Lisa Schwarzbaum
August 16, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Jane Austen’s books transfer well to film

As Jane Austen might have memoed in a fax: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a movie producer in possession of a good book must be in want of tweaking the story. If John Grisham, very much alive and volubly protective of his first novel, A Time to Kill, was willing to let screenwriter Akiva Goldsman change prose-speaking characters into rhetoric-spouting ones, then what hope is there for such long-dead creative consultants as Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter with a happy ending? Let’s do it!), Daniel Defoe (Moll Flanders with a liberated naked lady? Love it!), or Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame featuring a lovable guy with a hump? Go for it!)? Recent movie history has, however, demonstrated a welcome sensitivity toward the work of dead lady creative consultants, including Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence), and Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess and The Secret Garden). But no great writer has had such a hot movie and television run as the incandescent Austen.

Austen once described her work thus: ”the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labor.” But fans of last summer’s Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s zesty, updated adaptation of Emma, would say ”Hellooooooo?” By letting her characters speak in the banal lingo of 1990s Beverly Hills high school sophisticates while staying true to the author’s story about a self-satisfied girl who likes to meddle in the romantic lives of others, Heckerling proved exactly how big an effect Austen still has. In contrast, Emma, the very newest Austen filmed entertainment, retains all of the book’s characters and many of the author’s incisive words, but overall little of her bite.

Emma, written in 1816, was the fourth published of Austen’s six novels. Persuasion, her mellow, posthumously issued last (1818), about second-chance romance, was given an affectingly spare and tender movie treatment last September. With magnetically unbeautiful British stars enacting a mature love story, the BBC production valuably illuminated Austen’s optimistic plot. And it was a BBC team, again, that invested the time and tenderness necessary to turn Pride and Prejudice, the then 38-year-old novelist’s second book (1813), into an exquisitely detailed six-part television miniseries on cable’s A&E last winter. In that witty love story of two opinionated people, Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy act out all of the snobberies that could be crammed into one small corner of 19th-century pastoral England, with lively dialogue taken directly from the author’s pen; substitute a few whatevers, and Amy Heckerling has her next project.

But if Clueless is totally plugged in, Emma totally sunny, Persuasion totally poignant, and Pride and Prejudice totally spirited, then Sense and Sensibility, this winter’s perfectly realized movie of Austen’s first published novel (1811), directed by Ang Lee and adapted (with Oscar-winning skill) by Emma Thompson, who also stars, is proof of what power can come of a great book given inspired filmmaking. S&S isn’t as perfectly woven a book as Emma, yet the movie achieves a kind of perfection of its own. It isn’t as poignant a book as Persuasion, yet the perfectly calibrated ensemble performances deepen our emotional response. The book is a small masterpiece, yet the movie’s seductive star power has made Jane Austen a major Hollywood mover.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer gal without an agent.

Book-to-movie satisfaction: Clueless: A-; Emma: B-; Persuasion: B+; Pride and Prejudice: B; Sense and Sensibility: A

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