Courtesy Everett Collection; Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection; Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
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
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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.”
10: Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in Persuasion (1995)
In this 1995 adaptation of Austen’s novel of the same name, which aired on television in Britain and in theaters on this side of the Atlantic, Amanda Root, 59, is easy to fall for as the stoic and intelligent Anne Elliot, who conveys so much through the subtlest of gestures and the things she leaves unsaid. She’s matched by the great Ciarán Hinds, 69 — a recent Oscar nominee for Belfast — who plays her once and future suitor, Capt. Frederick Wentworth.
9: Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan in Love & Friendship (2016)
Somewhat confusingly, this 2016 comedy takes its plot from Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan, which was written in the 1790s but not published until 1871, but it takes its title from a story that the author wrote at the age of 14, misspelled Love and Freindship. Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan Vernon, who is quite unlike the heroines that Austen usually wrote about: She’s a recently widowed woman in 1790s England who tries to escape rumors about her private life as she looks for husbands for both herself and her daughter. In this often hilarious comedy, Lady Susan uses her charm like a weapon, and Beckinsale portrays her with such a fierce and elegant imperiousness that one critic said she’d fit in among the Real Housewives.
Watch it: Love & Friendship on Amazon Prime
8: Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)
In the first sentence of Austen’s easy-to-love 1815 novel, Emma Woodhouse is described as “handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” For those around her, she can also be, well, a bit of a pain in the butt. Emma fancies herself a matchmaker, moving around her friends, neighbors and relatives like chess pieces and ignoring her own romantic prospects in the process. SoCal girl Gwyneth Paltrow might not immediately come to mind as a perfect casting fit, but she brought a sunny effervescence to the film, nailed the accent and spent weeks studying horsemanship, dancing, singing, archery and, of course, period-appropriate manners and etiquette.
7: Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1940)
Over the years, the story of Elizabeth Bennet and her romance with Mr. Darcy has become a favorite among filmmakers, ever since this first surviving Austen film adaptation hit the big screen in 1940. Laurence Olivier played the aloof Darcy, opposite the seven-time best actress Oscar nominee Greer Garson, who later won for Mrs. Miniver. “It isn’t often that a cast of such uniform perfection is assembled,” wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times. “Greer Garson is Elizabeth … stepped right out of the book, or rather out of one’s fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be.” All future Austen heroines had big shoes to fill.
6: Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (2020)
First-time film director Autumn de Wilde, 51, upped the humor in this stylized adaptation, which draws on elements of classic screwball comedies, and she has a willing partner in The Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy, who brings an off-kilter edginess to her role as the nosiest little matchmaker in the British countryside. She isn’t always the most likable of Emmas, and her prickly queen bee persona — all eye rolls and subtle sneers — works surprisingly well for this production, which expands outward to show the consequences of her meddling on those around her.
5. Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice (2005)
In this sumptuous adaptation by director Joe Wright, Keira Knightley earned raves for her more realistic portrayal of Lizzy, with Roger Ebert writing, “This is not a well-mannered Masterpiece Theatre but a film where strong-willed young people enter life with their minds at war with their hearts.” And in his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “Knightley’s Lizzy is a naughty skeptic, a droll outsider; a team leader from the awkward squad, much given to fits of giggles and pert backtalk, with sisterly kicks under the table given and received. … Her star quality will quite simply roll over you like a tank.” Sure, she may be a little too beautiful for the part, but it’s her outsize charisma that wins over the audience and the Darcy — played here by Matthew Macfadyen, who would go on to play Tom on HBO’s Succession.
4: Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in Clueless (1995)
This raucous comedy transports Emma from the world of Regency England to 1990s Beverly Hills, with Silverstone stepping in as the charming, if a bit spoiled, matchmaker extraordinaire. Director Amy Heckerling recently told Town & Country that she had wanted to write a movie about “a teenage girl who, no matter what was happening, couldn’t have her bubble burst,” and she used Emma as a blueprint. What resulted was a contemporary comedy of manners, in which the shopping malls and high school hallways of Southern California work surprisingly well as stand-ins for country manors and drawing rooms. Cher instantly became one of the most iconic film characters of the decade — and proof that meddlesome teens can be just as meddlesome in any century.
3: Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Sense and Sensibility, which was published anonymously “by a lady” in 1811, follows the Dashwood siblings, who find themselves suddenly poor after the death of their father and then must seek financial security through marriage. This Austen novel comes with two heroines for the price of one, each representing one of the traits in the title. In Ang Lee’s celebrated 1995 version, Kate Winslet earned her first Oscar nomination for her role as younger sister Marianne, who represents the “sensibility” side of life — which in that era’s lingo meant being driven by emotions rather than logic. She’s a romantic idealist, whose spontaneity and passion are infectious.
2. Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Edging Marianne out for the number two spot is her older sister, the reserved Elinor, played by Emma Thompson, 63. Despite her levelheadedness and maturity, Elinor finds herself swept up by her flirtations with the sweet Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant, 61), and Thompson lends an air of vulnerability and warmth to the role. The actress pulled double duty as screenwriter, spending five years on the script, and her completely fresh take earned her an Oscar for best adapted screenplay; to this day, she remains the only person to ever win Academy Awards for both acting (for Howards End) and writing.
1: Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1995)
For many Austen fans, this six-episode BBC series is the definitive screen adaptation of her novels, anchored by a crackling chemistry between Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle, 52) and Darcy (Colin Firth, 61). While the series is perhaps best remembered for that infamous scene in which Darcy emerges from a pond soaking wet, Ehle’s Elizabeth is the beating heart of the production, with New York Times critic John O’Connor writing that she “manages to make Lizzy strikingly intelligent and authoritative without being overbearing.” Ehle’s feisty wit came to be a blueprint for all future screen adaptations, and the miniseries kicked off a frenzied obsession with all things Austen — nicknamed, in various publications, “Austenmania,” “Austenfever,” “Austenitis” and “Darcymania.”
BONUS: Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Not quite a true adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, this column-turned-novel-turned-romantic-comedy has Jane Austen’s fingerprints all over it. Author Helen Fielding has admitted that she “stole” the basic plot after watching the BBC miniseries, and you can find Austen Easter eggs throughout, including the name of the publisher Bridget works for (Pemberley Press, named after Mr. Darcy’s estate) and, of course, the fact that Firth himself was cast in the role of potential love interest Mark Darcy.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.