“That’s your problem! You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” —Sleepless in Seattle
My problem is even worse than that: I want to be in love in a Jane Austen movie.
This year boasts multiple film and TV productions of Austen’s novels to satisfy my disorder, leading cultural observers to label 2020 the “Year of Austen.” First up was a miniseries adaptation of Sanditon, followed by yet another Emma film in theaters this month. And a new Pride and Prejudice miniseries announced back in 2017 might finally be released this year. This thrills us Jane Austen fans to no end, because we just finished enjoying the 200th anniversaries of the publication dates of each of her six major works (2011 through 2017) and had collectively feared having to bide our time until 2025, the 250th anniversary of her birth.
But why do we keep filming Austen? Is there something special about her books that particularly suits the medium and demands a new approach every five to 10 years? Is she the Regency version of a tentpole franchise, causing new filmmakers to desire their own spin on long-treasured characters? Or do we just want more: more costumes, more swoony declarations of love from reticent male characters, more heady location shots, more Keira Knightley standing on a cliff while the piano music swells?
When we enjoy a story, we always want more of it—there’s a whole section of the internet devoted to fan fic for a reason. And we want the next story to be different…but not too different. To read or watch the exact same story again and again, however, we need just the right alchemy of comfort and suspense.
Austen brilliantly offers this with her books. As author Martin Amis once famously wrote for The New Yorker about Pride and Prejudice, “it suckers you” and “it goes on suckering you.” Emma works similar magic, yielding new discoveries for the astute reader despite multiple reads. Every time we read or watch Austen, we experience that same comforting suspense—just enough to sucker us, but not so much that someone’s head ends up discovered in a freezer. This is perfect fodder for filmmakers, knowing the wider population is still not finished with a particularly effective plot or character—be it Batman or Wonder Woman or Elizabeth Bennet. Add in cozy settees, roaring fires and trays laid out with tea, and you can’t look away.
I’m also convinced that Austen understood and conveyed human weakness for sex better than anyone; the big secret behind the attractiveness of her books to Hollywood may really be as prosaic—and animalistic—as all that. Our powerlessness in the face of strong sexual desire must be why she created so many bad boys in her fiction. Because if Mansfield Park’s pious Fanny Price could almost give in and let scoundrel Henry Crawford “make a small hole” in her heart, then there really is no hope for the rest of us. In the 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, director Patricia Rozema gives Henry the ultimate wooing arsenal involving a basket of doves, fireworks and a wind-up music box, a scene so magical that you can actually feel the audience shifting their allegiance to Henry in the moment. This, both Austen and Rozema appear to be arguing, is what it feels like when a bad boy decides to fixate on you. It’s understandably hard to resist—and to resist watching. So, don’t judge.
Austen was also a master at writing the angsty slow burn that characterizes much of modern periodic television. Austen not only keeps her main couples emotionally apart for almost all of the text (in Persuasion, for eight years at least), she has them barely even touch. When they do, it’s both pathologically subtle and intensely erotic for an audience. This does not just apply to the Napoleonic-era women for whom Austen penned her tales. When Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy clenches and unclenches his right hand after helping Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth into a carriage in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, women in the audience outright gasped. (I recently saw a rescreening of this movie. Trust me, it happens.)
Popular culture also comes and goes in generational waves. The girls who were first introduced to Austen through either Colin Firth’s wet shirt or Gwyneth Paltrow’s dewy loveliness are now in their thirties with kids of their own. Austen is safe to share with this newest generation of viewers; there is rarely any overt sex, and there’s no violence in either the books or the films.
The lessons they impart also change for us the older we get. When we’re young, we want to fall in love the way Elizabeth and Darcy do. But as we get older, Austen’s more drastic and caustic lessons—the importance of money, the perils of physical attraction, the importance of money, again—are ones we most appreciate as responsible adults, giving us new reasons to read and watch.
Dealing with marriage and mortgages and life, we find our sympathies shifting among Austen’s characters. I can now viscerally feel Mrs. Bennet’s panic over five unmarried daughters with no income, Miss Bates’ persistent nattering in the face of loneliness and Anne Elliot’s regret for the path not taken. And I would argue that no single Austen production has yet to be perfectly cast; the sheer number of characters in her books makes that difficult. This may also explain the many repeat productions, as new filmmakers share their vision of Mrs. Bennet (shrewish or just misunderstood?), the right Mr. Elton (homely or attractive enough to fancy himself a suitor of Emma?), the perfect Jane (as dim as she is beautiful?).
Add to my shifting sentiments a new cast—promise me a new Mr. Darcy, a new Emma, a new Captain Wentworth—and I will show up, popcorn in hand, ready to find a new favorite character on the screen. And I’ll be ready to fall in love again just like in the movies, just like we all once did. Austen gives you that chance, all over again. We’ll take it every time.
Natalie Jenner is the author of The Jane Austen Society (St. Martin’s Press), the first published novel for this lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen. Jenner was born in England, raised in Canada and graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law. She worked for decades in the legal industry and also founded an independent bookstore in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. You can visit her website to learn more.