Jane Austen rises on the Hollywood A-list

If Jane Austen were alive today, she certainly would have understood the appeal of reality TV shows such as "The Bachelor" and "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" After all, her novels are full of scenes in which young women compete for the attention of eligible men with desirable incomes.

But in Austen's books, the rival of the heroine is the one who fawns over the leading man. And where TV couples profess to forge a "connection" on a first date (a curious property of hot tubs is that they can induce two people to believe they have a unique chemistry), Austen's characters spend eons trying to burrow beneath the appearances of a romantic prospect to discern whether he is sincere or simply a cad.

In short, the author understood that the cardinal element of a great romance is the frisson that comes from the thrill of the chase. That pursuit, in Austen's hands, becomes a marathon filled with hurdles.

Perhaps bored with the predictable cycle of conquest and consummation on "Sex and the City," popular culture is rediscovering Jane Austen and her subtle love stories. From "Regency House," a PBS reality series that challenges men and women to dress up in Georgian costume and court each other in the traditional manner described in Austen's novels, to several new movie versions of "Pride and Prejudice," audiences are intrigued by an era in which romance boiled slowly and passions bubbled under the surface.

"[Sex] is not quite so interesting anymore because it's so common and easily available," says Linda Troost, coeditor of "Jane Austen in Hollywood." "That repressed passion and control is a much rarer thing, and therefore more special."

That chaste quality is retained in a witty version of "Pride and Prejudice" out on DVD this week. It's not completely faithful to the novel - it is, after all, set in latter-day Salt Lake City - but then neither is "Bride and Prejudice," another contemporary adaptation coming to cinemas in February. This time the setting is India and the movie, directed by Gurinder Chadha ("Bend It Like Beckham"), adopts the conventions of "Bollywood" musicals even as it gleefully swaps bonnets and breeches for sarongs and saris.

Austen fans of a traditional disposition can look forward to a 19th-century version of "Pride and Prejudice," starring Keira Knightley and Judi Dench, due later next year.

"One thing I love about Austen's work is that you can sit looking at one of those film adaptations with the book in your hands and nothing has changed," says Helen Blythe, a professor of English literature at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. "It's 200 years [later] but the conversation, the dialogue can be taken straight from the book and placed into an early 21st-century film and you don't have to change anything."

For Hollywood, the attraction of the stories lies in their appeal to the date-movie crowd. But Austen fans say what differentiates the author from similarly plotted Harlequin novels are her witty, often satirical, comments about human nature. "They are universal," says Sue Hughes, editor of Jane Austen's Regency World, a bimonthly magazine. "It's the way people behave and work in connection with each other. The way she's observed them so cleverly is really what matters."

And, like the character of Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice," Austen's themes are far more complex and nuanced than initial impressions may suggest.

In that book, for example, one character settles for a marriage that is stable yet far from ideal because of the necessity of finding a husband with a reliable income. In "Sense and Sensibility," Austen poses the question of whether the young and idealistic Marianne has fallen in love with Willoughby, a dashing Lothario, or whether she is falling in love with the idea of falling in love.

"To read [Austen] as [merely] romance is to overlook the things in the books that make those romances problematic and not as comfortable - but far more interesting - than the easy reading would suggest," says Karen Joy Fowler, author of "The Jane Austen Book Club," a recent bestseller about a group of Californians who meet to discuss works by their favorite author.

Jane Austen's novels are included in the curriculums of many high schools and colleges but, as film director Gurinder Chadha discovered when she attended a recent test screening of "Bride and Prejudice" in New Jersey, many Americans aren't familiar with the author. Only two people in the "Bride" focus group had ever heard of Austen.

If the previous spate of Jane Austen adaptations are anything to go by, it's likely that the coming film versions will increase interest in the author. In 1995, The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) had a spike in membership following that year's BBC miniseries of "Pride and Prejudice" as well as cinema releases of "Sense and Sensibility," "Persuasion," and "Clueless," an updated take on the novel "Emma."

"Bridget Jones's Diary," another modern-day interpretation of "Pride and Prejudice," even went so far as to recruit actor Colin Firth, the popular Darcy of the BBC series, to play the equivalent character in the 2001 movie based on the bestseller by Helen Fielding. The sequel, "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," in theaters Friday, is loosely based on Austen's "Persuasion."

Ironically, a key reason Austen's works resonate with today's audiences is that her heroines are polar opposites of Bridget Jones. Austen's leading ladies are often strong, independent, and display fortitude even though they face a narrow career choice: become a wife or remain impoverished. They are also adept at wordplay - a vital component of "Pride and Prejudice" is the verbal sparring that is a form of intellectual courtship.

It's that banter, combined with the way characters reveal themselves through their words, that makes Austen a literary figure for the ages.

"The average person who is not an English major, and certainly not a PhD in English, will not think to pick up 'Hamlet' to read for fun on the airplane," says Joan Klingel Ray, president of JASNA. "But people will pick up Jane Austen. She has this wonderful appeal because you can read her on many different levels."

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