It is a truth universally acknowledged that many Janeites are drawn to Austen’s novels after watching the film or TV adaptations. Of these, there have been many, but the ones that most readers will remember were filmed since the mid-1990s. Today, however, I will not go over the merits of the talented Mr Firth and his rather perfect portrayal of Mr Darcy in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series. Instead, I want to talk about some of the most apparent casting blunders in such adaptations.
Let’s begin with a mistake too often seen in films: selecting actors who are way older than the characters they play. Ang Lee’s 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility is delightful, with a precise eye for detail and a screenplay genuinely faithful to the original novel, so the few things it doesn’t get right stand out like sore thumbs. I am in awe of Emma Thompson and her many talents (she wrote the script for the film as well as starring in it), and she is one of my favourite actresses in the world, but, at 36, she was just too old for the role of Elinor Dashwood, aged just 19 in the book.
In some other cases, the casting director appears to completely ignore Jane Austen’s text. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is “extremely timid and shy, shrinking from notice”, and her health is so fragile that she tires quickly. Austen’s description, however, did not prevent the casting of Billie Piper to play Fanny in the 2007 adaptation of the novel. Piper, who was an incredibly successful singer in her teenage years and a household name in Britain aged just 15, exudes confidence and vitality, so much so that her interpretation of the character jars with the picture most readers will have of bashful Fanny Price (and don’t get me started on her hair…).
Hugh Grant in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility is another example of miscasting. In Grant’s case, he is too handsome and charming to play the awkward Edward Ferrars, but picking very attractive actors to play average-looking characters is one of the most common casting mistakes. Just look at most actresses who have played Georgiana Darcy over the years: they tend to be petite, beautiful and often very self-assured girls – a far cry from the tall, retiring and “handsome” (i.e. not pretty) young woman Austen describes in Pride and Prejudice.
The choice of actors, of course, is inextricably linked to directorial decisions. The 1995 and 2007 adaptations of Persuasion, for example, present two very different visions of the story. As viewers, we may or may not agree with the production decisions or art direction, or how characters are portrayed, but both films have their merits and are faithful in their own way. (I will say, however, that I find utterly distracting that Elizabeth Elliot in the 1995 version is always slouching and/or eating, indeed not the behaviour one might expect from the eldest daughter of a baronet!).
There are also instances where the actual casting is spot on, but the stage directions are just wrong. Take Romola Garai, one of the most gifted actors of her generation, in the 2009 adaptation of Emma. She looks like an Emma, but her expression and language are just not that of a well-bred young woman of the gentry in Regency times. I found her acting so out of place that, in spite of my intention to binge on the show, I had to stop watching after two episodes. (Also, I did not like Tamsin Greig as Mrs Bates. I love her and find her tremendously funny, but her Mrs Bates doesn’t quite do it for me. I much prefer Phyllida Law in the 1996 film).
The best-loved adaptations (I’m looking at you, 1995 Pride and Prejudice) tend to be faithful to Jane Austen’s words in both script and choice of actors. On the other hand, the less well received versions always feature at least a handful of sorely misjudged casting decisions.You might say that getting the casting right a good Austen adaptation makes.
What do you think? Which are the worst casting choices in Jane Austen adaptations?