Top Five Screen Adaptations of Romantic English Literature


Special Feature by Hannah Fielding

Autumn, 1995. Across the world, thousands of women sit frozen on their sofas, hands to their pounding hearts, eyes glued to their television sets, as what the Guardian newspaper will later dub  “one of the most unforgettable moments inBritish TV history” unfolds: Colin Firth emerging from an impromptu swim in a lake, half dressed, heart-meltingly handsome. Oh, the power of a good screen adaption of classic literature to awaken the romantic sensibilities! I can’t tell you how many afternoons since I have sat on a shady bench and gazed at the pond in the grounds of my home in Kent, indulging in a Darcy-esque daydream.And yes, in case you’re wondering the lake scene in my novel Burning Embers was very much inspired by Colin!

I’ve sifted through the footage, and put together a top five list of screen adaptations from the most romantic novels in English literature, together with YouTube clips. It’s no accident that Austen places three times inthe list; I find her books so romantic and so quintessentially English. The Wall Street Journal called the reaction of women worldwide to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation ‘Austen-mania’. I call it plain, old-fashioned romanticism.

 1. Pride and Prejudice, based on the book by Jane Austen

Of course, I must cite as my favourite version the 1995 BBC series, in which I (and so many other ladies) first discovered Colin Firth. My children also love this version; every year they put it on in the background while wrapping Christmas gifts. And I have never forgotten Fielding’s hilarious interview with Firth in which the lake scene features heavily, depicted in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.

Did you know?Colin Firth (Mr Darcy) and Jennifer Ehle (Miss Bennett) had a brief relationship while filming Pride andPrejudice. They were reunited onscreen in the 2010 British film The King’s Speech. Colin played GeorgeVI, and Jennifer played the wife of the king’s speech therapist.

2. Wuthering Heights,based on the book by Emily Brontë

A tough one, but for their exquisite acting I find myself drawn to Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the 1992 movie. Such torment and passion in this version, and the actors have a dynamic connection; no wonder they were cast together again in TheEnglish Patient.

Did you know? In arecent survey of 2,000 adults, respondents voted this line from Wuthering Heights as the most romanticin literature: “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

3. Emma, based on the book by Jane Austen

It’s the 1996 feature film for me. Jeremy Northam fits the mental image I have of George Knightley (did you see him in Gosford Park?), and Ewan McGregor is also delightful. Did you know? The 1995 movie Clueless is partly based on Emma.

4. Sense andSensibility, based on the book by Jane Austen

I love the 1995 film. It has such a wonderful cast. I’d loved Emma Thompson in Howard’s End, and she was perfect in this film. Plus Kate Winslet and the as-usual hesitant Hugh Grant. But it’s Alan Rickman who steals the show for me (who knew Professor Snape could be so handsome and alluring?).

Did you know? EmmaThompson wrote the screenplay for the film.

5. Romeo and Juliet,based on the book by William Shakespeare

I’ve seen, and loved, Romeo and Juliet in so many forms, from ballet to theatre, television series tomovie. I find the ballet, in particular, very moving. I’m something of a traditionalist, and I love the older, more classic depictions, like Zeffirelli’s. So I confess that the modernity of Baz Luhrmann’s film put me off a little. But then I got lost in the connection between the actors. And the ending scene is so tragic and so moving, I had to pick this as my favourite adaptation.

Did you know? NataliePortman was the original Juliet for this version, but once filming began the producers decided the seven-year age gap between her and Leonardo di Caprio was too great, and they recast Claire Danes in the role.

So there you have my top five. I would love to know your opinions.

Which films or TV adaptations would you add in? TV or big screen?

Luhrmann’s or Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet?

James Howson or Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff?

Kate Beckinsale or Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma?


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  1. Great post! I like the Luhrmann version of Romeo and Juliet for its edgy, artistic quality, but I still love Zeffirelli’s classic best! We put a post up last week on The Vintage Reader about the BBC’s 1995 version of Persuasion.

  2. I adore the 1995 P&P – Colin Firth took a role that’s been played by many over the years and made it his own, but the rest of the cast is utterly superb, too. Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet is perfect and although I think that Julia Sawalha (sp?) is a little old to have played Lydia, she got her selfishness and empty-headedness to a “T”.

    “Emma” is probably my favourite Austen novel, and while I do like the film version very much, the Andrew Davies adaptation with Kate Beckinsale pips it to the post slightly, principally because of the supporting cast. I agree with you totally about Jeremy Northam in the film, but Ewan McGregor is horribly miscast, I feel, and while I really like Toni Collette as an actress, she’s not right for Harriet.

    As to adaptations other than those you’ve mentioned… there have been few that – for me – have worked particularly well. The recent, BBC “Emma” with Romola Garai was quite good, but my favourite ones are not adaptations of specifically romantic stories. Trollope’s “The Way we Live Now” which starred David Suchet (from 2001) was fantastic, and the recent “Little Dorrit” with Claire Foy and Matthew MacFadyen was also very good. But adaptations of romantic “classics” have been a bit disappointing on the whole. The recent TV version of “Jane Eyre” with Toby Stephens as Mr Rochester had its moments, but overall, didn’t work for me (which is a shame because I love Toby Stephens!).

    But at least we’ve got all those glorious books to go back to!

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