The Difficulties of Jane Austen on the Big Screen

Love & Friendship: A Successful Movie Adaptation Of Lady Susan

When making Jane Austen’s classic, much-loved writing into films, a key aspect of her style is often overlooked. No matter how much I love them, many movie adaptations of Austen are longwinded and static to the point of being boring. As is often the case with books we consider ‘classics,’ audiences have an awe for the source material that prevents them from being amused. And you should be in awe. I am in awe. It is decidedly awe-inspiring that a woman of Austen’s economic and social standing wrote such brilliant, insightful and lasting works. But these works also happen to be hilarious.

Love & Friendship, the movie adaptation of Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan that came out earlier this year, gets the comedy of Austen exactly right. The film is fast-paced, modern, and as a result laugh-out-loud hilarious. Yet around the time that it came out I read and heard many complaints. People seemed to think that this was not “the real Austen,” whatever that means. They were of the opinion that something had been diminished, some injustice had been done to her original works. I wholeheartedly disagree.

I don’t want to say or write anything to detract from the understated brilliance of such movie adaptations as Emma Thompson’s Sense & Sensebility, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance in Emma or the more recent Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightly. Lord knows I’m not out to criticize the much beloved miniseries that gave us the tantalizing visual I’ve copy-pasted below.


But these adaptations, while they were conscientious and wholesome and generally enjoyable, missed out on an aspect that I think is key to Jane Austen’s work; she can be very, very funny, and much of her sense of humour relies on a measure of mean-spiritedness. She is a master of the art of mockery. Here’s an example of her sense of humour. The modern-day word “savage” comes to mind.

“Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.” Letter to Casandra

Men are wont to say to their wives:

“I do not know I contradicted any body in calling your mother ill-bred.” Sense & Sensibility 

And Jane herself remarked once to her sister of some mutual acquaintances:

“I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.” Letter To Cassandra

Of course, Love & Friendship is a modernized adaptation of Lady Susan, and often modernizing much-beloved classics rubs me the wrong way. I can see where the criticisms are coming from. I just like to think that this fast-paced, hilarious adaptation is just the way Austen would have liked it, and that it is not too far removed from the way she intended her work to be read; as a scathing whirlwind of social comedy.


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