Would Jane Austen approve of 'Austenland,' other adaptations?

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Image Credit: Colm Hogan; Giles Keyte; Alex Bailey

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single Jane Austen female fan in possession of brains and brawn must be in want of an enjoyable/believable Jane Austen movie from Hollywood. But not every Austen adaptation gets it right.

Austenland — about a 30-something woman obsessed with all things Austen who decides to drain her bank account for a trip to a Jane Austen theme park — was released Friday in select theaters.

The film, directed by Jerusha Hess (co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite), is the latest Austenalia adaptation in a messy (but consistent) string of zany romantic comedies, historical re-enactments, books, and stage iterations over the past decade. Jane Austen fandom is alive and well, what with that Colin Firth statue, her face on currency, and Hollywood studios’ constant churning-out of movies riffing off the author’s astute critical eye for social niceties and, most of all, romance.

A quick glance on IMDb for Jane Austen (who has her own entry) shows several adaptations and miniseries galore on the precipice. But with her rampant popularity, loyal fanbase, and Hollywood’s obvious interest, would Jane Austen actually approve of these movies bearing her name?

Let’s take a look at some of the Austen adaptations over the years and do a bit of analysis. (Note: I’ve left out most of the verbatim book adaptations and stuck to big releases and inspired screenplays.)

Clueless (1995)
Plot: Based on Emma, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is a Beverly Hills teen do-gooder consumed with matchmaking and charitable deeds when she ends up falling for her stepbrother (Paul Rudd).
Would Jane Approve? Yes. There are all the factors present here that match a Jane Austen arc — biting social critiques (“You’re a virgin who can’t drive”), entertaining side-relationship stories with fables (Dionne and Murray, Travis and Tai), a moment of realization (Cher’s fountain scene), and a dang good central love story (so what if she’s 16 and he’s her stepbro?).

Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
Plot: In a script inspired by Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) wants to improve her health, her career, and love life, and chronicles her journey through her diary.
Would Jane Approve? Perhaps. I think Jane would approve of Bridget’s efforts at self-improvement, but I think she would cringe at some of Bridget’s embarrassing moments (Panties in the snow! Darcy reading her diary!), and Bridget’s constant returning to that devilish cad Daniel (Hugh Grant).

Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Plot: Based on the novel of the same name.
Would Jane Approve? Totally. Fairly close to the book, I think the sublime performances of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy would be enough to make Ms. Austen’s skirt fly up.

Becoming Jane (2007)
Plot: Explores the life of Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and her romance with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy).
Would Jane Approve? No. Not with Hathaway’s terrible fading-in-and-out British accent. Not with this barely watchable biopic. Jane could have written a much better screenplay of her own life than this.

Jane Austen Book Club (2007)
Plot: Based on the book of the same name, Bernadette (Kathy Baker) starts a book club about Austen’s works, assigning six of her books to each of the six members. Pretty soon, everyone’s love life starts to resemble Austen’s plots.
Would Jane Approve? Perhaps! The performances of the cast were critically lauded, and the film explores diverse romantic relationships. The premise is a bit twee, and still reads like a chick flick, but the characters’ thoughtful conversations over Austen’s works and intentions would make her blush (but secretly proud).

From Prada to Nada (2011)
Plot: Based on Sense and Sensibility, two sisters, Nora (Camilla Belle) and Mary (Alexa Vega), are left penniless after their dad suddenly dies.
Would Jane Approve? Nada chance. The plot is stiff and cheapened by its literalness — the girls’ socioeconomic status change is signified by their moving from Beverly Hills to East L.A., and the film characters’ relation to the book characters is cartoonish. Nora’s Sense is depicted by her being a law student. Mary’s Sensibility is depicted by her affinity for trashy designer bags.

Austenland (2013)
Plot: Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) is an Austen super-fan looking for love (and herself) at an Austen theme park.
Would Jane approve? Nah. I don’t think Jane would advocate spending one’s life savings to go to a theme park to win a game of pretend engagement. There’s the Darcy equivalent whose literalness is … well, he’s a history professor playing a pretend Darcy but who is actually brooding in real life. Keri Russell (Jane Hayes), though sweet enough, doesn’t really play a strong-spirited heroine we can root for. The film is supposed to turn the dagger at women who obsess over Austen’s early 19th-century world, but it does so in a mean-spirited way, in a way that I think Austen would never use in her writing.

PopWatchers, what Austen adaptations do you want to see on the big screen? Which ones do you wish never existed? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

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