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Sweet Jane: `The Complete Austen' comes to PBS

Rick Porter
Zap2it.com (MCT)

As seems to happen every few years, Jane Austen got hot again in 2007, with one feature film ("Becoming Jane") depicting her life and another ("The Jane Austen Book Club") about fans of her novels.

Starting Sunday, though, Austenites can see the real deal - or adaptations thereof, anyway - as PBS presents "The Complete Jane Austen." The series, part of a revamped "Masterpiece Theatre," will present four new productions of Austen's work, beginning with "Persuasion" at 9 p.m. EST Sunday, as well as a 1996 version of "Emma" starring Kate Beckinsale and the 1995 "Pride and Prejudice" starring Colin Firth and his wet shirt.

Austen has never exactly been unpopular, but "Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton says there's something in her work that might be especially attractive today.

"I think there's a possibility that in this day of drive-by relationships and quick hookups, people are drawn to stories of love with obstacles," Eaton says. "All these stories involve two people who are instantly or obviously - to us - attracted to each other, but they have to go through a lot to be together. ... I think the formality of that, and the eventual happy endings, are satisfying."

Screenwriter Andrew Davies ("Bridget Jones's Diary") penned the new adaptations of "Northanger Abbey" and "Sense and Sensibility," and he also wrote the teleplays for the versions of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma," which PBS is showing for the first time (they previously aired on A&E in the United States, back when A&E did that sort of thing). That makes him the go-to interpreter of Austen's work for contemporary audiences - "a nice position to be in," he says.

Davies acknowledges that having Austen as source material provides him with a pretty strong starting point - the question sometimes becomes what to leave out. "She does write great, witty dialogue, but rather more than I'm going to need in a visual medium," he says.

"I want the lines in the script (to sound as if) they could have been spoken then, but also sound natural if they were spoken now. So I'll tailor them a little bit ... to make them easier on the ear, that sort of thing. But it's not that difficult a task."

Adapting "Northanger Abbey" was "a breeze," he says, though his inspiration comes from a rather un-Austen-like place.

"It's about a girl who reads gothic novels, and in a way that was a bit of a problem, because people now don't know exactly what gothic novels were," Davies notes. "So what I did with that was I thought, in fact, in essence they're not that different from these teenage horror movies that are so popular. So I kind of dramatized Catherine's (the lead character, played by Felicity Jones) imagination, so we actually see the scenes she imagines herself in."

"Sense and Sensibility," however, was a tougher assignment: "I think I was a little bit more radical adapting that. I invented rather more scenes, because I thought the book could do with a bit more help."

The adaptation raised the hackles of some Austen purists when the miniseries debuted on New Year's Day in the U.K., though critics were generally kind and ratings strong. The problem, he says, lay mainly with the book's male characters.

"When you read the book, you're not quite sure whether it's got the right ending," Davies says. "You're not quite sure if the characters of the men who get the girls, whether they quite deserve to. ... So I did a lot of work to basically try to butch up the two male characters, make them more attractive and more appealing."

The new films were all shot in the U.K. with British casts, though American audiences will recognize a number of faces. Anthony Stewart Head ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") plays Sir Walter Elliot in "Persuasion," David Morrissey ("Viva Blackpool," "The Water Horse") is Col. Brandon in "Sense and Sensibility" and Billie Piper ("Doctor Who") and Michelle Ryan ("Bionic Woman") star in "Mansfield Park."

Then there are the two older productions, which already have devoted followings thanks to multiple airings on A&E and DVD sales. "Someone in our office said, `Jane Austen only wrote six books, why not do all six?'" Eaton recalls. "So we had discussions with people who had the rights, and they allowed us to have it. ... So we were partly shrewd and partly lucky."

In addition to the dramatizations of Austen's work, PBS will also air an original film called "Miss Austen Regrets" about the author's own struggles with romance. It's based in part on Austen's letters and, Eaton says, is more faithful to the real story than "Becoming Jane" was.

Jane Austen died in 1817, and in the 190-plus years since then, her work has almost never been out of print. To Davies, the key to her enduring popularity isn't that hard to discern.

"She creates terrific characters, she writes moving love stories," he says. "She's intelligent, witty, and she's also surprisingly hard-nosed about things like sex and money, attraction, greed and longing. These are things that never go out of fashion."

__

The schedule for "The Complete Jane Austen" follows. "Masterpiece" airs at 9 p.m. EST Sundays (check local listings).

Jan. 13: "Persuasion" Jan. 20: "Northanger Abbey"

Jan. 27: "Mansfield Park"

Feb. 3: "Miss Austen Regrets"

Feb. 10, 17 and 24: "Pride and Prejudice"

March 23: "Emma"

March 30 and April 6: "Sense and Sensibility"

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