Casting blunders in Jane Austen adaptations

Casting blunders in Jane Austen adaptations

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?




28 Responses to Casting blunders in Jane Austen adaptations

  1. Interestingly, the best casting I’ve seen for Mr Collins is in the somewhat campy, modern adaption of 2003. Played by Hubbel Palmer, Collins is quite tall and stocky; and just as cringy and awkward.

    If you watch this video starting at 12:24 you can see the height difference between he and Jane, and at 31:09 you can see a very awkward proposal.
    This screenplay is quite different from the book, as they make the girls college roommates instead of sisters; and Lydia is still the shortest, but my kids are more willing to watch this version than the period ones, and it’s kind of fun in it’s own silly way.

  2. Great post, Eliza 🙂

    Each adaption has its pros and cons.

    1995 P&P and S&S will always be my favorites regardless of casting issues.

    I believe Emma Thompson increased Elinor’s age (27 if I am correct) in her screenplay to make her portrayal more believable.

    Jennifer Ehle made a lovely Elizabeth

    Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy – sigh!!!

    Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon – be still my beating heart!!!

    • You are absolutely right, she did, and yes, Alan Rickman is simply wonderful.

      1995 S&S holds a special place in my heart. As well as an outstanding film in its own right, it was the first Jane Austen adaptation I saw on screen (the novel was also my introduction to Jane Austen). The rest, as they say, is history… 😉

  3. Well I must have my say in the conversation! The 1995 version will always be my favourite and Jennifer Ehle had the ‘fine eyes’ to Colin Firth’s, Mr. Darcy…I think they epitomize Elizabeth and Darcy. Jane Bennet however in this version was not my favourite in the casting department, though I loved her portrayal. I think the best casting for Jane Bennet was in the 2005 version (Rosamund Pike). Though the correct height was missing with the casting of Lydia in the 1995 version, Julia Sawahla nailed it. I loved Alison Steadman in Mrs. Bennet’s role. People looked older back then from what we see someone in their 40’s look now…at least that is how I justify it in my mind. As for Billie Piper, too pouty for me!

    • Rosamund Pike has to be my favourite Jane Bennet so far – and fair enough re: people looking older back in the day. As for your last point, I agree completely!

    • I agree with you Carole. But I believe that Jane in 1995 adaptation was more to the taste of people in Austen era than ours.

      • I am in love with the 1995 version of “Persuasion”, so it is hard to find a fault. I’ll have to focus on Elizabeth next time I see it.
        I also don’t like the addition of homoerotic tension between Mary and Fanny – please, there is tale enough without that. Poor Fanny.

  4. Don’t shoot me, but I loved everyone in the 1995 P&P EXCEPT Jennifer Ehle, who was Elizabeth; I preferred Kiera Knightley’s spritely Lizzie in 2005. I also HATED everyone (and the script) in the 1940 P&P except Laurence Olivier. Greer Garson’s mugging as Lizzy drove me up a wall, and she was annoying in every other way, too, although I’ve thought she was wonderful in her other films. In the 1980 P&P, I didn’t like David Rintoul as Darcy, but thought Elizabeth Garvie a delightful Lizzy. I liked Hugh Grant in the 1995 S&S very much, by the way.

    • It took me a while to see Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth (not sure why). Kiera Knightley was good, but perhaps too beautiful?
      The 1940 P&P adaptation feels like something from a different planet.
      And I couldn’t possibly not like Mr Grant – such a charmer! Still, not exactly born to play Edward Ferrars, although he would have made a delightful Frank Churchill – a much better one than Ewan McGregor’s (I am usually a big fan but he simply doesn’t suit breeches – and his hair in that film!).

    • I agree with you, Beatrice — Jennifer Ehle ruins the 1995 version for me. She is too old- and worldly-looking to play a young, innocent country girl; she seems more suited to being Darcy’s mother than his love interest. Elizabeth Garvie was by far the best Lizzy Bennet; David Rintoul as Darcy had the haughty part down but never seemed to get the more human part right — I saw him in something else and thought he was wonderful, but he was not the greatest Darcy. The Darcy in Lost in Austen, Elliot Cowan, would have been the perfect complement to Garvie if the ages were right; but he would have been only four years old in 1980. I’m not a fan of Keira Knightley but did think she did well as Lizzy; Rosamund Pike was most definitely the all-time best Jane, but the 2005 Bingley was truly goony.

      It’s interesting re the age question. Several adaptations were made at a time when older actors played younger characters (think of the “Beach Blanket” movies with older, but known, actors portraying teenagers). Certainly this is true of the 1940 version — which I have always thought of as “inspired by P&P” rather than a dramatization of the actual story. Some of these age issues were mitigated by the acting ability of the actor; for example, Julia Sawalha, who played Lydia in 1995, convinced me that she was a 15/16-year old girl even tho’ she was a year older than J Ehle! The same with Susannah Harker (1995 Jane) and Emma Thompson.

      I don’t like Hugh Grant in any role I’ve seen him in; it seems to me that he “plays” himself — kinda dorky — in everything I’ve seen! Oh well, each to their own taste.

  5. I think I’m probably too lenient with casting decisions as there haven’t been too many that have stood out for me. The one that did cause me some hesitation was Billie Piper as Fanny Price. I thought there had to be a mistake when I first discovered she was cast. The one thing I liked about her casting though was that it was the first time my husband expressed interest in a JA adaptation since he is a big Doctor Who fan.

    • Your comment made me laugh!
      Mr Shearer is also a big Doctor Who fan and was similarly interested when I mentioned that Billie Piper was in a Jane Austen adaptation… 😉

      • I agree about Billie Piper; I was incredulous when I read that she was the lead. She sure seems to me like someone who could easily beat you up, and Fanny Price could not.

  6. I agree with you about Romola Garai in 2009’s Emma. Also agree about Emma Thompson being too old to play Elinor Dashwood, but I love her performance and that version of S&S so much! It seems every adaptation has its good and bad points.

  7. Casting of Collins in 1995 and 2005 is totally wrong, Austen actually gives a description. Mrs Bennet and Lydia in the 1995 is also totally wrong.

  8. I am not happy with ANY of the Mrs. Bennets. I normally complain about portrayals, but in this case it’s looks. Miss Gardiner was beautiful. That is how she caught her husband. After five successful pregnancies and possibly some miscarriages, it would not be surprising for her figure to be changed, but she should still retain some of the beauty that caught Mr. Bennet’s attention. I actually find myself cringing as I write this, because it makes me feel very shallow, but the appearsnce of mother of the prettiest girls in the area should show where those girls got their looks.

    • You’re so right! Mrs Bennet is supposed to be just over 40 and still rather attractive, but casting directors insist on portraying her like an older woman. I suspect their choice is linked to the age of the actresses playing the Bennet sisters…

  9. Lydia Bennet, any version. Book says she is the tallest, shouldn’t have been that hard to manage. Mary Bennet in the 2005 version. Taluhla Riley is way to pretty. Mr Collins( 1995 & 2005)
    is supposed to be tall and thickset yet they get two very short actors to play the part,

    • I agree. Austen gives us very few physical descriptions and the only fact we know about her appearance is that Lydia is tall as well as pretty, and that Mary is very plain-looking. Annoyingly, all casting directors seem to ignore this simple fact!

      Same re: Mr Colin’s description (although I do find both perfomances suitably cringy).

      • I have no argument about David and Tom regarding their performances, it was just that they don’t fit the physical description. Couldn’t have been too hard to find others, in terms of cringeworthy and fitting the description, Malcom Rennie(1980) certainly fits the bill but perhaps is a bit too comical.
        Oddly I think that many of the portrayals in the “Lost in Austen” spoof are pretty good.

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