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The 9 Best Jane Austen Movies (& The 4 Worst)

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    The empire-waisted wonders of Jane Austen's world once again get the cinematic treatment in Love & Friendship, out on May 13.

    The immensely enjoyable film — directed by Whit Stillman — is based on Lady Susan, a posthumously published early epistolary novel of Austen's. Love & Friendship follows the always-plotting widow Lady Susan Vernon, played with a devilish edge by Kate Beckinsale. Lady Susan slides through society attempting to get exactly what she wants, no matter what the cost to others. She's an antihero with an Austen touch.

    Of course, this is far from the first time we've seen Austen's work translated to a screen, big or small. During 1995 and 1996, the author was all the rage in Hollywood. Another revival in Austen-interest peaked in the middle of the last decade.

    Here, we're cataloguing the most acclaimed adaptations and the ones that were widely panned. And just to be sure we stay somewhat objective, we sought the counsel of Claire Bellanti, president of the Jane Austen Society of North America. While Bellanti was careful to note that JASNA doesn't wish to "endorse" films — hoping that any and all versions will draw audiences to Austen's writings — Bellanti shared some comments regarding her personal favourites. Lauren Thompson, tour guide at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, also shared her recommendations with Refinery29.

    So, read on, dear friend. And hey, we got through this without making a "truth universally acknowledged" reference.

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    The Best...

    Pride and Prejudice (1940)

    This Old Hollywood take on P&P isn’t concerned with the specifics of Austen's era or even the novel itself. The costumes are all wrong and an early bit of dialogue references the Battle of Waterloo, which took place after the novel was published. Even though an Austen fanatic might roll her eyes at some of the missteps, it’s still a treat to watch Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier go head to head as Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy. Bellanti is a fan of Garson's performance. "[She] captured, to me, a great deal of what Elizabeth Bennet is about," she said.

    Words of praise:
    "Greer Garson is Elizabeth — 'dear, beautiful Lizzie' — stepped right out of the book, or rather out of one's fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be." — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

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    Sense & Sensibility (1995)

    Emma Thompson is perhaps Hollywood's number-one Jane Austen fan. When she won a Golden Globe for writing the screenplay for Ang Lee's Sense & Sensibility, she even accepted as Austen. Thompson, doing double duty as writer and star, is splendid as the measured Elinor Dashwood and a pre-Titanic Kate Winslet is equally so as Marianne, Elinor’s romantic sister. But we shouldn’t forget the men, played by Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. Thompson certainly didn’t. In fact, Bellanti told us that the film has “the value...[of] enhancing the male characters,” evolving them beyond the novel.

    Words of praise: "Jane Austen scores the hat trick with Sense and Sensibility, a witty and rollicking adaptation of the author’s first novel." — Todd McCarthy, Variety

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    Clueless (1995)

    When you really think about it, Clueless is remarkable. Not only is it the gold standard of teen movies, it’s also a damn great Austen adaptation. Sure, Clueless transforms Emma Woodhouse into Cher Horowitz and transplants the action from Regency England to 1990s Los Angeles, but it keeps what’s most essential: Its heroine’s journey from careless cleverness to self-recognition.

    Words of praise: "Cher can sound off-putting and manipulative, but Silverstone emphasizes her good-hearted guilelessness until we have no choice but to embrace her, maxed-out credit cards and all." — Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

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    Pride and Prejudice (1995)

    Colin Firth gets his wet T-shirt contest moment in the BBC's P&P and we get all hot and bothered. Every. Damn. Time. But outside of the delectable man candy in the much-heralded miniseries, this adaptation is remarkable for how loyal it is to Austen’s most famous novel. Even though proceedings do get a little sexier than Austen's text, dialogue is ripped straight from the page.

    Faithfulness does not breed tedium, however. Instead, this is the perfect P&P for binge-watching. Meanwhile, Firth is such a good Darcy that he basically reprised the role in Bridget Jones' Diary.

    Words of praise:
    "...this adaptation perfectly balances the novel’s satire and romance" — Caroline Seide, The A.V. Club

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    Persuasion (1995)

    Yes, 1995 is a banner year for Austen adaptations. Persuasion is maybe the most underrated of the bunch, but that doesn't mean it isn't beloved or should be ignored. Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds star as the central lovers, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, who are reunited after a very brief engagement years prior. "The screenplay was very well written; the characters, so well directed and acted," Thompson said.

    Words of praise: "The details are right (in particular, we notice how dark the houses are), but this is not a costume piece; it is a film about two people who are shy and proud, and about a process of mutual persuasion that takes place between them almost without a word being spoken on the real subject." — Roger Ebert