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I’ll admit it. I am a complete sucker for period dramas, especially when they are book-to-screen adaptations. They are my television catnip.
But have you noticed that they’ve gotten raunchier over the years?
I was so excited to watch BBC’s Sanditon, but it did have me clutching my pearls here and there. I lost my everlovin’ postpartum mind over Ross Poldark’s antics. I’ve heard that Outlander and Bridgerton bring lots of steam and soapy scandal. Game of Thrones would probably kill me.
These shows have scenes that make Colin Firth’s famous dip in the lake seem innocent and pure.
Where have all the good, clean period dramas gone?
Here’s the good news: They ARE still making quality historical dramas today. But many of my all-time favorites are from the past. Sometimes it’s hard to pluck a gem from the bowels of Netflix, Amazon Prime, or whatnot—especially if the algorithm doesn’t feed it to you.
So, I’ve put together the ultimate list of period dramas for fans who yearn for beautiful stories (and not necessarily bare-chested actors).
How did I pick this list of period dramas?
Here are the criteria I used to handpick each movie and TV show on this list.
- They’re all based on a book. I love when a movie or series inspires me to read something I haven’t yet. It’s how I mustered the strength to approach reading Bleak House.
- They contain little to no raunch. Sexy period dramas are super addicting to watch, but they are mommy porn. What’s mommy porn? It’s socially acceptable “porn” that you can publicly admit to watching because everyone else is watching it too. But it’s not good for you.
- They are (mostly) free of political virtue signaling. I confess. I watch TV to escape. I really, really dislike getting jarred out of the story by some type of contrived messaging.
- They are highly watchable and entertaining. Movies and television series don’t age well. They feel outdated quickly—way more quickly than books do. And some of these are older and slower, yes, but they’re quick to enchant you nonetheless.
For each period piece on the list, I try to address these content considerations to help you decide what you want to watch next.
List of Jane Austen adaptations
Jane Austen novels make THE best period dramas. Complex characters, dazzling dialogue, swoon-worthy romances. They’ve inspired dozens of TV shows and films over the years. And most of them are fan-flippin’-tastic! It’s almost hard to ruin an Austen adaptation.
Pride and Prejudice (1995 Miniseries)
Ah, the show that launched a thousand BBC period dramas. My best friend and I spent an entire night watching all six episodes. In a row! Jennifer Ehle is a sweet, sharp Elizabeth, and Colin Firth became THE iconic Mr. Darcy. It’s a LONG series. And it’s getting a tad dated. But it remains the most faithful, comprehensive adaptation to date. And it cemented Andrew Davies as the go-to screenwriter for period adaptations.
👍 Not smutty
❤️ Very romantic!
🎥 Entertaining but dated.
Pride and Prejudice (2005 Movie)
Who didn’t fall in love with this film version of Austen’s famous novel? Keira Knightley holds nothing back as Elizabeth, and Matthew Macfadyen makes a beautiful Darcy, but the supporting cast in this! Everyone is juuuuust right. Rosamund Pike is a perfect, pure Jane. Tom Hollander is a spot-on Mr. Collins, and Donald Sutherland is downright loveable as Mr. Bennet. That’s a very young Carey Mulligan as Kitty (if you missed her).
👍 Not smutty
❤️ Super romantic
🎥 Gorgeous filmmaking
Persuasion (1995 Movie)
Amanda Root famously wore little to no makeup in her lead role as Anne Elliot. And she is perfect in every way. It bothers me when the author describes a plain woman nearing 30, and Hollywood casts a gorgeous teenager in the role. Anne is easy to “root” for. It is SO satisfying to see her goodness and faithfulness persist in spite of disappointment and disparagement. P.S. The upcoming Persuasion film starring Dakota Johnson is slated for 2022 and will be the latest adaptation of Jane Austen.
👍 Not smutty
❤️ Restrained romance
🎥 Showing its age, but still great
Emma. (2020 Movie)
This is the most aesthetically gorgeous Austen film I’ve ever seen in my life. The costumes, sets, and music are a feast for the senses. Anya Taylor-Joy (from the Queen’s Gambit) portrays a highly complex Emma. Do we hate her? Do we love her? We dunno!!! And Johnny Flynn is the most passionate Mr. Knightley in history. Just lookit him gaze. This one has some major deviations from the book—the nosebleed scene, (which I actually thought was fantastic on so many levels).
Heads up: There is some totally unnecessary partial nudity. What’s the point of this? To show that underneath their layers-upon-layers of clothing, these characters are flesh-n-blood people.
👍 Some partial nudity, but not in the bedroom
❤️ Blazingly romantic
🎥 So watchable you can’t look away
Emma (2008 Miniseries)
Here, you get Emma’s full story, faithfully rendered in all its parlor room glory. In my opinion, Romola Garai is the most pleasant Emma of them all. If Anya Taylor-Joy grated on your nerves, then try this miniseries. Michael Gambon (Professor Dumbledore) is a true-to-cannon Mr. Woodhouse, and he’s just as hilarious and loveable as intended!
❤️ Sweetly romantic
🎥 Elegant and watchable
Sense and Sensibility (2008 Miniseries)
This series opens with some type of mysterious sexy scene with lots of panting, but don’t let that deter you if you like your Austen clean. This miniseries is a great way to experience the novel. Hattie Morahan shines as a warm, wise Elinor. Watch for Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as the forlorn Mr. Ferrars and Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley) as the always-chipper Sir. John Middleton.
👍 Not smutty
🎥 Short, sweet, and entertaining
Sense and Sensibility (1995 Movie)
This star-studded film went to the Academy Awards, and Emma Thompson won for Best Adapted Screenplay. Alan Rickman is perfect as the unlikely Colonel Brandon. This one is getting dated, as expected, but it’s chock-full of stellar performances, and those never get old.
👍 Squeaky clean
❤️ Complex romance
🎥 Getting dated but well-acted
Northanger Abbey (2007 Movie)
Catherine Moorland, played by Felicity Jones (Rogue One), is a young woman who is altogether too obsessed with novels, especially those of a romantic nature. She comes of age in this tongue-in-cheek adaptation. We get funny glimpses into Catherine’s swoony fantasies. Carey Mulligan as Isabella does a great job of showcasing the bad results of being a naughty flirt.
👍 Mildly sexy scenes and lots of flirting
❤️ Young, angsty romance
🎥 Watchable and teen-friendly
Mansfield Park (1999 Movie)
Frances O’Connor is exquisite as Fanny Price in the only decent adaptation of this novel to date. She’s a moral paragon, but she wears it with a likable irony and self-deprecation. If you love stories of unrequited love, then this’ll hit the spot. There are political themes (imperialism and slavery) that add depth to the narrative landscape. There is some sexy scandal but it’s not grossly portrayed.
👍 A ton of flirting and mild bedroom
❤️ Complex romance
🎥 Remains aesthetically beautiful
Sanditon (2019–Present TV Series)
Okaaaaay. This popular series is based on 11 chapters of a story that Jane Austen never finished before she died. Based on the source material, the scriptwriters did a great job extrapolating characters and settings. Charlotte, the main character (played by a perfectly cast Rose Williams), is kind of wooden, though. Theo James brings his devilish good looks and some serious brooding to the table, but he’s no noble Mr. Darcy.
This is not exactly what I’d call “innocent Austen.” It’s got a decent dollop of Bridgerton mixed in—drama for yer mama, catfights, and some raunchy sex stuff. The long-awaited second season premiers on BBC Masterpiece in March 2022.
👍 Cleanliness is patchy. So is the morality.
❤️ Steamy (but not much romantic substance)
🎥 Super-duper watchable
List of Charles Dickens adaptations
Charles Dickens is famous for his endlessly long novels, colorful characters, and gritty themes. Since Dickens is so hard to read, watching a screen adaptation is a fantastic way to experience his books. The good and bad of the Victorian era are on full display, from the gentry to the wretched poor.
Tip: Dickens always asks you for an upfront investment. But then he pays it off big in the end. The first couple of episodes of ANY Dickens series introduce a ton of characters, and you’ll feel lost. Just keep watching! Everything will sort itself out, and you’ll be happy you stuck with it.
Bleak House (2005 Miniseries)
This classic novel about weathering hard times makes a riveting miniseries! It’s exploding with iconic characters that’ll stick in your memory long after the last episode. There are multiple, mysterious subplots weaving through this story, but, for as strong as the plot is, the characters are even stronger. Gillian Anderson plays the elegant, enigmatic Lady Dedlock, and Anna Maxwell Martin captured my bleeding heart as the stouthearted Esther.
👍 Nothing steamy
❤️ Pops of romance here and there
🎥 Atmospheric and highly watchable (just push through the first couple episodes)
Little Dorrit (2008 Miniseries)
Claire Foy in the lead role of Amy Dorrit helms a stellar cast, including Matthew Macfayden (Mr. Darcy) in this heartwrenching tale of topsy-turvey fortune. It’s perfect if you love rags-to-riches stories (and romances that drag on forever). I tell you, my husband and I often quote the crazy characters in this series.
👍 Not smutty
❤️ Romantic subplots abound
🎥 Very watchable (once you get your bearings)
Our Mutual Friend (1998 Miniseries)
Like all of Dickens, this novel has about 145798210 storylines happening at once. I’ll be honest. Some are stronger than others. I do think, though, that this series is worth watching solely for the Harmon+Wilfer romance, which is just about as sweet as Dickens will ever allow. The other main romance, though, between Wrayburn+Hexam is very strange, and this whole series is mildly morbid.
👍 Nothing steamy
❤️ Patchy plot (mix of great and meh)
🎥 Starting to show its age
British period dramas based on books by other famous authors
Austen and Dickens dominate the world of costume dramas. But, it would be a crime not to mention a few other period movies and shows by other famous authors. Most of these are set in Victorian England—go figure—and most are romances. So, when you’ve exhausted everything Jane and Charles have to give, then here’s what you can watch (or read) next…
Far From the Madding Crowd (2015 Movie)
Honestly, this might be my absolute favorite non-Austen love story from this historical era. Carey Mulligan plays the headstrong Bathsheba Everdeen, and there are three, yes three, suitors who want to marry her. This is MUCH more than your typical love quadrangle. Honestly, I think that every young girl should be required to either watch this film or read Thomas Hardy’s book at least three times before applying for a marriage license.
👍 Some mild bedroom scenes
❤️ Super romantic
🎥 Full of scenic English countryside
Jane Eyre (2011 Movie)
This is my favorite film adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel, mostly due to the nonlinear plotline that they employed. They took the second half of the book, which is definitely the most boring, and sprinkled it throughout the first half in flash-forwards. This made it highly watchable and mysterious. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are perfectly cast—except, of course, they’re both way too attractive than Bronte’s characters.
👍 Nothing raunchy
❤️ Steamy romance
🎥 Atmospheric and ghostly
Jane Eyre (2006 Miniseries)
This four-episode version of Jane Eyre is much softer and lighter than the novel, so it may appeal to Austen fans looking for something a little more brooding and atmospheric (but not quite Dickensian). Ruth Wilson portrays a friendly, sharp-minded Jane. And Toby Stephens is an enigmatic Rochester—one minute charming, then aloof the next. Sparks most definitely fly between these two.
👍 Some scenes with lotsa kissing
❤️ Romance is center stage
🎥 Gently gothic
Vanity Fair (2018 Miniseries)
This Amazon Prime Original series far outpaces the 2004 film adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel. Olivia Cooke is a phenomenal Becky because she’s so stinkin’ likable. You find yourself rooting for her success even though she’s a terrible person. The subplot between Amelia and Dobbin is so sweet and sincere that it softens the hard edges of Becky’s treasure-lusting plans. I really loved how each episode opens and closes with a pop song—and the lines: “This is Vanity Fair, a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.” Amen.
👍 Some mild bedroom/seduction scenes
❤️ Romance takes a backseat to worldly concerns
🎥 Beautifully filmed and well-paced
Howards End (2018 Miniseries)
This four-part miniseries is light on romance and big on the weighty issues of the day. Novelist E. M. Forster is known for exploring classism and hypocrisy, and this adaptation is no exception. Margaret Schlegel, the protagonist of sorts, bridges the gap between high society and low, between power and impotence, between what a man can do and what a woman can’t. Her complex situation is what makes this such an interesting story.
Note: I’ve got to mention the Academy Award-winning 1992 film here, although I haven’t seen it personally. Emma Thompson won for Best Actress, and she stars opposite a young Helena Bonham Carter.
👍 Nothing scuzzy on screen
❤️ Romance is fraught
🎥 Beautiful and watchable
North and South (2004 Miniseries)
This love story has a lot of the social-emotional dynamics of Austen with the grittiness of Dickens mixed in. Margaret Hale is your typical Austen heroine, but instead of leaving her in the idyllic countryside, author Elisabeth Gaskell carries her (against her will) to a manufacturing town in northern England, where they mill cotton in gray factories. It’s a bleak backdrop, but Richard Armitage warms things up considerably as the passionate John Thornton. This is a great choice if Austen feels a little too fluffy for you. You can’t miss Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates from Downton) and Anna Maxwell Martin (Esther from Bleak House).
Here, I must mention a few other delightful adaptations of Elisabeth Gaskell novels:
- Wives and Daughters is a sweet love story (although a little long-drawn-out) that centers on a young, innocent girl, but it features many complex, fraught marriages. So, it makes a very interesting study in how to choose a mate.
- Cranford is famous for being one of those cozy, country British series. It’s more of a comedy, but it stars Judy Dench as a cute, friendly character (not a severe dutchess or crazy queen).
- Lark Rise to Candleford is a Cranford spinoff that ran for four seasons. I’ve only seen a few episodes, but it struck me as the British version of Road to Avonlea.
The Moonstone (2016 Miniseries)
This is a fantastic book and often hailed as the first-ever Victorian detective novel, written by Wilkie Collins. Here the mystery takes center stage, and it’s a bit heartbreaking. If you like your detective stories on the lighter side, this definitely isn’t. But if you’re in the mood for something darker and with an eerie vibe, then you’ll really enjoy this. I liked this miniseries, but I felt it could’ve been shorter.
👍 Nothing scandalous
❤️ Romance and mystery
🎥 Eerie and atmospheric
Poldark (2015–2019 TV Series)
This iconic Masterpiece Theatre production hit me at a weird time of life. I’d just given birth, and for whatever reason, every dumb thing that Ross Poldark did plunged a dagger into my poor ol’ postpartum heart. I guess you can say it’s not for the, uh, emotionally fragile?
Based on a 12-book series by Winston Graham, this series opens with Ross (a rake) who is freshly returned to Cornwall from fighting in the American Revolution. He’s nursing one dear wish: wed his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth. But, things don’t go as planned. Honestly, the first few seasons are excellent, with characters who tug hard on your heartstrings. It explores different aspects of life during the period, other than high-society parlor rooms and the back alleys of Victorian London. But I lost my taste for the series near the middle.
👍 Pretty raunchy at times
❤️ Romance weaves strongly throughout
🎥 Gritty but riveting
The Secret Garden (1993 Movie)
This was one of the first historical films that captured my imagination growing up. Produced by Francis Ford-Coppola, this is a hugely atmospheric, lushly filmed movie. It’s not overly faithful to the details of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, but it is faithful to the spirit of the story. Maggie Smith looks positively girlish as the severe Mrs. Medlock.
List of period dramas set in North America
Need a break from British accents? Well, here are the best period dramas based on books written by authors from the United States and Canada. You’ll find these to be much more earthy and natural. These feature fewer pearls and parlor rooms, but they’ve got plenty of fresh-faced children, rolling hills rippling with tall grass, and honest, salt-of-the-earth folk.
Little Women (2019 Movie)
Going to see this star-studded adaptation in the theater was my last girls’ night out before the pandemic shutdown. I loved the nonlinear timeline that Greta Gerwig used, but I can understand how it may’ve been confusing for viewers who weren’t familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I adored the way they aligned Jo’s writing career with some of the real-life experiences of Alcott as a female novelist in that day—fascinating backstory if you’re interested. Saoirse Ronan is fiery. Florence Pugh is fierce. Meryl Streep is frosty. And Chris Cooper is fantastic.
Note: The 1994 movie is dear to my heart! It’s getting dated, with the exception of Christian Bale’s unforgettable performance.
👍 Some sporadic virtue signaling
❤️ Clean, heartwarming romance
🎥 Gorgeously filmed
Anne of Green Gables (1980s Movie Trilogy)
You’ll never guess who introduced me to this cute film adaptation of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne series…my husband! These movies bring some serious cheese, but they are so sincere that it’s easy to sink in and lose yourself. The first film is decently faithful to the original Anne Shirley novel. The second movie is a bit of a mish-mash of the various sequels, and the third movie goes off the rails with a World War 2 storyline. These films bring the Anne-Gilbert romance to the forefront, so yay.
👍 Squeaky clean
❤️ Heartwarming and sweet
🎥 Cheesy but worth it
Road to Avonlea (1990–1996 TV Series)
If you loved the Anne movies, then you’ll go nuts over this six-season series, which is replete with cameos from actors who starred in the films. It’s set in Avonlea in the early 20th century, but it centers on the life of the King family, who are influential farmers in town. You won’t find this series on any lists of critical acclaim, but it’s so wholesome and fresh! Later seasons are even better than the early ones, I kid you not. Seasons 1 and 2 are geared to kids, but the later seasons deal with themes that are more appealing to adults.
👍 Squeaky clean
❤️ Heartwarming and sweet
🎥 Cheesy but worth it
The Age of Innocence (1993 Movie)
This has got to be one of the weirdest love stories that I’ve ever liked. Based on Edith Wharton’s incredible novel, this film stars the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a New York man of high moral character who is engaged to the pure-as-the-driven-snow May Welland (Winona Ryder). Archer experiences a crisis of integrity when he meets the mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfieffer). This story does deal with adulterous feelings, but the way it’s handled is SO complex that it’s a study in human character that’s not to be missed.
👍 Steamy (but not much outright scuzz)
❤️ Fraught romance
🎥 Scorcese-level filmmaking hasn’t gone stale
The Crucible (1996 Movie)
I could not take my eyes off Daniel Day-Lewis when I first saw this film in high school. Not because he’s handsome (I was more into JTT at the time, haha) but because his performance wouldn’t allow me to look away. If you’re in the mood for something dark and crazy and rip-yer-heart-out, then this is a great pick. And for the record, this one isn’t technically based on a book; it’s a film version of Arthur Miller’s gutsy stage play.
👍 Brief scenes of seduction
❤️ Gut-wrenching and sad
🎥 Incredible performances
Redeeming Love (2022 Movie)
This classic Christian romance finally made it to the screen. It’s steamier than a freshly brewed espresso, but there are strong values that underpin the story. This ain’t your sweet romance. The story deals with (and depicts) some weighty issues, and it can be hard to watch at times. But the overall message is one of hope. Francine Rivers, the author of the novel, was highly involved in the filmmaking.
👍 Steamy, sexy scenes and some violence
❤️ Romance is front and center
🎥 Beautiful but can be hard to watch
When Calls the Heart (2014–Present TV Series)
I only watched the first two seasons of this cute series, but it’s worth mentioning here, as it’s set in Canada and based on Janette Oke’s Canadian West novel. It’s light and sweet as a cupcake. Did you keep watching (even after Aunt Becky got the boot)? Leave me a comment and tell me your thoughts on this one.
List of period dramas by creator Julian Fellowes
The immense popularity of the Downton Abbey television series made Julian Fellowes a household name. He’s become famous for writing British period pieces that hinge mostly on scandal and that highlight the interplay of servants and masters.
I liked Downton Abbey, but it wasn’t my favorite. The thing I enjoyed most was when Maggie Smith gave someone a tongue-lashing. The most intriguing thing about the series for me was the time period. The real reason DA isn’t officially on my list is…it’s not based on a book! Neither is The Gilded Age, the latest series by Julian Fellowes.
But here are a few other watchable series by Fellowes that will appeal to Downton Abbey fans—and that ARE based on books.
Belgravia (2020 Miniseries)
Wealthy family attacks wealthy family in this soapy saga that’s set in an upper-crust London neighborhood called, you guessed it, Belgravia. This series does feature young love, but the main characters are two aging matrons, Anne Trenchard played by Tamsin Greig (who also portrayed Miss. Bates in the Emma miniseries) and Caroline Bellasis played by Harriet Walter (who was the catty Fanny Dashwood in the Sense and Sensibility film). They’re trying their best to navigate family dynamics while keeping old secrets, and that’s why this series has major appeal for the over-50 crowd. Julian Fellowes wrote the novel in 2016, and the series premiered in 2020.
👍 Mild bedroom stuff
❤️ Light on the romance
🎥 Beautiful and soapy
Doctor Thorne (2016 Miniseries)
Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope wrote the book that inspired Fellowes’s adaptation. It’s almost jarring to see Tom Holland (who played the hilarious Mr. Collins in the P&P film) as a straightman (not a funnyman). If you watched Poldark, you’ll also recognize dreamboat Harry Richardson as Frank. He loves the sweet Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini) but she’s poor, and he needs to save his family’s fortune by marrying money. Will true love conquer all? It’s a tale as old as time in ye olde Britain. But it never seems to get stale.
👍 Decently clean
❤️ Sweet romance
🎥 Lush and watchable
Where are the period dramas about royalty?!?
What about Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, and Anne Boleyn? Well, these TV series really aren’t based on books. They’re based on true story, or, at least, what we believe to be true.
The Starz series The Spanish Princess is actually based on history as well as Philippa Gregory’s novels The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse. I haven’t read them or seen the series. Have you? Tell me your take in the comments.
List of period dramas that I didn’t like
Here are a few historical dramas that were NOT my cup of tea. I wanted to like them, but I just couldn’t.
- Forsythe Saga (2002 Miniseries): This was just depressing on all levels. Family dysfunction all over the place. And there’s no firm moral compass that anchors the characters, even those who are supposed to be the heroes. It does show the pitfalls of materialism, but it drags you through a lot of ick to get there. (Based on a trilogy by John Galsworthy.)
- Tess of the D’Ubervilles (2008 Miniseries): This is a gorgeous series, but it’s HARD to watch. Tess is used and abused from every angle, and even though this is an important book by Thomas Hardy, it should come with a prescription for antidepressants.
- Les Miserables (2018 Miniseries): I was trembling with excitement for this adaption, but I found it kind of meh. Did anyone else feel the same? I adored the book with all my heart (even the boring essays).
- Upstairs Downstairs (2010 TV Series): Another master/servant soap written by Julian Fellowes (and not strictly based on a book). I don’t delight in watching immoral characters behaving badly, so I didn’t make it to the final season.
I hope you enjoyed this period drama list. I’m sure you can access at least one of these depending on which streaming service subscription you have—they’re always flip-flopping access between various platforms.
Most of all, I hope that experiencing these stories on the screen will inspire you to get your hands on more classic books!
Now tell me in the comments: What are your favorite period dramas?