The Adaptable Jane Austen

Zombies, cowboys, weight-loss obsessed British singles – no, it’s not the latest mash-up movie from Hollywood – it’s all Jane Austen.  Well, Austen adaptations at least, and Jane has been adapted like no other author.  Some I love the concept of (Clueless, Bridget Jones, Bride and Prejudice), and other concepts I just can’t get on board with (anything having to do with zombies or sea monsters).  However, whether you love them or hate them, adaptations are here to stay.

It’s fun for authors to take Austen places she hasn’t been yet – there have been retellings of Austen’s stories featuring everything from civil war soldiers to vampires.  Telling her beloved stories from different perspectives,  or extending them in sequels and even prequels are also popular choices.

AttemptingElizabethCoverI have to confess that I am one of the many to write an Austen adaptation.  It started on a whim as a last minute short-story contest entry two years ago, and is now a full-fledged novel that I self-published in January.  And because I can never do anything halfway I co-created a website and community for independent Austen authors and readers of small press and self-published Austen-inspired fiction.

Did I just totally lose you there?  Writing something that’s considered just a small step up from fan-fiction is one thing, but then going the extra mile into complete geekdom by self-publishing it?  Have I gone totally mad?  Short answer: Yes.  Slightly longer answer: There are story-tellers and artists out there who have been either overlooked by the traditional publishing industry, or haven’t been interested in working for large publishing houses and I am excited to see smaller indie and self-publishing opportunities giving them an amazing forum to showcase their talents.  And because Austen para-literature is at its core, a sort of elevated fan-fiction experience, there is a willingness among the Austen community to embrace small press and self-publishing.

Time for my next confession: this isn’t the first time I’ve adapted an Austen story.  A few years ago as a project with Australian artist (and close friend) Victoria Austen-Young, I adapted Pride and Prejudice into a children’s book.  We set this classic story in the second grade and called it Fitz and Lizzie.  We were lucky enough to get to display the concept drawings and story for it at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting in 2008 and are seriously considering self-publishing it in the future (and now you all now my married last name *wink*).

Fitz and Lizzie

So does Jane work as a children’s book?  The answer is yes!  Pride and Prejudice actually translates well into an elementary school setting, although not without some serious work and lots of late night conversations about the best way to write a seven year old Wickham.

Why does it work?  You can put Jane in stilettos with a cigarette in hand, in a world full of magical beasts, or in the modern second grade and somehow she still manages to be Jane.  Her characters are enduring, and her themes resonate no matter what the setting or time period.  There are a lot of critics and readers who don’t get Austen.  They don’t understand why her stories have remained so popular while many other literary works haven’t enjoyed similar success.
In my opinion,  it comes down to characters and theme.

We all know a Lydia Bennet – a girl who threw her life away on the wrong guy, or a Fanny Dashwood – someone willing to chuck just about everyone under the bus for her own gain and comfort.  We all would love to have characteristics of a heroine like Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Elliot.  A few of us may, begrudgingly, admit some of the faults of Emma Woodhouse.  Some time in our lives most of us have been encountered a scoundrel or playboy like Willoughby or Wickham.

We’ve all been deceived by a first impression, or made a snap judgement based something we overheard.  Even though we live in an age of “marrying for love,” happiness in our relationships is still something that isn’t guaranteed, and meddling mothers and embarrassing siblings still can plague even the most intrepid modern heroine (side note: my mother is not meddling, nor are my siblings embarrassing . . . hi guys!).

The point is: Jane is relational.  Is it fun to envision women in Regency era dresses and hot guys in cravats as we read?  Of course!  But take away the trappings of time period and Austen’s stories are about men and women trying to find love, families trying to survive, the disconnect between parents and children, the way people treat each other, and the follies of society.  And she’s witty to boot.

We are still a relational people, even with all the trappings of modernity.  And that is why Austen has remained, and will remain, the Adaptable Jane.


9 thoughts on “The Adaptable Jane Austen

  1. I LOVE the idea of a JA children’s book! I want it now!!

    I love this blog post. I nodded and was all “Uh-huh” the whole time reading it. I totally agree that the themes Jane talked about in her books are universal; and transcend time and place. That’s why it still feels fresh and relevant to us 200 years later. You listed some of my favorite Austen adaptations-Clueless, 95 BBC version of P&P with Colin and Jennifer Ehle, Bride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet Diaries (though imo, they totally went off the rails in the final quarter 😦 )

    Great post! 🙂

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