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Movies Just Can't Get Past Austen's Charm

IT'S Jane Austen time down on the pop-culture ranch. Four of this witty lady's novels are either in movie theaters, on television, or in production.

''Sense and Sensibility'' - published in 1811 - is the most financially successful of the filmed Austen stories. You still have to wait in line at the theater for tickets. This is partly due to Emma Thompson, who plays Elinor, the sensible older sister - and who also wrote the ''Sense and Sensibility'' screenplay.

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''Persuasion'' - Jane Austen's last novel, published posthumously in 1817, has also become a film. It is the most Austenesque (if such a word can be used) movie of the lot.

''Pride and Prejudice,'' like all her novels, is a saga of romance, of finding suitable husbands for coming-of-age daughters; it was a six-hour mini- (or not so mini) series for television which disintegrated into a nonstop cataract of giggling, shrieking young ladies dashing hither and frequently thither. It was, in this Austen admirer's view, unwatchable.

Translating great novels into movies is always a tricky business.

Some, like ''The Great Gatsby'' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, are not really about what they seem to be about; their plots and characters are vessels carrying the author's deeper observations. On the screen we often get the vessel minus its philosophic cargo.

Like Mozart's music, Austen's prose is deceptively charming. Beneath the charm, her words - like his melodies - carry several serious subtexts.

Austen novels satirize the lives of England's 18th-century landed gentry, based on what she saw and knew growing up in a Hampshire village. They are also reflections - deeper than their surface gaiety indicates - on the rapture and sorrows of love. Contrary to conventional belief, Austen had several romances, even briefly accepting a marriage proposal. One of her suitors (probably a naval officer) died during their friendship.

Above all, Jane Austen was one of the pioneers of the modern novel - writing about ordinary people living their lives in ordinary settings. Her stories are comedies of manners and, as such, tell us in deeply human detail a great deal about the England of her time.

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Except for ''Persuasion,'' none of the films from Austen novels reflect any of this significant undertext. They tell only the surface stories.

The charm comes through. But, as her admirers know, charm is the least of Jane Austen's literary virtues.

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