Lost in Austen Adaptations


Picture courtesy of Wikipedia user Eymery

While at the movies this past weekend, I saw a trailer for the new film Austenland, which apparently features Kerri Russell going to some sort of Jane Austen-themed resort in England where guests dress in period costume, attend nightly balls, and engage in flirtations with the opposite sex.  The film will apparently show how a dose of Jane helps the heroine to overcome her fears and give in to love, or something like that.  All I could think was, “Another one of these movies?  Really?”

Don’t get me wrong: I love Jane Austen, as do most women who are at least moderately clever and can appreciate men who know how to dress and dance properly.  I’ve seen pretty much every adaptation of an Austen novel made in the past twenty years.  There are probably too many of them, but at least they tend to stay true to the source material.  There are worse things I could spend my time watching.

What tires me is the growing trend of films, books, and related merchandise that are all about analyzing Jane, not in the sense of literary criticism, but more in the area of pop psychology.  Austen’s novels are no longer meant to be fictional tales to entertain readers, but polemical works that can provide us with penetrating insights for our own lives.

This is where we start hearing people say things like, “Jane Austen was obviously an ardent feminist whose novels were meant to extol the virtues of female assertiveness within a class-ridden, male-dominated society.”  Or maybe they see Jane as a kind of advice columnist for your 21st century love life, as in the book/film The Jane Austen Book Club, which asked the question, “What would Jane do?”  Or perhaps they’re obsessed with reading elements in Austen’s books back into her own life, speculating about why she never married, who she was really in love with, and just how often art imitated life. (Here the best example is the book/film Becoming Jane.) Or maybe you can just step into one of her stories and rewrite it the way you see fit, as in the miniseries Lost in Austen.


A sketch of Jane Austen made by her sister Cassandra in 1810. It is not known how accurate the portrayal is.

I can’t help wondering how Jane herself would be feeling about all of this were she alive today.  She might be shocked to learn that she has become a leading figure in the feminist movement, or that something she mentioned in passing in one of her letters has become the basis for a four-part miniseries on “the love of her life”.  I don’t doubt that the woman was full of opinions, but for the most part her books are simply 19th century romantic comedies.  They promote people of strong character, regardless of class: the truth comes out in the end, and the wicked seldom prosper in the long run.  How very appropriate for novels written by a vicar’s daughter.

One can clearly see in Austen’s novels that she was not one to embrace all of the current trends.  Her personal dislike for the hip resort town of Bath makes it onto the pages of her books, and Northanger Abbey is a clear parody/critique of the Gothic horror genre.   London does appear in a few of the tales, but her true love is clearly for the country homes in which she was raised.  The title character in Emma gets herself in trouble when she tries too hard to place everyone in the path of matrimony.

In short, Austen’s novels are wonderful, but I don’t think she meant them to be templates for us to live our lives by, nor would she have wanted us to be parsing her own life for romantic clues when we have exhausted the possibilities of her unfortunately limited body of work.  I think she would find the vast amount of money being made off of her legacy to be somewhere between humorous and appalling.  But then again, I could be wrong, because I have never actually met the woman, and thus I accept that there are some things about her that I will never know.

Do we really need another movie like Austenland?  Probably not.  We’ve had so many Austen movies at this point, that I quickly identified the chief love interest in this upcoming film as the same actor who played Mr. Tilney in the most recent version of Northanger Abbey.  Johnny Lee Miller has played both Mansfield Park’s Edmund and Emma’s Mr. Knightley.  I could probably come up with at least another five examples of such double or triple casting.  I own enough of these adaptations that I could almost literally spend an entire day watching them (and I don’t own versions of Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey…yet).

But as long as there are six gloriously copyright free Austen novels to choose from, not to mention an endless amount of material based on her life and characters, I suspect we’ll continue to be inundated by different variations on this same theme.  Some will be good, some will bad, and a good percentage of them will be entirely unnecessary.  For those who are weary of all the adaptations, here is my quick list of the top five best Austen films or miniseries of the past two decades (in no particular order).

  • Emma (BBC miniseries, 2009), starring Romola Garai as Emma and Johnny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley
  • Pride and Prejudice (BBC miniseries, 1995), starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy
  • Persuasion (ITV film, 2007), starring Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliott and Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth
  • Sense and Sensibility (BBC miniseries, 2008), starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood, Charity Wakefield as Marianne Dashwood, Dan Stevens as Edward Ferris, David Morissey as Colonel Brandon, and Dominic Cooper as Willoughby
  • Pride and Prejudice (theatrical film, 2005), starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett and Matthew MacFayden as Mr. Darcy