I am a complete sucker for classic English novels and for British film and television. The A&E Romance Classics Collections 1 and 2 are a hearty feast indeed for such as me — a veritable treasure trove of (mostly) English fiction put on screen, beautifully shot, well acted (familiar and well-respected names headline each adaptation), and completely addictive. I have always enjoyed classic fiction adapted for the screen (large or small), and generally, when I haven’t read the novel upon which the film is based, seeing it come to life on the screen sends me running for my local library (or bookstore) to pick it up and devour.
As a romance movie fan, you may fancy Hanks and Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail, or even Knocked Up, but for really timeless romance, where the beautiful language, story, acting, and photography conspire to make you sigh and cry, you can’t do better than this collection of genuine classics.
The 28-disc mega-box set has it all: unrequited love; tormented heroes, flawed and only in need of someone’s unconditional love; lovers and would-be lovers with deep secrets that keep them apart, only to be brought together by the final scenes; 18th century “superheroes” who disguise their true face with vacuous foppery — this is the meat of true and enduring classic romance. The collection is an essential library of English (and American) literature and history, including sumptuous adaptations of some of the greatest works of romantic fiction. With months of viewing pleasure in one collection, I would probably watch them in (more or less) chronological order:
Ivanhoe – Co-produced by A&E and the BBC, this adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s novel is set during the time of Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood. It’s Normans against the Saxons as the hero of this tale fights the Norman tyranny of King John in this five-hour adaptation starring Ciaran Hinds and Steven Waddington.
Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is a fun and bawdy romp through 17th century provincial English life. The story of foundling Jones careens from adventure to adventure in this miniseries narrated by British comic actor John Sessions.
Lorna Doone – Lovers kept apart by family hatred is a literary theme that predates even Romeo and Juliet. Richard Blackmore’s Lorna Doone is set in 17th century England. Politics, murder, revenge, and deception frame this timeless story of two families: one, a family of proud and provincial farmers and the other, once powerful but now stripped of its prestige and lands and headed by a bitter nobleman and his vicious grandson. This A&E adaptation is lavishly filmed and true to the novel.
Catherine The Great – Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Catharine, the great Russian empress during the 18th century. Zeta-Jones is powerful and holds the screen well against such acting aristocracy as Jeanne Moreau, Mel Ferrer, Ian Richardson, and Omar Sharif.
The Scarlet Pimpernel – Although the Baroness who wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel may not have been the greatest novelist of all time, nor even necessarily belong to the same esteemed status as a Bronte or Dickens, the Pimpernel has endured as a swashbuckling classic romance. I first saw this version The Scarlet Pimpernel in 2001. A fan of the 1934 version with Leslie Howard, I fell in love with this A&E adaptation starring British actor Richard E. Grant in the title role. Grant is perfect in the role, as the Regency England fop with a double life as the dashing Pimpernel.
Horatio Hornblower: The Duel & The Fire Ships – Ioan Gruffudd stars in this Emmy award winning adaptation of the C.S. Forrester novels set during the Napoleonic wars.
Pride and Prejudice and Emma – 1996 saw not one but two versions of Jane Austen’s Emma, one starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Miramax) and the other, the A&E version included in this collection starring Kate Beckinsale. Both versions are excellent but this one is a particular joy for Beckinsale's wonderful interpretation of the main character and for a cast of well drawn secondary characters played by such as Samantha Morton (also in the collection’s Jane Eyre), and Prunella Scales. If you are an Austen fan, both filmed versions can be enjoyed, as they tend to highlight different aspects of the novel’s characters and themes. On the other hand, for many, the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice in this collection is the gold standard, and the one that launched thousands of Firth fans.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books of all time, and I have seen several filmed adaptations of the novel. To me, Edward Rochester is the quintessential romantic hero (who I discuss further in a Blogcritics article) and I am quite picky about adaptations of the novel. I have always held the BBC version of it with Timothy Dalton as the standard by which all other Jane Eyres must be judged. I found this version, although much abridged from the novel (and BBC production), quite well done, with Samantha Morton’s narration providing cohesion to the story. Ciarán Hinds creates nowhere as complex a Rochester as Dalton but Morton’s Jane Eyre is excellent.
Vanity Fair – For those not completely satisfied by the Reese Witherspoon version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the A&E adaptation of the might be more to your liking. The social climbing Becky Sharpe is brought to life in this sumptuous miniseries. At once treacherous and put-upon, Becky reaches the heights of London society before her comeuppance and the story is a joy to watch and absorb in this lovely miniseries.
Victoria and Albert – Starring Colin Firth’s younger brother Jonathan and co-starring Battlestar Galactica’s James Callis, this A&E miniseries tells one of the most enduring love stories in English history. The Emmy award winning film features Victoria Hamilton as Victoria and supporting roles by such acting luminaries as Diana Rigg and Peter Ustinov.
Nicholas Nickleby – The Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby is a lavish and beautifully rendered production. Nine hours with the wonderful Roger Rees in the title role and a cast of 39, it is a true classic.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge – These two Thomas Hardy novels are brought to life in these A&E miniseries. Justine Waddell stars as Tess in a production that hasn’t quite the passion of Roman Polanski’s adaptation, but remains faithful to the text of the late 19th century Hardy novel. Mayor of Casterbridge stars Ciarán Hinds as the tragic hero Henchard. James Purefoy (Rome) also stars in this lavish adaptation.
The Flame Trees of Thika –The Flame Trees of Thika is based on a novel by Elspeth Huxley and stars Haley Mills. The A&E/BBC production tells the story of an Edwardian English family in turn of the century Africa. Adapted for the BBC by the creator of Upstairs Downstairs, this critically acclaimed miniseries is beautifully shot and acted.
The Great Gatsby – Starring Paul Rudd, Mira Sorvino, Toby Stephens and Martin Donovan, this A&E version of is considered by some to be the best film adaptation F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of Jazz Age America. The miniseries remains true to the text and language of the original in a way that the Robert Redford version did not.
The Romance Classics Collection is an essential library of literature on film, sure to please any fan of world literature, history, British film or just plain old romantic drama! The set is available from the A&E store.