It’s a truth universally acknowledged that good Jane Austen adaptations are worth re-watching again and again every few years or more, and that’s precisely what I’ve been doing recently.
I’ve read and own the books too, but let’s face it, reading 200 year old stuff can be a bit of a slog sometimes. Besides, nothing brings Jane Austen stories to life like an excellent Andrew Davies script.
At the same time, often on the same day, I’ve also been listening to the audio books on Audible. I have a love/hate relationship with Audible; I‘ll listen to the trailers and decide I couldn’t stand to listen to a whole book by that particular narrator. It’s fussy I know, but it’s all subjective isn’t it?
Anyway the point I’m making is that I don’t often listen to audio books for this very reason, but since I was paying monthly for the privilege of a stack of Winnie the Pooh and Mr Men stories gathering dust, I thought I’d give it another outing.
I thought the ‘BBC Radio Drama Collection’ of Jane Austen adaptations (grouped together as one download on Audible) were really good, and they got me in the mood to watch some of them on screen too.
You can go much further back than the 90s if you really want to, but I still think the last few decades have produced some of the better versions of the beloved regency stories.
So I’ve ranked the 13 best Jane Austen adaptations available to watch online, and if you don’t agree then I take no leave of you and send no compliments to your mother.
13: Pride & Prejudice (2005)
In last place is Ang Lee’s Pride & Prejudice. I don’t like Kiera Knightley very much – and certainly not as Elizabeth Bennett – and the first time I tried to watch it I switched it off in the first ten minutes I was so incensed.
However, it’s well made with a good cast: Tom Hollander as Mr Collins and Judi Dench as his most condescending patroness are among my favourites.
I might rewatch and change my mind but there’s only one definitive Pride & Prejudice for me (and it’s not the book).
12: Northanger Abbey (2007) – Amazon Prime
In only just penultimate place (because it was redeemed by having Andrew Davies on board for the script) is Northanger Abbey which could have and should have been amazing.
JJ Feild (stupid name, poor man’s Tom Hiddleston) does make a gorgeous Henry Tilney in this camp and ridiculous retelling of the tale of a silly girl obsessed with the thrill and romance of gothic novels.
Anyway, if it wasn’t for having Andrew Davies in the project then this would probably be in last place for me. It appears even more dated than some of the 90s output and I don’t enjoy Felicity Jones, but can’t put my finger on why, and Carey Mulligan seems too big for her role.
11: Emma (1996) Amazon Prime Video
Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse? No ta. She was very good, and a lot of people enjoy this version, but I want a Jane Austen adaptation to drip with all the trappings of the BBC drama department not reek of Hollywood.
10: Sanditon (2019) ITV Hub and Amazon Prime Video
It’s hard to fall in love with Sanditon, as it was one of Austen’s unfinished works. So although I think we owe enormous gratitude that anyone would take the time to attempt to do it justice, we just haven’t had the chance to get to know the characters and hone them on stage and screen as we have with the Dashwoods and Darcys over two hundred years.
ITV drama put out a very good mini series with fine costuming, Andrew Davies writing, and decent cinematography and locations. But it’ll never be beloved like Pride & Prejudice or other stories, not least because it was cancelled after its first season.
9: Mansfield Park (1999) Amazon Prime Video
Don’t let the absolutely mind-bogglingly awful Miramax trailer on Amazon Prime Video put you off (although it really is grotesque).
This Jane Austen adaptation boasts the wonderful Jonny Lee Miller and Harold Pinter amongst the very good cast, in this tale of a poor cousin sent to live in the shadow of her rich relations.
For me, it is not quite the equal of its next incarnation.
8: Mansfield Park (2007) Amazon Prime Video
I still don’t know what I think of Billie Piper in the lead role as Fanny Price even though I am fond of her.
It’s a good adaptation, with some familiar favourites, but like the novel itself I doubt it’s anyone’s favourite.
7: Sense and Sensibility (2008) Amazon Prime Video
Once again relying on writer Andrew Davies to sneak up the charts, this is a perfectly good Jane Austen adaptation but the casting doesn’t thrill me.
My least favourite Willoughby but a decent Elinor, and I enjoyed Mark Gatiss and and Mark Williams in character parts.
6: Emma (2009) Amazon Prime Video
Romola Garai plays a wonderful Emma in this mini series – rich, spoilt, sociable, and somewhat meddlesome when it comes to comes to matchmaking with varying results.
Jonny Lee Miller makes a very good Mr Knightley alongside her. Also someone I went to school with but didn’t recognise for years.
All very BBC, all very treading the Shakespeare boards, just as I like it.
5: Persuasion (2009) Amazon Prime Video
Rupert Penry Jones looks every bit the part as Captain Wentworth in this adaptation of one of my favourite Jane Austen novels.
Compare it, if you can find it anywhere online, to 90s version starring Ciarán Hinds as Wentworth and see what you think. Penry-Jones edges it for me but I’d say they are both very good adaptations.
I was never entirely sure about casting Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliott even though she is an excellent actor but it’s a heart rending story which I love.
What I don’t love, is seeing young ladies out and about in public without their bonnets and being a stickler for costume authenticity can make me a fussy viewer.
4: Emma (2020) Amazon Prime Video
It’s perhaps a bold move allowing a newer Jane Austen adaptation in at number four but after seeing Emma once at the cinema on its release I entirely approved.
Casting Miranda Hart as Miss Bates was a stroke of genius although and I loved Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse, but whether this Emma was any more true to character than Cher in Clueless only the author herself could tell you.
3: Death Comes to Pemberley (2013) Amazon Prime Video
This three parter isn’t exactly a Jane Austen adaptation but an decent modern sequel to Pride and Prejudice, by PD James. Expect the same bonnets and breeches get ups, but also more intrigue than affairs of the heart and society scandal.
The downside is, once you’ve watched it, you don’t really have the need to watch it again, unlike with other adaptations.
Apart from a slightly ridiculous ending (I’m sorry but Elizabeth would never run around shouting clutching a letter no matter how important the matter was) it’s got a great cast, sumptuous filming locations, and glorious costuming.
2: Sense & Sensibility (1995) Netflix and Amazon Prime Video
Alan Rickman God rest his soul is the perfect underrated hero Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility, at a very respectable second place.
He shares the screen with Emma Thompson but in much happier circumstances than in Love Actually, as Kate Winslet takes on the role of the utterly broken hearted.
1: Pride & Prejudice (1995) – Netflix
The essential and best of all the Jane Austen adaptations, perfectly adapted for the small screen by the very wonderful Andrew Davies (of whom I am an unashamed fan and have been to see him do Q&A talks on my own that’s how fab I think he is).
Alison Steadman before she was “two steaks Pam” makes the perfect Mrs Bennett and Colin Firth (especially in the famous lake scene) makes it impossible for anyone to come close to his Mr Darcy, which is why we all ardently admire and love him.