Jane Austen Does Lunch

How about a lifetime Achievement Oscar for Jane Austen at the next Academy Awards? Might as well, in view of the outpouring of films based on the work of the great 19th-century English novelist. After the superb "Persuasion" earlier this fall, we now have the brilliant Sense and Sensibility, with Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant, to be followed in January by the BBC's delightful mira-series of "Pride and Prejudice" on the Arts & Entertainment network, Late 1996 will bring a movie version of "Emma" starring Gwyneth Paltrow, followed by a TV version of that novel from ITV. (And let's not forget this past summer's "Clueless," with Alicia Silverstone as a Beverly Hills reincarnation of Emma.) If all this strikes you as a hypermassive dose of Jane, think of it as an antidote to the fungus infection of Joe Eszterhas ("Showgirls," "Jade").

The popularity of Austen films in an age of marriage meltdown is fascinating, since most o_GCP_ her fictions are about the ordeal, both comic and dramatic, undergone by young women in the time of the Regency for whom marriage is an emotional, social and financial urgency. In "Sense and Sensibility," based on her first (1811) novel, the genteelly impoverished Dashwood sisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet) are opposites. Elinor is cool, rational "sense," Marianne is hot, romantic "sensibility." Thompson wrote the vigorous, faithful screenplay that vividly dramatizes Marianne's infatuation with the sexy cad Willoughby (Greg Wise), her rescue by the reserved, reliable Colonel Brandon (Alan Rackman) and Elinor's involvement with the mysteriously muffled Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant).

As writer and actress, Thompson has all the right Austen rhythms. And, in a most unlikely directorial coup, Taiwan-born filmmaker Ang Lee ("Eat Drink Man Woman") orchestrates those rhythms with sensitivity and style. Twenty-year-old Winslet is wonderful as the passionate girl who almost dies when that passion is betrayed. The screen teems with superlative actors, brilliant costumes, gorgeous landscapes; it crackles with dialogue that turns English into verbal Mozart. Jane Austen, the spinster daughter of a village rector, who wrote her novels in the family sitting room on little sheets of paper that she could discreetly hide, is an enthralling artist.

That excitement is felt from another perspective in the six-hour BBC "Pride and Prejudice." Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton, this is a TV production with cinematic impact. The relationship-part mating dance, part emotional kung fu between the deliciously intelligent and independent Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) and the proud, snobbish aristocrat Darcy (Colin Firth) has a Shakespearean resonance. Watching their disaffection mutate into a complex kind of love is supremely civilized fun. And watching the six hours of interweaving plot lines, compelling characters and engaging actors (including the ravishing Susannah Harker as Elizabeth's sister Jane) makes you aware that Austen, perhaps the chief creator of the modern novel (Edmund Wilson compared her to James Joyce as a master of form) is also a progenitor of the soap opera, which is a diluted and debased form of her narrative of manners.

So, as the century comes to an end, Jane Austen, whose life and art crossed the line between the century of the Enlightenment and that of Romanticism, comes back into focus for a mass audience that would have blown her unblowable mind. The BBC telecast of "Pride and Prejudice" in England drew up to 11 million people for each weekly episode -- the highest-rated costume drama ever in England. And as "Sense and Sensibility" goes into release, Penguin USA has a quarter of a million copies in print of their Signet tie-in. All this for a writer whose novels were published anonymously before her death at 41, who made about 800 pounds from her books, who described her method as "the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush."

"Jane Austen is obviously the Quentin Tarantino of the middle classes," said Charles Denton, head of BBC drama. Well, they are probably the two best writers of dialogue in film today. Douglas McGrath (co-screenwriter of "Bullets Over Broadway") chose to adapt and direct the forthcoming "Emma" because "it's one of the funniest of all the great books. It's the social satire that makes it so delightful." Lindsay Doran, the producer of "Sense and Sensibility," thinks the Jane train was set in motion when Martin Scorsese made a film of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence." "Everyone said, 'You can do that stuff and get away with it?' Executives and writers felt a lot braver about going back to their bookshelves."

Emma Thompson doesn't see the Austen films as period pieces. "You don't think people are still concerned with marriage, money, romance, finding a partner? Jane Austen is a genius who appeals to any generation." Although Thompson had never written a screenplay, Doran picked her to adapt the novel after seeing a PB S telecast of a series of comic skits that Emma had written, called "Thompson," some of which were in period, like a Robin Hood episode and one about a Victorian bride who was mystified by "the mouselike creature that had crawled out of her husband's trousers on their wedding night." Aug Lee came in when a colleague of Dorans saw his film "The Wedding Banquet." Doran says: "The idea of a foreign director was intellectually appealing even though it was very scary to have someone who didn't have English as his first language." Aug Lee says: "I thought they were crazy: I was brought up in Taiwan, what do I know about 19th-century England? About halfway through the script it started to make sense why they chose me. In my films I've been trying to mix social satire and family drama. I realized that all along I had been trying to do Jane Austen without knowing it. Jane Austen was my destiny. I just had to overcome the cultural barrier."

In "The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries" (Newmarket Press. $23.95), Thompson's fascinating journal of making the film, she talks about that cultural divide. Aug Lee practiced tai chi and had the actors meditate and "massage each other's pressure points. It's very painful. Loud screams . . ." When Thompson and Grant made suggestions about scenes, Aug was shocked. In Taiwan, the director is the total boss. "He was deeply hurt and confused," writes Thompson. "It must have been terrifying -- new actors, new crew, new country, and then us sticking our oars in."

That was smoothed over, and soon the real problems began: Winslet's phlebitis, Thompson's conjunctivitis and PMS, sheep collapsing from the heat. Meanwhile, the Jane Austen Society of North America had called to complain that Hugh Grant was too good looking to play Edward. The society, which has 2,646 members worldwide, is run by Garnet Bass out of Raleigh, N.C. For her, the Jane Austen revival has practical consequences. "Austen deals not only across classes, but person to person," she says. "I've learned to appreciate some of my relatives through reading Jane Austen." For Jane, whose family was her true universe, that might have pleased her the most.