Published in 2007, Shannon Hale’s Austenland follows Jane Hayes, a 30-something New Yorker. She’s an average woman, with an average life, but for one thing: she’s obsessed with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy from the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
This love for Mr. Darcy has given her unrealistic expectation for her love life, but she may get the chance to find the perfect Regency-era suitor when her wealthy great-aunt gives her a trip to an immersive Austen experience in England.
At the resort, all things modern are shunned. No television, no cell phones, no internet. Visitors take a step back in time and become the heroine of their very own Austen novel.
Austenland was one of the first books I read when I bought my Kindle a few years ago, and I loved it. In addition to sharing Jane’s experience in the faux-Regency era, the book reflects on her past relationships. It does focus solely on the romance of Austen’s novels rather than the biting wit, but it’s a fun read — pure “chick lit” that I couldn’t put it down.
Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) directed and adapted the 2013 film adaptation of Hale’s novel, with Keri Russell starring in the role of Jane Hayes. (Hale herself is also listed as a contributor to the script.)
The film is pretty similar to the novel, the most noticeable differences being Jane’s level of obsession with Mr. Darcy and the fact that in the film, she pays for the trip herself rather than having it gifted to her. In the book, Jane’s Darcy obsession is a secret; in the film, her best friend knows of it, and her whole room is decked out in Darcy-related memorabilia. In the book, the trip is free to Jane, a gift from a relative; in the film, she spends her life savings on it.
These changes aren’t major, but they do have an impact on the character, making her seem even more romance-obsessed, to the point that her whole life revolves around it. I love Cary Grant, but I don’t hang a “Cary Grant Was Here” sign over my bed or spend all of my savings to hang out with a Cary impersonator — both things that Jane does the Mr. Darcy equivalent of in the film. She’s quite a shallowly-written character.
The technology restrictions are also fewer in the movie’s resort than in the book’s — Elizabeth even has a TV in her room. Again, not a big deal, but it does take away from the authenticity that the resort was portrayed as having in the novel.
That being said, the film is enjoyable if you like rom-coms. The cast is well-selected, particularly Jane Seymour as Mrs. Wattlesbrook (leader of the Regency charade) and Jennifer Coolidge as Elizabeth Charming (a fellow guest at the resort). A lot of the acting is a bit over-the-top and theatrical, but this is fitting for a setting in which all of the characters are pretending to be living in a novel from a different era.
Austenland is a fun watch and a fun read. I would recommend the novel more than the film for its faster pace and less-shallow portrayal of the Jane character, but both are enjoyable if you’re interested in the “Austenesque” genre or romantic comedy.