by Anna Cain
The ten most successful movies of 2014 have something in common: none are original stories. Two are based on books, five on Marvel comics. The 16th top grossing movie of the year, “Interstellar,” is the first on the list that isn’t a sequel or a prequel, isn’t a live action version of an animated classic, isn’t adapted from a comic.
Despite current box office trends, Hollywood didn’t invent the remake, and some authors have had their works reimagined even more times than Marvel. Whose creations have inspired countless movies and television shows, have been reissued so many times they barely resemble the original? Not a comic book creator, but a mild-mannered woman from Hampshire: the inimitable Jane Austen.
Jane Austen never married, but she is considered one of the literary experts on love. She rarely travelled from her pastoral home, but her stories have found life far from the British countryside. Austen published only six novels (plus a forgotten teenaged attempt at an epistolary), but if you include the works she inspired, her output seems large indeed.
On Austen trails across England, tourists can purchase Regency tea blends and handmade Fitzwilliam Darcy busts. Come 2017, these tourists can buy their souvenirs with the £10 Austen banknote. “Jane Austen,” The Guardian concludes after an evaluation of her personal tourism industry, “is a brand, perhaps the most profitable literary brand.” And though people have been reading and rereading her books for centuries, the Guardian article claims to pinpoint the exact moment when Austen went from a canonical author to a fan craze: the evening of Sunday, October 15, 1995.
This is the original airdate for the fourth episode of the “Pride and Prejudice” BBC miniseries. The episode opens as Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) tours Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate. While Lizzy admires the stately gardens, Darcy himself (Colin Firth) returns home suddenly. Overwhelmed by the summer heat, he strips to his undershirt and plunges into a nearby pond. After his spontaneous swim, he encounters Lizzy. The scene was intended to be awkward, an embarrassed Mr. Darcy in a state of undress. But the image of a transparent white shirt sticking to Colin Firth’s body was anything but undignified. It turned Jane Austen into a mainstream sex outlet.
The “lake scene” is one of the most famous moments in British television. By my own estimate, there are probably a dozen people running around today who were conceived because of this scene. A Mr. Darcy with sex appeal also brought a tangible financial benefit. Tom Carpenter, curator of Austen’s family home and museum, recalls that the year after the BBC miniseries, they received almost 60,000 visitors, a total so unusually high “that the village began to feel uncomfortable about it.”
The infamous wet shirt spawned another infamous Jane Austen offshoot. The trouble started when a single, slightly overweight British woman named Helen watched Firth’s swim and decided to create a reality where a single, slightly overweight British woman named Bridget seduces a modern Mr. Darcy. The result is “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” a book series and later movie series. To say the book was inspired by “Pride and Prejudice” is redundant. Author Helen Fielding essentially kidnaps Mr. Darcy and forces him to be a human rights lawyer in modern London.
A more recent high profile spinoff is the novel “Death Comes to Pemberley.” In this continuation of “Pride and Prejudice,” the handsome cad Mr. Wickham is falsely accused of murder. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy must put aside their personal dislike of Wickham–and learn basic detective skills–to save him from the gallows. Although “Death Comes to Pemberley” fails as both a mystery (the decisive clue is a deus ex machina signed confession detailing exactly how and why the crime was committed) and as fanfiction (Darcy and Lizzy spend the book sleuthing separately and don’t interact meaningfully until the last chapter) it was adapted into a surprisingly well-made BBC miniseries. High profile, high budget reincarnations of Jane Austen make the entire genre more palatable to consumers. And yes, there are enough Austen continuations to constitute a genre of their own.
First we have “The Austen Project,” which recruited respected authors like Alexander McCall Smith to rewrite the six original Austen novels, though no one has given a compelling argument as to why exactly they needed to be rewritten. There’s also the 2013 novel “Longbourn,” which follows the Bennet family’s servants. Within the “Janeite” fandom is an even smaller subgenre of sappy young adult books with horrid titles like “Prom and Prejudice” and “Prada and Prejudice.” The mania isn’t limited to print. The viral vlog series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” proves that one needs only a webcam and a modicum of talent to create an Internet sensation.
There are at least six manga versions of Austen novels, as well as three Bollywood movies: “Bride and Prejudice,” “Kumkum Bhagya,” (a Hindi soap opera based on “Sense and Sensibility”) and “Aisha,” (technically a Bollywood remake of “Clueless,” which is itself a 90s high school remake of “Emma”). The fandom even writes about itself. In a rather amusing bit of metafiction, you can now read about people sitting around reading Jane Austen–“The Jane Austen Book Club,” “Austenland,” “Lost in Austen” and “Definitely Not Mr. Darcy,” to name just a few.
But the works listed above are just the reputable, public face of the Jane Austen spinoff industry. These are the (fairly) normal ones, books that can be read without (too much) embarrassment. There is also an entire crop of Jane Austen continuations that raise serious questions about the health of the reading public. For whatever reason, this gentle woman and astute social commentator attracts a particular form of insanity.
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“Tell me you want me,” Darcy demanded. His voice was a deep rumble, husky and full of the promise of what was to come. “Tell me what you want from me.”
Elizabeth brushed aside all lingering reticence and held his gaze as she replied. “I’ve never desired anything in my entire life as I desire you now. I want you inside me. I need it more than I need air.”
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Was it necessary to include a snippet of Jane Austen erotica in this article? No. But fortunately, I excerpted the relatively tasteful “Clandestine Classics” series, instead of the orgasmic madhouse of “Spank Me, Mr. Darcy.”
Jane Austen erotica is, however, not the most ridiculous adaptation to claw its way into the light. The 2016 film “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” has released an official trailer and seems to be taking itself somewhat seriously. It also has a lesser-known cousin, “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” which could presumably be read alongside “Mr. Darcy, Vampyre.” One might also enjoy “A Spirited Courtship,” in which Lizzy Bennet is a ghost who haunts Mr. Darcy. In a similarly paranormal vein is the 2011 novel “Mr. Darcy’s Angel of Mercy.” In this retelling, a wounded Darcy is dying in a French field hospital during the Great War. He is saved by Lizzy, a mysterious nurse who may also be a literal, heavenly angel sent by God to save Darcy.
There are equally wacky retellings that don’t even invoke the supernatural. You might enjoy a quiet evening with the punk bestseller “Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star.” Equally puzzling is a series that transports all six Austen novels to the Deep South, with such appetizing titles as “Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Chili-Slaw Dogs” and “Persuasion, Captain Wentworth, and Cracklin’ Cornbread.”
In perhaps the most bizarre of the author’s pop culture appearances, Jane Austen is the narrator of the 2013 video game “Saints Row IV” and its 2015 open-world expansion, “Saints Row: Gat out of Hell.” Playing as a gangster who has become the American President, the player “must save the Earth from alien overlord Zinyak using an arsenal of superpowers and strange weapons.” It is unclear whether Jane Austen plays a combat role in the struggle against alien overlord Zinyak.
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Even more baffling than why Jane Austen appears in a video game about gang bosses is why she receives so much more attention than other canonical authors. For example, compare the Jane Austen horde to the fans of Charles Dickens. Yes, there have been several dozen adaptions of “A Christmas Carol” (both with and without Muppets), but there are no zombie versions of “Oliver Twist.”
One explanation presents itself immediately. The curator of Jane Austen’s family home notes that 90 percent of their visitors are women. Similarly, Deidre Lynch, assistant professor of English at Indiana University, writes that “one curious thing is that 100 years ago, Austen was read mostly by men. Now it’s a woman’s thing.” She posits that Austen’s novels bring women together and are even a part of “the female gift culture.” Austen is not only a rare canonical woman author, but one who writes about women’s lives and problems with an insight that remains relevant today.
Ultimately, gender is a simple but unsatisfying solution. If gender alone provoked insane Jane Austen spinoffs, one would expect other classic female writers to enjoy a similar fanbase. There are numerous movie adaptions of Brontë novels, but (currently) no video game where Charlotte Brontë fights an alien overlord, and no upcoming movie called “Cathy, Heathcliff, and Werewolves.” Elizabeth Gaskell, a classic female author who wrote a few decades after Austen, has admirers, but no teeming online fandom. The madness surrounding Jane Austen is unrivaled.
Another explanation might be the undercurrent of escapism in these fan-made tributes. BBC adaptions present a perfect world of beautiful landscapes, friendly people and honorable gentlemen. Veiled social sins propel the plot, not crushing life or death problems. It’s an appealing fantasy. It’s also a better vehicle for escapism than a Brontë novel, with its moody heroes and windswept moors. Yes, there are minor inconveniences like disease, lack of sanitation, rampant maternal mortality, outrageous income inequality, restricted educational opportunities, total lack of suffrage for the majority of the population and the fact that this genteel lifestyle is going to collapse with the World Wars. But there are also hedgerows. And garden parties. And Colin Firth goes swimming in a white shirt.
But in truth, those who use Jane Austen to find a carefree fantasy aren’t reading her correctly. Under the dances and social calls is biting social commentary. Take, for example, Charlotte Lucas, a minor character in “Pride and Prejudice.” Single and aging, she agrees to a regrettable marriage to avoid becoming a burdensome spinster. Although Austen never outright criticizes the society that forced this unhappy marriage, Charlotte is sure to pull the reader’s sympathies. Austen performs a similar trick in the conclusion of “Emma,” where she orchestrates a subversive reversal of gender norms and a veiled critique of marriage.
A generous observer of the Jane Austen fandom might say her popularity stems from her underlying social commentary—that she has morphed into so many disparate guises because her wit and empathy are equally valid in other centuries and realities. One could view this subculture not as lazy authors and directors leaning on existing stories, but as fans redeploying Austen’s works for a new time. It’s not a definitive explanation, but it might allow the purists to face “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” without gritted teeth.