Hollywood can’t get enough of Jane Austen
People are divided between wanting the past to feel strange and wanting it to feel familiar, said Henry James, and every effort to film the proverbial “period piece” is challenged by the same paradox.
But in Austen’s case, audiences can’t seem to get enough and supply is growing to meet demand: Some 40 feature films and television shows or series have been based on her works. (No. 1 Shakespeare has 400 features alone, with Dickens not a close second.) Rankings aside, Austen is clearly a cult favorite, especially among critics and academics.
But these days, she also has become a pop-culture phenomenon, her face and quotations available on everything from greeting cards and T-shirts to mousepads. “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS will run adaptations of all six of Austen’s novels next year, plus a new drama based on her life.
What can explain such enduring fascination and eternally fresh appeal?
“Like Shakespeare, she understood human nature, which never changes,” says Joan Ray, University of Colorado English professor and longtime president of the Jane Austen Society of America. But Austen’s universality comes equipped with specificity, as well.
“She stands for England,” says Ray, citing the first superb movie version of “Pride and Prejudice” (1940), with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, among such other films of the period as “Mrs. Miniver” (1942, also starring Garson) intended to prod America into entering World War II “to save Jolly Old England.”
Not least of the reasons why Austen’s novels lend themselves so wonderfully to the screen is that she renders her stories largely in conversation. The dialogue comes ready-made. “I think she could’ve made great money today as a scriptwriter,” says Ray. In which regard, she once wrote her sister Cassandra, “I will write only for money!”
Certainly not for fame. All of her books were published anonymously. Only after her death at age of 41 did her brother Henry make her authorship known.
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