When you consider the impact Jane Austen has had on the world of entertainment, it’s almost incredible to realize how small her body of work is. Six full novels, a novella and two unfinished novel fragments were all she left behind when she died in 1817. And yet, works influenced by Austen’s characters and the world of her writing – such as the popular Netflix series, Bridgerton – continue to command audiences. Innumerable book sequels, contemporary retellings of Austen’s stories and direct movie and TV adaptations of her work abound. And to the delight of her fans, they keep coming!

The newest addition to the Austen entertainment canon is an upcoming adaptation of Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel. It’s due to be released on Netflix on July 15, 2022. To say I’m excited about this production would be a dramatic understatement! In honor of this new Persuasion, I’ve compiled a list of what, in my view, are the best Austen movie and TV adaptations. See if you agree!

RELATED: Polin Takes the Stage in Season 3 of Netflix’s Bridgerton

Northanger Abbey

Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland, standing outside, with an English manor house in the background

J.J. Feild and Felicity Jones in NORTHANGER ABBEY, image via PBS

I pretty much think all Austen book adaptations need to be mini-series rather than movie-length to do them justice. But that’s literally my only criticism of the PBS 2007 movie version of Northanger Abbey.  Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland and J.J. Feild as Henry Tilney embody their characters perfectly. Jones especially shines, managing to convey Catherine’s naivete without making her look foolish. This movie is a true pleasure.

Sense and Sensibility

three women in Regency-era gowns stand together, with a dramatic seascape behind them

Hattie Morahan, Janet McTeer and Charity Wakefield in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, image via BBC

Picking one adaptation of Sense and Sensibility to recommend is difficult for me – as I’ll explain in a moment. But I’m tempted to go with the 2008 BBC mini-series. Visually, it’s so gorgeous. (All those crashing sea shots!) And it’s almost perfectly cast. The glaring exception, in my view, is in the character of Willoughby (Dominic Cooper). I’m not sure the issue is really a casting problem (I love Dominic Cooper in other things!), so much as a poor screen adaption of the character. But either way, this is where picking one adaptation gets tricky for me! Because the Willoughby of the 1995 movie is, to me, perfection. If I could, I would transfer that movie version of Willoughby (Greg Wise) into the mini-series, and then I’d be perfectly happy! (I might take movie-Colonel Brandon, too. Alan Rickman was great in that role.)

In fairness to the movie, I should note that the mini-series depiction of Edward (Dan Stevens) doesn’t hew very closely to the novel version. The film did better there. But Dan Stevens made Edward so charming in the mini-series; I just can’t bring myself to hold it against the production! So basically, to sum up: the perfect adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, in my opinion, involves a big smooshing together of the 2008 mini-series and the 1995 movie. Somewhere in that is my favorite version!

RELATED: Movie Review: Emma

Pride and Prejudice

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, standing outside in front of green vegetation

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, image via PBS

Choosing a version of Pride and Prejudice is easy. I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to improve on the 1995 BBC mini-series, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth! The production sticks very closely to the book – a definite strength. And Ehle and Firth capture the essence of Elizabeth and Darcy, as written by Austen, outstandingly well. Everything else, from supporting characters to locations, were meticulously crafted. All in all, this one is the gold standard of Jane Austen adaptations! 

F.Y.I. for fans of Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth: If you haven’t checked out Ehle’s reading of Pride and Prejudice, you absolutely must! This isn’t a professional production that you can buy (sadly! I’d buy it!) She filmed it herself and put it on YouTube at the start of the pandemic. It was one of the bright spots for me in those early days of the Covid lockdowns. It remains my favorite audio version of P&P.

Mansfield Park

Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram, with Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price, just before they kiss

Jonny Lee Miller and Frances O’Connor in MANSFIELD PARK, image via IMDb

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park has to be the world’s most problematic novel to adapt. It’s a problematic enough novel to read! I do like the 1999 movie with Frances O’Connor as heroine Fanny better than other Mansfield Park adaptations I’ve seen. But the only reason it works at all is that Fanny’s character was altered to the point of unrecognizability. And unfortunately, altering Fanny forced a related altering of the character of Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz), Fanny’s narrative counterbalance in the novel. This changed Mary’s character in ways I didn’t like at all. I can’t be ultimately satisfied with a Mansfield Park that sinks Mary Crawford to elevate Fanny. (Note: If you’re a Mary Crawford fan who hasn’t read Sybil Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies, check it out!)

Credit where it’s due: one character this movie does get really right is Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller). Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter) is okay, too. And at the end of the day, whatever deficiencies the movie has, my sympathies are VERY much with anybody who takes on Mansfield Park!

Emma

Kate Beckinsale, in Regency dress, as Emma Woodhouse,

Kate Beckinsale in EMMA, image via IMDb

My favorite version of Jane Austen’s Emma is the 1996 BBC movie starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma. A lot of this is due to the fact that I’ve read Emma so many times! Beckinsale and Mark Strong – as Mr. Knightley – quite simply do the best job I’ve seen of capturing the characters as written by Austen. But what really puts this version of Emma ahead for me is Olivia Williams’ portrayal of Jane Fairfax. She’s just pitch-perfect. Jane Fairfax is such a powerful counterbalance to Emma in the novel; I don’t think any Emma adaptation can be genuinely successful without doing Jane Fairfax justice. (I’m looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow-helmed 1996 movie version!) 

RELATED: Book Review: Pride and Prometheus

Lady Susan

There’s only been one adaptation of the Austen novella, Lady Susan, to my knowledge: the 2016 movie Love and Friendship. I did enjoy it. But one of the reasons Lady Susan is such an interesting character in the novella is that she’s so completely awful! She blatantly uses people, and she has no hidden affection whatsoever for her daughter. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is softened a little in the movie. She reminds me of what Emma Woodhouse would be if she didn’t have the security of money or family behind her: witty and a bit heartless in her attempts to get ahead, but not at base a bad person. The humanizing of Love and Friendship’s Lady Susan doesn’t make the character more interesting, in my opinion. And the fact that the movie Susan ends up uncomfortably pregnant at the end takes away her agency in ways I don’t like. 

In sum: this was a good first attempt at an adaptation. But I’d love to see somebody else do this again, and a little differently.

Sanditon

A Regency-era woman at the seaside, holding her hat onto her head

Crystal Clarke in SANDITON, image via PBS

Good parts about the ongoing Austen-based Sanditon series by Masterpiece: I like the character of Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) quite a lot. I love the fact that the experience of a black woman in the period can be explored through her. But I love her for herself, too. I think an entire series devoted to this character would be a great series! I also don’t mind the version of novel-fragment heroine Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), who appears here, particularly in the role of friend to Georgiana.

Bad parts? Well….kind of all the rest of it! I’m not really a fan of this series. I do applaud the effort to develop a Jane Austen fragment, though!

The Watsons

I include The Watsons here for the sake of mentioning each of Austen’s works. But there is sadly no adaptation to suggest! To my knowledge, there hasn’t yet been any attempt to do for the fragment of The Watsons what’s been done for Sanditon. A few novels have attempted to complete the story, none too compellingly. But Jane Austen wrote such a good beginning with this tale of sisters facing probable poverty on the death of their ailing father! It’s a close enough story to Pride and Prejudice to compare the two but quite different enough to feel unique. Fingers crossed that somebody develops this, eventually!

Man in Regency-era clothing, sitting on a fine sofa in a manor house, with a window behind him

Henry Golding in PERSUASION, image via Netflix

Persuasion

I saved Persuasion for last, as it’s the adaptation due out soon. And the novel is my favorite of all of Jane Austen’s works! The fact that I do love this book so much is probably why, of all Austen adaptations I’ve ever seen, I’ve been most frustrated by the Persuasion ones. What I want is to see the characters who live in my head, courtesy of the novel, appear on screen – and I simply haven’t yet. This new Netflix version looks really promising, though. I think Dakota Johnson is a great casting choice for Anne. And Henry Golding, as Mr. Elliot, is inspired. I’m very, very hopeful that I will love it! (Fingers crossed for July!)

So that’s my list! What did I get right, in your opinion? What do I need to reconsider? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review – THE JANE AUSTEN PROJECT