Lights! Camera! Learning! - British Literature

Updated August 9, 2021 | Beth Rowen

The best of British literature

Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma

Paltrow's winsome matchmaker


Recent film offerings suggest the enduring appeal of Jane Austen's storytelling. In the past few years, we've been wowed by Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion and Clueless. Emma is similarly delightful and comically brilliant. Wily matchmaker Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) takes great pride in her cunning but displays a distinct lack of judgment in her choice of potential couples.

Rated PG. Released: 1996.

Great Expectations

Don't bother with the 1998 adaptation of the Dickens classic. Sure, it includes steamy sex scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, but a few minutes of titillation is just about all it has to offer. Instead, check out David Lean's 1946 film, arguably the finest literary adaptation of all time. Anthony Wager plays young Pip, an orphan who is given a chance in life when a mysterious benefactor finances his education and formal training. John Mills takes over as adult Pip. Jean Simmons plays Pip's young love interest, Estella, while Valerie Hobson portrays her as an adult. Guy Green's moody cinematography earned him an Oscar.

Not Rated. Released: 1946.

Wuthering Heights

Nineteen thirty-nine was one of Hollywood's golden years. Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all competed for Best Picture Oscars (Gone With the Wind won the trophy). Though the film missed out on the major awards, cinematographer Gregg Toland rightly won for his haunting cinematography. Laurence Olivier plays the brooding Heathcliffe and Merle Oberon portrays Cathy, the love of his life who scorns him for Edgar Linton (David Niven), a man of wealth and honor. The pre-Victorian tale of doomed love and tragedy remains one of the most stirring films of all time. Only two-thirds of Emily Brontë's novel was adapted for the big screen. The film is number 73 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies of All Time.

Not Rated. Released: 1939.

Sense and Sensibility

Of all the recent Jane Austen adaptations, Sense and Sensibility is by far the most lush production and arguably the best. The Dashwood women must vacate their home as it passes from the patriarch to his son. Taking up residence in a relative's country cottage, they begin a search for husbands for the two older sisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet). John Willoughby (Greg Wise) and Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) compete for Marianne's hand, while Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) seems to have clinched Elinor's heart. Beautifully photographed and charmingly acted.

Rated PG. Released: 1995.

Moll Flanders

Almost ignored at the box office when it hit theaters in 1996, Moll Flanders deserves a look on video. Though the film strays from Daniel Defoe's novel, it does capture the title character's struggle to overcome a dreadful existence and build a life for herself. Told in flashbacks, the film chronicles Flanders' life. As a child, Flanders (Robin Wright) escapes from an abusive orphanage and goes to work for Mrs. Mazzawatti (Brenda Fricker). When the woman's jealous daughters have Flanders expelled from the house, she lands work with Mrs. Allworthy (Stockard Channing), who sells her into prostitution. She falls in love with one of her clients, a charming artist (John Lynch), who buys her services so she can model for him.

Rated PG-13. Released: 1996.

Lord of the Flies

A compelling adaptation of William Golding's scathing commentary on human nature. A group of privileged British schoolboys boards an airplane to escape an imminent attack. When the plane goes down, they take refuge on a isolated island. Initially attempting to form a democracy, the boys instead split into two factions, degenerate into savages, and resort to brutal killing and cannibalism as a means of survival.

Not Rated. Released: 1963.

Sources +