It’s been more than 80 years since the first major Jane Austen cinematic adaptation, 1940’s Pride and Prejudice, which starred Laurence Olivier as the dashing Mr. Darcy and Greer Garson as the witty and tenacious Elizabeth Bennet. In the intervening decades, there have been dozens of film and TV versions of her classic novels, some traditional and some ingeniously modernized (like Clueless). This month sees the release of Netflix’s new take on her 1817 novel Persuasion, with Dakota Johnson playing the opposite of her 50 Shades of Grey character as the lonely Anne Elliot, who lives as a spinster-in-the-making after her family persuades her not to marry a young naval lieutenant. How will she stack up against some of the great screen Austen heroines, who exhibit that perfect blend of propriety and peppiness, wit and wisdom and — dare we say it — sense and sensibility? Check out our definitive ranking and sound off in the comments below if we’ve missed any of your favorites.
15: Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood in Sanditon (2019)
Jane Austen only managed to write 11 chapters of this unfinished novel, which follows the unconventional and impulsive Charlotte Heywood, who moves to the titular fishing village as it’s in the process of being reinvented as a seaside spa resort. For this serialized TV production, Andrew Davies, 85 — who has written such notable screenplays as Bridget Jones’s Diary and the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries — used Austen’s 24,000 words as a jumping-off point, and while Rose Williams acquits herself admirably as Charlotte, some Austen fanatics were appalled by the sex scenes and nudity that Davies added to the series.
14: Aishwarya Rai as Lalita Bakshi in Bride & Prejudice (2004)
Even if you’ve never read a Jane Austen novel, you probably know the basic plot of Pride and Prejudice, which follows the Bennet sisters as they look for respectable, wealthy bachelors to wed, thus setting up their futures in the rigidly class-conscious era. Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha sets her Bollywood-inspired musical adaptation in India, with former Miss World Aishwarya Rai Bachchan starring as Lalita (a stand-in for Elizabeth Bennet), who must overcome her initial skepticism over American hotelier Mr. Darcy (Martin Henderson of Grey’s Anatomy). If you’re expecting the subtlety and pathos of other Austen adaptations, you may be disappointed, but this globally inspired rom-com does have its fair share of high-energy Hindi and Punjabi musical numbers to keep things buzzing along.
13: Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot in Persuasion (2007)
There’s something about Persuasion that has always felt different from Austen’s other novels; it’s a melancholy and somber work, centered on a protagonist who, at 27, is older than Austen’s other ingenues and who is resigned to a life of unrequited longing after her family convinces her not to marry a naval officer with no fortune. Part of ITV’s 2007 season of Austen adaptations, this version starred a young Sally Hawkins, who was just on the cusp of stardom. The future two-time Academy Award nominee (The Shape of Water, Blue Jasmine) brings a spark of intelligence to the role through her beautifully expressive face and, as Ray Bennett wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “it’s impossible not to cheer her on when she decides to make a dash along Bath’s Royal Crescent in order to win her love.”
Watch it: Persuasion on Amazon Prime
12: Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey (2007)
Published posthumously in 1817, Austen’s first-written novel is a coming-of-age satire that follows the naïve teenager Catherine Morland, who’s obsessed with Gothic novels and leads her life as if she’s the heroine of one. When Catherine is invited to stay at a grand estate by a potential suitor, she lets her favorite genre get the best of her, and she begins to suspect that murder, as they say, is afoot. In this TV version, shown on ITV in Britain and Masterpiece Theatre in the U.S., Felicity Jones (an Oscar nominee for The Theory of Everything) brought the perfect blend of wide-eyed innocence and youthful passion to the role.
11: Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1999)
Austen’s most controversial novel tells the story of the young Fanny Price, who is sent to live with her wealthy uncle in the titular country estate, where she promptly falls in love with one of her cousins. In the pantheon of Austen heroines, Fanny is often seen as a mousy, quiet and obedient bore, but director Patricia Rozema gets around that by incorporating parts of the life of Austen herself (her youthful writings, her personality traits) into the character of Fanny. Literary scholars balked, but many critics loved the performance of Frances O’Connor, now 55, whom Roger Ebert called “a dark-haired heroine with flashing eyes and high spirits.”