Jane Austen’s Work Is Ripe For Adaptation, But It’s Hard To Do Well

And yet the filmmakers keep trying.

It’s an unenviable task, condensing the value of volumes of social criticism, sparkling dialogue, and characters so beloved they’ve inspired an entire love interest archetype. But often these films succeed and even reveal new layers to Austen’s canonical works. At the very least, they inspire debate among his many readers.

CNN spoke to several Austen scholars and enthusiasts to explain what they look for in an adaptation of Austen’s work — and why the magic of his words can be so difficult to translate to the screen.

Why We Love Adapting Austen

In a way, Austen’s tales are quintessential romances. They have all the hallmarks of the genre: disapproving family, mismatched couples, love-hate relationships, long-awaited reunions, swoon-worthy declarations of love.

We’ve seen these tropes pop up in almost every love story since. So what makes Austen’s novels so ripe for telling?

On the one hand, it’s a smart business decision to revive Austen — there’s always an audience for his work, said Jillian Davis and Yolanda Rodriguez, hosts of the “Pemberley Podcast,” in which they analyze various adaptations of the work. of Austen.

Why Regency romance still rules, 200 years after Jane Austen

“Complex interpersonal relationships will never go out of style,” Davis and Rodriguez told CNN in an email.

Over the years, Austen’s adaptations have made millions, been nominated for more than a dozen Oscars and multiple Emmys, and convinced viewers around the world that Mr. Darcy is the gold standard of movies. suitors. The 90s gave us a boom of Austen adaptations – “Pride and Prejudice” with Firth, “Emma” with Gwyneth Paltrow, “Sense and Sensibility” with Emma Thompson to name a few – and other stories from the Regency era, similar to what we have now amid the enormous popularity of “Bridgerton”. Austen’s popularity spans the globe – see the Bollywood-inspired film ‘Bride & Prejudice’ and ‘Mr. Pride vs. Miss Prejudice’ in China, two of Austen’s many adaptations featuring Asian protagonists .

Although Austen’s novels have always incorporated love and marriage into their plots, the author has not always portrayed marriage as the flawless happy ending her heroines yearned for. It’s a financial decision and a family duty, of which her female characters are well aware. Austen women are often ambivalent about what it would mean for their independence if they got married, even when they really love their partner, said Inger Brodey, associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“Austen is a way for today’s readers to romanticize soul mates and maintain their self-esteem,” said Brodey, who has published several articles about Austen.

And so, in this way, she says, Austen’s tales continue to inspire and empower today: they are lucid love stories told from a subtly feminist perspective that still give their protagonists a kind of ‘agency.

What Are Austen’s Best Adaptations

A strong adaptation of Austen need not repeat the original text or even be set in late 18th century England. In fact, Brodey said, she’d rather a movie not feel beholden to the source novel. The CNN Austenites interviewed agreed – for an adaptation of Austen to succeed, it must maintain the spirit of her work, especially her incisive depth and incomparable wit.

“What’s hardest for any Austen adapter has to be capturing her fiction’s incredible combination of comedy, irony and social critique, along with genuinely moving courtship stories,” said Devoney Looser, Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University and author of “The Creation of Jane Austen.” “It’s obviously difficult to get that balance of characters in the content in two hours, along with the required and satisfying happy endings.”

“I would say that I find any adaptation of Austen successful if it makes me think or rethink any part of the original,” Looser told CNN.

Take the seemingly divergent but thematically faithful “Clueless,” a ’90s retelling of “Emma.” He’s not an obvious candidate for the most accurate Austen adaptation (the chef’s name is Cher, for one, and his closet comes with software that helps him coordinate outfits), but researcher Brody and Austen’s William Galperin said Amy Heckerling’s film is an exemplary take on a film that modernizes elements of the story while retaining Austen’s spirit.

Even Austen scholars can't deny the appeal of

“Clueless” “celebrates a certain kind of self-reliance, playfulness and togetherness among women,” the genre Austen also took seriously, said William Galperin, a Rutgers University English professor and author from “The Historical Austen”. And like “Emma,” “Clueless” is more concerned with Cher’s development than her romantic escapades, and even those storylines serve to solidify her character.

Films that update, modernize, or remix Austen for a new time, place, or culture are, paradoxically, “more capable of revealing new aspects of Austen than films that attempt to follow his novels more slavishly.” , Brodey said. Even “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” though anything but subtle, found a parallel between “settling down” and zombieism.

But aside from the rare battle between Bennets and the walking dead, Austen’s stories extract narrative richness from relatively mundane events in English mansions, among members of a few local families.

“What (Austen) is trying to suggest on a grand scale is that what happens in the daily basis of all of our lives is filled with all kinds of implications,” Galperin said. “It doesn’t need to involve big things like fights and power struggles on a grand geopolitical level. Ordinary daily life is filled with all sorts of complexities. And the closer the movies get to that, the better they are. “

Where Austen’s Adaptations Fail

Condensing hundreds of pages of rich text — peppered with social criticism, gorgeous phrasing, and revealing inner musings — into a two-hour movie or even a six-hour miniseries is no small feat. So, Galperin said, some filmmakers focus on the most obvious part of the story: the plot of the wedding.

Relationships are of course important in Austen’s novels, but more often than not, according to Galperin, the plot of marriage is merely “scaffolding,” the skeleton of a story. The meat, he said, is in the narrative episodes that reveal the true intentions of its characters.

Some adaptations – like the more recent “Persuasion,” according to many reviewers – lack the ambivalence and depth found in Austen’s books. “Persuasion” is the story of a “second chance at love” between bachelor Anne Elliot (played in the latest version by Dakota Johnson, whose “bloom” decidedly did not “fade early”) and her former partner, Captain Wentworth. But it’s also about family duty, conformity, and treasured independence, and those themes, at least on screen, often come second to romance.

“The novel is extremely good at demonstrating this tension (between love and duty), while the film flattens that into early rejection,” Galperin said.

Often, Brodey said, films “indulge heavily in romance at the expense of social satire.”

Why Austen’s Stories Will Live Forever

Even if new versions of “Persuasion” and other classics don’t necessarily succeed in reinterpreting Austen’s work, they’re still worth making, Looser said — at the very least, they’ll inspire new audiences. to fall in love with the brooding Darcy, the beachy bliss of Sanditon and the cunning and resourceful Lady Susan.

“If we don’t recreate Austen’s stories from the 19th century for our own time and attract new generations of viewers, then these texts will not survive,” Looser said. “So I’m definitely for adaptations that use Austen’s material as inspiration and make their own mark on it, rather than treating her originals as blueprints that must be religiously copied.”

The comedy "Fire Island"  is also an acerbic criticism of classism like the book on which it was based, "Pride and Prejudice".
And continuing to weave new threads from Austen’s original work opens up her world to characters her books didn’t portray, including people of color and LGBTQ protagonists. “Fire Island” uses the loose setting of “Pride and Prejudice” to tell a story about two gay Asian Americans, the racism and classism they experience from white gay men, and the relationships they forge despite this hatred. “Sanditon” and “Persuasion” both cast people of color into Austen’s world, at a time when racism was codified (a decision that sparks debate, as these projects often don’t address racism in their fictional world. ).
There are a million ways to tell an Austenian tale today: plunging its plot into the present, breaking the fourth wall, or giving the Bennet sisters swords to dispatch zombies (to varied critical reception). It’s impossible to please every fan of Austen, but scholars and readers say that as long as an adaptation of Austen retains what made his work so beloved in the first place – the cleverness, the irony and, yes, “capital R romance” – it will almost always find an audience ready to fall in love.