Which is the best on-screen Jane Austen adaptation?

From bonnets to Valspeak and Netflix's new Persuasion, Jane Austen has been interpreted countless ways for film and TV . But which version triumphs? Our writers hash it out.

A collage of stills from different Jane Austen film adaptations
Emma: Focus Features Sense and Sensibility: Getty Images / Handout Clueless: Archive Photos / Stringer Pride And Prejudice: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo Emma: ©BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection Emma: © 1996 Miramax/ PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

There is nothing, Jane Austen’s Emma declared, like staying at home for real comfort. Austen’s titular heroine may have been spoilt, self-indulgent and deluded, but that hasn’t stopped her from being one of the author’s most-loved characters.

And what better time to reacquaint ourselves with her? Dakota Johnson stars in a new Netfix adaptation of that most unfairly overlooked of Austen classics, Persuasion, which updates the novel for a modern audience.

As Austen fans will know, this film joins a long history of Austen-inspired screen classics. But which is the best? Penguin writers battle it out:

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

There are a number of modern adaptations of Pride and Prejudice worth considering in the hunt for the best. You could choose the much-praised Kiera Knightley film from 2005. Knightley gives a very good performance, but carries an otherwise dull film that suffers from uninspiring aesthetics. Then there’s the Gurinder Chadha-directed Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood-inspired take on Austen’s novel, which is huge fun thanks to its musical numbers and its sumptuous setting, but it so modernises the story that some of the charm of Austen’s original is lost. 

So what’s left? Only the most excellent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice - and the best Austen adaptation of all time. Yes, I’m talking about the BBC’s six-part Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, which exploded into our living rooms in 1995. 

If I was shallow, I’d say the adaptation wins because of THAT scene, but the success of the BBC’s show is down to more than just Firth, a pond and a white shirt. (Tip: a better scene comes just a couple of minutes later as Firth, having hastily dressed, rushes through Pemberley to find Elizabeth before she and her aunt and uncle begin their journey home.)

The real reason why Pride and Prejudice so good is because of its pacing. Spread over six hours, it takes time to properly introduce us all to of the characters and the world they inhabit. So much care is taken to balance the different aspects of Austen’s story that as a viewer, you feel intimately connected to it.

Furthermore, the cast is magnificent, the humour spot-on, and the costumes and settings absorbing. This is six hours of virtually perfect television.

– Sarah Shaffi

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Pride and Prejudice is great, sure, but don't believe the hype. Instead, look to the best film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first published work, for the ultimate cinematic experience. Ang Lee's moving film - otherwise known as ‘the one where Kate Winslet fancies the wrong guy’ — is the perfect ode to the loveable Dashwood sisters, set against the stormy, gorgeous backdrop of wild English countryside.

One of its many strengths is its script (Emma Thompson, who also starred as leading lady, Elinor Dashwood, won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay), which manages to capture the dry wit and intelligence of the original novel while adding a playfulness and sexuality so undeniably modern that it cuts through the bonnets and lace. The rolling shots of rain-lashed moors are divine, the chemistry between the characters feels sincere. But what really makes it, is Alan Rickman's portrayal of the sweet, honourable Colonel Brandon, a character that became considerably more feminist and rounded in Lee and Thompson’s hands. I defy you to find an Austen beau that you will root for more!

– Francesca Pymm

Clueless (1994)

Stuck in a rut, filmmaker Amy Heckerling returned to memories of Emma, which she devoured as a college student. ‘It hit me,’ she later said: ‘Emma is dealing with so many of the issues the modern stories on TV do.’

Enter Cher Horowitz. Just like Austin’s creation, she’s naïve, if well-intentioned, and the richest girl in the neighbourhood. Only, that neighbourhood happens to be a fictional Beverly Hill high school in the early Nineties.

The plot of Clueless - a sprightly, effervescent 90-minute movie – follows Austen’s lead. Emma takes ‘clueless’ new girl Tai (see also: Harriet Smith) under her wing and attempts to set her up with the slimy Elton, who only has eyes for Cher.

Clueless may not be the most conventional Austen adaptation - you're more likely to find tank tops than top hats, and archaic language is swapped out for 'Valspeak', a whole new dialect unique to Valley Girls - but it is arguably the most successful for bringing the 19th-century author into the lives of millions of millennials. What's more, it revived a film genre (teen movies) that had been lingering in the doldrums. Without Clueless, there would be no Mean Girls. But without Austen, we there would be no Clueless.

– Alice Vincent

Emma (2009)


Jane Austen described her as ‘a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like’. Quite the challenge, then, for the actress playing the titular role of meddling matchmaker Emma.  

And yet, in the BBC’s mini-series of Emma, Romola Garai perfectly captures the character’s joy and spirit with abundance, ensuring that her mistakes and follies are considered misguided naivety rather than anything more malicious. Garai’s refreshing take on the role - so improved on Gweneth Paltrow’s supercilious performance in the 1996 film adaptation - that I hurried to re-read the book, seeing Austen’s creation in a completely new light.

Director Jim O’Hanlon’s treatment also gave us one of the more relatable Austen on-screen couples. With the steadfast Mr Knightly (Jonny Lee Miller), Emma bickers. But while they point at one other’s faults, their friendship is grounded by a love that gradually grows. It’s a pleasure to watch unfold. Compare this adaptation's ball scene (every decent Austen adaptation has one) to that in go-to favourite Pride and Prejudice (1995), where Elizabeth and Darcy simply snark, and we see Emma and Knightly realise their love with every step. This is the adaptation for true romantics. 

– Sarah McKenna

What is your favourite Jane Austen adaptation? Tell us by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

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