It is a truth universally acknowledged that every Jane Austen novel must be adapted an infinite amount of times and we will be grateful for all of them. (Yes, even the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies film, the best part of which was not the movie itself but a supercut of Matt Smith as Mr. Collins eating scones.)
There have been a lot of adaptations of Jane Austen’s six major novels and some of her other works, including the recently-released Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy. These are the ones we recommend watching.
Best Pride and Prejudice Adaptations
Easily the most adapted of Jane Austen’s works, Pride and Prejudice is a foundational work in the broader romantic comedy genre and in so much of our mainstream storytelling. People tend to have opinions about which of the P&P adaptations are the best. (Who is the best Elizabeth? Who is the best Darcy? Which is the most faithful? Does it matter?) Here are the ones we think are worth checking out…
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
There’s nothing more iconic Austen than BBC/A&E’s 1995 miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle as proud Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as prejudiced Mr. Darcy. The six-part serial was adapted by Andrew Davies, who would go on to pen many more Austen adaptations, and was the project that shot Firth to stardom. The scene of Firth’s Mr. Darcy coming out of the lake, long shirt soaked through, has been riffed on countless times (a personal favorite? St. Trinian’s), and for good reason. Mr. Darcy has never been so begrudgingly sexy.
Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
An adaptation of the book of the same name which is a contemporary reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ Diary has Colin Firth reprising the Mr. Darcy role (here, Mark Darcy) alongside Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones, a 32-year-old woman looking to stop smoking, lose weight, and find Mr. Right—who most definitely is not snooty barrister Mr. Darcy.
Written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually), Andrew Davies (screenwriter of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice), and source material author Helen Fielding, this script has it all: romance, comedy, and plenty of heart. The film spawned two sequels—neither of which are as good as the original, but neither of which is terrible either.
Bride & Prejudice (2004)
This Bollywood-style contemporary adaptation from Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) stars Aiswarya Rai as Lalita Bakshi, a young Indian woman who lives in Amritsar with her parents and three sisters. When Lalita and her sister meet British-Indian lawyer Balraj (Naveen Andrews) and well-off American Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) at a wedding, strong feelings ensue. A great cast and a fresh cultural setting make this adaptation a must-watch.
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Basically a masterpiece, Joe Wright’s first feature film has a great cast (Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, Jena Malone, Judy Dench, Talulah Riley, and Donald Sutherland), but it’s the director’s interest in getting the setting right that makes this adaptation special. Using his trademark long shot, Wright invites viewers into the world of the Bennets: from the homey, organic mess of the Bennet house to the cheerful chaos of a dance hall, Pride and Prejudice has never felt so lived-in.
Lost in Austen (2008)
If you like your Austen with a speculative fiction twist, might I recommend Lost in Austen? This 2008 ITV miniseries stars Jemima Rooper as Amanda Price, a huge Jane Austen fan who gets pulled into the world of her favorite Austen novel and must make choices accordingly. This four-part story doesn’t totally stick the landing, but it’s well worth the quick watch for its humor, creativity, and meta fun, as well as to see Gemma Arteron as Elizabeth Bennet.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)
Who knew Austen was so well-suited for the vlog style? Hank Green and Bernie Su, apparently, who were the creators behind this Emmy-winning adaptation, which reimagines Elizabeth Bennet as a mass communications grad student still living at home with her parents and two sisters.
The story is told chiefly through a series of vlogs (as well as through supplementary social media accounts for the world’s characters, making this a transmedia storytelling experience). In universe, Lizzie (Ashley Clements) begins a vlog series chronicling her life as a thesis project, an event that just happens to coincide with the moving in of a wealthy medical student Bing Lee (Christopher Sean) and his even wealthier friend, William Darcy (Daniel Vincent Gordh), next door. Told in real-time over the span of year, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a truly special storytelling experience, and is still well-worth watching even without the real-time aspect.
Best Emma Adaptations
While slightly less well-known than Pride and Prejudice, Emma has had its fair share of on-screen adaptations. The story of the spoiled 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse, Emma follows Emma on her matchmaking adventures, which are more the ego-driven meddling of a bored, rich girl with too much time on her hands than anything else. With Emma, Austen set out to tell the story of an unlikable protagonist, but Austen never intends for us to root against her, making Emma’s realistic journey of self-growth that much more cathartic.
If you’ve seen one Emma adaptation, it’s probably this one. A contemporary retelling of Emma Woodhouse’s story, Clueless’ reimagining of Emma as bratty Beverly Hills teen Cher is downright genius. Starring Alicia Silverstone in the main role and Paul Rudd as ex-step brother and unassuming love interest Josh, Clueless is more than just one of the best Austen adaptations out there—it’s one of the best teen comedies of all time.
If you’re looking for a faithful miniseries adaptation of Emma, we recommend this 2009 version. Starring Romola Garai as Emma, Jonny Lee Miller as Knightley, and Michael Gabon as Mr. Woodhouse, and written by Sandy Welch (who also gave us the glorious North & South adaptation), this four-part serial will give you more bang for your buck than any of the feature film adaptations.
Emma Approved (2013)
From the web series company that brought you The Lizzie Bennet Diaries comes this similarly-structured Emma adaptation. Recontextualizing Emma Woodhouse as a young lifestyle coach and matchmaking entrepreneur, Emma Approved comments on YouTube/influence culture in insightful, empathetic ways. While not as good as its predecessor, Emma Approved is still a delightful adaptation worth the watch if you’re into this form of storytelling.
Bright, colorful, and at times absurdly pretty, this highly-stylized adaptation of Emma highlights the comedy of Austen’s classic tale without sacrificing any of the drama or romance. Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a masterful performance, as we watch Emma go from the rigidly-controlled noble to a more empathetic, thoughtful version of herself, but it’s Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart in supporting roles who really get to chew the scenery.
Other Best Jane Austen Adaptations
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Emma Thompson. Kate Winslet. Hugh Grant. Alan Rickman. Need I say more? Written by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee (his first English-language feature film), this faithful adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is a classic. Whether you’re a fan of the film or simply a cinephile, I highly recommend checking out Thompson’s “screenplay and diary” chronicling the making of this film.
If you’re going to go for an adaptation of Austen’s final novel (published after her death), try to find this 1995 made-for-TV film. Starring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds as Anne and Captain Wentworth respectively (not to mention Killing Eve‘s Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Croft!), Persuasion is not the story of two people coming together for the first time, but two people reuniting after eight years apart. We mentioned 1995 was a good year for Austen fans, yeah?
Mansfield Park (1999)
Mansfield Park doesn’t get a lot of love when it comes to the adaptation, but this 1999 film starring Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller is one of the best Jane Austen-inspired films out there. A looser adaptation of the novel that also incorporates elements of Jane Austen’s life into the story, Mansfield Park has all of the swoon-worthy romance, sharp social commentary, and relatable female protagonist you could want from an Austen adaptation.
Northanger Abbey (2007)
Andrew Davies is back at it again with this 2007 television movie, starring Felicity Jones as protagonist Catherine Morland (Carey Mulligan also pops up as friend Isabella Thorpe). One of the OG stories about fandom, Northanger Abbey follows young, naive Catherine as she visits Bath, becomes the object of two men’s affections, and begins to confuse real life with the kind of things that might happen in the Gothic romance novels she obsessively reads. If you’ve never engaged with this most meta of Austen’s works, we recommend checking out this adaptation.
From Mansfield With Love (2014)
If you’re a fan of the vlog diaries adaptation format (if you can’t tell by now, I am), then I also recommend this endearing adaptation of Mansfield Park. Created by Foot in the Door Theatre, what this production lacks in budget, it makes up for in heart. From Mansfield With Love reimagines the story of 19th-century protagonist Fanny Price to modern-day Britain where Frankie Price is working as a housekeeper at a hotel owned by the Bertrams. In an effort to keep in touch with her brother Will, she begins to send video diaries chronicling her life at Mansfield and with the Bertram family, in particularly with friend Edmund. Austen has never felt so real.
Love and Friendship (2016)
Austen in the style of Armando Iannucci (this film is actually written and directed by indie filmmaker Whit Stillman), Love and Friendship is an adaptation of Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, which follows the recently-widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale, having so much fun) in her efforts to secure advantageous marriages for both herself and her daughter.
The new kid on the block, Sanditon just wrapped up its first (and hopefully not only) season on PBS. Based on the unfinished Austen novel, it follows country gentlewoman Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) into the relatively more exciting world of Sanditon, a fishing village with aspirations of being a seaside resort.
While Sanditon isn’t without its indulgent plotting, it is beautiful to look at, and includes some memorable performances from Theo James, Charlotte Spencer, and a massively underutilized Crystal Clarke, playing a rare character of color in Austen adaptations. More than anything, it’s interesting to see Andrew Davies (yep, he’s back) extrapolating out Austen’s unfinished novel. Perhaps, fittingly, we most likely will never find out what happens next in this on-screen adaptation.
What is your favorite Austen adaptation? Let us know in the comments below…