“Love & Friendship,” Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, is one of the best films of 2016 so far. This is surprising not merely because Lady Susan, an epistolary novel that favors its wicked protagonist at the expense of its subsidiary characters, is easily Austen’s least-beloved book. It is also surprising because so few Austen adaptations live up to their source material. There is Ang Lee’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility,” which, penned by Emma Thompson, boasts a delightful buoyancy, and Patricia Rozema’s appropriately salty “Mansfield Park” (1999). There is the 1995 BBC miniseries “Pride and Prejudice,” which launched Colin Firth as the dreamiest Darcy on both sides of the Pond. But for every Austen adaptation success story, there’s a film like the unfortunate “Emma” (1996), in which Gwyneth Paltrow simpers over cups of tea for two hours, or, worse, the 2005 production of “Pride and Prejudice,” in which Keira Knightley dimples and bats her lashes as Elizabeth Bennet.
No decent portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet entails dimples.
Yet given the general decline of Western civilization in both the U.K. and the U.S., I believe we need film adaptations of Austen’s work more than ever – films that uphold her wit, etiquette, and ethics. We just need good adaptations that match the right director to the material.
Here are some dream teams sure to deliver more truth than treacle.
Book: Northanger Abbey
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Austen’s most meta book may have been published last but it was written early in her career, when she was likely still musing on the format of the novel. Hence she references another book – the spooky The Mysteries of Udolpho – within what works as a juicy gothic read unto itself. (Some literary historians believe she first spun this yarn for her family.) Now that “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has conquered Broadway, he may be ready to tackle Hollywood, and a meta-multicultural musical “Northanger Abbey” that comes correct on myriad levels seems like a terrific way to tell Austen’s juiciest tale in a new medium.
Director: Jane Campion
Upon reflection, it’s a bit shocking “Top of the Lake” show-runner Jane Campion hasn’t directed any Austen before now. She tackled the Romantic poets with “Bright Star” in 2009, and 1800s culture with “The Piano,” her New Zealand film about the most unlikely of arranged marriages, in 1993. Certainly with her penchant for brooding fare, she’s the right helmer to tackle the edgier Persuasion, in which (apart from Lady Susan) Austen is at her most biting. As a bonus, Campion’s spectacular eye would capture the seaside backdrop swooningly but never sentimentally.
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Granted, Nicole Holofcener is as well known for her original screenplays as she is for her directing, but I suspect she might make an exception for Austen’s story of the beautiful, well-off young woman who’s sure she knows what’s best for everyone around her. Holofcener brilliantly crafts comedies of manners, and, since “Walking and Talking,” she’s particularly shone when exploring the gaps between haves and have-nots – not to mention attractive narcissists. If Kate Beckinsale were still in her twenties (or even thirties), I’d cast her as “Emma.” Felicity Jones should do nicely, thank you very much.
Book: Sense and Sensibility
Director: Martin Scorsese
Yes, you read that right. Mr. Mean Streets would do a terrific job autopsying Austen’s careful dissection of the dichotomy between prudence and passion. (Come to think of it, that’d be another grand title for this story.) His adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence proved that his knack for details extended beyond mafia rituals and the perfect marinara sauce, and Sense and Sensibility’s double narrative provides a plot structure that’s a Marty signature. (Think “Casino” and “The Departed.”)
Book: Mansfield Park
Director: Sally Potter
About second chances and misconceptions, Mansfield Park is not Austen’s most glamorous book but it may be her most soulful. And while Fanny Brice may not be Austen’s most charismatic protagonist she is certainly one of her most stalwart. I just love the idea of British helmer Sally Potter – who directed the ahead-of-its-time “Orlando” as well as “Yes,” which is almost entirely in iambic pentameter – breathing life into Austen’s ugly duckling of a novel. Can’t you just see Saoirse Ronan as Fanny?
Book: Pride and Prejudice
Director: Mira Nair
It is true that Nair’s middling adaptation of Thackery’s Vanity Fair doesn’t exactly attest to her ability to adapt nineteenth-century novels, but I’ve always felt that film sagged under the weight of bad casting and a worse screenplay. From “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” to “Monsoon Wedding,” the Indian director has proven a brilliant student of the intersection of social conventions, socioeconomics and gender, gender, gender. Her “Pride and Prejudice” would be as gorgeous as it would be clever, and she’d never burden us with the indignity of a dimpling Elizabeth Bennet.
This was originally published on Signature.