Dec. 16 is Jane Austen’s 239th birthday, and in the past two centuries, her seminal novels have been read and reread passionately by generations. More than that, however, they’ve captured the imagination of the culture in a way few other authors’ works have. Like Shakespeare, Austen has had her work adapted into major motion pictures, sequels, TV series and so much more.
Most notably, Austen’s novels are so recognizable and relatable that they’ve been repeatedly adapted as modern reimaginings -- not all of them successful. Look, I get it. It’s tough to update Jane Austen’s novels for the present day. We still read them, and long to retell them, because they feel so deeply universal; their themes of love, family, duty, judgment and prejudice resonate across the centuries.
They are also, however, very much novels of their time: They satirize the specific, rigid social dynamics and restrictions of Austen’s era. Plots that hinge on sexist inheritance laws and archaic courtship codes simply don’t translate to an age when inheritance laws are generally gender-neutral, women don’t need a dowry to get married or support themselves, and a man breaking a loveless engagement isn’t a sign of his caddishness.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the most successful Austen updates take liberties with the superficial details when necessary, focusing more on maintaining the spirit of each work. If Austen were writing Pride and Prejudice today, she likely wouldn’t have written about a family with five young sisters whose mother is desperately trying to marry them all off before the age of 22; a single, 32-year-old single girl struggling with both career and dating prospects provides a more current lens for critiquing social expectations and norms.
Most importantly, modern adaptations shouldn't focus on transposing the sappy romances to the modern day. At heart, these books care about class divides, women's oppression, and other substantive issues -- or at least an acute sense of the absurdities of society. A movie that shows a modern couple named Elizabeth and Darcy going through the steps of falling in love while losing the underlying humor and painful life learning that the book depicts would not be a worthy update. That said, I like to think there are at least a few modern movie versions of her novels Austen wouldn't faint after viewing.
Here are eight modern film reimaginings of Jane Austen novels, ranked in order of descending cringeworthiness (spoilers literally everywhere):
This is at the bottom of the list, but it’s sort of an interesting concept. Our heroine, Amanda Price, a passionate fan of Pride and Prejudice who can’t find a modern romance to suit her Darcy-honed views of courtesy and wit, finds herself switching places with Elizabeth Bennet via a magical door. She finds she doesn’t fit into that world quite as well as she thought.
What actually results is a three-hour-long Mary Sue fanfiction, in which our obnoxious and dimwitted protagonist somehow bewitches every man (and some women) she meets, from Bingley to Darcy, and must constantly refuse amorous advances to ensure things “go right.” Amanda doggedly devotes herself to the task of ensuring everything goes as it should in the book, despite the heroine of the book being AWOL, and proceeds to make everything far worse. What could foster the delicate flame of romance more effectively than shouting, “But you must fall in love with Jane Bennet! It’s your duty! That’s just what happens!” at someone? Of course, suddenly lunging at Bingley and trying to stick her tongue down his throat seems even more counterproductive, but Amanda tries that as well, for reasons that remain unclear. Things only go downhill from there, such as when Amanda totally gives up pretending she doesn't know everything that should happen to these people who think they're leading a normal, non-fictional life, and starts saying insane things to people like, "The funny thing is, you're actually going to marry Elizabeth Bennet, but she's not here." Okay, okay, sure, I believe you, just sit down quietly while I wrap you in this special coat with arm restraints!
What Would Jane Think?Most irritating would likely be the disappearance of any social satire; even though Amanda soon finds out she’s not as good at being courteous and proper as she’d imagined, she ultimately doesn’t seem to see substantive problems with the milieu Austen herself found deeply flawed -- she actually abandons the modern world to be Mr. Darcy’s trophy wife, even after he basically called her a slut for not being a virgin. Austen would be shocked by the weakness Bingley shows; he becomes a raging alcoholic after Jane marries Collins to save her family. Plus, Wickham is redeemed through a twist of the Georgiana storyline, despite the two other storylines in the novel through which his dastardliness is proven. Can you say “massive, gaping plot hole”?
Puns, of course! Also, fortunately, the plot doesn’t hinge on a sexist inheritance law, but on Mr. Dashwood being convicted of running a Ponzi scheme, ruining the family’s finances and reputation and leaving his wife and daughters unhireable. Meanwhile, Margaret’s expensive medical condition dictates that her older sisters find lucrative jobs. Not terribly likely as a set-up, but somewhat plausible! Good effort.
The tenuous plausibility unravels from there. Marianne's serious boyfriend, Willoughby, claims to have an important new job in Switzerland, yet there's no question of him helping his possible future sister-in-law obtain life-saving medicine with his purportedly huge paychecks. Fortunately, help is on the way! Marianne's homemade lotion, which looks sort of like Dannon raspberry-flavored yogurt and appears to be made of the same ingredients, turns out to magically heal everything from muscle strains to surface wounds (because science). Elinor’s boss Fran, the equivalent of the Dashwoods' cruel sister-in-law, makes a dastardly attempt to steal the miracle lotion formula in hopes of keeping her failing spa above water. But with the help of hunky Brandon, Marianne’s coworker, and Ed, a patent lawyer and Fran's brother, the lotion makes their fortune. Marianne drops her cheating boyfriend Willoughby. Fran is ruined, to great comic effect. Marianne and Brandon get married. Elinor and Ed fall in love. More magical lotion is in the offing. Probably they will cure cancer with lotion soon and everyone will get married. Ooookay then! This would all be bad enough, but there are also plot holes galore. Yikes.
What Would Jane Think?Austen would weep over an adaptation that abandons the razor-sharp wit and eloquent wisdom of Sense and Sensibility in favor of this version's unforgivably clunky dialogue. Some noteworthy lines: “This never would have happened if Dad hadn’t stolen money!” and “No, what you did was worse! You told me there were no jobs available at your office!” and “So, are we gonna cook up your little hobby?” ("Cook up your hobby"? Was the script written by Google Translate?) This version also makes Willoughby so unattractive and openly sleazy, and Brandon so hot and charming, that Marianne’s emotional arc toward valuing steadiness and sense is eliminated. Miss Austen would not approve.
Again, a somewhat believable premise -- after Mary and Nora’s father dies, they find he’s bankrupt, and they have to leave their decadent lifestyle to move in with their aunt in East Los Angeles. In place of the original critique of the misogynistic and class-obsessed British society of the 1800s, the movie highlights cultural and class tensions between the girls and their poorer, Mexican neighbors, which infuses a new relevance into Austen’s depictions of prejudice and snobbery.
And yet ... the result is that Mary is portrayed as a rather racist, hateful girl who has no interests outside dating, getting her nails done, and going shopping. Somehow, we're supposed to believe that Bruno (Colonel Brandon), a smoldering artist with a heart of gold, falls for her after she repeatedly calls him a gang member and homeless due to his accent and inexpensive clothing. Plus, when adorable lawyer Edward kisses Nora, she rejects him because he’s the boss at a job she badly needs. So, of course, he goes out and gets engaged to some girl his sister knows just a few weeks later. What?? This isn’t the 19th century anymore -- why, exactly, doesn't he just have a rebound fling? Meanwhile, Nora shows her "sense" by putting up a sign advertising free legal advice even though she’s still in law school -- a violation of ethics, if not the law itself. Good thing she played it safe and didn't date the boss!
What Would Jane Think?This shallow, nasty Mary is a far cry from Austen’s basically lovable but foolish girl. Does she have any redeeming qualities? Nora, meanwhile, doesn't seem exactly sensible, especially since she eventually commences her relationship with Edward by signing the deed to a house with him. A house. What could possibly go wrong?
This web series takes the form of a vlog, which is sometimes irritating but occasionally captures the wit and charm that pervade Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins is recast as a potential business partner, who hires Lizzie’s more practical best friend Charlotte Lu after Lizzie idealistically refuses to take on a role in his digital media firm, an interesting modern twist on the Collins narrative. Lydia’s disgrace takes the form of a sex tape, which is given a more sensitive treatment than she gets in the novel. The racial diversity of the cast also offers a refreshing update.
Much of the acting is wooden, and the vlog format is somewhat abused. For example, Will Darcy and Bing Lee always seem to burst in to cause a dramatic scene right as Lizzie is recording her one five-minute vlog of the week. Hm. The plot line in which Darcy and Caroline convince Bing to dump Jane stays, but in a modern context it’s sort of baffling why such a good guy would dump his girlfriend via a tweet notifying her (and everyone) he’s moved across the country, even if his friends say she sucks. Additionally, Bing is purportedly a medical student. Has anyone on the show ever met a medical student? They really can't pull up stakes and move from city to city on a whim, guys. A little too much faithfulness to the original here.
What Would Jane Think?She’d probably be a bit confused why people with these exact names were enacting one of her exact plots in a world in which she exists. Yes, Austen is mentioned in one of the first episodes. The plot holes would drive her nuts. Plus, Lizzie’s open mockery of her family on the internet seems like exactly the sort of rudeness and lack of consideration Austen would despise, not like Lizzie’s more restrained archness.
Rather than adhering to the plot of Mansfield Park, the book it’s inspired by, "Metropolitan" relies more on thematic parallels, which allows the characters to weave in some intriguing conversation about the book itself without any collapsing universe weirdness. It also successfully allows the film to update themes of hypocrisy and principle vs. passion to the New York upper class of the 20th century. Idealistic, middle-class Tom Townsend, a Princeton student, finds himself falling in with a band of uppercrust students during the winter debutante season, despite his reservations about the social scene. Quiet Audrey, a Fanny Price double who loves Mansfield Park, falls for him, though at first he has eyes only for popular, gorgeous Serena Slocumb.
Okay, it’s an odd, confusing movie with a wandering, directionless plot and mostly grating characters. Not exactly fun Friday night viewing with a bottle of wine.
What Would Jane Think?She’d probably rue the dearth of laughs and the lack of a tight, well-designed plot, but I think she’d appreciate how the film considers the thematic elements of Mansfield Park and how they apply in the modern age. All in all, not bad!
Once again, racial prejudice stands in for the rigid social caste restrictions of Austen’s time -- more effectively this time. Will Darcy, an American businessman in town with his Indian-British friends Balraj and Kiran, finds lively, ambitious Lalita fascinating, but has offensive, stereotypical views about Indian women, at one point suggesting that his friends who’ve sought out Indian brides wanted their submissiveness and simplicity. Lalita’s refusal to marry for a green card and her desire for a professional life of her own, along with her liveliness, perfectly embodies a modern Lizzie. Her mother’s blatant matchmaking even makes it understandable why Darcy would persuade his friend Balraj to leave off his pursuit of Lalita’s sweet sister Jaya.
The Bollywood numbers inject vibrance and fun into the film, but sometimes my musical-hating heart wished they would stick to simple dialogue. Plus, why must filmmakers persist in having family members force engagements or relationships on adult men in these 21st century stories? It’s hardly convincing. When Darcy's mother invites a wealthy American woman to an event and introduces her to Lalita as his girlfriend, it's not a realistic bit of matchmaking; it's insanity.
What Would Jane Think?I’d like to think (naively?) she’d love the application of her social critique to the racial dynamics between her own homeland, its offshoot America, and the land Britain colonized, though I have to imagine she’d find the musical numbers a bit overly sentimental at points.
Bridget, our modern-day Lizzie, is a thoroughly believable character: She's fairly pretty, but given to overeating, over-drinking and not doing anything nice with her hair. She's 32, just at the age where everyone else is freaking out about whether she'll die alone. She wants to meet a nice man to date, but instead is drawn to rakish flirt Daniel Cleaver (Wickham), the ultimate sexy bad boy, who is convincingly attractive but unsurprisingly a huge cheater. She's a regular girl, with a stubborn tendency to speak her mind, who finds herself starting off on the wrong foot with reserved barrister Mark Darcy -- and it's quite understandable, and charming, to see how they're first repelled, then attracted, by the difference between her chaotic excess and his repressed dignity. Other plotlines, such as the Lydia/Wickham and Jane/Bingley stories, have wisely been jettisoned, allowing more room for Bridget and Darcy to flourish. Plus, we get to see Mr. and Mrs. Jones (Bennet) in a world where Mrs. Bennet could get fed up with her husband's quiet contempt and leave him for a career and an affair with a TV presenter, the closest we get to a Lydia/Wickham situation in this rendition.
Bridget is believable, and lovable, but frankly a bit Lydia-esque. It's hard to imagine her taking Lizzie's spot in the original novel; she'd certainly laugh too much in company and run away with Mr. Wickham, well-meaningly.
What Would Jane Think?She would be shocked by Bridget's self-description as a "wanton sex goddess," and would mourn the loss of the more explicitly class-based commentary. Bridget's social awkwardness serves as a barrier to romance, rather than a modern alternative to class and poverty such as race in Bride and Prejudice, making for a more surface-level comedy.
An appropriately free hand with the adaptation results in a plot that feels natural enough that it could have been an original movie -- the ultimate compliment. For example, protagonist Cher sets her sights on a conquest, much like Emma does with Frank Weston, but instead of her target being in a secret relationship, he turns out to be ... gay. A very modern situation faced by high schoolers! The dialogue possesses a sly wit, perhaps not enough to equal Austen, but clever enough to do her proud. Cher and her social scene are deftly skewered, yet she and her friends remain somehow endearing, just like Emma herself. All in all, "Clueless" is a delectable blend of high school social satire and romantic comedy; the execution is flawless.
Nothing. How dare you?
What Would Jane Think?"My work here is done."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated the name of the character Mark Darcy in "Bridget Jones' Diary."