Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Jane Austen on Television

TV's takes on English literature's most perceptive and subtle satirist

Main image of Jane Austen on Television

Jane Austen's novels sublimely combine romance, a sharp wit, social satire and rich and believable characters to satisfy both head and heart. Her novels on love and marriage have been adapted for the big and small screens more than any other female writer. The BBC has been most prolific at mining her work, revisiting her six novels several times through the last five decades; their revivals have helped reinforce Austen's place in the literary canon and in popular imagination.

Though Austen's appeal may be perennial, the look of the adaptations has changed constantly, with each naturally reflecting the time of its conception. Like much television drama up to the 1960s, the earliest adaptations were usually theatrically staged, and partly due to the absence of colour and the constraints of a tiny television screen even those in the 1960s featured relatively austere sets and costumes intended only to approximate the time period; there was little need for lavish period detail that would be unseen and unappreciated by the audience. 1970s adaptations such as the BBC's 1971 Emma improved upon static 1960s productions, but are still, to modern eyes, hampered by contemporary trends in make-up and a fondness for a beige and brown palette. The explosion of interest in 'heritage cinema' in the 1980s (led by Merchant-Ivory) fostered in television adaptations the lavish historical detail and high production values that audiences now expect. However, though costumes were now buttoned or laced rather than zipped, 1980s Austen adaptations weren't immune to fashion; Northanger Abbey's (BBC, 1987) dream sequences in particular are redolent of 1980s music videos.

The 1990s watchword was authenticity, with productions demonstrating an almost fetishistic pride in creating convincing period worlds. This was also the time when period drama first ventured into less sunny and green pastures. Whereas the exterior scenes of ITV's 1981 Sense and Sensibility take place in permanently sun-lit greenery (even when the novel indicates otherwise), Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995) features rain-drenched scenes and mud-splattered white muslin dresses. The realism of Persuasion (BBC, 1995), the least romantically-styled Austen, signalled a new wave of television literary adaptation, sharing more traits with Bleak House (BBC, 2005) than with earlier Austens.

A successful adaptation manages to be relevant to modern audiences without alienating devoted readers. Modernising Austen often involves increasing the romance by adding scenes of kisses and weddings that occur 'off-stage' in the novels. Persuasion (BBC, 1995) features a public kiss between the hero and heroine, an unlikely occurrence in Austen's time. Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995) ups the sex ante by featuring scenes of the Bennett sisters bustling around in their underwear, and in the famous scene of Mr Darcy taking a dip. Casting obviously plays a part in audience appeal, though sometimes it can contradict the intentions of the novel; Dominic Rowan (Mr Elton) in Emma (ITV, 1996), like Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon) in the film of Sense and Sensibility (US, 1995) seems too attractive for his role.

Much of the audience's enjoyment depends on an early emotional investment in the blossoming relationships. Whereas in the novels the characters' emerging feelings are often communicated by the narrator, the adaptations have to take a more direct approach. In 1967's Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth's voiceover tells us of her love for Mr Darcy; in the 1995 update, Elizabeth tells her sister how she feels. Direction also helps to make thoughts and feelings explicit. The camera draws attention to a character's reactions, or focuses our attention on a touch or a bitten lip without having to rely on words. Another visual solution, used by the writer/director teams for Northanger Abbey (1987) and Emma (1996), is adding 'dream' sequences to reveal characters' innermost thoughts. Adaptors also occasionally add new scenes to help modern audiences make sense of pragmatic relationship decisions. This practice can be seen in Sense and Sensibility (1981), where additional scenes between Colonel Brandon and Marianne help us to appreciate their compatibility and why she decides to marry him.

The 'streamlining' process necessary in adapting lengthy novels for the time constraints of television often results in the loss of entire subplots; typically the scriptwriter will choose to keep comic scenes over more serious-minded discursions. It is often necessary to cut undistinguished minor characters (or even more significant characters, such as Mary in Pride and Prejudice (1967)) or reduce the size of a character's role (such as Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion (1995)) so that the audience isn't confused by the parade of different characters. Austen often features letters or the reporting of off-stage events to convey background information in her novels. Adaptors have found a variety of solutions for imparting background information: rewriting letters as dialogue, or dramatising a letter's events as the letter is read aloud. The problem of conveying narrated background information is commonly solved by rewriting the narration as dialogue, as in Persuasion (1995).

The most crucial challenge for adapters is conveying Austen's satirical barbs. This can be problematic because some of the satire and observational humour is in the narration; occasionally Austen narrates the characters' conversations (notably in Northanger Abbey), or describes an amusing event, rather than writing the scene with dialogue. In this situation, scriptwriters must either create new dialogue that captures the playful mood of the source material, or rewrite elements of the narration as dialogue. Fortunately, Austen had a keen ear for witty dialogue, which adaptors are able to lift it directly from the page, faithfully rendering her words and preserving her intentions and voice. Though much of this dialogue is easily understandable to the modern ear, the prolific Andrew Davies (who has adapted two Austen novels) further modernises Pride and Prejudice (1995) by adding anachronistic colloquialisms such as "Oh, never mind, I'll do it". An assortment of other strategies have been used to increase the comedic elements in Austen adaptations, including visual jokes, casting comic actors in supporting roles, and encouraging exaggerated performances.

Though she may go in and out of fashion, Jane Austen's legacy is a wit and an acuteness of observation that will ensure that her novels will continue to be read - and adapted - for many years to come. Her well-plotted stories and rich characters offer pleasures for producers, writers, actors, readers and viewers alike. In the pages of her six novels, her heroines learn empathy, integrity, judgement, the distinguishing of reality from fantasy, the balance of head and heart: lessons that are as attractive and valuable in the early 21st century as in the early 19th.

Louise Watson

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Persuasion (1995)

Persuasion (1995)

Acclaimed BBC adaptation of the Jane Austen novel

Thumbnail image of Jane Austen's Emma (1996)

Jane Austen's Emma (1996)

Lavish version of Austen's keenest novel

Thumbnail image of Mansfield Park (1983)

Mansfield Park (1983)

Jane Austen's novel of romance and ethics

Thumbnail image of Northanger Abbey (1987)

Northanger Abbey (1987)

Jane Austen's unusual satire of gothic-romantic fiction

Thumbnail image of Pride and Prejudice (1967)

Pride and Prejudice (1967)

Frothy, populist version of the perennial Jane Austen classic

Thumbnail image of Pride and Prejudice (1980)

Pride and Prejudice (1980)

Surprisingly faithful Austen adaptation by Fay Weldon

Thumbnail image of Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Andrew Davies' memorable Austen update

Thumbnail image of Sense and Sensibility (1981)

Sense and Sensibility (1981)

Ornate adaptation of Jane Austen's first published novel

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of TV Literary Adaptation

TV Literary Adaptation

From page to screen

Related People and Organisations