As author brands go, it's hard to think of an author — living or deceased — with a more enduring one than Jane Austen. From modern remixes to stories infused with the Regency England setting she made famous, Austen's impact is ubiquitous over 200 years after her death.
This is especially true for movie adaptations which continue to this day. Case in point? Netflix's "Persuasion" adaptation, featuring Dakota Johnson breaking the fourth wall.
Audiences know — or think they know what they'll get when a film says it's an adaptation of or "inspired by" one of Austen's works: societal constraints, romance, beautiful costumes, financial difficulties, grand gestures of romance.
What they're less likely to recall — largely thanks to these adaptations and inspirations — are the sharper aspects of Austen's stories.
"Adaptations (of her work) tend to indulge in romance and pretty surfaces and ignore the irony and social criticism in her works," writes Inger S. Brodey, author of the forthcoming book, "Jane Austen and the Price of Happiness," in an email to TODAY.
Yet she is incredibly popular with modern audiences, despite having lived and published (usually anonymously, because being a female author at the time was just not done) in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Her stories revolve around social conventions (letters, conversations, reliance on relatives) that seem to easily translate to contemporary life, even when they get modern twists.
"Her novels restore hope to a cynical world about the possibilities of domestic happiness. For many, she has become a life coach.”
Inger S. Brodey on Jane Austen
"Women are ambivalent today, as they were in Austen's time, about the desirability of marriage," notes Brodey. "Austen displays some ideal partners and unusually equal marriages, yet the social satire and skepticism about romance in Austen's novels appeals to feminist ideals."
She adds, "Austen is a way for today's readers to have their cake (romanticize about soul mates and manners) and eat it too (sustain their self-respect). Her novels restore hope to a cynical world about the possibilities of domestic happiness. For many, she has become a life coach."
So whether you've read Austen's novels (recommended!) or are just looking for a terrific new adaptation, here's a curated list of some of the best and most curious modern versions we were able to come across.
'Pride and Prejudice'
1995: TV Series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle
You could throw an "Avengers"-sized budget at a remake of Austen's 1812 novel and loyalists would still turn to this six-episode BBC adaptation featuring a pre-Oscar, pre-"Bridget Jones" Firth as Mr. Darcy and Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett. Sheer perfection in all possible areas.
2004: 'Bride and Prejudice: The Bollywood Musical'
One of the clearest indications that Austen reigns triumphant in the modern day is the way non-European cultures have taken to her stories, as evidenced by recent Austen-inspired novels like "Ayesha at Last" by Uzma Jalaluddin and Sonali Dev's retellings. "Bride and Prejudice" is also a modern India-set retelling of the story, with some changes – like the addition of songs, a tenet of Bollywood cinema. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, the movie features Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson fighting past first impressions and cultural differences.
2005: Movie starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden
"Succession" fans may find Macfayden as Mr. Darcy a curious choice in "Pride & Prejudice" (the film uses the ampersand in the title), but he wasn't always an object of pathos. In fact, he nails dark, brooding Darcy while Knightley is as always jaw-first and ready to take on the world. The film places the action in a slightly earlier period, and there are some liberties with family dynamics. If you don't have the time for six episodes of the miniseries, this adaptation is perfectly lovely, too.
2016: 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'
Based on Seth Graham-Smith's novel, this 2016 film takes Austen on a detour toward the macabre. Inclusion of undead characters aside, the movie has a lot in common with the original, like everyone trying to find a husband. Just imagine the Bennet sisters and Darcy occasionally having to dispatch one of the zombies, and then get on with their social events and romances.
"Clueless," starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, is a loose take on the 1815 comedy of manners about of a single woman playing matchmaker, then finding love of her own in the most unlikely of places. Of course, there are some changes: Emma and Mr. Knightley were unrelated, while Cher and Josh of “Clueless’” are step-siblings, but 'tis a mere quibble. There's more than enough charm to go around. Brodey calls this her "favorite adaptation" of the book.
1996: Movie with Gwyneth Paltrow
Still two years away from 1998's Oscar-winning turn in "Shakespeare in Love," Paltrow is glowing amid a star-studded cast that includes Alan Cumming, Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor and Jeremy Northam.
2009: TV miniseries with Romola Garai
Some 14 years after creating the perfect multi-part limited series with "Pride and Prejudice," BBC came back with a four-parter for "Emma" featuring Garai, Jonny Lee Miller and Michael Gambon. Though well-made, it didn't seem to click widely and isn't well-remembered, but for completists it's well worth the visit.
Set among the modern upper class of Delhi, India, here's another musical version of Austen, but with a refreshing take thanks to its cultural transplantation. We love the tag line on the poster, though: "Don't be Cupid."
2020: Film with Anya Taylor-Joy
The year of lockdown and COVID-19 was huge for Taylor-Joy, who won hearts not just with "The Queen's Gambit," but a crisp, winking adaptation that added a little punctuation to the title, calling it "Emma." While the movie is utterly charming and breezy, Taylor-Joy brings heft to the role — and as her father, Bill Nighy is sure to bring laughter.
‘Sense and Sensibility’
1995: Film with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet
The bad news: The Dashwood sisters have been well-off financially, and are now destitute. The good news: Some well-off (to different degrees) men are about to ride over the hill to sweep them off their feet, assuming they can agree to get along. Star Thompson wrote the screenplay, and she's a clear-headed delight alongside Kate Winslet as her sister. But, notes Brodey, "Ang Lee's ("Sense") is a truly beautiful film; however, it elides nearly all the novel's humor and irony in its eagerness to make all Dashwoods perfect."
2008: Miniseries with Dominic Cooper and Dan Stevens
The names that stand out from this series are actually the men, not the women: Future "Downton Abbey" star Dan Stevens and future "Preacher" star Dominic Cooper. Racier and more frank (though remember: This is still from the BBC) than other versions, this BBC miniseries is a clever way to enjoy the long-form version of the tale.
2011: 'From Prada to Nada'
In this modern-day version of the novel, Alexa Vega and Camilla Belle play two Mexican-American sisters who have to move in with an aunt they barely know in East Los Angeles after their father's death leaves them penniless. Brodey gives it a thumbs-up, calling it one of the "most interesting" loose adaptations of the book.
1995: BBC limited series with Ciaran Hinds
Eight years before the start of the action, Anne was persuaded by friends not to marry Captain Wentworth; now that Wentworth is renting out space in her family home (Anne's family need the money) the two have a chance to revisit old hurts and get re-acquainted. Good enough for TV in the UK, and a proper theatrical costume drama release for Americans. However, Brodey says she's still searching for the perfect "Persuasion" adaptation. "I would still like to see a 'Persuasion' that captures Anne's elegance of mind without making her pale and mousy for the first half of the film," Brodey said.
2007: Movie with Sally Hawkins
Future two-time Oscar nominee Hawkins brings depth to Anne, heartbroken yet resilient, a character who thinks the best of life is behind her. Hawkins won awards for her performance but this one doesn't seem to have resonated much with audiences in the U.S.
2022: Movie with Dakota Johnson
From "Fifty Shades of Grey" to Austen heroine, Johnson has shown she has the chops to do both. Time will tell as to whether this time, as Brodey might note, Anne has been done justice.
1999: Movie featuring James Purefoy, Jonny Lee Miller and Hugh Bonneville
Part of a family that can't afford all of its children, Fanny is sent to live with wealthy relatives who treat her like a servant. Some of the family business is in the slave trade in Antigua, a plot point that's not a focal point of the book but in this adaptation has a modern elaboration. To Brodey, though, "Mansfield's" heroine has not received her filmic due. "No one has yet successfully accepted the challenge Austen offers us (here): She dares us to choose a heroine for her goodness rather than charm and vivacity."
2007: Movie featuring Billie Piper
"Doctor Who" fans may prefer this BBC film version of the novel, placing The Doctor's former companion (Piper) in the lead role.
1987: BBC made-for-TV movie, shown on A&E in the US
Published posthumously, "Northanger Abbey" was written as a parody of the Gothic genre popular at that time. In the book, young woman with ideas of her own is sent to an unfamiliar location (in this case, Bath, where a family friend's gout may be cured) and eligible men show up. In this case, Cathy — whose head swarms with Gothic ideas of romance — becomes intrigued with a clergyman, who comes to her rescue when others realize she is not wealthy.
2007: Starring Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan (TV movie)
On the other hand, you could watch the more recent version with Oscar nominees Jones ("The Theory of Everything") and Mulligan ("An Education," "Promising Young Woman.") It's a BBC adaptation, so expect a well-made but unsurprising take on the story.
2016: 'Love & Friendship'
Based on Austen's epistolary novel (though named after one of her juvenile short stories), "Love" takes a sharper tone than many Austen films (thanks in part to director Whit Stillman), and emphasizes the quick wordplay and cunning of its female star (Kate Beckinsale). In many ways this doesn't quite feel like an Austen: The lead is a widow seeking matches for her daughter and herself, and will go to any lengths to secure them.
2019: TV series adaptation of an unfinished manuscript
A sign of true popularity in an author is having stories that weren't even finished, much less published, in the author's lifetime turned into hit shows. "Sanditon" has been airing on PBS since 2019, a rare instance of an ongoing TV series based on Austen's work. In the Regency-era story, a young woman visits a new seaside resort (called Sanditon) and gets to know the locals. Writer Andrew Davies, who has worked on multiple Austen adaptations, has had a free hand to expand the story beyond the borders Austen had originally developed. Miss Lambe, a West Indian heiress in "Sanditon," is the first Black character to appear in one of Austen's works.
For true lovers of Austen's work, here's a short list of indirect works that riff on her stories, or sometimes her life:
"Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001): A reinterpretation of "Pride and Prejudice" for the new millennium, with the genius stroke of casting the breakout star of 1995's "Pride" adaptation, Colin Firth, in the role of ... Mark Darcy.
"Becoming Jane" (2007): This biographical romantic drama features Anne Hathaway as Austen and James McAvoy as her longtime love Thomas Lefroy (who is believed to be the inspiration for Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice").
"Lost in Austen" (2008): A modern-day Austen fan is able to swap places with "Pride and Prejudice's" Elizabeth Bennett in this four-part limited series.
"Death Comes to Pemberley" (2013): What happens after "Pride and Prejudice"? Well, see how Darcy and Elizabeth experience their happily ever after, based on a book by P.D. James.