The Jane Austen Book Club

Sony Pictures Classics

Toronto Film Festival 2007 (Gala Presentation)

The Jane Austen Book Club

The film begins with a montage of incidents in contemporary life that drive us crazy: the parking gate ticket that falls under your car as the person behind you sounds their horn; the laptop computer that goes sliding off the desk, the cell phone that drops from your pocket into the toilet, the alarm that goes off as you leave the store carrying your underwear purchase. In the midst of this, we discover six people who will soon come together, seeking an “antidote to Life” -- a low-stress book club, in which “we’ll only do books we’ve already read”.

The club is Bernadette’s idea – six-times married, the now single Bernadette (Kathy Baker) at 64 is a die-hard romantic who crushes on the men in Austen’s novels. Her former god-daughter Jocelyn (Maria Bello) becomes distraught over losing her dog Pridey. “It’s because she’s never married,” is her best friend Sylvia’s analysis. Jocelyn thinks “romantic love is a fiction”. Then Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is dumped by her impulsive husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits) for a woman who “isn’t even young!” – and their 20-ish daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) moves back home to console mom.

That same night at the local theatre’s festival of Jane Austen movies, Bernadette makes the acquaintance of Austen-freak Prudie (Emily Blunt), a newly-married young French teacher who quarrels with her husband Dean (Marc Blucas) when he has to cancel their trip to Paris, “making me a fraud in front of my students!” To comfort Prudie, Bernadette suggests that they start a book club to re-read all of Jane Austen’s novels, and only have people in the club that already know the books. That same week Jocelyn meets Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a science fiction geek (and Austen virgin) who works in tech support at the U -- and decides to invite him to their group as a present for Sylvia, who Jocelyn decides “needs an adventure”.

The film’s narrative follows what happens during and between these monthly book club meetings for the next six months: Allegra clashes instantly with Prudie, who is annoyed that Allegra would rather watch the movie than read Sense & Sensibility. In spite of Jocelyn’s efforts, Grigg doesn’t spark to Sylvia, who is still in love with her husband. “She’ll have to get over that”, Jocelyn insists, as she pushes Grigg toward Sylvia; even as Grigg stubbornly gravitates toward Jocelyn. Prudie begins a harmless flirtation with an older student at her high school, and then realizes as she becomes more and more estranged from her husband, that she has fallen hard for this student. During a sky-diving mishap, Allegra meets and falls in love with Corinne, a slightly older lesbian who is a writer. She doesn’t realize until too late that Corinne has been writing down Allegra’s childhood family stories and passing them off as her own to publishers.

As betrayals and attractions and match-making complicate their lives and threaten to rend apart the group, these Austen readers begin to recognize parallels to their own lives in the novels of Jane Austen, leading at least one of them to wonder, in the midst of her dilemma, “What would Jane Austen do?”

  • Kathy Baker
  • Maria Bello
  • Marc Blucas
    Dean Drummond
  • Emily Blunt
    Prudie Drummond
  • Amy Brenneman
    Sylvia Avila
  • Hugh Dancy
    Grigg Harris
  • Maggie Grace
    Allegra Avila
  • Jimmy Smits
    Daniel Avila
  • Kevin Zegers
  • Parisa Fitz-Henley
  • Nancy Travis
  • Lynn Redgrave
    Mama Sky
  • Written for the Screen and Directed by
    Robin Swicord
  • Based upon the book by
    Karen Joy Fowler
  • Produced by
    John Calley - Julie Lynn - Diana Napper
  • Executive Producer
    Marshall Rose
  • Co-Producer
    Kelly Thomas
  • Director of Photography
    John Toon, ACS
  • Music by
    Aaron Zigman
  • Music Supervisor
    Barklie K. Griggs
  • Costume Designer
    Johnetta Boone
  • Casting by
    Deborah Aquila, CSA Tricia Wood, CSA Jennifer Smith, CSA

"Everyone is given their due and dignity in this funny, sexy, humanist film that, if it is a chick flick, gives the genre a good name." (Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post)

"This marvelously intelligent romantic comedy will captivate even those who don't know or care much about Austen, although there's undeniably an extra layer of pure delight to be found if you do." (Connie Ogle, Miami Herald)

"Chick Flick indeed! Guys, take your best buddy to see this movie. Tell him, 'it's really cool, dude, even though there aren't any eviscerations.'" (Roger Ebert, Ebert & Roeper)

"Swicord's direction proves as accomplished as her script at handling an incident-packed story with ease, capturing humor and drama sans cheap laughs or tearjerking. Cast is first-rate all around."(Dennis Harvey, Variety)

"It remains a joy to experience a movie so in love with good writing." (Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter)


When John Calley asked me to read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, I was at work on an original screenplay about a dysfunctional family of Jane Austen scholars, which I planned to direct for Sony. I had spent years immersed in Austenalia, not only reading Austen’s novels repeatedly, but also absorbing her letters and juvenilia, and making my way through various academic treatises which explored Austen’s life and work from every imaginable angle. I joked to my Sony executive that I was on the way to making the only light Hollywood comedy ever to need a bibliography appended to the credits.

However, in reading The Jane Austen Book Club, I found myself no longer in the company of sparring intellectuals. Here were ordinary people more like me; readers, seeking shelter and companionship in books. That contemporary readers have found refuge in Jane Austen’s well-ordered novels isn’t surprising, given what we’re seeking shelter from -- congested traffic, ringing cell phones, squealing security wands, waiting rooms with blaring televisions. Recently I noticed that four of Austen’s six novels were for sale at the newsstand at the Seattle airport. Spend a couple of hours trapped in a terminal waiting for a flight that’s been delayed, and you’ll be only too happy to withdraw into a semi-rural English village, two centuries in the past.

When you begin to love Austen, her world doesn’t seem that antiquated. Her characters worry about money, deal with embarrassing family members, cringe at social slights, and spend more time than they should hoping to fall in love, even when the local prospects don’t seem that promising. In short, her people are just like us – but without the commute and the twelve-to-fourteen hour workday.

After finishing Karen Joy Fowler’s book, I found myself mulling over the contemporary impulse to withdraw into private refuges. The pace of our lives has turned us all into introverted extroverts, tucked up at home (for many of us home is now a workplace too); ichatting, tapping out emails, browsing networking sites and on-line bookstores, text-voting for American Idol even as our Blackberries vibrate beside the dinner plate. In the “global village”, we have never been more available to each other -- and paradoxically, never more isolated. In an era of “niche marketing”, let’s face it, we’re all in our niches. And yet here was Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful novel, in which she describes a brave act of full-dimensional, non-virtual community. Smack in the midst of dealing with divorce, dating, bereavement and changing jobs, six people agree to read six books by Jane Austen, and then drive across town to meet in person to discuss them. Such heroism, in such an intimate story!

Adapting any book is essentially an endeavor of interpretation. The first film images that came to me as I sat with Fowler’s book became the opening montage of our movie. The story would take place where so many of us live now -- at the intersection of suburbia and exurbia, next door to no one we know. At first glance our characters would be strangers we might notice briefly; people, much like ourselves, all of us in the midst of busy lives -- in a hurry, on the cell phone, maybe carrying too many things; losing a parking space just when we’re late for work; this person loading groceries and wrangling kids, that person just missing the elevator; all of us beset by myriad technological irritations that Jane Austen could never have imagined.

The story would open in a setting of apparent community – a funeral for Jocelyn’s dog. Quickly we’d see: Nobody feels terribly communal. Daniel derides Jocelyn’s grief, wants to leave early. Allegra takes petty offense. Sylvia rejects Bernadette’s suggestion that they all do something to make Jocelyn feel better. “We really should,” agrees Sylvia, then gives everyone the perfect out, “But she lives so far away.”

All of Jane Austen’s novels examine order in a community, giving particular attention to an individual’s responsibility to others. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is disliked initially because he will not provide the community service of dancing at a party where many young women are unpartnered. In Emma, the young heroine is shamed when she inadvertently insults a widow – in Austen’s rulebook, people blessed with good fortune must take care not to humiliate those of lower status. Communal order vs. one’s personal desire is a subject always lurking in the deep structures of Austen’s novels, well below the plot lines that we all love. Where else could a Jane Austen story take place except in or around a village, or in a closed social world, such as in Bath?

And in the absence of a village – say, at the anonymous intersection of suburbia and exurbia – could an Austen story even be told? What would that story look like?

I knew that in our film the character’s stories would parallel the story lines of Austen’s novels, hewing perhaps even more closely than they did in Karen Joy Fowler’s book. And yes, everyone would get each other wrong at first, as in every Austen novel, and eventually they’d find love, of course. But more importantly (at least for me), we’d see the deep subtext of Austen’s novels also played out. When we met our characters, we’d recognize ourselves in them, living in a semblance of community, not strangers to each other, but nonetheless somehow estranged. We’d watch each person carry forward their separate storyline – but over the course of the film, we’d witness our characters fighting out their differences in book club, doubting their own ability to keep the group together, coming up against their own imperfections, and eventually we’d see these people begin to join their narratives as they figure out what it takes to come together in a meaningful way.

After I knew the shape and intention of our story, I had an overwhelming urge to write this movie as soon as possible. As I wrote and planned for the film, the Austenian idea of having to face our own imperfections was never far from my mind. In fact, during pre-production, I had a hoodie sweatshirt embroidered on the reverse, “imperfect”. When I wore it to the set the first week, a crew member jokingly objected, saying, “That’s so negative, are you saying we can’t get it perfect for you?” And our production designer Rusty Smith, quickly stepped in: “No, it’s good. It means we have freedom.”

-- Robin Swicord