My Favorite Jane Austen Screen Adaptations

By Thursday, October 08, 2015 , ,

Jane Austen’s novels are classics, but they’re the kind of classics that people want to see remade over and over. I’m always curious to see who will step up to the plate next and how a new director will interpret her work. That said, I thought it’d be fun to share a list of my favorite Austen screen adaptations. Since it’d be difficult to put them in an order, I’ve listed them by book alphabetically. So here’s my take on the best Austen film adaptations, just in time for cooler weather when it’ll be ideal to curl up and watch them with a hot cup of tea. 

Favorite: BBC 2009 
Two words: Romola Garai. She’s my favorite Emma Woodhouse by a long shot. Not only is she beautiful and perfect in looks for the role, but she also brings the right mixture of lively endearment and vain overconfidence to the character. She’s instantly likable, but it’s also easy to see when she’s in the wrong. In contrast, I found Gwyneth Paltrow rather annoying in the popular 1996 Miramax Films version. In this one, Jonny Lee Miller also rounds it out as an excellent Mr. Knightley – he’s good-looking and compassionate, but pulls off dry humor splendidly too. Mr. Knightley’s scolding of Emma on Box Hill really stands out in this version, and it’s just as plausible as it’s gut-wrenching. It makes me cringe for Emma every time! Another advantage of this adaptation is how well it delves into Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. They’re more major characters than in previous versions, and we see their parts in Emma’s development more fully. 

Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse
{Photo Credit: My Austen Dream World}

Honorable Mention: BBC 1996
Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong are a fabulous Emma and Knightley, and this is a great version if you don’t want to commit the longer time length for the 2009 one. The Frank Churchill in this one is a bit too perky and smooth for me – you can almost detect insincerity early on. But you also begin to suspect earlier that he and Jane Fairfax have a secret than you do in other versions, and that’s a creative angle I like. The quality of this version perhaps isn’t as crisp as others, but it’s still highly enjoyable, and I’d pull it out any day. And this Mr. Knightley’s quip, “We are not so much brother and sister as to make it improper” will make your heart turn over every time! 
Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse
{Photo Credit: The Jane Austen Film Club}

Mansfield Park
Austen fans are still awaiting a screen adaptation of Mansfield Park that does justice to the book. Neither current version is worth watching for a strong film interpretation of the book. But for what it’s worth, I watched both close together after I’d read the book and decided fairly quickly that I preferred the 1999 Miramax Films version. Though it differs significantly from the book, it’s a good movie in its own way. First, as I mentioned in a previous post, the opening credits say that it’s based on the novel and Jane Austen’s personal letters and diaries. With that in mind, I was able to just enjoy the movie for what it was, and even though it differs from the book, Austen’s humor and creativity are still very present. Second, it’s an all-around stronger movie. I found the cast much more believable in this one than in the 2007 BBC version. Though that one’s more faithful to the book, the cast falls flat and the story doesn’t flow as well. Frances O’Connor as Fanny in the 1999 version is far more likable and layered to me than Billie Piper, and Jonny Lee Miller (yes, him again; he’s a convincing Austen hero apparently) opposite Frances O’Connor also makes a better Edmund. Their chemistry is sweet and effortless, especially in a wonderful dance during the ball scene. The story also concludes more satisfyingly in the early version. In the 2007 version, Edmund very suddenly declares his love to Fanny in a hurried and rather awkward manner. Austen’s tone is missing, as I can’t picture one of her heroes confessing his love with nothing but an intense, wild-eyed, “I’m sorry! I was blind!” In the 1999 version, the end comes in a sweet scene on a garden bench, where Edmund and Fanny sit as they have many times before, and it’s clear that Fanny has waited patiently in this comfortable companionship for him to realize his feelings. Their words are still simple, but carry the emotional weight you’d expect of Austen’s original dialogue. 
Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price
{Photo Credit: Becoming Jane}

Northanger Abbey 
The 2007 BBC movie is the only well-known adaptation of this book, and it’s a winner. I’d love to see it made again, but I’m not sure who could top JJ Feild as Henry Tilney for me. His charming smirk gives all the feels every time! Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland brings the necessary freshness, youthfulness, and innocence that the heroine requires, and Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe is scandalous to perfection with her loud laughter and sly, flirtatious glances. This adaptation captures the essence of the book without caveat and is altogether charming. It’s perhaps a bit hurried, and the quality isn’t the very best, but those things are honestly easy to forgive as you watch. JJ Feild and Felicity Jones are marvelous together, and the ending sequence is positively giggle-worthy in its happy sweetness. 
JJ Feild and Felicity Jones as Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland
{Photo Credit: FanPop}

Upfront confession: I still have yet to see the 1995 BBC version that so many fans swear by, and I’m honestly a bit hesitant to because CiarĂ¡n Hinds just does not look like a Captain Wentworth to me. I know I need to give it a try, but it may take me some time yet ;) And I am very content with the 2007 BBC version for now and highly recommend it. Sally Hawkins is appropriately pretty and sensible as Anne Elliot, and her mannerisms demonstrate the character’s thoughtful, kind nature with quiet dignity. And can we talk about Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth? Fetch me the smelling salts if you please! That smile and that voice! And throughout the movie, you see his cool, stiff manner slowly give way to an open gentleness that’s swoon-worthy indeed. The only real drawbacks of this film are near the end. I’m one of many who concur that Anne’s breathless sprint through Bath is out of character and then resolves in probably the worst kissing scene in the history of movies. But the very final scene where Captain Wentworth surprises her with that wonderful wedding gift wraps the film so pleasingly that you can still sigh contentedly as the credits roll. 
Rupert Penry-Jones and Sally Hawkins as Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot
{Photo Credit: Fiktiviteter}

Pride and Prejudice 
Oh, Pride and Prejudice. The generally most beloved of Jane Austen’s novels and dear to so many hearts. Therefore, its film versions are subject to stricter scrutiny. I’ve said before that I’m personally partial to the 2005 Focus Features movie with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, unlike so many who would die in loyalty to the 6-hour BBC miniseries that stars Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Both of these versions are very good, but the 2005 movie has a special place in my heart. It introduced me to Pride and Prejudice and to Jane Austen herself, for that matter. And more specifically, its production quality is breathtaking and I think it has a much stronger cast. The sisters are appropriately young and girlish, whereas the miniseries has an older cast – one of its major weaknesses to me. And in the new one, Donald Sutherland is a fabulously sarcastic Mr. Bennet, Judi Dench is perfectly regal and snobbish as Lady Catherine, and Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen have amazingly believable and sizzling chemistry. However, there are also advantages to the 1995 version that the 2005 movie can’t capture. The longer time length allows for the characters to flesh out more and for the story to develop with details that help the audience appreciate every plot line. And Colin Firth certainly has the Darcy arrogance down well. Both versions are very good and should be appreciated in their own way. So many people seem to think they have to choose one or the other, but I really don’t think you do! They’re different types of films and ought to be commended in different ways. When forced to choose, I’ll pick the 2005 movie, but I can enjoy both of them any day. Click here to read my detailed comparison of these two versions! 
I really like the fresh girlishness of this shot from the 2005 movie. From left to right: Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet, Rosamund Pike as Jane, Carey Mulligan as Kitty, Talulah Riley as Mary, Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, and Jena Malone as Lydia
{Photo Credit: FanPop}

Sense and Sensibility 
Favorite: BBC 2008 
I feel like this is a hidden gem among Austen adaptations. I’m surprised at how many Austen fans I meet who have never seen it because it’s absolutely lovely. It’s admirably faithful to the novel, and the lush, seaside scenery is beautiful to watch. Hattie Morahan as Elinor and Charity Wakefield as Marianne are both cast to perfection – they capture the opposite personalities wonderfully but also clearly portray the sisterly love that keeps them close through the ups and downs of the story. And of course, I couldn’t go without giving a nod to Dan Stevens as Edward. I actually saw him in this before Downton Abbey shot him to stardom, and I liked him immediately. His rainy log-splitting scene is one of a few aspects that gives this version a more emotional (read: sexy) feel than the early adaptation, and his cheerfulness, thoughtfulness, and ongoing struggle between true wants and honor make the character appropriately layered and enjoyable. I also like this version’s characterization of Colonel Brandon much better than in the 1995 version. We see more of him and understand that he’s a principal character before Willoughby arrives, whereas he felt more like a side character to me in the 1995 version. And his military heroism is shown in a fantastic dueling scene between him and Willoughby. If you haven’t seen this version, do yourself a favor and watch it now! 
Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood
{Photo Credit: FanPop}

Honorable Mention: Columbia Pictures 1995 
This version is a classic, though it’s not the most faithful adaptation. One scene that I decidedly miss when I watch it now is Willoughby’s “apology” when Marianne is ill. Elinor’s telling off is so good in the 2008 version that I don’t really like the story without it now. And Hugh Grant’s Edward is a bit awkward, especially since Dan Stevens does it so well in the 2008 version. But it’s still a beautiful film with fabulous music and a strong script, courtesy of Emma Thompson of course, who also plays a convincing Elinor. But the crowning glory of this version for me is Kate Winslet. Her Marianne has all the beauty, vivacity, and charm that heart could wish for. She’s truly a delight to watch in every scene, and she makes the movie for me. 
Emma Thompson as Elinor and Kate Winslet as Marianne
{Photo Credit: Lazy Girls Info}
So there you have it! My list of the best Austen film adaptations. I’d love to hear what your favorites are or any thoughts you have! And here’s hoping we’ll soon have more adaptations to analyze and discuss. 

*I do not own the rights to the photos in this post. All photos used were retrieved from credited Internet sources*

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  1. My favorite is the Pride and Prejudice 1980 BBC mini-series. It was shown on Masterpiece Theater in the early 1980's. It is very detailed and true to the book. It inspired me to read the book for the first time.

    1. I haven't actually seen that one at this point! Thanks for the recommendation :)