Classic Book to Film Adaptations: Little Woman, Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Eyre

Great literature lends itself to great film adaptation. Spanning from Regency era England to the Civil War Era United States, I have selected three class works with the best book-to-film adaptations. My favorite books of all time, it is no wonder that Little Women, Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Eyre have been adapted so many times. I’ve selected the best adaptations of all three works.

Little Women

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Louisa Mae Allcott’s classic story follows the March sisters, living in the Civil War Era. This is a coming of age story that hardly feels like one. The four sisters befriend their neighbor’s grandson, Lawrence (“Laurie”) who becomes like a brother to them. Christmas morning, the girls’ mother convinces them to give their breakfast away to a poor mother and her starving children.

When their father, who is away fighting in the war, falls wounded, their mother travels to be with him. The girls are left to carry on. But their mother is called back home when Beth falls ill with scarlet fever.

Beth recovers in time for Christmas and their father’s home coming. Meg falls for Laurie’s tutor. Laurie proposes to Jo, on the eve of his leaving to attend college in London. Jo rejects him and then learns her aunt has selected her youngest sister, Amy, to travel Europe with her. Amy is to studying painting during the trip.

Jo then moves to New York to teach. She has some success with selling stories to the papers and makes the acquaintance of Fredrick, a professor, who takes her to the opera. But Jo is quickly called home when Beth’s health declines. Devastated by the loss of her sister, Jo takes up her pen, writing a story based on her sisters.

The Film

[1994] Starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, this adaption is a heartwarming classic. Brilliantly cast, Allcott’s story is emotionally portrayed in this moving film.

Critics were pleased with this grown-up version of the story.

[2019] This most recent version boasts a star studded cast including Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, and Laura Dern.

This adaptation received critical acclaim and was rated as a modernization of Allcott’s story. The film takes a deeper dive into the personalities of the March sisters.

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Pride & Prejudice

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One of Jane Austen’s best known and most beloved stories, introduces readers to the Bennet family, landed gentry living in 19th century England. With all five daughters out in society at once, marriage and morality are prominent themes throughout the story.

Austen’s pension for irony shines through in this story. In the initial meeting between Elizabeth, affectionately called Lizzy by her family, and Mr. Darcy. He calls her, “tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me”. He later informs her she “has bewitched me, body and soul.”

The Film

Pride & Prejudice has been adapted for the screen more than seventeen times, not including sequels… or the sci-fi adaptation that included zombies. But the best adaptation was the 2005 version.

[2005] Starting Kiera Knightley in the role of Elizabeth Bennet, second daughter of the family, this version does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of Austen’s narrative. The themes of family, romanticism vs realism, and feminism are elegantly portrayed in this adaptation.

The film received rave reviews. Prior to this version, the only major film adaptation was a black-and-white version, produced in the 1930s and a serial produced in the UK.

Jane Eyre

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This gold standard in Victorian era literature follows the tragic story of an orphan, Jane Eyre. Jane is sent to live with an aunt and uncle, finding no acceptance in the household. When her uncle passes, her aunt washes her hands of her orphaned niece, sending her off to Lowood School. The school’s headmaster is a cruel and stingy man who subjects his charges to living in unheated rooms, eating meager and inadequate meals, and strict punishment. When tuberculosis sweeps through the school, Jane is mercifully spared but her dearest friend, Helen is not so fortunate.

After completing her education and a brief tenure as a teacher at Lowood, Jane finds herself longing for something more. She secures employment as a governess to a young charge at Thornfield Hall. Jane finds herself enraptured by her employer, Mr. Rochester, but her joy is short lived when on what would be her wedding day, she finally learns the secret the house is harboring.

Jane flees the house but soon falls ill from exposure to the elements. She is taken in by St. John and his sisters at Moor House, where she recovers and is given a teaching position. Jane then learns an uncle she didn’t know has passed, leaving her his fortune. Now a wealthy woman, she offers to share her good fortune with her surrogate family. But when St. John asks for her hand in marriage, she rejects him and returns to Thornfield Hall to reunite with her lost love.

The Film

Jane Eyre has been adapted to film and mini series numerous times. And, considering the themes, it’s no wonder seemingly every generation has a new adaptation. I’ve selected two of my favorites.

[1996] This version starred Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane and William Hurt as Mr. Rochester. While no film adaptation is every quite perfect, this one does a very nice job of sticking very close to the original narrative of the book.

The film received very strong reviews, overall. However, The New York Times was critical of the casting of Hurt as Mr. Rochester, saying he came across as mildly eccentric, apposed to the brooding character of Bronte’s creation.

[2011] Mia Wasikowska takes the lead in this adaptation which takes a more artful approach to the story line by starting off with Jane fleeing across the moors from Thornfield Hall. This version also has Michael Fassbender in the role of Mr. Rochester, who does a much better job of portraying the moody, brooding aristocrat.

This adaptation also received very strong reviews thanks to the beautifully emotional tone of the film. It does a brilliant job of exploring the interpersonal relationships between the characters.

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