Masterpiece Theatre's The Complete Jane Austen—more than 900 minutes of wooing and spurning and wooing anew—includes tried-and-true versions of Pride and Prejudice and Emma and new adaptations of Austen's other novels. Here, a field guide to the young women in their Empire-waist dresses.
Pride and Prejudice
The setup: Elizabeth Bennet disapproves of standoffish Mr. Darcy, who she believes has betrayed her sister. After hearing his side of the story, she casts off her prejudice. Or would that be her pride?
It is a truth universally acknowledged...that it is worth watching every minute of this six-hour 1995 adaptation, the standard against which all others should be measured. Colin Firth's (above) Mr. Darcy is suitably brooding, not to mention irresistible.
Sense and Sensibility
The setup: Elinor's the rational sister ("sense"), Marianne's the romantic one ("sensibility"); when their hearts are broken, each takes a page from the other's book.
Between the lines...Screenwriter Andrew Davies (who adapted Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey) is known for filling in details Austen only hinted at. Here he opens with a tryst—obliquely referenced in the book—featuring Marianne's suitor and another woman.
The setup: Eight years ago, Anne Elliot's family convinced her that the penniless love of her life wasn't marriage material. He's back (and newly wealthy) but more interested in plucky young Louisa Musgrove than in Anne—who, at 27, is over the hill. Or so Anne thinks.
Jane's heirs...While Bridget Jones's Diary owed a debt to Pride & Prejudice, its sequel—Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason—tipped its hat to this, Austen's final novel.
The setup: Fanny Price, a poor girl taken in by rich relatives, is courted by flirtatious Henry Crawford but is deeply in love with cousin/confidant Edmund Bertram, who, as bad luck would have it, is in love with Henry's sister Mary. (Yes, first cousins were fair game.)
What would Jane Austen say...if she knew that Billie Piper, who plays Fanny, was formerly a pop star famous for singing lyrics like Do you have a girlfriend? / You're looking real cool.
The setup: Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a country girl visiting the resort town of Bath, attracts the attention of well-to-do Henry Tilney. When Henry invites her to his father's eerie estate, Catherine's overheated imagination gets the best of her.
You know that Austen mania has reached a fever pitch...when even her oddest book, a satire that wryly mocks the Gothic novel craze of her day, gets its own movie.
The setup: Clever, handsome, and rich, Emma Woodhouse is an inveterate matchmaker. Naturally, she can't recognize her own perfect match.
"A heroine whom no one but myself will much like..." That's how Austen described spoiled young Emma. Yet, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Alicia Silverstone (whose character in Clueless was inspired by Emma) to this version's Kate Beckinsale, the women who portray her are utterly charming.
— By Alexis Swerdloff