Do you remember when Netflix used to create categories for you based on your viewing history? The day I turned it on to discover a new category in my feed called “Romantic British Dramas Based on Classic Literature," I felt deeply and gratifyingly understood. If an algorithm could peg me so expertly, falling in love with AI suddenly seemed not so ridiculous.
But let's face it. I actually wasn't such a hard subject to peg given that I have invested countless hours in watching miniseries that fall under this heading. I watch them first impatiently and with full and rapt attention, always in tears at the end. And then I play them on repeat in the background when I work on lengthy calligraphy projects. I'm not sure why this is my preferred background noise for calligraphy; I suppose that because I have to settle in for a good long time, I appreciate having some kind of companion that will do the same. I don't like to feel overly attuned to what's playing, so I find podcasts too mentally stimulating and music too distracting. But a slowly unfolding romance with excellent dialogue and sweeping music? Does the trick for me every time.
Therefore, as an Anglophile who has informally undertaken years of study on the subject, I feel qualified to offer my carefully considered opinion on the best of the best of this most perfect of viewing categories. In case you wanted it.
1. Pride and Prejudice
For anyone who is into this conversation, this is really a no-brainer. The BBC miniseries from 1995 starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle might be based on a classic, but this production has become a classic in its own right. Colin Firth is the most spot-on Darcy imaginable, capable of the perfectly stern scowl that somehow also holds a hint of tenderness in the eyes. And Jennifer Ehle is utterly luminescent as Elizabeth. This adaptation feels very true to the novel -- quiet and measured -- while the later film version with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen gets seriously Bröntified with its sweeping views of the moors, the dramatic and driving rain during the proposal scene, and the intense score. And while the 1940 film version with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier is charming as can be, there are some interpretive leaps made that don't square with my understanding of the novel. There are several other Pride and Prejudice adaptations I am less familiar with, but this BBC version is not only my favorite of all P&P adaptations I've encountered but also of all miniseries based on Regency and Victorian novels.
2. North and South
It might sound iconoclastic to devoted fans of the above Pride and Prejudice to suggest that any miniseries could ever be its equal. But I find North and South just as compelling and just as repeatable. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve listened to it, nor can I tell you how many times I have stopped in my tracks to watch a particular scene toward the very end. Richard Armitage. Daniela Denby-Ashe. A train station. A chance meeting. And a heart-stopping, breath-catching, unforgettable kiss. I am not exaggerating when I say this is the best filmic kiss I have ever encountered. While I immensely respect the Pride and Prejudice miniseries and think it is entirely perfect as is, I have to say that I can forgive the liberties taken with Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel and with Victorian behavior for the payoff of that kiss. It is that good.
3. Sense and Sensibility
Having first watched this when it came out in 2008 and not really since, I was extremely surprised upon re-watching this just earlier this week that Edward Ferrars is played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame! Although a tall order to embody a role Hugh Grant played to perfection, he earned my approval -- my adoration, I daresay. Although I think Elinor and Marianne were cast with perhaps too stringent a desire that they invoke Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet (if you close your eyes, they almost even sound the same at times), the actresses do embody their characters beautifully and develop a believable bond as sisters, though their worldviews are so distinct. The casting is solid across the board, the settings exquisite, the music and cinematography just glorious. It's been a very long time since I've read this Austen novel, so I can't recall how closely it reflects the nuances of the text (after having to leave their home, the Dashwoods certainly don't move to a cottage directly seaside in the novel, for instance, though it makes for gorgeous aerial shots), so I would really like to revisit Sense and Sensibility this summer. Who's with me?
4. Wives and Daughters
This one, produced in 1999 and based on Elizabeth Gaskell's novel of the same name, wins for the most charming engagement scene imaginable. I would guess that engagement scenes are difficult to approach with originality because there are only so many ways to do confessions and a passionate embrace, but none of that is possible in this scenario for reasons I won't spoil. But the payoff is SO satisfying and makes me giddy to even think about. And writing about it makes me want to rewatch this one right this minute. But perhaps I should read the novel first! This is the only work on this list I haven't actually read the original version of.
Also based on a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, this BBC miniseries was produced in 2007 and stars Judi Dench. It was originally published as a series of sketches of the small town characters who populate Cranford, so it does not follow quite the same arc as a traditional novel. There is no central romance, for instance, although there are a few small and satisfying ones, and some of the central figures are widowed matriarchs, spinsters, or otherwise marginalized characters, which I really appreciate. Cranford is filled with the daily dramas of ordinary life and with the diversity of characters that populate a small town, and it is just a thoughtfully written and beautifully acted miniseries that I will be returning to throughout my life.
What about you? What are your favorites? I am immensely happy to just watch these on repeat until my dying day, but it is admittedly nice to throw in some new options once in a while. I'd love to know your top five, too!