This week commemorates the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Many Janeites will be marking the date, July 18, with renewed conversations about why we continue to turn to her work for insight and delight even after two centuries. A related issue is why Austen’s six slender novels have sparked such a surge of contemporary pop-culture spinoffs, which include Austen-themed tourism, Austen-themed merch and, of course, a never-ending supply of movie and TV adaptations.
Austen’s great strengths as a novelist — her supple use of irony and understatement, her dry, unsparing comedy, her subtle exploration of social strictures and individual conscience — can be hard to convey on screen. Filmmakers keep trying, however, with a bewildering range of results. Austen adaptations can be sparkling rom-coms or serious moral dramas, pedantically authentic period pieces or edgy updates. These days, Austen heroines can be found playing the pianoforte, navigating the marriage market in modern-day India or even fighting zombies.
Here are a just a few options for your very own Jane Austen film fest:
● Sense and Sensibility (1995): In this beautifully crafted story of two sisters — scripted by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee — Elinor (Thompson) is all bracing good sense, while Marianne (Kate Winslet) is a bundle of impetuous feeling. Austenian rationality wins in this stoic, funny film, but emotion comes in a very close second. I defy you to get through the big reveal without bursting into tears.
Bonus feature: Hugh Grant, as floppy-haired and stammering as ever, plays Elinor’s love interest.
● Pride & Prejudice (1995): Basically launching the Austen-industrial complex in the 1990s, this iconic television adaptation features handsome production values and intelligent scripting from Andrew Davies, the king of the classy lit adaptation. But really, its première place in the pop-culture firmament comes down to the elegantly repressed but absolutely undeniable erotic tension between Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) and Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth).
Bonus feature: Mr. Darcy in damp linen, of course, in the scene that made Firth a Regency pinup boy.
Other takes: Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), despite the casual sex, salty language and gallons of white wine, is true to Austen in its fashion, and it has some super-meta fun with the fact that Firth, whose P&P performance Bridget gushes over, plays Mark Darcy.
● Mansfield Park (1999): The least popular Austen novel, about a timid girl who goes to live with wealthy relatives, yields one of the most wildly revisionist Austen films, as Canadian director Patricia Rozema chucks in a graphic sex scene, hints of lesbian desire and dark insinuations of incest. Oh, and Lady Bertram is a laudanum addict who’s always nodding off in the drawing room.
With its fierce takedown of patriarchy and colonialism, this adaptation is absolutely swimming in social relevance, but most Janeites consider its ramped-up romanticism too Bronte-ish. (And in Austenland, that’s a real dis.)
Bonus feature: Fans of British playwright Harold Pinter will be intrigued by his odd and rather sinister appearance as Sir Thomas.
Other takes: Metropolitan (1990), Whit Stillman’s arch, chatty depiction of an outsider in the 1980s New York debutante scene, offers some oblique references to Mansfield Park. (The filmmaker’s more explicit affinity for Austen can be found in 2016’s Love & Friendship, a fast, witty and deliciously heartless bit of Austen juvenilia.)
● Emma (1996): The titular heroine of the 1815 novel can be warm-hearted and generous but also self-deluded, snobby and vain. Emma is Austen’s most love-her/hate-her heroine, so it feels absolutely right that she is played in this snappy, pretty but rather shallow outing by the super-polarizing Gwyneth Paltrow.
Bonus feature: Ewan McGregor shows up as a 19th-century dandy with a bad blond wig in what he considers his career-worst performance.
Other takes: In Clueless (1995), writer-director Amy Heckerling’s brilliant central insight is that the modern-day equivalent to Austen’s punishing British social hierarchy is a Beverly Hills high school. Alicia Silverstone brings bunny-brained sweetness and "whatever" attitude to this affectionate satire.
● Northanger Abbey (2007): This minor novel — a spoof of the pot-boiling Gothic novels popular in Austen’s youth — yields a narrow but pleasurable little TV movie, with Rogue One’s Felicity Jones as the naïve heroine and a quite irresistible J.J. Feild as her possible beau.
Bonus feature: One of the few Austen adaptations to experiment with high camp.
● Persuasion (1995): Austen’s poignantly autumnal final novel is all about patience. Roger Michell captures that quiet, moving and melancholy tone in the story of Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) and Captain Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds), who were parted as young people and meet again, years later, still under a cloud of misunderstanding.
For many purists, this is the Austen adaptation to beat. The wonderfully average-looking leads draw us in with their intelligence and character and not with Hollywood-style glamour, which is, after all, a very un-Austenish quality. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Keira Knightley in P&P 2005.)
Bonus feature: The film builds an almost unbearable tension with its tale of lovers kept apart, so that the moment when Captain Wentworth puts his hand on Anne’s back for one brief second to help her into a carriage is basically the Austen equivalent of a full-on sex scene.