Adaptations of Jane Austen novels have a long and storied tradition in film — the first screen version of Pride and Prejudice came out in 1938, and we’ve been making and remaking all of her novels ever since. But for most of film and television history, there’s been a fairly traditional approach to adapting Austen’s material. It’s easily recognizable: the sort of the beige, Masterpiece Classic cinematography, complete with recycled BBC costumes, questionable wigs, and a slavish devotion to the text. Perfectly acceptable for Austen acolytes, but perhaps not the most creatively bold choice to be made. We only start to see a change over the past few decades, with 1995 representing sort of a watershed moment as Clueless and Pride and Prejudice represent the two emerging paths to the modernization of Jane Austen. One is to uproot the classic 19th-century romances and transplant them into the present day, while the other keeps the novels in their traditionally historical settings but infuses modern elements into the narrative.
Films like Clueless allow for great flexibility, as story elements are carefully manipulated in a way that makes Austen seemingly more relevant to modern audiences while also showcasing how much of her original content is already incredibly relatable. Her Emma, traditionally a spoiled English socialite, becomes a Beverly Hills high schooler, her Knightley a charming, slightly pretentious older ex-step brother. The 20th-century updating is subtly done: the romantically unavailable Frank Churchill is gay rather than secretly engaged, the preening Elton is a 90s teen heartthrob type with a perpetually missing Cranberries CD, and the iconic dance sequence where Harriet falls in love with Knightley takes place at a Mighty Mighty Bosstones concert. All of these moments create a bridge between the past and present, linking the traditional narrative with something entirely new. But the central concept stays the same, that of a young woman who desperately wants to do right by her friends and family while unable to recognize that she doesn’t always know what’s best for everyone else.
We see this style of adapting Jane Austen in several other films, more and more frequently in the 2000s. The Bridget Jones films are more of an homage to Pride and Prejudice than a straight adaptation, but the would-be love triangle between Lizzie, Darcy, and Wickham remains largely intact while transported to a modern London publishing house (aptly named Pemberly Publishing, an ode to Darcy’s magnificent estate.) There’s a popular series of web shorts that re-imagine the works of Austen as vlogs (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved, The Cate Morland Chronicles, and Welcome to Sanditon) where the modern-day versions of her heroines offer their classic narratives as a direct address into a webcam. We also see films like From Prada to Nada and Bride & Prejudice, which not only modernize Austen novels, but introduce a cross-cultural element that further demonstrate the universality of these stories. And finally, there’s the postmodern oddball Lost in Austen, which attempts to bridge the gap between the present-day and the classical by creating a magical door that literally connects the bathroom of a twenty-first century Londoner to the attic of the Bennet’s home in Pride and Prejudice. This narrative device not only allows a Jane Austen enthusiast to interact with her beloved characters, but to accidentally interfere with the plot.
Perhaps the greater creative challenge is not to update the narratives to exist within a modern space in a literal sense, but rather in telling historical stories infused with a sense of modernity. The first step in this venture is effectively updating the romantic elements so that they fully resonate with filmgoing audiences. It’s no secret that an 18th-century relationship would look very different from a 21st century one, and if you follow any internet rabbit hole of Austen purists you’re sure to find at least a few people nitpicking about how certain behavior in film adaptations would be considered scandalous and is therefore not period-appropriate. So the challenge is to present romances that aren’t entirely sexless, while still retaining a modicum of believability within a historical context. How does one communicate to a twenty-first-century audience desperate longing between characters who are culturally bound to much more subtle demonstrations of affection: a touching of gloved hands, perhaps, or a meaningful glance across a dance floor?
We see the beginnings of this transition in approach during the 1990s, with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Strictly speaking, would it have been period-appropriate for an 18th-century gentleman to strip down to his underthings, jump in a pond, and then walk back to his manor house only half-dressed? Probably not. Yet the moment achieves its intended effect, both in creating in Firth’s Darcy a twentieth-century object of desire and orchestrating a sexually-charged interaction between him and Ehle’s Lizzie that fully informs their relationship for modern viewers.
In this latest adaptation of Emma by Autumn de Wilde, the modernizing influences are not limited to one or two scenes, but are instead much more pervasive and nuanced. The film in particular focuses on the interior lives of the characters that we rarely see, that is to say, how they are at home when no one else is looking. There’s a certain intimacy to the characters that reflects a modern influence, when de Wilde pulls back the curtain on Emma and Mr. Knightley in particular. The recurring motif of the characters dressing and undressing invites the viewer into an unusually private space, reminding us that underneath starched collars and fussy bonnets these are vibrant, fully realized humans. Their emotions, although restrained, are also imbued with a modern sensibility.
Other adaptations of Emma have more prominently featured the familial bond between Emma and Mr. Knightley. They make it clear that she has known him all her life, the older, almost brotherly figure who played a key role in both her childhood and adolescence. Their love is warm and affectionate, more born of mutual admiration than lust. Here, the family connection is underplayed, making space for their relationship to be explored in a more overtly sexual way. Whereas the majority of Austen’s romantic pairings are allowed one chaste kiss at the end of the film at most, this adaptation of Emma finds moments of privacy for Emma and Knightley to get more intimate than is strictly period-appropriate. This creates an essential updating of romantic conventions while still retaining its historical atmosphere.
The Jane Austen cinematic adaptation is a genre unto itself, and one that seems unlikely to be going away anytime soon. Still, filmmakers will continue to find ways to tweak the source material and find new ways of telling classic stories with maximum emotional impact for today’s audiences. If anything, the continued success of these adaptations shows that there’s room for a variety of different approaches, and fans will embrace the films that best embody the spirit of Austen’s work, whether they’re traditional or modern.