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How to adapt Jane Austen — and why it’s so hard to get right

<i>Moviestore/Shutterstock</i><br/>Even Austen scholars can't deny the appeal of
Even Austen scholars can't deny the appeal of "Clueless

By Scottie Andrew, CNN

It’s an act braver than marrying for love, riskier than running away with Mr. Wickham and plainer than Anne Elliot to adapt Jane Austen’s beloved, essential books for the screen.

And yet, filmmakers keep trying.

There are the modern retellings — “Clueless,” which dropped its Emma Woodhouse in Beverly Hills and dressed her in Alaïa, and this summer’s “Fire Island,” a version of “Pride and Prejudice” with gay protagonists. There are those that stick closely to the text, like Whit Stillman’s uproarious “Love and Friendship” and the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries that turned a generation of viewers into Colin Firth-as-Darcy diehards.

Make a so-so adaptation and you risk the wrath of Austen’s legions of readers: Take “Persuasion,” which caused a massive stink before it was even released in July when its trailer included snippets of new, modernized dialogue that chopped down Austen’s original text and “Fleabag”-esque camera-mugging.

It’s an unenviable task, condensing volumes’ worth of social critique, sparkling dialogue and characters so beloved that they’ve inspired an entire archetype of love interest. But often, these films succeed and even reveal new layers to Austen’s canonical works. At the very least, they inspire debate among her many readers.

CNN consulted several Austen scholars and devotees to explain what they look for in an adaptation of Austen’s work — and break down why the magic of her words can be so tricky to translate for the screen.

Why we love adapting Austen

Viewed one way, Austen’s tales are quintessential romances. They’ve got all the hallmarks of the genre: Disapproving family, mismatched couples, hate-to-love relationships, long-awaited reunions, swoon-worthy declarations of love.

We’ve seen these tropes crop up in nearly every romance story since. So what makes Austen’s romances so ripe for retelling?

On one hand, it’s a shrewd business decision to revive Austen — there’s always an audience for her work, said Jillian Davis and Yolanda Rodriguez, hosts of the “Pemberley Podcast,” in which they analyze various adaptations of Austen’s work.

“Complex interpersonal relationships will never go out of style,” Davis and Rodriguez told CNN in an email.

Over the years, Austen adaptations have made millions, been nominated for more than a dozen Oscars and several Emmys, and convinced viewers the world over that Mr. Darcy is the gold standard of suitors. The ’90s gave us a boom of Austen adaptations — the Firth-starring “Pride and Prejudice,” “Emma” with Gwyneth Paltrow, “Sense and Sensibility” with Emma Thompson to name a few — and other Regency-era stories, similar to what we have now amid the enormous popularity of “Bridgerton.” Austen’s popularity spans the world — see the Bollywood-inspired film “Bride & Prejudice” and China’s “Mr. Pride vs. Miss Prejudice,” two of several Austen adaptations starring Asian protagonists.

Though Austen’s novels always folded love and marriage into their plots, the author didn’t always portray marriage as the seamless happy ending to which her heroines aspired. It’s a financial decision and a familial duty, of which her female characters are acutely aware. Austen’s women are often ambivalent about what it would mean for their independence if they marry, even when they genuinely love their partners, said Inger Brodey, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“Austen is a way for today’s readers to both romanticize about soul mates and also sustain their self-respect,” said Brodey, who’s published several papers on Austen.

And so, in that way, she said, Austen’s tales continue to inspire and empower today: They’re clear-eyed love stories told from a subtly feminist perspective that still give their protagonists some sort of agency.

What the best Austen adaptations get right

A strong Austen adaptation doesn’t need to parrot the original text or even take place in late 18th-century England. In fact, Brodey said, she’d prefer a film not feel indebted to the source novel. The Austenites CNN interviewed agreed — for an Austen adaptation to succeed, it needs to maintain the spirit of her work, especially her incisive depth and incomparable wit.

“What’s most challenging for any adapter of Austen must be capturing her fiction’s incredible combination of comedy, irony and social criticism, along with genuinely moving stories of courtship,” said Devoney Looser, a Regents professor of English at Arizona State University and author of “The Making of Jane Austen.” “It’s obviously hard to get that balance of characters in content in two hours, along with the requisite, satisfying happy endings.”

“I’d say I find any adaptation of Austen to be a successful one if it gets me thinking, or rethinking, any parts of the original,” Looser told CNN.

Take the seemingly divergent but thematically faithful “Clueless,” a ’90s retelling of “Emma.” It’s not an obvious candidate for most accurate Austen adaptation (the lead’s name is Cher, for one, and her closet comes with software that helps her coordinate outfits), but both Brody and Austen scholar William Galperin said Amy Heckerling’s film is an exemplary version of a film that modernizes elements of the story while retaining Austen’s spirit.

“Clueless” is “celebrating a certain kind of autonomy and playfulness and solidarity among women,” the kind that Austen took seriously, too, said William Galperin, an English professor at Rutgers University and author of “The Historical Austen.” And like “Emma,” “Clueless” is more concerned with Cher’s development than her romantic escapades, and even those plotlines serve to strengthen her character.

Films that update, modernize or otherwise remix Austen for a new time, place or culture are, paradoxically, “more able to reveal new aspects of Austen than films that try to follow her novels more slavishly,” Brodey said. Even “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” though anything but subtle, found a parallel between “settling down” and zombiism.

But aside from the rare battle between Bennets and the undead, Austen’s stories mine narrative riches out of relatively mundane goings-on at English manors, among members of a few local families.

“What (Austen) is trying to suggest on the largest scale is that what goes on in the everyday basis of all of our lives is filled with all kinds of implications,” Galperin said. “It doesn’t have to involve big things like fights and power struggles on a grand sort of geopolitical level. Ordinary, everyday life is filled with all kinds of complexities. And the closer the films come to representing that, the better they are.”

Where Austen adaptations fall short

Condensing hundreds of pages of rich text — rife with social critique, gorgeous phrasing and revelatory inner musings — into a two-hour film or even a six-hour miniseries is no small feat. So, Galperin said, some filmmakers focus on the most obvious strand in the story: The marriage plot.

Relationships are of course important in Austen’s novels, but more often, Galperin said, the marriage plot is the mere “scaffolding,” a skeleton of a story. The meat, he said, is in the narrative episodes that reveal her characters’ true intentions.

Some adaptations — like the most recent “Persuasion,” according to many critics — lack the ambivalence and depth present in Austen’s books. “Persuasion” is a story of a “second chance at love” between unmarried Anne Elliot (played in the latest version by Dakota Johnson, whose “bloom” has decidedly not “vanished early”) and her one-time partner Captain Wentworth. But it’s also concerned with familial duty, conformity and precious independence, and those themes, at least on screen, often come second to romance.

“The novel is extremely good at demonstrating that tension (between love and duty), whereas the film just kind of flattens that into an early rejection,” Galperin said.

Often, Brodey said, films “overwhelmingly indulge in romance at the expense of social satire.”

Why Austen’s stories will live forever

Even if new versions of “Persuasion” and other classics aren’t necessarily successful in reinterpreting Austen’s work, they’re still worth making, Looser said — at the very least, they’ll entice new audiences to fall for the brooding Darcy, the beachside bliss of Sanditon and the cunningly resourceful Lady Susan.

“If we don’t recreate Austen’s nineteenth-century stories for our own time, and attract new generations of viewers, then these texts won’t live on,” Looser said. “So I’m definitely all for adaptations that use Austen’s material as an inspiration, and make their own mark on it, rather than treating her originals as blueprints that must be religiously copied.”

And continuing to spin new yarns out of Austen’s original work opens up her world to figures her books didn’t represent, including people of color and LGBTQ protagonists. “Fire Island” uses the loose framework of “Pride and Prejudice” to tell a story about two Asian American gay men, the racism and classism they experience from White gay men and the relationships they forge in spite of that hatred. Both “Sanditon” and “Persuasion” cast people of color in Austen’s world, set in an era in which racism was codified (a decision that’s inspired debate, since these projects often don’t address racism within their fictional world).

There are a million ways to tell an Austenian tale today: Plop its plot into present day, break the fourth wall or give the Bennet sisters swords to dispatch zombies (to varied critical reception). It’s impossible to please every Austen fan, but scholars and readers say that as long as an adaptation of Austen retains what makes her work so beloved in the first place — intelligence, irony and, yes, “capital-R romance” — it will almost always find an audience willing to fall in love.

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