excellent as Ehle may be in the lead, many of the supporting players are painful to watch … and, on occasion, to listen to. Someone on the set should have told Alison Steadman, who plays Mrs. Bennet, that she needn’t shriek every one of her lines. The character is supposed to be uncultured, not unhinged. David Bamber’s Mr. Collins, with his ridiculous Monkees-style haircut, absurd facial tics, and strained manner of speech, likewise, comes off more like a repressed sociopath than an obsequious cleric. The series’s biggest flaw, however, is, paradoxically, its greatest strength: its comprehensiveness. It ends up demonstrating why so many novels need to be pared down for the screen. The dance scenes in particular drag on far too long, providing the viewer with a visceral reminder of what it’s like being trapped at a dull party. A movie, unlike a novel, doesn’t need an entire page of dialogue to illustrate how one character feels about another. A single glance from an actress as talented as Ehle tells you all you need to know.
The best Austen film is almost certainly Roger Michell’s Persuasion (1995). It’s the only one that doesn’t look like an advertisement for a Hampshire getaway. The skies are appropriately leaden and gray. Appropriately both because, well, that’s what English weather is like and because Persuasion, alone among Austen’s novels, is a story not about a woman in the springtime of her life but one whose beauty and prospects have started to fade. The interiors, too, are dim. They appear, in the night scenes, to be illuminated by nothing stronger than candlelight. And note the plainness of the women’s faces: the literal plainness. They aren’t wearing any makeup. In Austen’s day, only prostitutes wore cosmetics other than rouge. A woman of Anne Elliot’s standing wouldn’t have touched the stuff, no matter how desperate she got for a husband. Such a commitment to authenticity is, in its own way, audacious. Part of the appeal of Austen movies — and costume dramas in general — is seeing beautiful stars attired beautifully. But Persuasion eschews the usual frippery. The characters, for once, look like people rather than movie stars playing dress-up.
Chief among them, of course, is Anne, played to perfection by Amanda Root. She conveys the emotional depths of the character — revealing Anne’s intelligence, her kindness, and, most crucial to the story, her undiminished love for Captain Wentworth — while actually saying very little. Root barely needs to move a muscle to reveal her train of thought. You can see how inwardly flustered she is when she meets Captain Wentworth for the first time, and notice the look of sadness that crosses her face as she watches the pretty, young Musgrove sisters vying for his hand. Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen should have taken lessons from her on how to play a shy, introspective character. When she’s onscreen, we don’t need words to understand the story.
And what of the worst Austen films? The competition is fierce at the back of the pack. In terms of pure technical incompetence, it’s hard to do worse than Mansfield Park (1983), which looks and sounds as if it was shot on an ’80s camcorder. For sheer mindlessness, though, Clueless (1995) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) probably deserve a dual trophy. The former relocates Emma Woodhouse (renamed Cher for the movie) from Hartfield to Beverly Hills, thus allowing the filmmakers to cash in on the Clinton-era craze for Valleyspeak. Bridget Jones’s Diary tries a similar trick with Pride and Prejudice, plucking Elizabeth Bennet out of Longbourn and dropping her in modern-day London. The best reason to watch Bridget Jones’s Diary (the film) is to avoid reading Bridget Jones’s Diary the novel; the heroine makes Cher (Alicia Silverstone) look like a veritable genius. I sent my copy of the book pinwheeling for the garbage about the 10th time Ms. Jones began a diary entry with the word “ugh.” Precisely my sentiment! How is it that Austen’s protagonists lose so many brain cells when they’re brought into the contemporary age? The biggest knock on Austen from feminist critics is that she’s a champion of the 19th-century status quo, happily indulging the fantasy that feminine fulfillment can only truly be achieved by uniting with a man. However, given the opportunity to refashion her heroines as modern, progressive-minded women, the makers of Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary run in the opposite direction, turning them into boy-crazy nitwits.
The remarkable thing, though, is how many good Austen adaptations there have been. It’s hard to think of another novelist — another decent novelist, that is, as opposed to screen-ready writers like Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy — whose work translates so naturally to celluloid. Not Dickens. Not Tolstoy. Not Henry James. Not even (switching media) Shakespeare has managed to make the transition to film so seamless. Even the lesser Austen movies are eminently enjoyable. Jim O’Hanlon’s Emma (2009) is a bit too light, bright, and sparkling — to borrow a phrase — to be rated a great film. The Christmas scenes look as if they were shot sometime around the summer solstice. But it’s a charming movie, all the same.
Of course, a lot of people deserve praise for making films like O’Hanlon’s work. Moviemaking, as opposed to novel writing, is a team sport. Nothing mars McGrath’s Emma (the one starring Gwyneth Paltrow) so much as the production design. The sets look as if they should be printed on a Hallmark card. Considering how much has to go right to put a classic work of literature on film, it’s amazing that anyone does it well. Indeed, they usually don’t. Witness Hollywood’s repeated failures to produce a decent version of Anna Karenina. Joe Wright tried his hand at it in 2012 — with Keira Knightley again in the lead — and fell flat on his face. What makes Austen special? The author herself deserves a lot of the credit. Her novels work so well on film, in large part, because her stories never age. Some critics have censured her for not confronting the great issues of her day: slavery, the Napoleonic Wars, the Irish Question. But it’s precisely because she avoided such topics that her novels remain timeless, finding their way onto the shelves of each generation anew. While issues of the day come and go, matters of the heart can always move an audience, whether to laughter or to tears. It’s a truth universally acknowledged on the page and the screen.
Graham Daseler is an editor, animator, and sometimes director. His writing has appeared in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, Offscreen, The Moving Arts Film Journal, and elsewhere.