When Jane Austen died in 1817 at the age of just 41, Napoleon was still alive, the United States was a minor power, and Great Britain was just entering its golden age of world dominance.

These books achieved modest success, but were not taken seriously as literature, and because Austen published them anonymously, she was virtually unknown outside a narrow social circle.

What would she have made of the entertainment industry that has grown up around her work since then, spanning dozens of hit TV series, quirky adaptations and lavish, big-budget films? What, really, would Jane have made of Fire Island (2022), say, Andrew Ahn’s creative adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, in which a group of gay friends visit the famous island of New York in search of their Mr. D’Arcy?

Hot on the heels is Persuasion , Carrie Cracknell’s new adaptation of Austen’s last completed novel, starring Dakota Johnson, an actress still recovering from her association with a very different kind of romance novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. This is Anne Elliott, a 27-year-old destitute “maiden” whose marriage prospects seem bleak until her former suitor, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), unexpectedly enters her life.

I guess it’s well-made enough and was released on Netflix yesterday, but its stark modern sensibility has offended Austin’s fireworks custodians.

In recent decades, the cult of Jane has become something of a mania, with populists and underappreciated adherents scornful of Austen’s high-church purists, who object to the imposition of modern mores on Austen’s chaste and restrained novels, and the lack of respect for her subject matter, tone, and language.

However, they might want to relax because at this stage Austen is a pillar of the zeitgeist, her stories as ubiquitous and endlessly retold as Shakespeare’s. Like the bard, her art is timeless, infinitely malleable, always applicable to our current predicament.

So purists should get used to productions like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because they’ve been picked up a lot more.

Also, producers and screenwriters have treated Austen’s books with contemptuous contempt for almost a century, and it would be hard to find an environment more persistently anti-intellectual than the Golden Age of Hollywood. When MGM began circulating Pride and Prejudice in the late 1930s, purists feared the worst. “Five sisters longing for love!” the trailer boomed, “and how they found their husbands!”

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Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma Wodehouse in Autumn de Wilde’s EMA. Author: Focus Features

For the most part, however, critics would have been pleasantly surprised by Robert Leonard’s 1940 film adaptation, which retained much of the book’s deadpan comedy. Laurence Olivier played Mr. Darcy as a flamboyant crab who, when wronged, scornfully retreats into his shell, while Greer Garson was a lively and liberated Lizzie Bennet, who dismisses his first advances with disdain.

The film was surprisingly faithful to its source material for the most part, but some liberties were taken. In terms of fashion, the Empire line was abandoned in favor of a fuller, more 1830s look, which the producers felt could showcase Garson and his co-stars Maureen O’Sullivan and Anne Rutherford to better effect.

And since the Hayes Code insisted that religions (especially Christian) should not be ridiculed, Mr. Collins, an absurd priest, was turned into a librarian.

But overall, Pride and Prejudice was pretty good, and one of the best of the dozen direct adaptations of Austen’s most famous novel. Andrew Davies’ six-part TV adaptation for the BBC in the mid-1990s combined a respectful script with bodice-ripping moments. That famous scene where Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) goes for an impromptu swim in his pond and emerges with his shirt provocatively stuck to his face has been derided by many as an irreverent tickle, but in the end it was just a harmless story.

Davies’ miniseries was a huge success with audiences and inspired Helen Fielding to retell Austen’s story in a slightly more modern setting, first in her Bridget Jones newspaper column, then in a novel that was later turned into a very funny film.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) starred Renee Zellweger as a drone at a London publishing company whose chaotic lifestyle gets in the way of her lust for stuffy lawyer Mark Darcy (played, of course, by Colin Firth). Hugh Grant nearly took over the show with his portrayal of Daniel Cleaver, a charming ruffian based on George Wickham, but respectfully, Ms. Fielding’s confection is not the best adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for me.

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Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny in the movie “Love and Friendship”.

It would be Joe Wright’s understated and elegant 2005 film, which used poetic license to highlight the Bennet family’s lack of means and a cast young enough to reflect the demographic realities of Austen’s time.

While some critics thought Keira Knightley was more beautiful than Lizzie Bennet had any right to be, I thought she was great as a proud young woman who refuses to accept social realities and cursing in front of her rich and arrogant neighbors.

Matthew Macfadyen was excellent as the shy and moody Darcy, who in most social situations seems to suffer from catatonia, while Wright brilliantly orchestrated a terrifying but ultimately touching story. The Bennet family had elegance and grace, but dirt stains on the hems of their dresses.

If Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s most adapted novel, her 1815 novel Emma is a close second. It has been directly adapted at least seven times, starting with the rather low-key 1948 British version starring Judy Campbell as the interfering Emma Wodehouse. The 1995 Miramax film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma was brilliant but tinny, and the 1996 TV movie created by Andrew Davis and starring Kate Beckinsale was better.

Even better, in my opinion, was 2020’s Auten de Wilde, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma, ​​a spoiled, well-intentioned young woman whom Austen succinctly described as “beautiful, smart and rich.”

She shares a house with her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), a shivering widower who lives in fear of drafts and is followed everywhere by two surly footmen with security screens. With little entertainment, Emma contented herself with matchmaking among her small circle of acquaintances. It’s a job she’s tragically unsuited to.

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Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones

De Wilde’s film perfectly illustrates the timeless themes and human traits that make Austen’s stories timeless. And although many of her heroines live in gilded cages and are trapped by the conventions of patriarchal society, their longings and frustrations are instantly transferred even to such a complex and mature work as “Persuasion.”

The new Netflix film is the fifth attempt to adapt Persuasion for the screen, the best being the late Roger Mitchell’s 1995 TV movie, starring Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth. Austen’s novel, written when she was almost 40, was intended as a cautionary but hopeful story about two elderly lovers who seem to have passed them by.

By the standards of the time, Anne, at 27, was an old spinster, Wentworth, 31, a man not in his prime, whose newly acquired fortune was now his main selling point.

In Michelle’s film, Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root urged them to avoid make-up and look tired, a little jaded.

Northanger Abbey, which, like Persuasion, was published posthumously, is the least adapted of Austen’s finished works, which is not surprising given the intellectual nature of its story about a bookish 17-year-old girl who begins to confuse her favorite Gothic novels with reality.

But in 2007 there was an interesting TV movie (again adapted by Andrew Davies) starring Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland.

Mansfield Park has been adapted twice as a feature film and once as a mini-series.

It’s a wonderful novel, and for all its nods to the real-life Jane Austen, Patricia Rosema’s 1999 film comes closest to capturing its insightful exploration of snobbery and idleness. And Frances O’Connor was excellent as Fanny Price, the plucky young woman who refuses to marry a rich lump and slips quietly into the night.

American filmmaker Whit Stillman used Mansfield Park as the starting point for his urbane and witty 1990 film Metropolitan, in which a wealthy group of Manhattan socialites discuss life, love and literature during their debut season.

These giddy snobs see Jane Austen as part of their “cultural capital” and something that separates them from the rough and tumble new money types in town like Donald Trump. One of them uses a quote from the critic Lionel Trilling that “not to like Jane Austen is to suspect yourself of wanting to reproduce.” Completely.

And Whit Stillman isn’t done with Austen—in 2016, he released a film that, to me, is the most beautiful and authentic adaptation of her work. Unlike Netflix’s Persuasion, which had tons of money thrown at it, Love and Friendship was made for nothing, was partially filmed in Ireland, and beautifully captures the sharp and acerbic mind that lurks beneath the polished surface of just about everything Austen has ever done. wrote.

It is based on an early novel, Lady Susan, which Austen abandoned and was never published in her lifetime, and tells the story of Lady Susan Vernon, a beautiful and supposedly magical widow whose arrival is dreaded by all the people of southern England.

Lady Susan is a gold digger, an impoverished chance, who is determined to sink her claws into a rich idiot and isn’t afraid to use her hapless daughter as bait.

Lady Susan, played with great skill by Beckinsale, is a monster of self-centeredness, but an irritatingly charismatic creature whose continued existence Jane Austen would surely be proud of.

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