It all began in 1924, when the proposal scene from Pride and Prejudice was aired on the BBC’s first radio station to an exclusive London audience. The first filmed version came 14 years later – a lavish affair, broadcast live from Alexandra Palace in May 1938, scheduled in the now traditional Sunday evening slot. Sadly, this performance (pictured above) and many other live broadcasts from the 30s and 40s are now lost. Videotape recording wasn’t possible until the 50s so the earliest BBC adaptations we have in their original form come from the 1970s.
There is a delightful film from the BBC with lots more information about those lost Austens here.
The most famous early adaptation must be MGM’s 1940 production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Greer Garson as Lizzie and a brooding Laurence Olivier as Darcy. With an occasionally hilarious script and dubious costumes, this is Austen given the Golden Age of Hollywood treatment, well before matters of authenticity were a consideration. Still, it’s essential viewing for Austen completists. The fabulous trailer gives a flavour…
Through the 70s and 80s, regular remakes were largely low budget TV movies or series, but the 90s brought a resurgence of interest in the author, with both the popular BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and movie hit, Sense and Sensibility, penned by Emma Thompson. 1995 was a good year for Austen fans and brought Jane’s work to a whole new generation.
Since then we’ve seen modern takes on the novels, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Clueless (1995); sequels, prequels or homages like Death Comes to Pemberley (2013) and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016); and films about Jane’s life, like Becoming Jane (2007) and Miss Austen Regrets (2007). It’s testament to the timelessness of Austen’s work that public appetite is endless. And I haven’t even touched on theatre and musical productions, of which there have been many. There’s even a feature film of Sanditon, Jane’s final unfinished novel, in production, though it seems to have stalled at the time of writing.
Jane Austen means different things to different people. I go back to both the books and the adaptations like an old comfort blanket, but it’s not just nostalgia or escapism; every time, and at different stages of my own life, I’ve found new understanding and significance beneath the romantic veneer. So, in honour of the lady herself, here are a few of my personal favourites…
Pride and Prejudice (BBC TV, 1995)
Well, it had to be, didn’t it?! This version rightly deserves its place on just about every ‘best costume drama’ list you’ll find. OK, so the acting is overwrought in places, and some of the characters are a bit clichéd, but this classic, with Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett, holds its head high above any other adaptation. There’s a respectable BBC version from 1980, and the 2005 film is not totally without merit, but Firth’s lake swimming scene remains a defining pop-culture moment that turned a whole generation on to Austen.
Sense and Sensibility (Film, 1995)
Emma Thompson won her second Oscar for the screenplay of this 1995 movie version of Sense and Sensibility. It was a labour of love and the result is pitch perfect. Sumptuous visuals and star turns from Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and others make this a must-see. Funny, moving, warm and witty, it captures the spirit and the underlying message of the novel. Thompson’s Screenplay and Diaries offer an entertaining insight into the making of the film and are great addition for superfans.
Emma (ITV, 1996)
It’s a toss up between this version and the 2009 BBC version scripted by Sandy Welch and staring Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai. Both are very good, but I think I prefer the portrayal that Kate Beckinsale gives of Austen’s misguided heroine. The 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle was entertaining enough, but a bit too treacly for me.
Sense and Sensibility (BBC, 2008)
Penned by Andrew Davies (who also wrote the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice), this high quality adaptation comes a very close second to the movie mentioned above. It’s quieter, subtler and closer to the book. It looks beautiful and the performances are excellent, especially from Hattie Morahan as Elinor, who apparently refused to watch Emma Thompson’s earlier portrayal for fear it would influence her too much. I think it’s fair to say that David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon, good though he is, can’t hold a candle to Rickman.
Clueless (Film, 1995)
Not a traditional take but a brilliant one. Transporting the plot of Emma to a group of moneyed teenagers in Beverley Hills in the 1990’s was a stroke of genius by director and writer Amy Heckerling. The cultural references might be of its time but, just like Austen's novels, it's smart, witty and satirical, and has well-deserved cult status. I like to think Jane would have approved.
Love and Friendship (Film, 2016)
A recent addition but one I enjoyed very much, down to a razor-sharp script, gorgeous production design and a great performance by Kate Beckinsale. As Lady Susan, she of Austen’s often overlooked epistolary novel, Beckinsale delivers an anti-heroine with wonderful complexity and screen magnetism. Director, Whit Stillman, published an accompanying novelisation of the story (a brave move?) entitled Love &Friendship: In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated. A great example of how Austen’s work continues to be reimagined.
Persuasion (BBC, 1995)
To my mind we are still waiting for a really good adaptation of Persuasion but this version starring Amanda Root and Ciàran Hinds is the best to date. This originally aired on BBC Two in 1995 – what a year that was for Austen adaptations! The global success of Sense and Sensibility increased interest in all things Austen, and Persuasion was given a cinema release in the US and won several Baftas. This adaption leans heavily on the central performances, which I like for their realism and subtlety.
So there you have it. Which are your favourites?
A final note: This is my last post for History Girls as, due to other commitments, I must regretfully step down. Thanks to everyone who has read and commented on my posts and to my fellow History Girls: It’s been fun but, to paraphrase Mr Bennett, I have delighted you long enough!