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Jane Austen in Audio Drama: A Review of Two Adaptations, BBC and Audible

Hailing from late 18th century Britain, Jane Austen was a quiet girl with lucid insight and a pen of biting grace. She saw clearly, and what...

Hailing from late 18th century Britain, Jane Austen was a quiet girl with lucid insight and a pen of biting grace. She saw clearly, and what she saw, she wrote. She wove characters that dance across the pages of her novels – skipping, jumping, gliding, and tripping along in their own colorful ways as she tells their stories with graceful wit and Solomon-like wisdom. These are stories that have resonated with readers throughout the centuries because – deeper than their romantic plots, witty prose, and loveable/hateable characters – they ring true to who we are and how we relate to one another.

Jane Austen coloured version
Jane Austen
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
With such depth of insight, it is no wonder that Austen’s six novels have had a long life and been reincarnated countless times as movie adaptations. I have enjoyed watching many of these adaptations as well as reading the most famous of her novels, Pride and Prejudice. But I wondered, had these classic stories gone unrepresented in the world of audio drama? I did a bit of poking around, and lo and behold, both BBC and Audible Studios have adapted the entire Austen universe – all six of Austen’s classic novels including Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park – to audio drama. As a fan of both Jane Austen and audio drama, I decided to check them out.

The Jane Austen Collection from Audible Studios, was released just last year (2020), though two of the included adaptations, Emma and Northanger Abbey, were previously released in 2018. The entire collection has a whopping runtime of 45 hours.

The Jane Austen BBC Radio Drama Collection is made up of 6 dramas that were created and released over a number of years. The full compendium was released (on Audible) in 2016. It has a runtime of 14 hours and 27 minutes.

 


When entrusting ourselves to the interpretive powers of the scriptwriters, actors, and directors of a classic novel adaptation, I think we all want to know the same thing: Will they stick to the book? In the case of both these Austen adaptations, I am happy to report that the answer is yes! Mostly, that is. We do get some altered dialogue (a fact which may be irksome to die-hard Janeites) and–par for the course with adaptations – many scenes are pared down or outright cut. And, of course, we are hearing the story through the filter of the adaptors’ imaginations, so we can’t be too sure of getting a crystal view of what Austen was trying to communicate in her original stories. Despite all that, neither BBC or Audible strayed far from the source material, and I thought that both did a reasonable job of delivering Austen's stories faithfully. 

But though both productions deliver the same goods, they do so in very different packages, creating two very different listening experiences. With a runtime ranging from 6 to 10 hours per drama and a storytelling style that bounces back and forth between narration and dramatic dialogue, the Audible productions are audiobook/audio drama hybrids more akin to abridgements than adaptations. This style is faithful to Austen’s original novels, as she blended witty prose with interspersed dialogue scenes, but it is not as immersive as a full-on audio drama. That is where the BBC adaptations come in. With 2 to 3 hour runtimes, minimal narration, and a heavy reliance on dialogue to push the story forward, these productions are good, old-fashioned audio dramas that push you headfirst into the story and don't let up. Their short length sometimes lends itself to hasty storytelling that leaves the listener spinning in the dark, and this flaw is at its worst in the adaptations of Emma, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice. But the remaining three productions of Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park manage to jump this pitfall, creating a fast-paced yet seamless movie-like experience.

BBC Actors Recording Pride and Prejudice
Image courtesy of BBC Radio 4

This movie-like quality of the BBC adaptations carries over to their sound design. The actors, directors, and editors went all out – even performing ballroom dialogue scenes while dancing in and out among the studio microphones. And these efforts paid off. By immersing the listener in a 3-dimensional soundscape that grounds the characters in their environment, the drama plays out like a movie in your mind. In contrast, the sound design of the Audible productions – while well done – is much shallower. The voices sound close, and the surrounding world sounds far away. This creates an experience closer to that of an audiobook voiced by multiple actors rather than a movie for your ears. And in keeping with this trend, these dramas use music minimally – mostly to bookend each chapter–while the BBC productions use music throughout the story (though still minimally).

Emma Thompson, narrator of Audible's Emma and Northanger Abbey
Image courtesy of Audible
No matter an audio drama’s style, it needs a sturdy narrator and colorful actors to bring its story to life. And both these productions check those boxes with a chisel tip Sharpie. Stacking the deck with big name talent, Audible’s narrators include Emma Thompson (of 1995’s Sense and Sensibility movie fame) and Billie Piper (from 2007’s film adaptation of Mansfield Park), while BBC brings many well-known names to the table in their adaptation of Mansfield Park, including Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, and Felicity Jones (of the 2007 movie of Northanger Abbey). All of these actors deliver fantastic performances and are matched in talent by many lesser-known performers on both sides of the table. With only a few misses here and there, each actor is perfectly cast in their role. But it isn’t all smooth sailing in the acting department. The line delivery of some side characters – especially in some of Audible’s adaptations – leaves something to be desired, being at times stiff and at others overdramatic to the point of being cartoonish. And Florence Pugh’s narration in Audible’s Persuasion is competent, but colorlessly flat. But these examples of poor acting by the few are thankfully overwhelmed by the good acting of the many. 

Benedict Cumberbatch 2016
Benedict Cumberbatch, Edmund Bertram in BBC's Mansfield Park
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

On all sides, both these families of audio drama adaptations give a fun taste of Austen’s storytelling; though filtered and abridged. They are tasty Austen ear-snacks. But, being snacks and not full-on meals, I prefer the BBC adaptations over Audible’s productions. They are short in length and sweet in sound design, acting, and writing;  perfect for when you need a hit of Austen but don’t have time to plug in a 20 hour long audiobook. Audible’s offering, on the other hand, is chock full of great performances and a fuller taste of Austen’s writing, but it is too long for a short road trip and too short for a long one. To my mind, if I am going to listen to a 10 hour long audiobook, I might as well go the extra mile and experience Austen unfiltered. Which I could do quite easily given that Elizabeth Klett’s fantastic performances of all the novels are available for free over at Librivox (see the links at the narrator's website). But despite this preference of mine, Audible’s adaptations are high-quality productions. And if you are an Audible Plus member, they are already included in your subscription. With such easy access, you could do far worse than hitting play on your next road trip.

What Parents Should Know:

Parents may want to know that both productions contain occasional archaic references to God as an exclamation (i.e. - Good God! - and the like). However, these are the only instances of profane language in the productions, and all romance is clean and tastefully presented.

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A Sample from BBC's Sense and Sensibility

Behind the Scenes of BBC's Pride and Prejudice

Behind the Scenes of Audible's Emma

The Jane Austen BBC Radio Drama Collection is widely available. You can buy it to stream and download on Audible, Audiobooks.com, Kobo, Google Play Books, and so forth. Or, if you prefer hard copies, the CD pack is available on Amazon. As noted earlier, if you are an Audible Plus member, The Jane Austen Collection is included with your subscription. If you are not a member, it is available to purchase exclusively at Audible.

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If you want more Austen audio drama commentary, check out this classic episode of the Audio Theatre Central podcast where JD, Roy, and Andrew review LifeHouse Theater On-The-Air's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Happy Listening!


Besides being an audio drama junky, Joah Pearson is a son, older sibling to 8, growing freelance writer and editor, aspiring content communicator, and big-time consumer of pizza, podcasts, books, movies, and Gray Havens music. At bottom, though, he is a junkyard being gloriously overhauled by King Jesus. He lives in Georgia and posts stuff at kingsrecorder.wordpress.com




Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, ATC will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!

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