It is a truth universally acknowledged that any Jane Austen novel in possession of an introspective romantic heroine, strategic matchmaking, and highly silly siblings, must be in want of a screen adaptation.
As well as novellas, early verses, and unfinished books, the groundbreaking 19th century author penned six of the most famous novels of all time in her life, from Sense and Sensibility in 1811 through Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey (the last two were published posthumously after Austen’s death in 1817).
Austen didn’t just plonk herself with her parchment on the dining room table and smash out a couple of blockbusters —Virgina Woolf notes in A Room of Her Own, “Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper,” so her work as a writer remained secret from anyone beyond her own family. Making a living based on your own wit and creative writing was not really an option for most women during this time — so Austen published anonymously, titling them famously, “By a Lady.”
But nonetheless, Austen let readers embarrassingly stumble upon the impressive halls of Pemberley, take a turn about the grand estate of Hartfield, and make it through “the pangs of disappointed love” at Northanger Abbey. We’ve spent many a well-mannered conversation about inheritance, marriage, and social standing with the Bennets, the Woodhouses, and the Elliots, relishing in the society drama that fuelled their social media-less lives.
Such relatable hot messes like Elinor Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse, Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliott, and Catherine Morland are some of the more coveted roles in Hollywood, and Austen’s novels have long been made into period dramas, the best of which blend perfect casting with exceptional costuming and dramatic staging of some of the bigger monologues.
But not all Austen adaptations are excellent — for example, Netflix’s latest take on Persuasion is not on this list for these reasons. Below are are some of our favourites, long our steadfast companions through many a time of romantic unhappiness, school exams, and rainy nights.
1. Pride and Prejudice (1995)
You knew it’d be in here.
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We must express how much we ardently love and admire the BBC’s mini-series of Pride and Prejudice, widely considered one of the best Austen adaptations of all time. It probably sprung to mind when you saw the headline, as quickly as Mrs Bennet springs into action when Mr Bingley lands at Netherfield estate. I could watch the subtly brutal Jennifer Ehle trudge across meadows as Elizabeth Bennet all day, bringing “general incivility” to pompous, handsome snobs with well-worded barbs. But you probably came here for the pond-swimming Colin Firth in a role so iconic as Mr Darcy he’d basically play it again in the movie of Bridget Jones’ Diary, another Pride and Prejudice adaptation.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is spot on: Alison Steadman near steals the show as Mrs Bennet, demanding her smelling salts, while Julia Sawalha perfectly carries on like the child Lydia Bennet (actually) is. Anna Chancellor brings perfect Mean Girls energy to Caroline Bingley. Crispin Bonham-Carter is Disney-level cheerful as Mr Bingley, David Bamber is the smarmiest sycophant smarm as Mr Collins, and Adrian Lukis plays a deviously charming Mr Wickham. But it’s Barbara Leigh-Hunt who will absolutely rattle the hairpins out of you as social cornerstone Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Taking a turn through a “prettyish kind of a little wilderness” has never been so tense. — Shannon Connellan, UK Editor
2. Sense and Sensibility (1996)
One of the greats.
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I’m biased because this is not only one of my all-time favourite Austen adaptations, it’s also one of my fave movies. An absolute joy from start to finish, you’ll ugly cry and cackle all the way through. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay AND starred in it as Elinor Dashwood, and earned two Academy Awards for it all, becoming the only person to have won Oscars for both acting and screenwriting for the same film.
An absolute joy from start to finish, you’ll ugly cry and cackle all the way through.
The 1995 adaptation of Austen’s 1811 novel, Sense and Sensibility, follows the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne (Kate Winslet), who are born into a wealthy family but suddenly fall on hard times when their father dies and their family estate is passed to their elder half-brother John (James Fleet) and his miserly wife Fanny (Harriet Walter). Hilarity ensues when the Dashwood sisters and their mother go to live in a cottage owned by two hilariously ridiculous cousins, who provide comic entertainment for much of the film.
Love and loss is encountered along the way and the two sisters realise they’re rather different when it comes to handling their emotions. Speaking of, there’s an absolutely iconic scene where Thompson ugly cries in front of Hugh Grant and makes sounds that you’ll likely not forget in a hurry. Iconic. Directed by Ang Lee, the movie stars Alan Rickman, Imelda Staunton, Greg Wise, Hugh Laurie, and many more. — Rachel Thompson, Features Editor
3. Mansfield Park (1999)
An underappreciated Austen movie gem.
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Fucking? In Austen? Some audiences were scandalised by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it (but fairly explicit) sex scene in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park, but it’s far from the only liberty taken here.
This underappreciated Austen film treats its audience like grownups, reading between the lines of the book to add the sex and sexuality we all know existed at the time.
Anchored by a luminous Frances O’Connor as poor ward Fanny Price — who, thanks to traits borrowed from Austen’s own life and character, is much more spirited and independent than her written counterpart — this underappreciated Austen film treats its audience like grownups, reading between the lines of the book to add the sex and sexuality we all know existed at the time. Rozema also expanded the novel’s brief mentions of slavery into a whole plot thread, a stinging and broadly anachronistic critique of Fanny’s wealthy relations, who benefit enormously from their investments in the sale and exploitation of human beings. Throw in the late, great playwright Harold Pinter as the family patriarch and a charming turn by Jonny Lee Miller as sweet, sexy cousin Edmund, and you have an Austen-ish story with heft as well as charm. — Caitlin Welsh, Australia Editor
4. Love and Friendship (2016)
Kate Beckinsale brings pitch-perfect comedic timing to this bold Austen heroine.
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Austen’s novella, “Lady Susan,” is brought to vivid life in writer/director Whit Stillman’s brilliant adaptation, which stars sparkling leading lady Kate Beckinsale as a deliciously notorious and unrepentant flirt. While the snobs of high society sneer at Lady Susan’s strategic social climbing, the recent widow employs all her charm and wit to not only secure a comfortable life for herself but also for her rebellious young daughter. With a smirk and a bright eye, Beckinsale brings verve and pitch-perfect comedic timing to this bold Austen heroine and her spirited adventure. But keep an eye out for Tom Bennett, who steals scenes as a delightfully doofy bachelor with a deep affection for peas. — Kristy Puchko, Deputy Entertainment Editor
5. Bride and Prejudice (2004)
This scene 😍
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The space between Jane Austen and Bollywood may seem vast, but the two share more in common than one may think. Austen novels and Hindi-language movies are equally intrigued with complicated romantic situations, sprawling families, social class, the “opposites attract” philosophy, and, ultimately, prevailing love. That’s partially why Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice works so well. The romantic drama takes the premise of Pride and Prejudice, transporting the 19th century novel to modern-day India, Britain, and America.
This is a ‘Pride and Prejudice’ remake unlike any other: kitschy, sure, but also flirty, satirical and as romantic as any good Austen adaptation should be.
The adaptation stars Aishwariya Rai (once known as the bonafide “Queen of Bollywood”) as Lalita, who lives in Amritsar with her family. Her mother (Nadira Babbar) is insistent on her four daughters getting married, focusing her wilful efforts on Lalita and her older sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar). Lalita is resistant, supported by her father (Anupam Kher). She is thrown for a spin, however, when she meets Will Darcy (Martin Henderson), an American businessman who travels to India for a wedding. Lalita has an instant distaste for Darcy, particularly what she perceives as his condescension for India and Indian culture. Darcy, meanwhile, can’t help but foster a fascination for Lalita. The tension between the two is palpable and is one of the highlights of the whirlwind that follows, one spanning across continents, infused with several romantic entanglements, and featuring plenty of drama. There’s no lack of fun though, with flamboyant dance sequences and other tropes of Bollywood providing the film with necessary spark. This is a Pride and Prejudice remake unlike any other: kitschy, sure, but also flirty, satirical and as romantic as any good Austen adaptation should be. — Meera Navlakha, Culture Reporter
6. Emma (1996)
A 19th century ’90s classic.
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“Badly done Emma, badly done.”
These words, thankfully, don’t apply to the 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 matchmaker novel of manners. They do, however, apply to Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose youthful hubris finds her in several spots of bother throughout the film, ultimately resulting in a rather cringeworthy admonishment by best pal slash dreamboat love interest Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam). Emma fancies herself as something of a matchmaker, but her interference proves to be less than fruitful and actually pretty destructive. If only she paid attention to her own love life and the love of her life who’s standing right in front of her for the entire movie. Written and directed by Douglas McGrath, the film has a pretty stellar cast including Alan Cumming, Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor, Juliet Stevenson, and Sophie Thompson. — R.T.
7. Fire Island (2022)
100 percent perfect “Pride and Prejudice” take.
This incredibly charming, surprisingly faithful, and very, very queer take on P&P isn’t just a Bridget Jones-style enemies-to-lovers caper with a hot but snobby love interest — it’s also a love letter to chosen family. Each Bennett sister is perfectly rendered as a lovably obnoxious bestie of our sweet lead, Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the script), and the updated analogues to the social mores of Regency England are universally clever.
The parties of Fire Island’s summer season stand in for the endless balls, and even Lydia’s scandalous elopement becomes a devastating and very modern violation. The dance where our “Darcy” and “Lizzie” finally begin to acknowledge their mutual attraction? Now it’s set at an underwear party, soundtracked by Sofi Tukker’s soaring banger “Fantasy”, and it is wildly horny. (Take that, Hand Scene.) It also has, for my money, both the most adorable Bingley and the hottest, wickedest Wickham of any Pride ever put on screen. — C.W.
8. Emma (2020)
Anya Taylor-Joy takes on Emma Woodhouse.
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Directed by Autumn de Wilde with a screenplay by Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, this is a very stylish adaptation of the beloved classic. I was hesitant about going to see this movie (my last cinema trip before the pandemic!), but it was a real joy to watch. Anya Taylor-Joy (of The Queen’s Gambit fame) stars as Miss Emma Woodhouse, alongside Lovesick‘s Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley. Bill Nighy plays Emma’s chronic worrier of a dad — a hilarious addition that is thoroughly enjoyable to behold. There’s a few more familiar faces from some of your Netflix faves too: The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor and Sex Education‘s Connor Swindells and Tanya Reynolds. — R.T.
9. Lost in Austen (2008)
A big “what if”…
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Bridget Jones’s Diary brilliantly reimagined what Pride and Prejudice might look like in contemporary London. However, this sensational British mini-series takes that idea one step further, literally rewriting the book but thrusting modern Austen fan Amanda Price (a darling Jemima Rooper) into the thick of her favorite Georgian novel.
With Elizabeth Bennett gone MIA, fish-out-of-water Amanda accidentally blunders iconic meet-cutes and fateful romances, spinning the classic characters to reveal some shocking new sides. What if Mrs. Bennett was a fiercer Momma Bear than we dared dream? What if Wickham isn’t such a cad after alll? What if Mr. Collins did secure the hand of a Bennet bride? And what if Caroline Bingley had a solid reason for being so manipulative? Directed by Dan Zeff and scripted by Guy Andrews, Lost in Austen takes the story we love wildly off the rails, creating new paths, paved with fresh excitement and a finale that is as unpredictable as it is heartwarming. — K.P.
10. Clueless (1995)
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An Austen movie list without Clueless? As if! Writer-directer Amy Heckerling spent way too long totally buggin’ and getting this perfect adaptation of Austen’s Emma right for us to leave it out. Alicia Silverstone plays the monarch of matchmaking,
Emma Woodhouse Cher Horowitz, whose main goal in life is doing makeovers, zooming around town with her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), and flirting with her ex-stepbrother Mr. Knightley Josh. When new student Harriet Smith Tai Frasier (Brittany Murphy) arrives, Cher sees a new project. When another new student Mr. Churchill Christian Stovitz (Justin Walker) arrives, she sees a romantic pursuit for herself. The film so perfectly transports Austen’s characters into a Beverly Hills high school setting you were probably forced to study it for your own school exams, whatever. Either that or you had no idea it was based on Emma and were more concerned with Cher’s wardrobe selection software. — S.C.
11. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
It had big shoes to fill, and fill them it did.
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Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice had big shoes to fill, with the BBC’s version casting a rather large shadow over anyone who dared to come near this Austen classic. Luckily, the director’s 2005 film hits every note. A stunning work of cinematography showcasing the best bits of England’s Peak District, the film strips Austen’s novel back to its core themes and moments, with an exceptional adapted script from Deborah Moggach.
The film would propel Keira Knightley into her period drama marathon of the ’00s and beyond (Atonement, Silk, The Duchess, Anna Karenina) with her savvy, stubborn, modern performance of Elizabeth Bennett. Succession‘s Matthew Macfadyen somehow found his own Darcy outside Colin Firth’s, balancing snobbery and dreaminess as the stubborn romantic hero. Macfadyen gets his own version of The Pond Scene with that early morning mist emerge. As for the rest of the cast? Donald Sutherland is the quintessential Mr Bennett, the Bennett sisters are all stars now (Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, Jena Malone, Talulah Riley), Kelly Reilly is brutal as Caroline Bingley, and Judi Dench makes a meal of everyone as Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Yes, I’m still mad at this film for butchering the “ardently love and admire” scene with Darcy blurting out the contemporary, brief “I love you,” but I’ll forgive it simply for the advantageous use of filming locations — the sweeping shot of Knightley standing windblown on the clifftop of Stanage Edge is enough to make you want to book a trip. — S.C.