Autumn, 1995. Across the world, thousands of women sit frozen on their sofas, hands to their pounding hearts, eyes glued to their television sets, as what the Guardian newspaper will later dub ‘one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history’ unfolds: Colin Firth emerging from an impromptu swim in a lake, half dressed, heart-meltingly handsome…
Oh, the power of a good screen adaption of classic literature to awaken the romantic sensibilities! I can’t tell you how many afternoons since I have sat on a shady bench and gazed at the pond in the grounds of my home in Kent, indulging in a Darcy-esque daydream. And yes, in case you’re wondering, the lake scene in my novel Burning Embers was very much inspired by Mr Firth.
I’ve sifted through the footage, and put together a top five list of screen adaptations from the most romantic novels in English literature, together with YouTube clips. It’s no accident that Austen places three times in the list; I find her books so romantic and so quintessentially English. The Wall Street Journal called the reaction of women worldwide to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation ‘Austen-mania’. I call it plain, old-fashioned romanticism.
1. Pride and Prejudice, based on the book by Jane Austen
Of course, I must cite as my favourite version the 1995 BBC series, in which I (and so many other ladies) first discovered Colin Firth. And I have never forgotten Bridget Jones’s hilarious interview with Firth in which the lake scene features heavily, depicted in the novel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
Did you know? Colin Firth (Mr Darcy) and Jennifer Ehle (Miss Bennett) had a brief relationship while filming Pride and Prejudice. They were reunited onscreen in the 2010 British film The King’s Speech. Colin played George VI, and Jennifer played the wife of the king’s speech therapist.
2. Wuthering Heights, based on the book by Emily Brontë
A tough one, but for their exquisite acting I find myself drawn to Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the 1992 movie. Such torment and passion in this version, and the actors have a dynamic connection; no wonder they were cast together again in The English Patient.
Did you know? In a survey of 2,000 adults, respondents voted this line from Wuthering Heights as the most romantic in literature:
‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’
3. Emma, based on the book by Jane Austen
It’s the 1996 feature film for me. Jeremy Northam fits the mental image I have of George Knightley (did you see him in Gosford Park?), and Ewan McGregor is also delightful.
Did you know? The 1995 movie Clueless is partly based on Emma.
4. Sense and Sensibility, based on the book by Jane Austen
I love the 1995 film. It has such a wonderful cast. I’d loved Emma Thompson in Howard’s End, and she was perfect in this film. Plus Kate Winslet and the as-usual hesitant Hugh Grant. But it’s Alan Rickman who steals the show for me (who knew Professor Snape could be so handsome and alluring?).
Did you know? Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay for the film.
5. Romeo and Juliet, based on the play by William Shakespeare
I’ve seen, and loved, Romeo and Juliet in so many forms, from ballet to theatre, television series to movie. I find the ballet, in particular, very moving. I’m something of a traditionalist, and I love the older, more classic depictions, like Zeffirelli’s. So I confess that the modernity of Baz Luhrmann’s film put me off a little. But then I got lost in the connection between the actors. And the ending scene is so tragic and so moving, I had to pick this as my favourite adaptation.
Did you know? Natalie Portman was the original Juliet for this version, but once filming began the producers decided the seven-year age gap between her and Leonardo di Caprio was too great, and they recast Claire Danes in the role.
So there you have my top five. I would love to know your opinions. Which films or TV adaptations would you add in? TV or big screen? Luhrmann’s or Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet? James Howson or Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff? Kate Beckinsale or Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma?