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What Is It About Jane Austen? : Stories with lots of words, no kissing, no vulgarity add up to big box office

The hottest writer in Hollywood today is Jane Austen, born 220 years ago. With the determined assistance of her appreciative interpreter, British actress Emma Thompson, the early 19th-century English writer continues to weave her quilt of keen observations, this time on film.

Of the six major novels that Austen wrote in her 41 years of life, four have been turned into successful movies and Austen-mania keeps growing: There is a Jane Austen Society of America, with 40 regional chapters; there is even a Jane Austen cookbook, which boasts authentic 18th-century English recipes, if you dare.

Austen’s “Emma” is a story about an attractive and wealthy young woman who meddles in everyone’s lives with the best of intentions and poor results. After many misadventures, Emma repents, falls in love, marries and lives happily ever after. In a recent Hollywood reincarnation, “Emma” became “Clueless” in a story transposed to contemporary times, where the protagonist, faithful to the spirit of the novel, is a spoiled, rich, well-intentioned girl from Beverly Hills.

A BBC production of Austen’s “Persuasion,” a Cinderella romance of love nearly lost, played recently in local cinemas.

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“Sense and Sensibility,” now showing at theaters in a screenplay by Thompson, who also plays the lead role, is the story of two sisters who view life from two very different perspectives. On Jan. 14-16, the A&E; cable network will bring to America the BBC’s six-hour production of another Austen masterpiece, “Pride and Prejudice,” last filmed in 1940 starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.

In trying to understand the proliferation and popularity of these cinematic adaptations of old novels of manners, there are several interpretations. Some say that picking up a classic at no cost is a better investment than paying millions to Joe Eszterhas for a script. But this does not tell us why Austen, now, in stories where lovers rarely kiss (in the books, at least) and vulgarities are unheard.

The lesson here may simply be that there has always been and still is a market for well-written tales of manners, patience, decency, morals and intelligence. What a refreshing thought.


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