After a decade of dormancy, Jane Austen has once again marched back into popular culture. This year opened with a one-two punch of the author’s works, starting with an eight-episode adaptation of her unfinished novel “Sanditon” on PBS, followed by one of her most popular works, “Emma,” in theaters. This cycle of Austen adaptations has tried to infuse modern awareness into stories of the British landed gentry. But only one succeeds in spinning the regency era into a delight for the modern age.
This cycle of Austen adaptations has tried to infuse modern awareness into stories of the British landed gentry. But only one succeeds.
Austen only completed six novels in her lifetime, from “Sense and Sensibility” in 1811 to the posthumously published “Persuasion” in 1818. Much like Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which also made a return to both big and small screens in the past few months (Gerwig’s adaptation in theaters, and a BBC miniseries for TV), Austen’s works were hits almost immediately, with her second novel, “Pride and Prejudice” becoming one of the best loved novels of the 19th and 20th centuries. And in the same vein as Alcott, Austen’s stories return every ten to 20 years, like clockwork. Shakespeare and Dickens never go out of fashion, but Austen disappears from the public consciousness for years at a stretch, surfacing when a new generation rediscovers her.
Second only to “Pride and Prejudice” in the number of film and TV adaptations made, “Emma” is one of Austen’s most timeless stories, featuring Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), a headstrong and vain young woman who thinks all too highly of herself. This main character is ahead of her time, one of literature’s first “anti-heroines.” (Austen said she was creating “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”) That her comeuppance involves falling in love with Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and winding up with a happy ending only makes the story that much more satisfying; everyone loves to see the wicked reform their ways.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde, this newest version of “Emma” does not attempt to move the story into the present, like the modern-day classic “Clueless” did in the 1990s. Instead it leans into the period comedy-of-manners, turning it into a delightfully costumed romp. Costume is the operative word here; the costume designers seem to have been on a mission to prove just how many true-to-period gowns Taylor-Joy could wear within her allotted two-hour run time. (I lost count, but it was at least 12, and each better than the last.)
But though the houses, carriages, outfits and requisite ballroom scenes are firmly rooted in the 1810s, the screwball comedy elements are thoroughly modern. Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), is a screaming hoot as a hypochondriac horrified by his own drafty house and wary of any breeze that might kill him. The movie also manages to add bare bottoms, make-out sessions and a love scene accidentally interrupted by a nosebleed. Then there are the servants, the never-mentioned invisible gears that make life work in Austen’s stories. In this version, they never speak, but de Wilde turns their presence (and silently expressed opinions) into some of the most comedically effective scenes in the film. And yet, these 21st -century additions manage to not weigh down the main story, or get in the way of a good wedding finale.
Like “Emma,” “Sanditon” (at least in outline form) is the sort of Austen tale that would appeal to the modern viewer.
“Emma’s” delightful confectionary makes blending old and new seem easy. But over on PBS, “Sanditon” acts as a counterpoint to “Emma’s” charms. Written by Andrew Davies, who is responsible for no less than four Austen adaptations, including the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” that kicked off the last cycle of Austen fandom, “Sanditon” is an odd experiment from the start. Only the first 11 chapters were drafted before Austen died. Others have come behind and attempted to finish what she started — Marie Dobbs’ version from the mid-1970s is considered the gold standard, if rather staid — but Davies threw all that out and went his own ways with the characters. He reimagines the entire story as a pointed capitalist critique that never quite meshes with the standard Austen tropes.
Like “Emma,” “Sanditon” (at least in outline form) is the sort of Austen tale that would appeal to the modern viewer. It centers on Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), a practical can-do sort of heroine. The romantic hero, Sidney Parker (Theo James), is part of a family trying to make its fortune by turning the seaside town of Sanditon into a tourist destination. The book also includes the only non-white character Austen ever created, Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), a wealthy heiress from the West Indies.
In Davies’ telling, Lambe becomes a lightning rod for the biases, both open and unexamined, of the landed gentry around her. But Davies doesn’t just attempt to tackle racism in period drama. He also explores the idea that the cutting witticisms of the rich aren’t just because they are mean, or bored; it’s because they are hiding stories of sexual abuse, emotional abandonment, or are terrified of being exposed as the debt laden posers they are.
On the one hand, it is admirable that Davies attempts to load all of this into an Austen adaptation. It even works, at least in sporadic scenes. But it also undermines the story’s ability to float along on the sea of witty banter and candlelit ballroom sequences which have made Austen’s pointed critiques of society and how it treats women go down so easily for two centuries. By the time the series reaches the finale, Davies can’t even find a way to have a happy ending for his main couple, marking the only Austen adaptation in history where the heroine goes home unwed.
Perhaps the heroine failing to secure economic stability for herself in an Austen story is the height of 21st-century pessimism, but it also fails to remember what has made Austen’s stories so popular for so long. “Emma’s” more subtle reminder to be kind to those with less social capital doesn’t have the weight of “Sanditon.” But it’s a lesson that is just as necessary in this era. And we all still get to go home with a happy ending.