Reading Adventures: Why I Love Jane Austen Adaptations
April brought the publication of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, a modern take on Pride & Prejudice. The most popular of her novels and the one adapted the most often, Jane Austen’s beloved classic is relocated to Cincinnati, USA, and Lizzie Bennet is in her late thirties.
This isn’t the first time Pride and Prejudice has been set outside of the UK - many of the adapatations of her work are reimagined in other locations. I love Bride and Prejudice, which begins in Amritsar. The film is a Bollywood-style take on Pride and Prejudice that’s witty, affectionate and a lot of fun to watch. I also love the 2005 film version with Keira Knightley reading a book as she walks, even if I won’t try that again. Yes, I should have known and also, ouch.
I’ve watched Lost in Austen, Miss Austen Regrets, The Jane Austen Book Club and too many adaptations of the novels to count. Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins made me cry in a way that would cause averted gazes in polite society. I don’t even consider myself a super fan – this stuff isn’t hard to find. In 2016, we’ve already seen the release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and now Love & Friendship. Here’s three reasons why I keep coming back to adapatations of Jane Austen’s work.
Because the stories have something to say
Jane Austen’s novels, including Pride and Prejudice, are more than a comedy of manners. They’re a dialogue with the society of Austen’s time, written from her privileged position in it, and it’s still debated today whether Austen can be considered a feminist writer. Austen’s heroines are usually privileged, too, and the central conflict of the novel is often how they will maintain or increase their that privilege.
What an adaptation chooses to focus on can say as much about our own time as Austen’s
However, many of her most compelling characters are trapped by circumstances that are largely beyond their control, and many of the women in Austen’s novels seek to improve their status not out of greed, but to take some measure of control of their lives. Lizzie cannot understand Charlotte’s choice to marry Mr. Collins, but in doing so Charlotte secures her future comfort and is able to leave her parents’ home at last. The modern reader might balk at Charlotte’s decision, as Lizzie does, but within a narrow field of options, I’d argue that Charlotte chooses the closest thing to independence.
Modern versions of the novels that draw out the advantages and prejudices of those characters are compelling and revealing. Take Longbourn by Jo Baker. It’s a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice but it’s also a reply, a novel where the servants take centre stage instead, and attention is given to how the Bennets’ world is made possible.
What an adaptation chooses to focus on can say as much about our own time as Austen’s. For example, I find it cathartic to shout at the screen whenever someone implies that a woman is past all chance of a meaningful life at the age of twenty-one. The reason those lines still resonate is because a version of those same societal pressures still exist today.
Because of the characters
For me, one of the best things about Jane Austen’s writing is that the characters are so well defined that they live on in the imagination after reading the books. They’re so vivid that they are easily recognisable in a huge range of settings. It’s a sign of how strongly written her iconic characters are that a version of Emma Woodhouse can ring true or strike a false note, so sure are we that we know what drives Emma, and what she would do.
A large part of this is Jane Austen’s legendary ear for dialogue. It’s a simple thing to say that two characters having a conversation should not sound alike, and another thing to achieve it with such resounding, consistent success.
Because it’s fun
To adapt something is to make it fit for a new purpose
Why not just re-read the books, then? Because it’s fun to see what other people do with the books, and how many different books, films, plays and more can come from the same prompt. It’s another addition to a centuries-long conversation. I laughed out loud when I found out that Curtis Sittenfeld’s Bingley stars in a Bachelor-style reality TV show, because of course he does.
With film and TV, it’s fun to see actors having the time of their lives embodying these characters – special mention here for Anthony Stewart Head as Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. In particular, the comedy in the books comes to life in the hands of the right actors, whether on film or in a web series.
The key thing about adaptations is that they’re a single version of the book that doesn’t replace or displace the original work. To adapt something is to make it fit for a new purpose. Half the fun of watching an adaptation is seeing what’s new or altered, and the other half is seeing something familiar again.
Image: jane austen pillow