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Adapting Austen

23 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 version of Sense & Sensibility streets April 8 (prebook March 4) as a two-DVD set at $34.98 from BBC Video.

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

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

In addition to Sense & Sensibility, the new adaptations include Persuasion, recently released on DVD by BBC Video, as well as Northanger Abbey (also written by Davies) and Mansfield Park, 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”). Sense & Sensibility airs in two parts starting March 30 and concluding April 6.

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.

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

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 of Sense & Sensibility, Miss Austen Regrets and 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.

However, Austen adaptations are nothing new to British TV. BBC has a complete Jane Austen collection comprised of adaptations from the 1970s and 1980s, Cromer said.

He said the popularity of costume dramas ebbs and flows, and the current Austen trend indicates the genre is alive and well.

“I think sometimes people just really need a place to which they can escape to feel safer than today,” Cromer said. “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.

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