July 18 is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death in 1817 at the age of 42. In honor of this day, I have created an official, completely objective ranking of the movies based on her books.
Well, not really.
First of all, this list doesn’t include every Austen movie ever made — mostly just those from the last 20 years or so. Second, I’m particularly worried about the flack I’m going to get for my unorthodox ranking of the two “Pride & Prejudice” movies. Consider yourself warned.
I’ve seen most of these movies multiple times — except for the two that I haven’t seen at all. I’ve marked those with asterisks and based their rankings on the opinions of my colleagues. I plan to rectify this gap and watch them very, very soon; don’t you worry.
If you disagree with these rankings, as I’m sure many of you will, feel free to let me know. Let’s just all remember what’s really important here — Austen and how much her wonderful words have changed our lives.
1. ‘Sense & Sensibility,’ 1995 (Amazon streaming): I’m not at all worried about ranking this movie as the best of them all, because it just is. It has a 98 percent ranking on Rotten Tomatoes and Emma Thompson — who, I should add, wrote an amazing (and Oscar-winning) script and whose performance as Elinor (for which she won a Golden Globe) glows. This movie brings out the funniest and most poignant aspects of the book and makes them shine. I'd also like to point out that this movie has a pre-Harry Potter cast; note that Thompson (Sybill Trelawney in HP), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon in S&S, Severus Snape in HP) and Imelda Staunton (Charlotte Palmer in S&S, Dolores Umbridge in HP) are all in it together. Also, Hugh Laurie makes a pre-“House” appearance as a perfect grouchy Mr. Palmer. I will also make mention of Hugh Grant (Edward), Kate Winslet (Marianne) and director Ang Lee, who also deserve a fair amount of credit for making this movie the gem that it is.
2. ‘Persuasion,’ 1995 (Amazon streaming): 1995 was a good year for Austen movies. This version of “Persuasion” is not only beautiful, it's also a pleasure to watch. Please go back and observe how actress Amanda Root as Anne Elliot actually seems to grow more vibrant and lovely as the film goes on. Add in the tension between Anne and Captain Wentworth (Ciarán Hinds), which is both painful and wonderful, as well as the cinematography and you have a film that is peaceful, quiet and blissful to get wrapped up in.
3. ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ 2005 (Amazon streaming): I can hear the angry mobs now. I know to many it’s near blasphemy to rank this movie — directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy — higher than the BBC version, but I have to be honest: I like it better. It's just so beautiful. The piano score by Dario Marianelli is one of the best there is, and the cinematography is unique and has a way of capturing you in even its quiet moments. Sure, it may not be as true to the book, but I actually enjoy the differences. That proposal scene in the rain where Darcy and Elizabeth almost kiss — my heart wants to burst every time. I think this version captures what fans love about the book, making it clearer and more dramatic for a modern audience.
4, ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ 1995 (Amazon streaming): Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth are a lovely, classic pairing. I actually think the famous scene with Firth getting out of the pond with a wet shirt is super cheesy, but you could say the same about MacFadyen walking through the mists with an open-necked shirt to propose to Elizabeth, so I’ll let that go for fairness’ sake. I do love that this version is basically the book, word for word, on film, even with a little extra, but it is so long. The part where Lydia runs off with Wickham goes on forever and sometimes I just want to fast forward to the good part. It is still a well-done, completely worthy adaptation, so it’s still high on my list — it’s just inferior to the 2005 one in my mind. Please forgive me.
5. ‘Emma,’ 1996 (Netflix): Gwyneth Paltrow shines in this one, and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley is hard not to fall in love with — and that climactic scene where they confess their love is magical. I like the pacing of this one, because I think the book moves slowly through Emma’s painful growth path. All the actors are hilarious in their roles and it takes one of my less favorite Austen novels and makes it more fun.
6. ‘Northanger Abbey,’ 2007* (Amazon streaming): When I last tried to watch this movie, it wasn’t available for rent anywhere (one of the sad aspects of the demise of Blockbuster) and I could only buy it from third-party sellers. After just checking, I see that it is now available for streaming on Amazon, so probably this week I will be watching this, and I’m excited. I’ve heard good things about it and I love Felicity Jones, who plays Catherine. Here is my co-worker, Cristy Meiners' view on it (she’s the one who recommended I give it this ranking): "I may regret saying this, but I enjoyed this screen adaptation more than I did Austen's book. The gift here is Jones who makes the overly romantic Catherine Morland eminently relatable. What book-loving young woman hasn't let her imagination get the best of her a time or two? And that Henry Tilney (JJ Feild) is downright adorable. Back to Michelle."
7. ‘Sense & Sensibility,’ 2008 (DVD for purchase on Amazon): The best, best part of this version for me is that "Downton Abbey's" Dan Stevens stars as Edward Ferrars — those Matthew Crawley blue eyes are my favorite. I enjoy that it has more details than the 1995 version, including Willoughby’s talk with Elinor after Marianne gets sick. The film is actually a beautiful version in its own right — sadly for the filmmakers, it's just impossible to live up to Thompson’s writing. Note that there is an out-of-place, brief sexy scene in the very beginning. It’s random and unrepeated, so don’t worry about it too much.
8. ‘Emma,’ 2009 (Amazon streaming): I don’t mind this version, especially with Michael Gambon playing Mr. Woodhouse (he plays Dumbledore in six of the eight Harry Potter films, so there's another HP actor who had some Austen time). Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Mr. Knightley, is not as attractive physically as Northam but he grew on me as I watched, and Romola Garai does a lovely job. I also appreciate how the film handles Emma, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax's backstories, giving an interesting perspective to how their stories parallel and contrast each other, showing how it led to their drama in adulthood.
9. ‘Persuasion,’ 2007* (DVD or Blu-ray available for purchase on Amazon): I have not seen this one either. All I know about it is the scene where Captain Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Anne (Sally Hawkins) kiss is the most awkward, fish-gasping-for-breath, delayed, laughable kiss I have ever witnessed. But that’s the only scene I’ve actually watched, so maybe I’m misjudging the film based on that alone. I also think Anne and Wentworth look too young. Maybe I’m just overly biased by how much I love the 1995 one to even give it a shot. I solemnly swear to actually watch it very soon.
10. ‘Mansfield Park,’ 1999 (Amazon streaming): No one seems to be able to do a proper adaptation of this novel, which is different and darker than Austen’s others. I thought this version was my least favorite Austen movie until I saw the 2007 “Mansfield Park.” Then I realized this was actually the better of the two, which is pretty sad because there’s a lot about this one that makes me angry. Mainly, director/writer Patricia Rozema adds too much blatant political preachiness, when part of what is great about Austen is how subtle she is. That being said, the same Miller who plays Mr. Knightley in the 2009 “Emma” is an excellent, perfect Edmond in this film. They just needed a better Fanny — Frances O’Connor doesn't cut it — and a better script.
11. ‘Mansfield Park,’ 2007 (DVD for Blu-ray available for purchase on Amazon): I don’t think the creators had much of a budget for this movie. I can't think of any other reason they would have Fanny (Billie Piper) stay at Mansfield Park alone instead of having her go back to Portsmouth. Her time of banishment back to her childhood impoverished household is such an important part of the book, as that is where she learns how much Mansfield Park has changed her. Leaving that out is ridiculous. Also, Piper is an odd choice for Fanny and in my mind was mostly unsuccessful at playing a shy, self-conscious, yet intelligent girl. Edmund (Blake Ritson) is good-looking but weird. Basically, don’t waste your time on this one.
Some bonus Austen adaptations you can also watch, in order of how much I like them:
- “Love & Friendship” (Amazon streaming): This movie is hilarious and Kate Beckinsale dominates.
- “Jane Austen Book Club” (Amazon streaming): I recommend this book too. It’s all the Jane Austen love in one place.
- “Becoming Jane” (Amazon streaming): It’s not the best-made movie on the planet, but it always gives me the feels and I adore James McAvoy.
- “Clueless” (Amazon streaming): This is the only Austen-related film my husband will ever watch with me because it has Paul Rudd and Donald Faison in it and it’s from the 90s — which are all good reasons to watch it.
- “Austenland” (Amazon streaming): This is really a silly story, but something of a guilty-pleasure movie with some hot actors.