By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
The Bridget Jones films draw not only on Jane Austen’s original texts but on other adaptations of Austen. There’s so much in Bridget Jones that serves as a winking riff, not only of the original Austen novel but of the BBC’s 1995 adaptation. We might say that Austen adaptation history has made a habit of this sort of thing. New adaptations of Austen were created of previously successful Austen adaptations.
Repetition in Austen Adaptations
Both the 1940 MGM film and the Bridget Jones film were presented to audiences as a fun-loving, humorous, and crowd-pleasing romps. We might say that they were presented as Easter eggs within Easter eggs. They’re best enjoyed by audiences who understand not only Austen’s original text but the adapted versions that come just prior to theirs.
This suggests a fan base that has an understanding and appreciation not only of elite but of pop culture Austen. It’s also a fandom that doesn’t just tolerate repetition but that has as a central feature a desire for repetition, in a new key.
That idea of repetition in a new key leads us into another important innovation in 21st-century Austen adaptation—the significant trend of transporting the original story into new subgenres and cultural contents.
The new subgenres have included mystery, with P. D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, and horror, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But the new cultural contexts for Austen are also crucial and wide-ranging.
Austen Moves Out of England
One of the best-known adaptations to move Austen out of a British setting is the 2004 film Bride and Prejudice. It transforms Austen’s story into an English-language Bollywood musical, including dialogue in Hindi and Punjabi. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, Bride and Prejudice moved the story to present-day India, England, and California, renaming the Bennet family the Bakshi family.
The film embraces, criticizes, and sends up British colonial relationships, in what is, finally, a happy, if fraught, marriage of men, women, cultures, and nations. It was advertised as a story of “a modern woman in a traditional family”, and a relationship of people who “come from two different worlds”. It’s a story that deliberately confronts the wrongful prejudices of intercultural contact.
Bride and Prejudice is also significant for its putting back into the film the sort of social criticism of gender roles and the economics of marriage that had been set to the side, or ignored, in many previous 20th century adaptations. Chadha’s film puts social criticism into its song lyrics, especially its send-up of Mr. Collins, renamed Mr. Kholi.
The song, sung by the story’s young women, is humorously called, “No Life Without Wife”. The Mr. Collins storyline has emerged as the one most readily translated to contemporary, cross-cultural humor and social criticism.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Diversity in Austen Adaptations
In the 2010s, Pride and Prejudice has enjoyed countless iterations, a number of them remade to feature more diverse communities than formerly. Ibi Zoboi’s novel, Pride, from 2018 is set in an Afro-Latino community in Brooklyn.
Soniah Kamal’s 2019 novel Unmarriageable is a Pride and Prejudice-inspired novel set in contemporary Pakistan. Sonali Dev’s novel of the same year, Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, features an Indian American surgeon who falls for a multiracial British chef.
Diverse retellings of Austen’s story extended to film and television as well. The 2017 film Before the Fall cast two men as Elizabeth and Darcy. The 2019 A&E TV movie Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta featured an all-Black cast. Joel Kim Booster’s Trip reimagines Pride and Prejudice in a modern-day rom-com set on Fire Island.
Meanwhile, contemporary rewritings of Austen’s stories regularly appear in the annual lineups of the Hallmark Channel’s dozens of Christmas movies, which have previously been criticized for their comparative lack of diversity. These Hallmark Austen adaptations have included Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe and Christmas at Pemberley Manor in 2018, among others.
Today, you can read or see versions of Pride and Prejudice, in board books for toddlers and Manga versions for teens and adults. Austen is said to be the fifth most Instagrammed author. There’s now a massive multiplayer online role-playing game, called “Ever, Jane”, which offers immersion and interaction in a digital world.
Thus far, as Austen has morphed into each iteration of new media, she’s managed to hold onto a rock-solid reputation for literary greatness, alongside impeccable pop-culture cachet. As a result, Austen’s memorable characters and seemingly timeless stories appear well poised to be handed down to next-generation viewers and readers, who will inevitably create a different vocabulary and form new communities, around which readers and viewers may congregate.
Perhaps Austen’s characters and stories will continue to serve as a locus for debates about equality, difference, love, and family. To be sure, Austen’s adapted stories and characters of the 20th and 21st centuries don’t tell one story about gender, class, sexuality, and race and ethnicity. Yet what most adaptations have in common is that they are inviting audiences to ask new versions of the old questions that Austen’s original novels have long asked: namely, how to build a meaningful life in a world that is often deeply unfair.
Common Questions about the Diverse Austen Adaptations
Many Austen adaptations are based on previous adaptations of Austen’s work such that they include Easter eggs not only of the original material but also of the adaptations that the current one is based on. This shows that the fandom not only has an understanding of many of the adaptations of Austen but that they also love repetition.
The Bollywood Austen adaptation includes social criticism that had been excluded or downplayed in other adaptations of Austen’s works in the 20th century. Social criticism is even included in the film’s songs.
Austen adaptations of the 21st century are varied in their choice of medium. For example, board books are available for toddlers, and Manga versions are available for teens. There’s also an online video game called “Ever, Jane”.