From Darcy to Knightley: 13 Great Onscreen Versions of Jane Austen Heroes

Thứ sáu - 17/05/2024 22:05
Barbie is right: Jane Austen's heroes can help you through depression. Here are the most notable onscreen depictions, Mr. Darcy included, naturally.
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Since her novels were published in the early 1800s, Jane Austen has been revered as one of the leaders of the romantics. Her six major novels have provided fruitful ground for big and small-screen adaptations, which is why it’s a truth universally acknowledged that great actors love an opportunity to play one of Austen’s literary heroes or heroines. While there have been inventive parodies and homages, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Clueless, and other regency-inspired romps since Austen, there’s nothing quite like the long-standing obsession with the author’s nineteenth-century works.

It helps that the literary prestige draws in some of the greats to put their unique spin on swoon-worthy leads like Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth, leading to plenty of smitten fans. In fact, even in the smash hit Barbie, “Depression Barbie,” looking for a way to ebb her pain, can’t help but to indulge in a binge-watch of BBC’s Pride and Prejudice for a dose of Colin Firth’s sideburns.

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the BBC's 1995 series, Pride and Prejudice
Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the BBC's 1995 series, Pride and Prejudice

Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Kiera Knightley, and Anya Taylor Joy have all played beloved and acclaimed Austen heroines, but it seems after that recent Pride and Prejudice reference, everyone is thinking about Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy again. Debates about if he truly is the best hero have sprouted all over social media, though it seems unanimous that this version has been memorialized in pop culture forever after Greta Gerwig’s nod to the cult fandom of this adaptation.

So, in honor of the Depressed Barbie in all of us — who might be tired of the BBC re-runs (though we doubt it) or just in need of more regency heroes to fixate on — we’ve rounded up some of the best takes on Jane Austen’s finest heroes.

In her brief life, Austen only finished six novels, alongside a collection of short stories and an unfinished fiction, Sanditon. With that in mind, there are only a handful of heroes to choose from among her limited but cherished works, so you’ll see a couple of characters make repeat appearances on the list below, in which each actor has brought his own flare to the famous words.

Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy 

Laurence Olivier as Mr Darcy in the 1940's film, Pride and Prejudice
Laurence Olivier as Mr Darcy in the 1940's film, Pride and Prejudice

Back in 1940, acclaimed stage actor Laurence Olivier appeared as Fitzwilliam Darcy alongside Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennett in the film Pride and Prejudice. With an academy award under its belt, this adaptation was applauded for its faithful homage to the well-loved 1816 book, while it also offered the first onscreen glimpse of the battle of wits between these two literary lovers that would captivate viewers for the next eight decades.

The New York Times praised Olivier for pure his embodiment of the arrogant, proud hero, while the adaptation was helmed as, “the most deliciously pert comedy of old manners, the most crisp and crackling satire in costume that we in this corner can remember ever having seen on the screen.”

Watch on Prime Video (rent/buy)

Theo James as Sidney Parker 

Theo James as Sidney Parker in the BBC's 2019 adaptation of Sanditon
Theo James as Sidney Parker in the BBC's 2019 adaptation of Sanditon

In 2019, the BBC cast Theo James as the romantic lead in an adaptation of Austen’s unfinished manuscript, Sanditon. Much of this series’ charm is found in its small-town seaside setting, which offers Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) a supposed peaceful retreat to rest and relax… That is, until she clashes with the handsome (yet frustrating) Sidney, played by James.

With more dramatic license than the other texts, as the eleven chapters Austen wrote before her death were all covered in episode one, Charlotte and Sidney’s relationship follows a similar trajectory to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. It’s got that addictive glimmer of enemies to lovers, with an enjoyable love-hate turmoil bubbling between them. In short, the Divergent and White Lotus actor holds his own as a regency hero worthy of an Austen novel in the eight-part series.

Watch on Prime Video with PBS Masterpiece

Cosmo Jarvis as Captain Wentworth

Cosmo Jarvis as Captain Wentworth in Netflix's 2022 film, Persuasion
Cosmo Jarvis as Captain Wentworth in Netflix's 2022 film, Persuasion

Just last year, Netflix adapted Austen’s final and shortest complete work, Persuasion. Though it is widely regarded as a more solemn story, as the heroine Anne Elliot laments being persuaded in her youth to turn down Captain Wentworth’s proposal, it was revived in a vibrant, contemporary, Fleabag style.

Led by Dakota Johnson as the incredibly-watchable Anne, alongside Cosmo Jarvis as the decorated naval officer, the casting alone should have destined the project for success. However, Anne’s tendency to break the fourth wall and the extensive deviation from the source material, unfortunately, garnered negative reviews from critics and fans.

It slid too far from the expectations of pining over a long-lost love to being an upbeat flirtation with an old, seemingly uninterested lover. Yet, Jarvis delivered a strong performance as Captain Wentworth, complete with a worthwhile reunion at the end, that makes up for some of the underdeveloped elements of his character.

Watch on Netflix

Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley 

Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley in the 2020 movie, Emma
Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley in the 2020 movie, Emma

Emma is one of Austen’s more playful endeavors, as the charming Emma Woodhouse (in this case played by Anya Taylor-Joy) spends her copious amounts of free time matchmaking available women with eligible bachelors in town.

As in Sense and Sensibility, Emma finds her equal in an older, family friend (who is also her sister’s husband’s brother, but roll with it), Mr. George Knightley. In the 2020 film, Johnny Flynn is ever the man-in-waiting, while Emma learns the hard way the consequences of her actions. Underneath all that hair and high collar, Flynn delivers a subtle charming performance of the patient hero. Paired with the drafty proposal scene, it’s a must-watch for Austen fans.

It’s an all-round delight with Josh O’Connor starring as the flirtatious vicar Mr. Elton, Bill Nighy as Emma’s father, and Mia Goth as Harriet Smith. It might not be our top Mr. Knightley, but it’s a spectacle worthy of its two Academy Award nominations.

Watch on Peacock

Simon Woods as Charles Bingley 

Simon Woods as Charles Bingley in Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice
Simon Woods as Charles Bingley in Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Without a doubt, Simon Woods as Charles Bingley adds some much-needed humor to Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The wealthy suitor is easily led by his sister and close friend Mr Darcy, to ditch the delightful Jane Bennett (Rosamund Pike) due to questions about how appropriate her birth rank is.

Her family’s decorum – her mother’s garish drinking, her giggling younger sisters (played effortlessly by Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone) – and the general raucous that follows the female-heavy Bennett family wherever they go, frightens the prospective love off.

Yet, for the seemingly background character in the film (who has far less meat to him than in the book), Woods brings a charming innocence to the bumbling, anxious, besotted hero. He’s an endearing presence next to the stand-offish Mr. Darcy, and his gentle humor throughout the film makes for a worthy addition to our list of heroes.  

Watch on Netflix

David Morrisey as Colonel Brandon 

David Morrisey as Colonel Brandon in the BBC’s 2008 adaption of Sense and Sensibility
David Morrisey as Colonel Brandon in the BBC’s 2008 adaption of Sense and Sensibility

David Morrisey was exceptionally well cast as Colonel Brandon in the BBC’s 2008 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Colonel Brandon is an older, well-respected man who is nothing but consistent in his feelings and behavior toward Marianne (Charity Wakefield) – he’s in love from the moment he sets eyes on her.

Morrisey shines as the more reserved hero, who is constantly overlooked by Marianne as a worthy suitor in favor of the flirtatious rebel John Willoughby. Though it probably didn’t help that he was played by a young Dominic Cooper.

Yet, Colonel Brandon’s charm is in his steadfast commitment to Marianne. He shows up for her in the smallest ways, and in the most dramatic heroic sense too, as he rescues her after a long walk in the rain.

In the end, Marianne sees what we’ve all seen, that Colonel Brandon is everything she’s always wanted. It’s a well-executed performance of a relationship where whirlwind romance causes pain, while healthy, patient love triumphs.

Watch on Hulu

Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars 

Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrers in the BBC’s 2008 adaption of Sense and Sensibility
Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrers in the BBC’s 2008 adaption of Sense and Sensibility

Prior to Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens graced the small screen as Edward Ferrars in the BBC’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Sporting a Hugh Grant-style hair cut in homage to the 1995 film adaption, Stevens is as characteristically charming as ever as the soft-spoken, well-mannered love interest.

Alongside Hattie Morahan as Elinor, the duo brought to life the best elements of the sensible lover’s relationship from the page. He encompasses the whole host of emotions: from the anguish in their time apart, combined with the romantic misunderstanding, to the final, overwhelming reunion when Elinor discovers Edward is not married and is in fact in love with her.

It’s a host of powerhouse performances all around with perfect casting in every role. Let’s just say Downton fans can thank me later.  

Watch on Hulu

Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy 

Matthew Macfadyen as Mr Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice
Matthew Macfadyen as Mr Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation might not be the fan-favorite version of Pride and Prejudice, but there is something striking about Matthew Macfayden as the curt, imperious Mr. Darcy.

The future Succession actor explores the beloved enemies-to-lovers romance with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett. Despite his best efforts, Mr. Darcy is captivated by her quick wit, her inability to yield to his intimidating jibes, and her capability to match him in every way that truly matters.

Yet, for that hand flinch alone – if you know, you know – Macfadyen deserves more credit for his role than history has often given him. As with most Austen adaptations, the romance is beautifully enhanced by an outstanding soundtrack, particularly during Elizabeth and Mr Darcy’s first full dance together. That delivery of ‘I love, I love, I love you’ is also certain to shatter any romantic/s heart.  

Watch on Netflix

Rupert Penry Jones
as Captain Wentworth 

Rupert Penry Jones as Captain Wentworth in the BBC’s 2007 TV film, Persuasion
Rupert Penry Jones as Captain Wentworth in the BBC’s 2007 TV film, Persuasion

 In 2007, the BBC made a television film of Austen’s final completed work, Persuasion, with Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot and Rupert Penry Jones as Captain Wentworth.

This version boasts the benefit of staying faithful to the novel, to allow Hawkins and Penry Jones to speak to the audience’s own experience of reuniting with a former flame, that you long wish you had gotten over (but never have).

The Spooks star is perfect as the two-sided Captain, who is charming with everyone but Anne (or so it seems), and indulges his own vanity as younger women throw themselves (in one case quite literally) at him. Wentworth is another conflicted hero who underneath the deep stares and brief glances, simply struggles to process the fact that his feelings for Anne have never wavered, even after the rejection.

Depressed Barbie could definitely rotate this in with the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice for smoldering men to restore her hope that love does conquer all.

Watch on Prime Video with BritBox

Johnny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley 

Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley in the BBC’s 2009 miniseries, Emma
Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley in the BBC’s 2009 miniseries, Emma

It could be hard to imagine the Trainspotting star as a suited, reserved Austen hero, but Johnny Lee Miller shines as Mr. Knightley. In 2009, the BBC released a four-part television serial of Emma with Miller as the intellectual, dry-humored Knightley, alongside Romola Garai as the vivacious Emma.

Knightley is a lifelong friend of Emma’s, who champions her, challenges her wit and also reprimands her often-reckless behavior. Miller is effortlessly suited to the role and delivers a lightness in his performance that seeps off the pages in Austen’s novels.

Miller gives a heart-warming performance, which completely characterizes the hero’s well-tempered heart in contrast to Emma’s desire for passionate love, as he declares: “If I loved you less, I could talk about it more.”

Watch on Prime Video with BritBox

Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars

Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrers in Ang Lee's 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility
Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrers in Ang Lee's 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility

During the Hugh Grant rom-com golden age, the Four Weddings and A Funeral star played Edward Ferrars in the 1995 Academy Award-winning adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, written by Emma Thompson and directed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk‘s Ang Lee.

Similar to Mr. Darcy, Edward is of a higher class than Elinor (Thompson) – something his sister Fanny uses to manipulate him into not pursuing her. As with most Austen novels, Edward is swayed by social expectations and Elinor is reserved enough to pretend as though she’s not utterly heartbroken by his swift exit from her life.

Grant is essentially the blueprint for this role – as is the entire cast and the script that pays incredible attention to detail to Austen’s original works. After a misfortunate turn of events, Edward returns and gives Elinor the shock of her life as in his well-mannered, endearing Hugh-Grant way shares his true feelings with her.

Watch on Prime Video with MGM+

Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon

Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s 1995 film, Sense and Sensibility
Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee’s 1995 film, Sense and Sensibility

Alongside Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman played the other male hero in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility.

The Die Hard and Harry Potter legend offers a glorious take on the reliable, well-decorated hero, whose generosity of spirit is passed off by Marianne (Kate Winslet) as nothing but friendship. She dreams of a passionate, all-consuming love, but Rickman elevates the brooding, ever-present love and reassurance that Colonel Brandon offers her.

It isn’t until the Colonel has his big-hero moment, and literally sweeps Marianne off her sodden feet in the torrential rain on horseback that she succumbs to the reliability and comfort of his easy and safe love.

…Though it is hard to believe that Marianne wouldn’t be interested initially in Colonel Brandon when he’s played so dashingly and beautifully by Rickman.

Watch on Prime Video with MGM+

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy

Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 series, Pride and Prejudice
Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 series, Pride and Prejudice

When you think of great Austen heroes, your mind immediately wanders to the lake, those riding boots and that slick-wet white shirt. Yes, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy has had a seemingly timeless hold on generations of women since he debuted on the BBC in 1995’s six-part series, Pride and Prejudice.

All of Austen’s TV adaptations share the benefit of being able to spotlight small subtleties woven into the book that their movie counterparts don’t have the time to delve into. Yet, the BBC’s take is widely regarded – by more than just that reference in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie – as the most beloved dramatization of any Austen novel.

Despite the restrictive Georgian social expectations, there’s a stifling energy between Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett that has become the touchstone for lonely women to pine over, Bridget Jones’ Diary author Helen Fielding included.

Firth is every bit the misunderstood romantic lead, who opens himself up to love and sets his pride and vanity aside to become the hero that the independent, charming, and unchanged Elizabeth deserves. We love it most ardently, and always will.

Watch on Hulu


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