Austen and Adaptation: Examining the Period Drama Genre

Image: Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet in 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, via BBC.

Period dramas capitalise on their audience’s existing views of the past, creating visual interpretations of stories that are familiar to English Literature classrooms by adapting works by the likes of Dickens, Austen, and the Brontës. The books that have long been considered part of the ‘canon’ of English Literature have been adapted and re-adapted ad nauseam, so that thinking of a Regency period drama, for example, immediately brings to mind the polite society world of Austen’s novels. With dramas like the 1995 or 2005 versions of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or the 2011 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, we can escape into a world that, while very different from the world of 2021, is still familiar. Particularly through Austen adaptations – the mainstays of period drama – we are fed an idealised vision of the past, in which protagonists appear to spend most of their time flitting between dancing, letter writing and romance. 

Austen is one of my favourite authors, and so I have watched many adaptations of her work; in the 25 years between Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy, and the Emma Woodhouse of 2020, a lot has changed with the period drama genre. To me, the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice feels grounded. Even though it takes us into a fictional version of the Regency period, it feels real because it is much more intentionally accurate in terms of costuming (bonnets abound) that the 2005 adaptation. The colours of the costumes, and even the delivery of the lines, are much more subdued than the bright costumes that can be found in 2020’s Emma or Bridgerton. Though by no means the same as Pride and Prejudice, partially because it is a film rather than a series, the Sense and Sensibility of the same year also has this more grounded, subdued quality to me – if to a lesser extent. It is hard to explain exactly, but though these films allow us to escape, it feels like an escape into something that tries to seem real and genuine.

To track each of the Austen screen adaptations and compare how they adapt Austen’s work could take up an entire book, but I think that the 2005 Pride and Prejudice is an important turning point. This Elizabeth Bennet is the product of the Joe Wright’s vision as a director, the screenplay by Deborah Moggach, and Keira Knightley’s performance. The latter’s version of Elizabeth brings into relief the sharp wit and intelligence of the character, making her more outspoken. Hair often comes down, and costumes sometimes look as if they are missing at least one layer compared to what people would actually have been wearing. These are deliberate choices to make the movie seem more modern. Combining comedy and melodrama, this version of Austen’s novel favours a more modern feel over a strict adherence to bonnet wearing. The 2005 Pride and Prejudice allows Wright to bring a fresh perspective to the story while also staying true to the plot and the core features of Austen’s characters.  

Though these films allow us to escape, it feels like an escape into something that tries to seem real and genuine.

Moving away from Austen for a moment, only a year after Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, a film that was much more openly experimental came to screens in the form of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. With its pastel-coloured costumes and 80’s soundtrack, this film was highly stylistic and brought something new to the period genre through its emphasis on style and overtones of modernity. Autumn de Wilde’s Emma (2020) is also very concerned with style, and makes use of colour heavily, especially pastels and bright colours. It is distinctive and often subversive in how it adapts Austen, but the costumes are largely meant to look period accurate and it manages to subvert Austen’s story while also staying true to much of the original dialogue, such as in the proposal scene. Unlike previous Austen adaptations that feel much more grounded, this Emma intentionally creates a world of luxury that feels sickly-sweet, and is not afraid to lean into the comedic, go over the top, or to highlight the flaws of its protagonist’s character. 

But the 2020 Emma is only one strand of the changes happening in the genre. Films like The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) and Little Women (2019) suggest exciting things to come. The Personal History of David Copperfield, directed by Iannucci, is hilarious from start to finish. Showcasing Iannucci’s vision as a director, it feels very unique against other period dramas, leaning into the comedy as far as possible. Meanwhile, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women brought an adventurous spin on a familiar tale, contrasting scenes of the past and the present to show the family growing up in a non-linear way. It would be difficult not to be moved by the ending of the film, which shows everyone achieving their happy endings: including (in a departure from the novel) Jo holding a published Little Women, combining her desire to be an author with her biggest influence – her family. The critical success and popularity of Little Women, which received the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, as well as being nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, shows that inventiveness can be embraced when it comes to period dramas. 

These adaptations show a desire to break away from the often too-perfect seeming world of past adaptations of Austen and take it to the other extreme.

Period dramas are constantly evolving in the way they tell stories, especially the ones which are already familiar to us. Even as they take us away from the realities of 2021, they seek to create characters that modern audiences can see themselves in and foreground aspects of the past relatable to viewers. They have changed over the years, experimenting with style just as much as any other genre has to in order to stay relevant, and the recent critical acclaim of films like Little Women and Emma shows that they deserve to be taken seriously. There will always be a place for Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy, but as wonderful as the 1995 miniseries is, it is hard to imagine that version of Pride and Prejudice being released in 2021. Meanwhile, I am not surprised that in the past 10 years screen adaptations have been made of novels like P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley or Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I have mixed views on these – I couldn’t finish watching Death Comes to Pemberley, because though it used the end of Pride and Prejudice as a springboard for its own story, it did not have enough of what made Austen’s novel enjoyable for me. I did enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which surprisingly does keep much of the original story and characters. These adaptations show a desire to break away from the often too-perfect seeming world of past adaptations of Austen and take it to the other extreme. 

Personally, I don’t particularly care about the liberties that adaptations take with costumes (or even adding zombies or a murder mystery), as these are more often than not intentional, reflecting a desire to combine the past with a modern feeling, to bring a new spin on the story, or to intentionally create a parody (e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) rather than a lack of care to the original texts or time period. When done well, I think that a period drama can be good even if it doesn’t adapt the source text word for word or goes so far as to turn an Austen romance to a zombie horror story. Though the sheer quantity of Austen adaptations feels overwhelming at this point (and the same can probably said for other literary figures), as long as new adaptations bring something new, it is fun to explore stories in different ways. However, I would also like to see the genre become more experimental, not just stylistically, but also in terms of the stories that it chooses to adapt or tell. Rather than another Pride and Prejudice it would be fun to see more adaptations of lesser-known texts, such as those that are not considered ‘canon’, or to see original screenplays that look at eras like the Regency period from a different angle. I would really like to see films that focus on the people that made Austen’s polite society possible but are largely invisible in her novels, from the servants to the dressmakers and dancing masters. Additionally, many characters in period dramas and the novels they are based on have links to or travel abroad – and yet the realities of the British Empire and Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world throughout history are rarely actually explored in any sort of depth. Perhaps this would shatter the escapist fantasy that many period dramas seek to create, but I don’t think that this would necessarily be a bad thing and would actually open the door to telling a much wider range of stories. 

There are definitely new things that I want to see from the period drama genre, but it remains one that I find enjoyable, as it brings the stories that I have loved reading to life on screen (or familiarises me with the classic stories that I never got around to reading). I like how in terms of series, shows like The Crown, Downton Abbey and Bridgerton have brought period pieces to a bigger audience, and I hope that the world of film continues to experiment and bring us new period pieces. If you remain uninaugurated into the world of period drama, I recommend either of the Pride and Prejudice adaptations I have mentioned, the 1994 Little Women, or Anne with an E. 

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