(This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ Blog on June 24, 2022. Enjoy!)
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, there is no denying the powerful influence that screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s beloved novels have to inspire new generations of viewers to become fans of her works. Whether it’s seeing a six-hour miniseries that faithfully recreates one of the books, or a two-hour movie loosely based on one or more of her plots, seeing a Jane Austen story on screen can turn a Jane Austen neophyte into a lifelong fan.
I recall my own experience. Despite loving classic literature, I had never read any of Jane Austen’s books prior to seeing the 2005 feature film “Pride and Prejudice”, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFayden. Nevertheless, after going to see the movie with my mom, I was instantly hooked. I went out and bought a copy of Pride and Prejudice that same week and within a year or so I had read all six of the main novels. It was a lifetime conversion for me, and one that I’ve never regretted.
I’ve heard countless other stories just like mine, of fans who started out watching one of the many movies or series inspired by Austen, and became Jane Austen devotees as a result.
In a recent survey of Jane Austen fans across several global Facebook groups, out of over 1200 fans who responded, 31% said that they were introduced to Jane Austen through a film or TV series, before they ever read one of the books.
In another survey I conducted, I asked fans who had been introduced to Jane Austen through a film or series to share which film or series made them fall in love with Austen. The results were rather fascinating.
Late 1990s– the Golden Era of Jane Austen adaptations
I saw Mr Collins’ proposal scene from 95P&P in my HS English class (1998 grad) and then we read the scene from the book. One scene and I was hooked. My friend found the VCR set at the public library and we watched it together, then bought the set so that we could watch it on repeat. I watched it probably at least 10 times just in high-school. (Kellie F.)
1995 was a glorious year for Jane Austen fans. Three feature films, including Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson, Persuasion starring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, and Clueless, a modern-take on Emma starring Alicia Silverstone, not to mention the king of Jane Austen adaptations, the 6-hour BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth, all premiered in this year.
Following that, the rest of the decade saw the release of two more adaptations of Emma, one starring Gwyneth Paltrow and one with Kate Beckinsale, a Mansfield Park starring Frances O’Connor, and You’ve Got Mail, which is loosely based on Pride and Prejudice and features a heroine whose favorite book is Pride and Prejudice.
Out of my survey of over 200 responses, a whopping 62% of all participants credited one of the films that came out in the ‘90s as the reason they became a Jane Austen fan, with the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries coming out on top with 39% of fans citing that as their introduction to Austen. A large number of fans also named the 1995 Sense and Sensibility as the film which led to their love of Austen.
P&P – 1995 6 part tv series. Colin Firth to me is the one and only true Mr Darcy. I was 28, in the middle of a crappy divorce with a toddler in tow and so much needed something romantic and happy to give me some faith! (Janice M.)
Early 2000’s inspire more converts
I was around 15 in 2017, and I decided to watch Pride and Prejudice 2005 with four of my sisters. Immediately feel head over heels in love with it and the Regency world that Austen lived in. I went on to read all of her books and watch as many adaptations that I could get my hand on. She truly changed my life and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her. (Lauren G.)
A second wave of new fans was triggered with the release of the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice. 15% of the fans who responded named this movie as the reason they became fans of Jane Austen. Other movies sprinkled throughout this time which inspired new fans included Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bride and Prejudice, both modern takes on Pride and Prejudice, and the 2007 versions of Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.
My first ever Austen experience was the 2005 Kiera Knightley Pride and Prejudice. I saw it in theaters twice, and then bought the book. I was 15. Now, I’m about to graduate with my PhD, and my secondary focus is 19th century feminist literature. All because of that trip to the movies (Sara G.)
Classic Film lovers to Austen lovers
In around 1966/67, I was 11. The 1940 P&P (Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson) was on TV one winter Sunday. I checked the book out of my school library the next day. The rest is history! (Angela D.)
Surprisingly, the 1940 black and white version of Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier was named by 8% of fans as their first Austen film. Most of the fans mentioned that they watched this movie on TV or VHS at a much later date though, and not when it premiered in theaters in 1940. Several people mentioned that they were fans of classic movies, leading to their watching this film and becoming Jane Austen fans also.
Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. I was 10 and already had a huge crush on Olivier. This film just cemented it for me. I still prefer this version to the others. Edna May Oliver who played Lady Catherine is just genius! If you get the chance to see this version, definitely do so. (Kara C.)
I was 16, and the Elizabeth Garvie/David Rintoul version of P&P was being re-run on Masterpiece Theater. Must have been about 1982, I think. My mom talked me into watching it with her. I grumbled a bit, convinced it would be boring. But soon I was enchanted. I was aghast when the episode ended and I found out there would be no more until the next Sunday night. I told my mom I couldn’t wait that long to find out what happened to Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. (I didn’t realize at that point that it was based on a book.) My mom went to her bookshelf and pulled out her copy of P&P and said, “Here, read!” That was 40 years ago, and I have been hooked on Austen ever since! (Randi C.)
Many other sources were named by fans as their gateway to Austen, including the 1980 Pride and Prejudice miniseries, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the web series Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an episode of the children’s show Wishbone, and even a Dutch version of Pride and Prejudice. One fan mentioned that she decided to try reading Pride and Prejudice because the book series she’d been reading at the time mentioned it specifically.
Bridget Jones Diary, watched it in 2007 when I was going through a divorce. Swooned over Darcy, as one does. Read every Austen after, been obsessed with the books, Jane, and all adaptations ever since. (Megan F.)
A trail to literacy
Saw P&P 95 when I was in 4th grade (1996). I was hooked and wanted to read it as well… I wasn’t a good reader, pretty sure I had a learning disability back then (was always in the lowest reading groups in class and always referred for informal resource services at school ) but since I was obsessed with the movie and knew a lot of it by heart I was able to get through the book in 5th grade and in 6th grade I started tackling JA’s other novels. It gave me the will to keep pushing myself even though reading was really hard for me. In all honesty, I’d probably still be a low reader if I hadn’t been introduced to JA through P&P 95, which then in turn catapulted me into the world of JA and from there to all the other classics (Raquel M.)
Out of all the stories I collected, the vast majority of fans said that their viewing experience made them want to go and read the books, and only a few people said that they have only ever seen the movies/TV series and not read any of the books. There were also some stories of people who had read one of the books in high school and hated it or didn’t get it, but after seeing one of the screen adaptations, they were inspired to re-read the book and became fans after that.
Another generation of fans?
I saw Sanditon in 2020. That was my first Jane Austen experience. I loved it so much that I wanted to read the books and watch films. So I did. (Joelle R.)
The 2020’s are seeing a new round of Austen adaptations being made. The TV series Sanditon, which premiered in the later part of 2019, and 2020 version of Emma, both of which have enjoyed the viewership of a younger, streaming-driven audience in the face of a global pandemic, have paved the way for the next generation of fans.
Piggybacking off the success of the Regency-era show Bridgerton, Netflix is releasing a new adaptation of Persuasion next month (July 2022), which will star Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis, and Henry Golding. Persuasion hasn’t had a historical adaptation made in 15 years, so it’s high time we had another one. While some fans were not thrilled with the trailer for the film, which showed Anne Elliot “breaking the fourth wall” in talking to the audience, mocking Wentworth with a mustache made of jam, and using slightly anachronistic speech (I admit, I cringed when I heard her “worse than exes” line), many fans are also hopeful that the adaptation will rekindle the love for this novel and birth new Jane Austen fans from a generation that thrives on social media and binge-watching on streaming platforms.
To wrap it up
Looking at how many new fans have been born across the decades just from watching Jane Austen film adaptations gives me hope. Hope that love for Jane Austen will never die, but keep being reborn with each new generation.
In a world where most teens would rather scroll through TikTok than read a book, I hope that new adaptations of Jane Austen’s beloved stories continue to inspire new fans and readers and make Jane Austen seem “cool” and “trendy” against the ever-changing onslaught of media that’s being foisted on the young and impressionable minds of today’s generation.
If my story and the stories shared by these fans are any indication, it’s clear that bringing Jane Austen to the screen is a vital way to keep this author’s works alive and encourage people to read them.
I hope you enjoyed my exploration of the influence of Jane Austen films on our generations of fans. Some housekeeping news, my website address has changed. Please visit my website here to check out all of my books!