It is a truth universally acknowledged that a movie lover in need of a Jane Austen adaptation need not look too far nor too wide to find a most pleasing choice. The author's impact on literature and pop culture at large remains unparalleled since her debut novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published in 1811.
The stories of plucky, clever and headstrong heroines working their way through society’s expectations are widely loved, and make an excellent basis for filmmakers, whether they go for a direct adaptation, or take the themes and characters and update them for a contemporary audience.
With the newest adaptation of Persuasion, starring Dakota Johnson as heroine Anne Elliot, streaming on Netflix on July 15, there is no better time to check out the other Austen adaptations that paved the way, from the traditional period pieces to the reinterpretations.
Aisha updates Austen's 1816 novel, Emma, setting it in present-day India, with the wealthy Aisha (Sonam Kapoor) acting as matchmaker. Much like Clueless, this version leans into the comedy and modernization of the story, while still following the characters and beats of the original. Kapoor's performance as Aisha is a standout in the pantheon of Austen leading ladies, and the movie's soundtrack remains one of the best of the oeuvre.
Austenland is a movie for anyone who's wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk of an Austen novel. Keri Russell stars as an Austen-obsessed single woman who travels to the titular resort in England to live life as a Regency woman and possibly find love in the process. Elements from Austen's novels are incorporated into the story, leading Russell's lovelorn Jane to find her own Mr. Darcy. It’s a clever little rom-com, and a love letter to Austen and Austenites who keep her stories as popular as ever.
Bride & Prejudice (2004)
The romantic misunderstandings of Pride and Prejudice are relatable to anyone, which is likely why it has become Austen's most-adapted work. Bride & Prejudice moves the story from Regency England to modern India, with superstar Aishwarya Rai as the Elizabeth Bennet character, Lalita Bakshi. The Bakshi family, like the Bennets, are seeking marriage for their daughters, but Lalita is looking for a love match, and ends up finding it with an American Mr. Darcy (Martin Henderson). Director Gurinder Chadha livens up the whole affair with a number of Bollywood-inspired musical numbers, making this retelling as unique as it is universal.
Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Based on Helen Fielding's novel of the same name, Bridget Jones's Diary nails its modernizing of Pride and Prejudice. Renee Zellweger's Oscar-nominated performance as Bridget is maybe less headstrong than a traditional Lizzy Bennet, but she finds her self-worth and determination eventually, not to mention love. Colin Firth plays a different take on Mr. Darcy, having previously played the role in the 1995 BBC miniseries, this time as a stoic lawyer competing with Hugh Grant's exceptionally charming Daniel Cleaver (a stand-in for Mr. Wickham).
Clueless might not seem like an adaptation of any piece of literature, with its trendsetting wardrobe, completely invented slang and Beverly Hills setting. But look again, and the movie is a clear adaptation of Emma, following the plot of the novel almost beat for beat. Alicia Silverstone's Cher is a charming update on Emma Woodhouse, a meddling but well-intentioned young woman who just wants her friends and family to be happy — for her own selfish reasons. The movie set the bar high for teen comedy, and also features early turns from stars like Paul Rudd and the late Brittany Murphy.
The 1990s marked quite the heyday for Austen adaptations, and director Douglas McGrath's take on Emma is peak '90s in its casting: It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as the titular meddler, along with a stacked supporting cast including Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor, Jeremy Northam and Alan Cumming. Unlike Clueless, which came just one year before, this adaptation opts for a classic period setting, costumes and details, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design and winning won for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score.
The 2020 adaptation of Emma. is more direct than Clueless, but there are still modern flourishes in the performance and style. And this edition of Emma is packed with style: Every frame is filled with bright detail, from the sets to the costumes, and the film was actually Oscar-nominated for both Best Costume Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. But there is substance behind the style as well, with Anya Taylor-Joy's Emma as meddling but charming as ever, as she butts into the lives around her before falling for Johnny Flynn's equally charming Mr. Knightley.
Fire Island (2022)
Further proving the universality of Pride and Prejudice, Fire Island reimagines the story through a queer lens. Joel Kim Booster wrote and stars in this adaptation in the Elizabeth Bennet part, even riffing on the opening lines of the novel in the film's opening voiceover. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife... No offense to my girl Jane, but that sounds like some hetero nonsense."
Booster's take on the source material is faithful to the overall plot, but makes necessary updates in its setting (Fire Island, naturally) and characters to provide a new take on the romantic misunderstandings and judgments central to the story and characters. And those updates work perfectly, as viewers root for Noah (Booster) and his own Darcy, Will (Conrad Ricamora), to find their own relationship, without the traditional heteronormative trappings.
Love & Friendship (2016)
Love & Friendship is based on a perhaps lesser-known posthumous Austen novel, titled Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale stars as the flirty and clever widow Susan Vernon, another charmingly manipulative Austen heroine. Lady Susan is quite the modern woman — romance a younger man and a married man, while still remaining funny and clever with Austen's sharp humor.
Mansfield Park (1999)
The only feature adaptation of Austen's third novel, Mansfield Park blends elements of the actual novel with some of Austen's life for a slightly meta take on the story. Frances O'Connor stars as Fanny Price, a poor young woman sent to live with rich family, who struggles to meet their societal expectations. Issues of classism (a common Austen theme) are explored, as Fanny never quite fits in with her extended family, but she shines as another Austen heroine who is ahead of her time.
Persuasion is not one of Austen's widely adapted novels, a later entry in her work published posthumously, but it is no less fit for the screen. Anne Elliot (played in this iteration by Amanda Root) was persuaded out of an engagement to Captain Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds), only to reconnect years later. Of course, there's another potential suitor who enters the mix to complicate their reunion. Shot on location and using natural light, this isn't the traditional posh adaptation of Austen's work, but one suited to the more raw elements of second chance romance.
The latest Austen adaptation stars Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot as she struggles to move on from a broken engagement and finds herself in the middle of a love triangle between her former fiancé (Cosmo Jarvis) and her cousin (Henry Golding). Marking the feature debut of theater director Carrie Cracknell, Persuasion was written by Alice Victoria Winslow and Ron Bass (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for writing 1988's Rain Man) and mixes faithful elements from Austen's final novel with modern flourishes, including Anne breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience.
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
The first big-screen adaptation of Austen's most popular novel, the 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice makes quite a few changes from the source material. The action is moved into the Victorian era (reportedly to allow for even more elaborate costumes), there is an added archery scene, and in this version, Lady Catherine de Bourgh's demand that Elizabeth not marry Darcy is merely a hoax to test her, not an actual demand as it is in the novel. But those changes don't detract from the overall story, and Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier make an excellent Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Director Joe Wright's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most enduring interpretations of Austen's work — and a comfort movie for an entire generation. Keira Knightley shines as Lizzy Bennet and earned a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal. Matthew Macfadyen plays her Mr. Darcy, providing fans with the most swoon-worthy Darcy moments onscreen. (The hand flex and the strut across the moors. If you know, you know.)
The movie was also Oscar nominated for Best Achievement in Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score, elements of the film that fans are still obsessed with nearly 20 years later.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Emma Thompson leads this adaptation of Sense and Sensibility both onscreen and behind the scenes: She wrote the screenplay and won her second Oscar for it, as well as earning a nomination for Best Actress for her role as sensible Elinor Dashwood. Kate Winslet scored an Oscar nomination (her first ever) in the Supporting Actress category for her role as the sweet but slightly less sensible younger Dashwood sister, Marianne, and the cast is rounded out by ever-charming Hugh Grant and the late Alan Rickman.
The movie, from director Ang Lee, earned seven Oscar nominations in total — including Best Picture and Best Costume Design — and is considered the gold standard adaptation of the novel.