Jane Austen’s 16 Best Film and TV Adaptations, From Bride and Prejudice to Clueless
There are so many adaptations of Jane Austen for film and television that it’s hard to keep up. But which ones are good?
Last year, Autumn de Wilde’s big-screen adaptation of Austen’s beloved novel Emma has been freed.
It stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the spirited protagonist Emma Woodhouse, who is a relentless matchmaker in the romantic lives of friends and family.
Johnny Flynn also plays the dashing George Knightley, whom Emma finally realizes she loves, while Bill Nighy plays his father, Mr. Woodhouse.
Austen’s novel, originally published in 1815, has already been adapted for television and film six times in total since 1948: three films (including one for television) and three mini-series.
Although memorable, the BBC’s four-part television series Emma in 2009, which starred Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, was criticized by The independent for casting issues – mainly that Lee Miller wasn’t convincing as a “surprising love object.”
The 1996 film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow alongside Jeremy Northam, was positively received thanks to its radiant and noble performance.
But it’s the 1996 ITV film adaptation by Andrew Davies, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in the title roles, that is still considered superior by critics.
Austen wrote six complete novels before his death – Sense and sensitivity (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816) – while Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818.
She started another novel, Sanditon, but died before it was finished. But it still managed to turn into an ITV series last year.
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There is also a short epistolary novel Lady Suzanne – inspiration for the acclaimed 2006 film Love and friendship – as well as an abandoned novel The Watson, which so far has only been turned into a play by Laura Wade, best known for her success on stage Chic.
With so many Austen costume dramas on the big and small screen, we’re ranking some of the best – as well as the worst.
Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, 2016
The title says it all. This is possibly the worst adaptation of all, proving that Austen and the zombies really don’t mix. It is based on the 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, a parody of Austen’s novel. It stars Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy. When zombies attack a ball the Bennet sisters are attending, they repel them. At the end of the film, when Darcy and Elizabeth have a joint marriage to Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Jane (Bella Heathcote), the zombies threaten to ruin everything. That sort of thing.
Bride and Prejudice, 2004
This Bollywood pride and prejudice game was produced by Gurinder Chadha. It has received mixed reviews from critics, but it is still very entertaining as it replaces beanies with sarees. It centers on Lalita Bakshi (the equivalent of Elizabeth Bennet), a young woman living in India, played by Aishwarya Rai. Her Darcy is a suave American businessman, played by Martin Henderson, but Jane Austen’s novel lacks depth.
Sanditon, 2019 (ITV series)
Period drama adapter Andrew Davies this time turns his pen to Austen’s unfinished novel, written four months before his death. It starred Rose Williams of Curfew as Charlotte Heywood and Theo James of Downton Abbey as Sidney Parker. But he was criticized for too much nudity and called “cringe-worthy” by The independent.
Death Comes to Pemberly, 2013 (BBC TV series)
Based on the fan-fiction novel by PD James, it picks up the story six years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage in Pride and Prejudice. Revolving around a mysterious murder, the three-part BBC television series was equally acclaimed as James’ book, The Independent praising the cast of Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin in the role of Elizabeth. There were also notable performances by Jenna Coleman as Lydia Wickham and Matthew Goode as George Wickham.
Pride and Prejudice, 1940
The well-received MGM film ends with a long kiss between Laurence Olivier (Mr Darcy) and Greer Garson (Elizabeth Bennet). It’s one of the funniest film adaptations of Austen’s most famous novel, featuring flamboyant costumes that appear to have been borrowed from Gone with the Wind. It was directed by Robert Z Leonard with the screenplay written by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin.
Mansfield Park, 1999
This romantic comedy stars Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram. He is not faithful to the text; Director Patricia Rozema claimed that it was not a Jane Austen film, but a “Patricia Rozema film”. “My job as an artist is to bring a fresh perspective. Rozema added Jane Austen character traits to Fanny’s character, created a “lesbian thrill” between Mary Crawford and Fanny, and made slavery a focal point of the plot. The film’s audacity earned it favorable reviews.
Gwyneth Paltrow makes a ‘Resplendent Emma’ according to the New York Times reviewer, while Rolling Stone said, ‘Gwyneth Paltrow works such magic in Emma that you can almost hear the click of a career that takes on a whole new level. First-time director Douglas McGrath adapted Austen’s 1816 novel, after writing Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen. While others found Paltrow’s nasal voice boring and her Emma lacking irony, she wore the English accent almost perfectly.
Persuasion, 1995 (BBC film)
There is no such thing as a happy ending and Austen was a pro for them. Director Roger Michell’s Bafta-winning film is based on Austen’s 1817 novel of the same name. It stars Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciaran Hinds as her sweetheart, Captain Frederick Wentworth. The couple are reunited eight years after Anne was pressured into rejecting her marriage proposal – something she deeply regrets. He feels hurt by the rejection, but eventually the path to true love unfolds smoothly for them.
Emma, 1996 (ITV film)
This ITV film is generally considered better than the star-studded film adaptation of Miramax, released that same year. It was dramatized by Davies, who had just done Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. It starred Kate Beckinsale as the wonderfully believable Emma Woodhouse, Mark Strong as George Knightley and Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith.
Pride and Prejudice, 2005
Joe Wright’s feature debut, which starred Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy, his romantic interest, was a commercial success. Knightley received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for the role. There was a star-studded cast including Donald Sutherland (Mr. Bennet), Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet), Carey Mulligan (Kitty Bennet), Judi Dench (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and Rupert Friend (George Wickham). Screenwriter Deborah Moggach changed the frame of the film’s period in the late 18th century to stand out from the 1995 BBC adaptation, which has always remained a favorite.
Northanger Abbey, 2007 (ITV film)
Felicity Jones perfectly portrayed the heroine of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland. The protagonist Austen has a feverish imagination and a passion for Gothic novels, but things start to go downhill when that imagination leads him astray. The adaptation also stars JJ Field as Catherine Henry Tilney’s lover and Carey Mulligan as her friend Isabella Thorpe. It was written by Andrew Davies, who adapted Pride and Prejudice from 1995 for the BBC and the television adaptation of Emma the following year.
Bridget Jones Diary, 2001
It was the 1995 BBC series Pride and Prejudice, rather than the book, that inspired author Helen Fielding to write her popular Bridget Jones novels. So it’s fitting that Colin Firth – who played Mr. Darcy – embodies Bridget (Renee Zellweger) Mark Darcy’s love interest in films based on Fielding’s own work.
Love and friendship, 2016
This acclaimed Amazon original comedy has become a welcome addition to Jane Austen’s adaptation canon. It is based on Austen’s short epistolary novel Lady Susan, which was published posthumously. It stars Kate Beckinsale, who brilliantly plays the devious Lady Susan, a recent widow who is trying to find a husband for herself and her daughter. The film also stars Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel and Emma Greenwell.
This cult coming-of-adulthood film from the 1990s is a modern take on Emma Austen, but is set in Beverly Hills, rather than the fictional village of Highbury. It stars Alicia Silverstone as romantic matchmaker Cher Horowitz – a wealthy high school student who decides she enjoys helping others find love. It became a surprise hit in 1995 and is considered one of the best teen movies of all time.
Pride and Prejudice, 1995 (BBC TV series)
No discussion of Jane Austen’s adaptations is complete without a mention of this beloved and critically acclaimed six-part BBC miniseries from gendered period drama master Andrew Davies. Jennifer Ehle won a Bafta for her role as Elizabeth Bennet, while Colin Firth rose to fame as Mr. Darcy. He is considered the starting point for Jane Austen’s burgeoning adaptation industry in television and film.
Sense and Sensibility, 1995
Emma Thompson spent five years writing her Oscar-winning screenplay on the Dashwood sisters; skillfully updating it for a 20th century audience. Directed by Ang Lee, the film starred Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, while Kate Winslet played Marianne, Elinor’s volunteer younger sister. After the death of their father, the sisters are cut off from his inheritance and forced to settle in a small chalet in the countryside. Hugh Grant and Greg Wise played their suitors, Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby, with a superb and much-missed Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon.