Jane Austen, superstar
Her novels have no sex or violence, and are 200 years old, yet Hollywood can't get enough of them.
The movies' love affair with Jane Austen reaches new heights on Friday, when "Becoming Jane" opens. Austen's novels have long been adapted for the screen. Now Austen herself receives the full star treatment, getting played by Anne Hathaway. The devil may wear Prada, but "gentle Jane" wore high-waisted Empire Line dresses.
"Becoming Jane" is an augury of more screen Austeniana. "The Jane Austen Book Club" is scheduled for release next year, as is an adaptation of "Northanger Abbey," the only one of Austen's six novels not previously made into a movie. Robert Ludlum (whose "Bourne Ultimatum" also opens Friday) should have such a track record.
Television has, if anything, been an even more ardent admirer of Austen. PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" has plans for a four-month Austen festival next year , including versions of all the novels and a biopic bearing the unfortunate title "Miss Austen Regrets."
One of the pleasures of reading Austen is her wondrous consistency. Readers may prefer "Emma" or "Pride and Prejudice" to "Persuasion" or "Mansfield Park," but any difference in quality is one of degree not kind. The same cannot be said for the movies inspired by the novels.
'Pride and Prejudice' (2003)
In this version, Elizabeth Bennet (Kam Heskin, above) is a student at Brigham Young University and the characters are Mormons. If the producers had only waited a few years, Mitt Romney could have been subbed for George III.
'Clueless' (1995) Austen goes to Beverly Hills! Amy Heckerling turns "Emma" into a high-school comedy (with Alicia Silverstone, above left, and Stacey Dash) that manages to savage the aristocratic life in Southern California without demeaning the characters. Shallowness here is a condition to be overcome with self-awareness and step-brotherly love. The gold-standard of Austen updates and still a very funny, very true satire of American youth culture.
'Jane Austen in Manhattan' (1980) You knew that, somehow, Merchant-Ivory would have to help themselves to a piece of Austen. A pair of theater companies, one avant-garde, the other traditional, try to put on a production of a play the novelist wrote as a 12-year-old. Not a satire, either. What can you say about a movie that's most notable for being the debut of Sean Young? With Brenda Holmes and Kurt Johnson (above).
One of the finest of all Austen adaptations is also the least seen. Directed by Roger Michell ("Notting Hill"), the film brings us the reunion of Anne Elliot (Amanda Root, above), unmarried at 27 (she's practically a spinster), and Frederick Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds). She loved him once, eight years ago, and he loved her, but he was broke and she followed the wrong advice. The movie is a marvel of understatement. The camera captures feelings that don't feel performed. Michell forsakes the "Masterpiece Theatre" pomp. The movie could almost be a documentary about foolish choices. And it has the great Fiona Shaw as the wife of Wentworth's naval superior.
'Sense and Sensibility' (1995) Emma Thompson (above), whose adaptation won her an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, set off the ongoing boom in Austen movies. Ang Lee, coming to Austen's most emotionally intricate book, emphasizes the ways in which custom is both necessary and absurd. The heart doesn't quite break over this movie but the mind is allowed to appreciate the finery of the feelings. As the easily besotted Marianne Dashwood, Kate Winslet gives the movie all the incandescence it can handle -- even in a downpour.