And yet, filmmakers keep trying.
It’s an unenviable task, condensing volumes’ worth of social critique, sparkling dialogue and characters so beloved that they’ve inspired an entire archetype of love interest. But often, these films succeed and even reveal new layers to Austen’s canonical works. At the very least, they inspire debate among her many readers.
CNN consulted several Austen scholars and devotees to explain what they look for in an adaptation of Austen’s work — and break down why the magic of her words can be so tricky to translate for the screen.
Why we love adapting Austen
Viewed one way, Austen’s tales are quintessential romances. They’ve got all the hallmarks of the genre: Disapproving family, mismatched couples, hate-to-love relationships, long-awaited reunions, swoon-worthy declarations of love.
On one hand, it’s a shrewd business decision to revive Austen — there’s always an audience for her work, said Jillian Davis and Yolanda Rodriguez, hosts of the “Pemberley Podcast,” in which they analyze various adaptations of Austen’s work.
“Complex interpersonal relationships will never go out of style,” Davis and Rodriguez told CNN in an email.
Though Austen’s novels always folded love and marriage into their plots, the author didn’t always portray marriage as the seamless happy ending to which her heroines aspired. It’s a financial decision and a familial duty, of which her female characters are acutely aware. Austen’s women are often ambivalent about what it would mean for their independence if they marry, even when they genuinely love their partners, said Inger Brodey, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“Austen is a way for today’s readers to both romanticize about soul mates and also sustain their self-respect,” said Brodey, who’s published several papers on Austen.
And so, in that way, she said, Austen’s tales continue to inspire and empower today: They’re clear-eyed love stories told from a subtly feminist perspective that still give their protagonists some sort of agency.
What the best Austen adaptations get right
A strong Austen adaptation doesn’t need to parrot the original text or even take place in late 18th-century England. In fact, Brodey said, she’d prefer a film not feel indebted to the source novel. The Austenites CNN interviewed agreed — for an Austen adaptation to succeed, it needs to maintain the spirit of her work, especially her incisive depth and incomparable wit.
“What’s most challenging for any adapter of Austen must be capturing her fiction’s incredible combination of comedy, irony and social criticism, along with genuinely moving stories of courtship,” said Devoney Looser, a Regents professor of English at Arizona State University and author of “The Making of Jane Austen.” “It’s obviously hard to get that balance of characters in content in two hours, along with the requisite, satisfying happy endings.”
“I’d say I find any adaptation of Austen to be a successful one if it gets me thinking, or rethinking, any parts of the original,” Looser told CNN.
Take the seemingly divergent but thematically faithful “Clueless,” a ’90s retelling of “Emma.” It’s not an obvious candidate for most accurate Austen adaptation (the lead’s name is Cher, for one, and her closet comes with software that helps her coordinate outfits), but both Brody and Austen scholar William Galperin said Amy Heckerling’s film is an exemplary version of a film that modernizes elements of the story while retaining Austen’s spirit.
“Clueless” is “celebrating a certain kind of autonomy and playfulness and solidarity among women,” the kind that Austen took seriously, too, said William Galperin, an English professor at Rutgers University and author of “The Historical Austen.” And like “Emma,” “Clueless” is more concerned with Cher’s development than her romantic escapades, and even those plotlines serve to strengthen her character.
Films that update, modernize or otherwise remix Austen for a new time, place or culture are, paradoxically, “more able to reveal new aspects of Austen than films that try to follow her novels more slavishly,” Brodey said. Even “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” though anything but subtle, found a parallel between “settling down” and zombiism.
But aside from the rare battle between Bennets and the undead, Austen’s stories mine narrative riches out of relatively mundane goings-on at English manors, among members of a few local families.
“What (Austen) is trying to suggest on the largest scale is that what goes on in the everyday basis of all of our lives is filled with all kinds of implications,” Galperin said. “It doesn’t have to involve big things like fights and power struggles on a grand sort of geopolitical level. Ordinary, everyday life is filled with all kinds of complexities. And the closer the films come to representing that, the better they are.”
Where Austen adaptations fall short
Condensing hundreds of pages of rich text — rife with social critique, gorgeous phrasing and revelatory inner musings — into a two-hour film or even a six-hour miniseries is no small feat. So, Galperin said, some filmmakers focus on the most obvious strand in the story: The marriage plot.
Relationships are of course important in Austen’s novels, but more often, Galperin said, the marriage plot is the mere “scaffolding,” a skeleton of a story. The meat, he said, is in the narrative episodes that reveal her characters’ true intentions.
“The novel is extremely good at demonstrating that tension (between love and duty), whereas the film just kind of flattens that into an early rejection,” Galperin said.
Often, Brodey said, films “overwhelmingly indulge in romance at the expense of social satire.”
Why Austen’s stories will live forever
Even if new versions of “Persuasion” and other classics aren’t necessarily successful in reinterpreting Austen’s work, they’re still worth making, Looser said — at the very least, they’ll entice new audiences to fall for the brooding Darcy, the beachside bliss of Sanditon and the cunningly resourceful Lady Susan.
“If we don’t recreate Austen’s nineteenth-century stories for our own time, and attract new generations of viewers, then these texts won’t live on,” Looser said. “So I’m definitely all for adaptations that use Austen’s material as an inspiration, and make their own mark on it, rather than treating her originals as blueprints that must be religiously copied.”