Post by Elise Escamilla
What makes a Jane Austen film adaptation good? Is it complete faithfulness to the text, or can it be found in the innate nature of film to “up the ante,” so to speak, in terms of drama and romance? Like most things in life, the answer can be found somewhat in between the two extremes. While I’m under no circumstances a researched, doctorate-wielding, Jane Austen scholar, I have seen enough adaptations (too many) to come to a solid conclusion about which worked well and which should be forgotten in the depths of hell forever. Here are my favorite Jane Austen film adaptations.
With only two well-known adaptations, this isn’t the most difficult choice. The 1995 film creates a wonderful picture of Anne Elliot as the sweet, patient, and capable heroine that Austen wrote in her novel. The actress is also a bit older, as the character is supposed to be 27 years old, an unmarried age that delegates her the title of “spinster.” The older age is quite different than most of Austen’s leading ladies and the casting choice is significant to Anne’s character. There is one scene in the film that doesn’t appear in the book, where Anne stares into a mirror, tracing the aged lines on her face, after Wentworth makes a comment about not recognizing her “altered” appearance. (He’s lying of course, but how rude of him!) The comment itself was a line in the novel, but the movie gives us her absolutely heartbreaking reaction: contemplating her loss of youth brings out a new aspect of Anne that makes us empathize with her and recognize that she has deep, unspoken feelings. Indeed, both of the romantic leads are much older looking, weathered even, by the lifetimes it seems they have lived apart, than any Austen adaptation I’ve ever seen, and I think it suits the novel perfectly.
Clueless is, by far, the best adaptation of Emma ever made. There are a few more adaptations to contend with, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma being the most famous. However Clueless goes a lot deeper into Cher (Emma) than any other adaptation, and has a more defined character development. Readers of the novel know that Emma is completely humbled for her awful behavior and begins atoning for her wrongs in an authentic way. Similarly, Cher looks for small things she can do to help others, actively searching for ways to better herself. It comes from a genuine place. I didn’t want to talk about other adaptations, but what really bothered me about Paltrow’s Emma is one specific line, where Emma tells Knightley, “If only you’ve been around to see how much I’ve changed.” Cher never needs to say anything like this to Josh (Mr. Knightly), instead in a voice over narration she stresses the importance of bettering herself for herself, saying, “I decided I needed a complete makeover, except this time a makeover for my soul.” Overall, the writing is incredibly fun and witty throughout the film, taking Austen’s characters to another realm of social hierarchies in a completely new playing field. Who doesn’t love a good high school story?
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
I doubt that I could ever sing enough praises for this film. It is the perfect example of just the right amount of production and set design, an absolutely incredible script, and great actors. We have Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, and Alan Rickman giving the absolute best possible performances, bringing Austen’s characters truly to life. The script actually won Emma Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and it is well deserved. Sense and Sensibility, as a novel, was also not the most interesting thing to me when I first read it. Maybe as a young girl with only brothers I couldn’t relate to the close, sisterly relationship between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood presented in the novel. However the film made me feel so deeply for the two sisters and their relationship. You are able to see more conversations and interactions between the two sisters and it really accentuates the difference between them, one being a pragmatist and the other a romantic, while also portraying the strengths and weaknesses of both. I fell in love with Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Elinor Dashwood as she perfectly encapsulated the calm and collected, yet deeply emotional woman that Austen created. I cannot finish this subject without mentioning Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon. I became infatuated with him and his character because of how romantic he was in the film. If you watch no other Jane Austen movie, watch this one.
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
What can I say, BBC knows how to make British things. I have seen my fair share of Pride and Prejudice adaptations in my life, most of them awful. Interestingly, what most adaptations of Pride and Prejudice get right is the characterization of Elizabeth Bennet. I think every actress brings their own flair to her, but her character is so naturally likeable and fun, it is difficult to completely ruin her. But what differs about the 1995, episodic version of the novel is its depiction of Mr. Darcy. One of the most significant aspects of the novel is Mr. Darcy’s understanding of his own faults and accepting that he must change to become, not just someone Elizabeth could love but, a better person in general. This miniseries truly captures that change, without shying away from the fact that Mr. Darcy did some pretty insufferable things. I think it is important to make the distinction that Mr. Darcy’s character isn’t just some shy, introverted, and quirky guy (I am looking directly at you, 2005 Pride and Prejudice). Likewise, Elizabeth Bennet has her own share of prejudices that she must reconcile, which should also not be disregarded. The actors in this adaptation are incredible and there was so much attention to detail in the creation of costuming and set design that deserves appreciation in and of itself. Of course, this version has the added benefit of being hours and hours long, but if you want to see the most true and entertaining adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, this is the one.
In conclusion….what is it about the year 1995 that produced the best Austen adaptations? I have absolutely no explanation other than Jane Austen must have been sending her energy from the beyond the grave. So what does make a good adaptation? For me, it lies in the characters. What I think is so great about Jane Austen’s novels is her vivid and complex characters, especially her female characters. And she goes a step further in all of her novels by also employing these already fleshed out characters to represent intimate social aspects, or critiques rather, of the Regency Era. If not for her characters, her novels would just be lifeless, one-dimensional windows into the domestic life of women during a time period where their prospects were limited to marry rich or marry poor (or live and die alone as a burden to your family—my personal favorite). I find that what makes an Austen adaptation good for me is truth to the novel’s characters. It doesn’t matter if the story around them is conflated, but as long as each character action or dialogue is something that represents the characters that Jane Austen created in her novels, then the film really can’t go wrong.