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Is Jane Austen getting a bum deal?

As the new Emma comes to cinema screens, Alexander Larman considers the innumerable Austen remakes over the past 25 years

Just as it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife, so it seems a given that Jane Austen adaptations remain a mainstay of large and small screens alike. It seems as if barely a few months go by without some new version of Bath’s most famous author’s work being brought to us. Last year, Andrew Davies massaged her unfinished novel Sanditon to eight-part life, rousing some mild controversy in the process for its bare-buttocked nudity and sex scenes, and Laura Wade tackled Austen’s other unfinished work in her play The Watsons. And now, Austen aficionados desperate for their fix of the accepted canon can rest easy. Emma has returned to us once again.

The splendidly named Autumn de Wilde’s new film of the book, adapted by novelist Eleanor Catton, opened in British cinemas last weekend: appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day. The Argentine-Anglo actress Anya Taylor-Joy portrays the ‘handsome, clever and rich’ Emma Woodhouse, the rising star Johnny Flynn her neighbour, the landowner George Knightley, and a fine cast of character actors appear doing their usual turns. Bill Nighy is a quizzical, amused Mr Woodhouse, Miranda Hart chews the scenery as Miss Bates and former model Mia Goth is an unusually antic Harriet Smith. Some may regret that the fine actor Josh O’Connor – so moving and effective as a young Prince Charles in the most recent series of The Crown – has been directed to turn Mr Elton into a manically grinning loon, but it is at least an unorthodox and memorable portrayal. Those who were shocked (or pleased) by the nudity in Sanditon should be warned that Flynn displays his naked bottom in an early scene, but rest assured that the film remains a ‘U’ certificate.

There is nothing especially wrong with de Wilde’s pleasant and engaging picture, but I struggled to escape a sense of déjà vu while thinking about it, and then a miserable realisation dawned upon me. Just as I have become deeply bored by watching innumerable versions of Batman, Spider-Man and the like over the past few years (if Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider once again, I shall not be responsible for my actions), I have now watched Taylor-Joy, Romola Garai, Kate Beckinsale and a pre-GOOP Gwyneth Paltrow all give their interpretations of Emma Woodhouse in the past couple of decades, and I fear that they have all blurred into one. If the Stasi were to interrogate me as to which version contained Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse, Mark Strong as Knightley or Alan Cumming as Mr Elton, I would almost certainly be packed off to the gulags long before I was able to give the correct answer.

The Austen canon remains one of the most reliable in English literature when it comes to adaptation, which is why it sometimes seems as if viewers are faced with a never-ending merry-go-round of them. We are probably due another Pride and Prejudice before too long (the last one was in 2005, with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen), but its influence remains ever-present, whether it was the murder mystery spin-off Death Comes to Pemberley or the bizarrely po-faced Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the title was the funniest thing about it. Austen herself has appeared as a character in dramas such as Miss Austen Regrets and Becoming Jane (which features the treasurable literary crossover credit ‘Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen’) and even the Jane industry itself has been satirised, in 2013’s Austenland, in which a wide-eyed young woman travels to an Austen theme park in search of her very own Mr Darcy. It comes as a surprise to find that there is, in fact, no real-life Austen tourist attraction on this scale, but anyone who has visited Bath and watched ‘resting’ actors attempt to bring vitality to its Jane Austen Centre will probably get the idea.

The Austen canon remains one of the most reliable in English literature when it comes to adaptation, which is why it sometimes seems as if viewers are faced with a never-ending merry-go-round of them.

Yet what seems surprising about the vast majority of Austen adaptations is how conservative they remain, bare posteriors or not. De Wilde’s film is highly unusual in 2020 in that it has a lack of diversity in its cast, and none other than the Mail on Sunday’s film critic Matthew Bond – hardly a leading proponent of the woke movement – was driven to say in an otherwise positive review that ‘the only slightly jarring note is hit by its conspicuous lack of ethnic diversity’. While the obvious riposte is that Regency England was hardly a hotbed of ethnic variety, the forward-looking and often thrilling casting in Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield showed that an unorthodox approach to the material can pay rich dividends, and allow an audience to believe that they were seeing something fresh and exciting, rather than a well-mounted rehash of the same tropes and scenes all over again.

It is now, 25 years on, hard to remember how Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Pride and Prejudice revolutionalised both Austen on screen and costume dramas in general, both for its unexpected sex appeal (Colin Firth emerging in a white shirt from a lake will forever remain iconic) and the erotic charge between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, courtesy of a perfectly cast Firth and Jennifer Ehle. It was little wonder that the two became romantically involved while filming, as the chemistry between them remains electrifying. And shortly afterwards, Ang Lee’s sensitive, intelligent version of Sense and Sensibility used Emma Thompson’s wise, witty script and her equally adept performance as Elinor Dashwood to perfection. No wonder that the cry went up ‘We want more Austen!’ Now, a quarter-century later, we are positively glutted with her work.

A bolder approach to Jane can succeed admirably. One of my own favourite adaptations of her work is Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film of Mansfield Park, with Frances O’Connor as the ‘poor relation’ Fanny Price and none other than Harold Pinter as her plantation-owning uncle Sir Thomas Bertram. Its 15 certificate for ‘moderate sex and images of sexual violence’ indicated that this was to be Austen for a more adult audience, and its upfront treatment of colonialism and slavery, as well as its sexual content, shocked many. They had, presumably, not read the novel recently, which contains Jane’s filthiest joke, as the witty, amoral Mary Crawford declares ‘Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough.’ Anyone who wished to brush away this innuendo simply to coincidence is then upbraided by Mary’s sly remark ‘Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat’.

Today, Mansfield Park seems a tougher and more socially engaged work, both as book and film, and goes a long way to checking those who take refuge in the cliché of Austen as a witty chronicler of social mores. It was WH Auden, in his ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, who suggested that Austen was a more complex writer than many would have liked her to be:

‘You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass,’

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.’

Those weary of apparently rote iterations of Austen are in for a treat very soon. In May, Laura Wade’s The Watsons opens at the Harold Pinter Theatre, after acclaimed earlier productions at the Chichester Festival Theatre and at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Just as Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Sanditon allowed him to follow his own instincts in completing the story, so Wade attempts to split the difference between a relatively faithful tribute to Austen and something more Pirandellian and playful. It would be spoiling the surprises to reveal too much, but as the all too anachronistic character of ‘Laura’ appears, and questions of authorship and authority are raised, anyone sick of the whole conveyor-belt procession of identikit Austenania will be challenged and thrilled.

At one point, Laura attempts to explain who ‘her version’ of Austen was. She describes her as ‘a friend, a comfort, a gossip who’s cynical and romantic’, before confessing that ‘I’m here to fucking honour her, OK’. Even as Taylor-Joy essays yet another Emma Woodhouse across our arthouse and multiplex screens, her creator has already been more than honoured by none other than Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, perhaps the definitive screen version of Emma. Taking joyous liberties with the story and recreating Austen’s argot for Nineties Beverley Hills (‘My mother died when I was young…a freak accident during a routine liposuction’), it is endlessly entertaining and I suspect that Her Janeness would have enjoyed it rather more than the parade of faithful but somehow lifeless adaptations of her novels. And there’s not a bare bottom in sight, either.

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