15 sensible, unprejudiced Jane Austen adaptation superlatives
We pick the best overall, the best dressed, the cutest couple, and the most dramatic pianoforte performance in the Austen screen oeuvre.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hollywood can't go longer than four or five years before adapting, once again, one of the works of Jane Austen. In celebration of the wide release of Autumn de Wilde's Emma., we've picked out our favorites from the large collection of big- and small-screen Austen retellings, from characters to scenes to wardrobes. Check them out below.
Best Adaptation: Sense & Sensibility (1995)
Emma Thompson won an Oscar for her script and proved a worthy match for Austen in wit and deep feeling. Her script is virtually unsurpassable, and who can resist Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman as romantic leads? It’s enough to make us swoon like Marianne.
Best Dressed: Emma Woodhouse in Emma. (2020), Clueless (1995), and Emma (1996)
Emma Woodhouse (a.k.a. Cher Horowitz) has money and she knows how to spend it. She has lace gowns and fussy hats and Alaïa dresses and she knows how to wear them. She has an existential sense of boredom and a lack of purpose in life and she knows how to buy clothes and play puppetmaster in an attempt to temporarily fill that void so, um, that's good too.
Best Score: Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Lady Catherine de Bourgh may have the finest natural taste for music in England, but even she couldn’t resist this lilting, romantic score from Dario Marianelli. Get us to a pianoforte stat!
Best Modern Update: Clueless (1995)
No Monet here: The closer you look at Clueless for the wit and insight of Emma, the richer you'll find the '90s teen rom-com to be. Though you may find yourself going, "Is this a Noxzema commercial, or what?"
Best Dance Scene: Bride & Prejudice (2004)
Austen once wrote, “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love,” and the proliferation of balls and country dances in her novels bears that out. But all the staid Regency dances can’t compare to the joyous Bollywood number here that allows the men and woman to face off in an epic dance battle and makes the appeal of Mr. Bingley (Balraj in this adaptation) finally make sense. Four or five thousand a year and sick dance moves? Be still our hearts.
Cutest Couple: Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai in Emma (2009)
If we loved them less, we could talk about it more. Suffice it to say their chemistry as Mr. Knightley and Emma, which bears itself out in an abundance of swoony scenes in this miniseries, manages to capture both the breathless electricity and deep romanticism of Austen’s novels in unparalleled fashion.
Most Political: Mansfield Park (1999)
Don't pretend you don't think Fanny Price is boring. We all think it. She doesn't believe in putting on plays and is apparently immune to the charms of handsome lowlifes, which is not something we can relate to. Patricia Rozema livened up Austen's preachiest work by giving it a political heart, expanding on the novel's brief allusions to the slave trade by making it a major feature of the world of this Mansfield Park.
Class Clown: Emma. (2020)
While Austen is often celebrated for her romantic heroes and aspirational heroines, she’s also a master of satire. But her wit is too often downplayed in screen adaptations. Not so for this adaptation of her funniest novel, which draws on more contemporary comedic traditions like slapstick and the Marx Brothers. Emma (played here by Anya Taylor-Joy) would much rather be merry than wise — and this film is most merry indeed.
Most Underrated Hero: Henry Tilney (J.J. Feild) in Northanger Abbey (2007)
We stan a proto-feminist beta hero any day, but Feild’s interpretation of novel-loving, kind, sensible Henry Tilney is dreamy with a capital D (and we suspect why he was tapped to play a composite Austen hero in Austenland). Darcy gets all the love, but this take on Tilney has us running for our fainting couch.
Finest eyes: Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens) in Sense & Sensibility (2008); Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) in Pride & Prejudice (1995)
We have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes like these can bestow.
Best Glow-Up: Anne Elliot (Amanda Root), Persuasion (1995)
Roger Michell's appropriately understated Persuasion opens with a lonely and downtrodden Anne Elliot having been bullied into submission by her own horrible family for years, and she wears her deep-seated sadness clearly. As she quietly rediscovers herself and her ability to love, however, she visibly blossoms right on camera, ultimately reuniting with Ciarán Hinds' Captain Wentworth with a new sparkle in her eyes and brightness in her face.
Best Hair: Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), Love & Friendship (2016); Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
In Whit Stillman's witty adaptation of Austen's Lady Susan, Beckinsale's outlandishly elaborate updos are a sly little wink of their own, practically part of the self-absorbed heroine's complex machinations. And then there's Daniel Cleaver! Just look at him!
Most Charming Scoundrel: John Willoughby (Greg Wise), Sense & Sensibility (1995)
You can keep your Wickhams and your Churchills and your Crawfords — the most irresistible of this cinematic pack of players has got to be Wise's Willoughby, who steals Marianne's (Kate Winslet) heart by speeding down country roads in his flashy yellow phaeton and adorably butchering sonnet 116. He may claim to love Barton Cottage above any other place in England — especially the fire that smokes — but like so many other disappointing charmers, he ultimately ranked the demands of his pocketbook far above the demands of his heart.
Most Dramatic Pianoforte Performance: Emma (1996)
It starts out sugary-sweet: Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) plays a charming song for the assembled crowd, and the smooth Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) joins in for a winning duet. What a handsome pair! What an appropriate flirtation! But the clip just shows half the story: After escorting Emma back to her seat, Frank returns to the piano with Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker), whose musical gifts just might exceed Miss Woodhouse's. Just a smidge.
Best Pandering to the Female Gaze: Pride & Prejudice (1995)
In vain we have struggled, but it will not do – you must allow us to tell you how ardently we admire and love this scene that wasn’t in the original novel, but instantly immortalized Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy as a sex symbol.