Her novels have been adapted countless times at the movies and theater. But Jane Austen’s own life story? Less so. But if you’re interested in a visual experience, check out these silver- and small-screen offerings.
The “biggest” of the bunch, this 2007 film stars Anne Hathaway as the young Jane, who rescinded her engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither a day after accepting his proposal. James McAvoy plays Tom Lefroy, the Irish gentleman with whom she supposedly fell madly in love — there’s some debate over exactly how close Jane Austen and Lefroy were since there are only a few mentions of him in her letters, though we do know Cassandra destroyed many of them. It’s stronger on romance than satire, speculation than fact. Available on Netflix with a subscription and for rental on other platforms (Amazon, ITunes, Vudu).
‘Miss Austen Regrets’
This 2008 BBC TV movie focuses on Jane (played by Olivia Williams, who incidentally played Jane Fairfax in the 1996 BBC version of “Emma”) later in life, as she nears 40, and her endeavors to help her niece Fanny Knight secure a husband. Other Austen adaptation alumni appear, including Hugh Bonneville, Phyllida Law, Greta Scacchi, Pip Torrens and Jack Huston. Tom Hiddleston (Loki of Marvel’s superhero movies) also appears as Fanny’s love interest. Available on Amazon Prime.
‘The Real Jane Austen’
This documentary — narrated by Caroline Bingley herself: Anna Chancellor, a grand-niece of Jane Austen — tells us about Austen through readings and reenactments by notable British actors, including Phyllis Logan (“Downton Abbey”), Jack Davenport (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and Wendy Craig (“The Worst Witch”). It’s not officially available for streaming or on DVD, although someone has kindly uploaded it to YouTube.
‘Jane Austen’s Life’ and ‘Austen Country: The Life & Times of Jane Austen’
Both these documentaries take you on a journey through the locations and landscapes relevant to Jane Austen and her works. A bit dated in style, they often make use of Austen’s own words, from her novels and letters, to augment the videos of Steventon, Lyme Regis, Chawton, Bath and more. Both available on Amazon Prime.
Jane Austen might have written a heroine that readers may not much like, but Emma has been brought to life on screens big and small numerous times and in numerous eras. These adaptations can fit any mood and personality. Read on to see which might fit you best.
If you want to see a “darker” side of Highbury…
“Emma” (1996 TV movie) This adaptation (written by Andrew Davies) isn’t all sweetness and light. It highlights the working class, with pointed glimpses of kitchen maids clearing plates; footmen hauling food and tables up Box Hill; Knightley’s tenants — including Robert Martin — working the fields; and ragged young beggars accosting Harriet on the path. Plus, if you love candlelit scenes, dark-wood sets and dark brown dresses, well, this is the production for you. But watch out for this Emma: Kate Beckinsale plays up her haughty side — she’s a little more mean girl than golden girl. She is not afraid to tell it to you straight.
If you like fashion statements …
“Clueless” (1995) Plaid? Check. Sailor dresses? Check. Structured jackets? Check. If your fashion philosophy is “go bold or go home,” “Clueless” is your best bet. The film may be 20 years old, but the costumes are still inspiring fashionistas today. And if you grew up in the ‘90s, phrases like “As if!” and “Whatever!” are still part of your lexicon. Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz is a lovable modern Emma, with her heart in the right place even if her plans don’t always work out. She’d make a terrible study partner, but a fantastic shopping buddy … just don’t let her drive you anywhere.
If you love Martha Stewart …
“Emma” (1996 feature film) This film is like Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair: perfectly coiffed, no strand out of the place. Cool, (mostly) calm and sophisticated, this adaptation has a sheen of Hollywood glamour. Who wouldn’t want to live in this version of Highbury? Like Emma, the film strives for perfection; it may occasionally fail, but we love it anyway. Paltrow’s heroine is full of helpful hints about love and marriage and even how to embroider. If she ran the Internet, she’d start a lifestyle site like … well … Goop.
If you need cheering up …
“Emma” (2009) Stubborn, exuberant and fun. Did I just describe this adaptation or Emma herself? Actually, it’s both. The life of any party, Romola Garai’s Emma could befriend anyone (even if she doesn’t like them), so she’s sure lift your spirits — if you get on her good side, that is. This lively Emma might stop you from marrying that cute farmer down the way, but she can also lift your spirits. It’ll take some time, though: At four hours in length, this adaptation deserves a full lazy afternoon of viewing.
If you’re a Harriet fan …
“Emma” (1972) Ignore the low-budget production values, the stagey sets and the dated “welcome to the Regency 1970s” look. You can’t help but love this adaptation’s chipper, charming, slightly dim and sweetly indecisive Harriet, played by Debbie Bowen, far left in a striking turquoise bonnet. Doran Godwin brings Emma to prim and proper life, but it’s Harriet who steals the show. You just want to pull an Emma yourself and tell her: Harriet, honey, don’t listen to Emma. Listen to me. (Word the wise: You can find this miniseries here.)
If you have a short attention span …
“Emma Approved” (2013) Don’t have two hours or an afternoon to spare? This Web series (which we recapped!) is perfect if you have five minutes here, 10 minutes there. This 21st-century Emma (Joanna Sotomura) is a business-savvy version of Cher Horowitz: a self-centered fashionista who thinks she knows what’s best for everyone — except herself. Betcha can’t watch just one episode though. It can be thoroughly addicting.
If you love social media …
“Emma Approved” (2013)
In this day and age, it’s hard to go a day without hearing a reference to something someone saw on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. “Emma Approved” allows viewers to experience the story through characters’ social media feeds and blogs.
This one is a hard choice! If you’re looking for an earnest Knightley, Jeremy Northam’s iteration (1996) is sweet and big brotherly without veering into avuncular territory. Jonny Lee Miller’s 2009 version is a bit tougher, less earnest and more pragmatic with a touch of humor. Brent Bailey from “Emma Approved” plays down the “Knightley knows best” attitude in favor of treating Emma more as an equal.