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Northanger Abbey Film Adaptations: Should You Have the Time…

Hello friends and fellow Janeites,

            As we conclude our reading of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey together, it only seems fitting to spare a moment in which to peruse the film adaptations that have been dedicated to Austen’s final published bit of work. As the shortest of her novels and the one most heavily laden with intentionally comedic moments as well as satirical elements, one might wager the source material was ripe for the picking and begged to have scores of movies made in its image. But that is not the case. There are but two rather short films, both running no more than ninety minutes, which have been dedicated to this novel and its characters. Should you have the time to spare, post-reading, consider these reviews before selecting which to view.

A Brief Plot Summary

            As one might suspect, both films hew closely to the novels so far as the basic plot is concerned. Catherine Morland is a rather plain girl who has experienced very little of the world. She learns most of what she knows about the world through her reading of novels, particularly those penned by Mrs. Ann Radcliffe. When affluent neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, suggest she join them for a six-week season in Bath, she is overjoyed by the prospect, ready to visit the shops, attend plays and balls, and simply have all the lovely experiences a young girl might dream of while living in a small, country town.

            Catherine is, at first, dismayed and a tad overwhelmed by Bath, but all those feelings are quickly righted once she begins to make acquaintances. It is discovered that her chaperone, Mrs. Allen, has a particular friend in Mrs. Thorpe. And, by a stroke of luck, the Thorpes are already aligned with Catherine’s own family as her brother, James, is fond of their family, so much so he has accompanied them to Bath, too. Making friends with the Thorpes does wonders for both Mrs. Allen and Catherine’s spirits, but Miss Morland is most enamored of the friendships she creates with members of the Tilney family, including Eleanor and Henry. They spend time dancing and walking through the country together and when the Tilneys elect to leave town early and invite Catherine to accompany them, she happily accepts their offer. As if she needed more inducement, she learns they live in Northanger Abbey and her novel-loving heart is full of raptures at the idea of visiting the place.

            Once she arrives at Northanger Abbey, Catherine allows her imagination to run away with her. While her admiration for Eleanor and Henry grows exponentially daily, she comes to see malevolence in her host, General Tilney, their father. She is so convinced of his nefarious ways that she dreams up a scheme in which he might have somehow had a hand in the untimely death of his wife. That theory is quickly contradicted by Henry, but by the time Catherine has uttered it and been subsequently chided for such a fanciful embellishment of ideas, she is heartily ashamed of her own behavior.

            Shortly afterward, she is turned out of Northanger Abbey by the General and forced to travel back to Fullerton, where she feels the keen sting from losing not just the companionship she had with Eleanor, but also being deprived of Henry’s gentle jibing. In the end, all is made well, when Henry appears and explains the cause of her ill treatment, then asks her to be his wife.


Movie Reviews


There are two television movies dedicated to Northanger Abbey. The first was released in 1987. It stars Katharine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland. In this version, young Catherine reads aloud excerpts of the novelizations she adores only to fall asleep that night and dream of the instances that have just been filling her mind. Her visualizations are a tad on the disturbing side and she, as well as other people in her life, supplant the characters in the novels so that she inserts herself into the stories. This story begins, as a matter of fact, with Catherine doing a bit of reading, then having a fantasy that nearly edges toward being gruesome.

            As Catherine moves with the Allens away from Fullerton, their carriage passes Northanger Abbey, so not only is the heroine introduced to this great estate early on, but she comes to see the place as one of the spooky backdrops from her reading experiences, for when she asks about its owners, she is told that the place has changed since the death of Mrs. Tilney. These bits of foreshadowing may contribute to the false conjectures that fill the young lady’s mind later.

            When it comes time for Catherine to make the acquaintance of the Thorpe family, John is introduced and while he is brash, he does not come off as being coarse or crude, the way he does in the novel. In the book, Catherine does not find his manners agreeable, but in this movie adaptation, he is made out to be a silly, always joking, and jolly character, who is just a bit conniving. When he calls his younger sisters ugly and pokes fun at his mother’s hat, the comments are not received as snide, but rather cause for laughter. John Thorpe’s true character is revealed to our young heroine when he cancels her walk with Miss Tilney in a most ungentlemanly manner, but then, when Catherine insists she be permitted to make things right, he grabs her arm. He holds on for so long that she insists he must let her go and he finally acquiesces when his sister, Isabella, tells him to desist. This version of John Thorpe seems delighted to find Catherine so full of spirit and it is apparent that he is only more attracted to her because she pulled away from him.

            Throughout this film version, there are sequences of events inserted that are perhaps inspired by Austen’s work, but certainly not included in the novel. There are several, long dream-like scenes that are slightly disconcerting. And occasionally, the Henry Tilney character, played by Peter Firth, appears to be a bit of a rogue, perhaps even a scoundrel, because of the way he speaks to Catherine. There is very little teasing or flirting, but plenty of softly spoken words that could be misconstrued easily. This version of Henry is also, apparently, quite musically inclined. While entertaining a group of visitors at Northanger Abbey, Henry is the one to showcase his talents by doing a bit of performing. It is an odd scene, as the viewer is led to believe that Catherine is there, as a great comfort to both Eleanor and Henry, because they are so often on their own and in need of company.

            Perhaps most disturbing, both in its presentation as well as its diversion from the source material, is the conclusion of the film. It plays as if it is another dream sequence, with Catherine drifting from reality. She is walking away from others and fog floats across the screen. Just then, Henry rides into view. Without giving much explanation, he tells her he doesn’t need his father’s permission to marry, then he kisses Catherine. She sheds tears and as the scene closes, her brother runs into the frame, calling for her. The viewer is left wondering if Catherine imagined this awkward proposal or if it is more than just a vague daydream.


Twenty years later, a second adaptation of the book was released by the BBC. It features Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland, JJ Feild as Henry Tilney, and Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe. The screenplay was written by Andrew Davies. For those who are familiar with his work, you may already suspect that he does justice to Austen’s novel, by sticking closely to the original writing and dialogue, but he peppers in a bit of intrigue to add some spice.

            Perhaps coincidentally, or maybe not, we see our heroine once again cast as a daydreamer from the very beginning. Like the earlier rendition of Catherine, this young lady either has her head in the clouds or her nose in a book. She continually gets lost in a series of fantasies, often casting herself in the role of leading lady and damsel in distress.

            Her interactions with others once she gets to Bath are fairly like what the reader suspects is coming, based on Austen’s novel, with two grand exceptions. The role of Isabella Thorpe is exaggerated or rather her lasciviousness is more open. She does not just abandon James, with hopes of engaging herself to Captain Tilney, but in this version, there is a tryst between the two of them which the audience knows all about because they are present in the aftermath.

The second deviation from the original text is that this version of Henry Tilney foregoes giving lengthy speeches, pontificating, and, in some ways, lecturing Miss Morland. For this film, he is cast as someone who teases and flirts openly with Catherine, making his admiration for her known almost immediately. Their conversations flow more freely, and she seems surer of herself than in the book version, probably because he puts her at ease with his charm. Presumably, those who have read Northanger Abbey and see very little romance between the heroine and Mr. Tilney, will be delighted by this adaptation, for this portrayal of the character is a much more amiable fellow and when Catherine seems to be taken with him, one cannot blame her.

            As the 2007 version of the film winds to a conclusion, matters wrap up rather quickly, just as they do in the book, but there are still several differences. When Henry comes to visit the Morland family, he thoroughly explains to Catherine why she was turned away from the Abbey, but more importantly, he details what will be his situation in life going forward. He wishes to marry her, but fears, because of his quarrel with his father, that he will be disinherited. He wants to make her an offer of marriage but hesitates. It is she who encourages him to keep going, for she dearly wants to be his wife. A quick wedding is arranged and in no time, there is a Christening. The last frame of the film does not belong to Catherine or Henry in their happy state, but rather it reverts to show Northanger Abbey, a displeased General Tilney, and the ominous strike of lightning.


            Should you only have time to view one of these films, I’d recommend making your selection of which to watch based on your own tastes. While you were reading, did you see danger lurking around every corner? Did you, like Catherine, envision General Tilney as a true villain? If so, you may want to watch the 1987 version. But, if you wish for your movie watching experience to mirror the words Austen wrote more closely, you may wish to opt for the 2007 version. It is not quite word-for-word Austen’s work, but it is closely aligned, with fewer insertions by the screenwriter and director.


Thank you for exploring the novel Northanger Abbey and the films dedicated to it with us. Do join us as we continue reading the works of Jane Austen together.


The 1987 film adaptation of Northanger Abbey can be streamed, free of charge and without commercials on Tubi TV. To find the 2007 version of the film, viewers can subscribe to PBS Masterpiece or follow this link to YouTube.



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