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tv finds jane far from plain

Tomorrow night, the BBC will launch a major new, four-part serialisation of Jane Austen's Emma. It is, remarkably, the third TV series based on Austen's novel, and there has also been a TV film and two movies. That's just that book: overall, Austen's six novels have inspired, by my reckoning, some 14 mini-series, at least 12 feature films and a countless number of indirect adaptations based on her themes.

Only Charles Dickens can rival her as a source of films and dramas in the English-speaking world, but somehow her subtle and witty romantic stories seem even more timeless and eternally relevant.

Exactly why they are is not so easy to pinpoint. You would think, for instance, that the stiff social constraints of the Georgian period in which they're set would frustrate and infuriate modern audiences. And yet the opposite effect seems to prevail, because most of Austen's heroines are women who have to use their spirit and intelligence to overcome the powerlessness of their social position. In other words, we always have an underdog to cheer for. Her talent for characterisation is obvious, but Austen's work is also infused with cunning irony, a very modern weapon; then there's her peerless gift for lively dialogue laden with subtext which can and has been lifted wholesale by film and TV writers.

The faithfulness with which these many adaptations have represented Austen's novels has, of course, varied. In the new Emma, for instance, the privileged environs of early 19th-century Highbury have been somewhat glamorised, as has Emma Woodhouse herself, as played by the striking actress Romola Garai. But otherwise it seems to stay quite close to Austen's story of a wealthy and rather arrogant young woman who fancies herself a master matchmaker.

The big budget 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty faithful as well, though Douglas McGrath's script sexed up the interplay between Emma and her ultimate beau Mr Knightley, and some critics complained that Paltrow's Ms Woodhouse was insufficiently chastened by the consequences of her meddling at the end.

The first TV serial based on Emma was a 1960 BBC drama starring Diana Fairfax and Paul Daneman, but the problem with these early dramatisations tended to be not excessive interpretation but rather a slavish adherence to the novel, whether it worked as a visual drama or not. By the time the BBC tilted its lance at Emma a second time in 1972, the Corporation had hit its stride as a peerless maker of period literary dramas. And while this serial might seem a little slow and unglamorous compared to the Paltrow film, it provided a much more complete representation of the novel, and Doran Godwin was excellent as the young lady of whom Jane Austen wrote that "no-one but myself could like".

Before she turned to vampire-hunting, Kate Beckinsale played Emma in a solid, handsome 1996 adaptation by Andrew Davies, and the 1995 Hollywood comedy Clueless was a less direct interpretation of the Emma theme. But when it comes to adaptations, Emma is in the ha'penny place compared to Austen's most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice.

To date, the 1813 novel has inspired three feature films, four TV adaptations and any number of modernised variations on the theme. And its story of a poor but spirited young woman and her tortured relationship with a rich, abrupt man who appears to be her enemy seems certain to inspire many more adaptations.

The taciturn and socially inept Mr Darcy has been played with varying degrees of success by Laurence Olivier, Peter Cushing and, more recently (in Joe Wright's 2005 film), by Matthew Macfadyen, but the actor audiences most closely associate with the character is Colin Firth. He co-starred with Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 Andrew Davies six-part BBC mini-series that turned out to be something of a landmark in the history of Austen adaptations.

An adaptation that sexed-up the Austen novel to the point where it verged on soap opera, it showed how far you could push the drama without damaging its remarkably durable and timeless story. The beautiful Jennifer Ehle was easily the most sultry and glamorous Elizabeth Bennet thus far, and to describe her scenes with Colin Firth as steamy would be a considerable understatement. In Austen's novels passion is a deeply buried subtext, but in Davies' mini-series it dominated everything, and most viewers will remember the moment when Elizabeth is visiting Pemberly with her aunt and uncle and a supposedly absent Darcy emerges from a swim clad in a wet shirt.

It was a bit over the top but it worked, and the series was extremely entertaining. And Firth became so closely associated with the character that when Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary -- a clever variation on the Pride and Prejudice theme -- was adapted as a movie, he seemed the only choice to play the moody lawyer Mark Darcy. Perhaps wisely, though, Firth was not asked to star in the Bollywood adaptation of Austen's story, Bride and Prejudice.

Emma and Pride and Prejudice are Austen's most celebrated and popular novels, but all her work has been treated with similar enthusiasm by film and TV producers. Sense and Sensibility has resulted in three TV mini-series and three feature films; Mansfield Park has been serialised once, adapted for film twice; and even her darkest and most difficult novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, have been adapted for the screen many times. Mansfield Park was most recently tweaked for TV in a one-off 2007 drama starring Billie Piper, and Persuasion was similarly adapted that same year in a production that starred Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones.

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The fascination with Austen seems unstoppable, and it's interesting to contrast the fortunes of her novels with adaptations of the work of her near contemporaries, the Brontës.

Back in August, for instance, ITV screened a two-part adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, starring Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley. And while it was not without its qualities, it highlights the near-impossibility of turning Brontë's wildly gothic novel into a successful and coherent drama.

Thus far, Wuthering Heights has resisted all attempts to capture its atmosphere satisfactorily on film, and while Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre has been more successfully adapted, it remains a period piece, a gothic romance with little relevance to today.

Not so Austen's stories, which have proved so durable that, apart from the many adaptations, their stories are often robbed wholesale for modern stories. Whit Stillman's film Metropolitan was basically Mansfield Park transplanted to 90s New York, and Sense and Sensibility was plundered for use in a contemporary drama set in Sri Lanka.

Austen never married, and lived quietly and modestly till she died in 1817, at the age of 41. She went out of fashion for much of the 19th century and only became popular again in the 20s.

She has been a bestseller since, and a constant presence on the small screen. And as yet another BBC Austen adaptation kicks off, you wonder what on Earth she'd make of it all.

Would she be pleased, or horrified? I suspect a little of both.

The first episode of Emma screens on Sunday night at 9pm on BBC1

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