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Adapting Austen

20 Feb, 2008 By: John Latchem

Sense & Sensibility

Screenwriter Andrew Davies, who penned the popular 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth, has returned to the Austen fold with two new versions of Austen classics.

His new version of Sense & Sensibility streets April 8 (prebook March 4) as a two-DVD set at $24.98 from BBC Video.

Burton Cromer, BBC Worldwide SVP of consumer products, said he expects Sense & Sensibility to do very well with its core audience on DVD.

“Jane Austen has a large, built-in fan base,” Cromer said. “Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-selling costume dramas on TV ever.”

Not wanting to feel left out of a Jane Austen blitz that includes theatrical projects such as Becoming Jane (on home video from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment) and The Jane Austen Book Club (from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), British broadcasting networks BBC and ITV began preparing new adaptations of four of Austen's six novels.

“In one sense, Jane Austen is always going to be relevant,” Cromer said. “She wrote about the insecurities of young women just starting in life, in a witty, compassionate way.”

In addition to Sense & Sensibility, the new adaptations include Persuasion, recently released on DVD by BBC Video, as well as Mansfield Park (starring Billie Piper of “Doctor Who”) and Northanger Abbey (also written by Davies), both on DVD from WGBH Boston.

All four, as well as Pride and Prejudice and the 1996 TV adaptation of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale, comprise The Complete Jane Austen Marathon on PBS' “Masterpiece” (formerly “Masterpiece Theater”). Cromer notes this is the first time Austen adaptations have been broadcast as a collection.

The “Masterpiece” marathon began Jan. 13 with Persuasion. Sense & Sensibility airs in two parts starting March 30 and concluding April 6, with the DVD out just two days later.

Sense & Sensibility stars Hattie Morahan as lovelorn Elinor, Charity Wakefield as her free-spirited younger sister Marianne, and Dominic Cooper as Marianne's ill-suited love interest, John Willoughby. The Sense & Sensibility DVD set includes a commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews.

Also included with the Sense & Sensibility DVD is the new biopic Miss Austen Regrets, a 90-minute drama starring Olivia Williams as Jane Austen. The film is based more in fact than Becoming Jane, which offended some critics by recasting Austen's life within the context of a Hollywood melodrama.

BBC decided against a separate release for Miss Austen Regrets on the assumption it wouldn't have much appeal beyond hardcore Austen fans.

“We decided to make it more of a double feature because Miss Austen Regrets wasn't based on a book, and we thought it might get more attention if it was included with something people would want,” Cromer said.

A three-disc set that packs the Sense & Sensibility/Miss Austen Regrets set with Persuasion is offered at $49.98.

BBC is working with A&E, the distributor for the Pride and Prejudice and Emma DVDs, for in-store promotional opportunities such as Jane Austen endcaps.

“We'll have very good placement when it comes out,” Cromer said.

However, Austen adaptations are nothing new to British television.

“BBC has been doing versions of Jane Austen's novels for a long time,” Cromer said. “We already have a complete Jane Austen collection comprised of adaptations from the 1970s and 1980s.”

Cromer said the popularity of costume dramas ebbs and flows, and such titles didn't sell well not too long ago. The current Austen trend, Cromer says, indicates the genre is alive and well.

“Costume dramas always have an appeal,” Cromer said. “I think sometimes people just really need a place to which they can escape to feel safer than today. These costume dramas feel very simple compared to all the horrible things we face today.”

As for non-Austen titles, Cromer is excited about the BBC miniseries Cranford, based on stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, which streets May 20 (prebook April 15) as a two-DVD set at $34.98. Cranford also is available as part of the $79.98 Elizabeth Gaskell Collection that also includes North and South and Wives and Daughters.

Cromer calls Cranford one of the studio's tentpole titles for the year.

“People are calling it an instant classic,” Cromer said.

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