So, once upon a time I got very sick and watched 4 different adaptations of Pride & Prejudice. With a new adaptation of Emma, I though I would do this again (without the sick part, I promise).
Emma & Me
For me, one of the most significant things about Emma is Austen’s portrayal of female friendship in a dispirit power dynamic. (Austen’s other books mostly show familial sisterhoods and/or negative female interactions.)
Not only is Emma in a superior social position to Harriet, she has the dominant personality, and she thinks she knows best. How gently (and with what sophistication) this is handled by a movie is, for me, key to this book and our feelings towards Emma. It is Emma’s behavior towards Harriet (not Miss Bates, because in that scene Emma will always look bad) which defines Emma as a decent human. If this dynamic isn’t handled well, Emma looks not just like a spoiled waspish brat, but also manipulative and somewhat cruel.
To a certain extent, the Mr Knightly romance takes second fiddle to this female friendship. He is a fixture, part of the furniture. Not particularly exciting. By modern romance standards, it is Harriet and Emma I look to for the true emotional weight of this story.
Emma is not my favorite of Austen’s books, although it contains many of my favorite tropes (May/December, Friends to Lovers, Pining Males). Nevertheless, I still have QUITE DECIDED OPINIONS on the various adaptations and so I am going to give out awards to my favorites. As is custom, I chose 4 adaptations to watch…
The Movies In Brief
1996 Gwyneth’s Emma
Emma staring Gwyneth Paltrow opposite Jeremy Northam is like the two popular but still nice kids from your high school getting together. You’re like, yeah, that’s fine, of course they’re homecoming king and queen, but do I care that much?
What I like?
OK I actually don’t mind Gwynnie in this role. I don’t love her, but I don’t mind her. I mind her accent tho, ugh. That said, she kinda is Hollywood Emma, if you think about it. I enjoy seeing her friendly relationships with family and Mrs Weston. Of course I love Mr and Mrs Elton. Miss Bates is great, but a bit cartoonish for me. All around this adaptation wins point for side characters.
Collette is my favorite Harriet (although she is far too old for the role) outshining Emma with a proper British accent. Their friendship is almost sweet. While not equal, it’s better balanced than some of the others. Harriet has a bit of manipulative avarice to her, which I like a lot, while Emma is more gentle and kind.
What I didn’t like?
There is little to no chemistry between the leads. Mr Wodehouse is dull as doornails. I cannot stand Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill. I just can’t. The family dynamic isn’t as clearly portrayed as in some of the other adaptations. Emma’s hair is way too tight and pulled back and weirdly strict for her character.
It’s rather dark in filming and setting, I didn’t get England in the way that I got it from the 1997 adaptation. Some of the costumes look a bit cheap in fabric and construction, less authentically historical and more stage costume-esque.
All round this had my favorite secondary characters, best general casting, script is fine if a bit too modern.
1997 Kate’s Emma
Emma staring Kate Beckinsale opposite Mark Strong in a made for UK TV movie. Is Emma blonde in the books? I can’t remember if she’s described at all. Does it matter? I see her as blonde, so does everyone else, but I also LOVE Kate. Mark Strong is frankly, un-memorable, but at least there’s a decent age difference.
What I like?
Emma is very cheeky, and there is chemistry between her and Mr Knightly. Miss Bates is ON point, exactly as described in the book. Emma and Harriet’s relationship is fine. Emma is shown to be romantic in her dreams for Harriet, and in having Harriet’s best interests at heart. The family scenes are fun and Mrs Weston actually has a personality, which I enjoy. Also, I like the actress who plays Jane Fairfax very much as well (she’d go on to portray Jane Austen herself, eventually).
I like the sense of place and got a real feel for the seasons changing in this one.
What I didn’t like?
Harriet is quite insipid, portrayed by the wonderful Samantha Morton (who would go on to become my favorite Jane Eyre). But in this I don’t think her approach suits the character. I see Harriet as more robust. Mr Elton is too repulsive. Frank Churchill is my ideal Lord Akeldama, and as a result I can’t see this actor as anything but very gay.
Many of the characters are rather fussy. I think this is honest to Austen in that she’s showing how small town moneyed life can lead intelligence towards eccentricity and minutia. But it makes some of the group scenes tiresome to watch.
All round this is a good basic adaptation with one of my preferred more relaxed scripts but falls short on casting.
2009 Romola’s Emma
Emma miniseries staring Romola Garai opposite Jonny Lee Miller. I adore both these actors and I like seeing a longer adaptation with Austen as a rule, although I’m not sure Emma needs it in the way Pride & Prejudice does. And, up front, there just isn’t enough of an age gap in the leads.
What I like?
I maintain that is the most accurate to the book, the characters (as written therein) and setting. I like the gloomy lighting, very England during the 1820s. Emma comes off as very young. Her flaws stem from her youth and lack of worldly experience, rather than being truly a spoiled bitch. She’s sweet to her friends and family and comes off as a little lonely, looking for a true friend in Harriet. I like the comparison between Emma, Frank, and Jane. The Mr Knightly relationship is the most sibling-ish and true to the original story, and I like seeing the Knightly brothers relationship in depth.
What I didn’t like?
The hair is a bit too soft and pretty. Emma is a bit petulant and there isn’t much chemistry between the leads, sibling affection but nothing sexy. Mr Wodehouse is Dumbledore, which now seems odd to hear (if not see). Harriet isn’t my favorite although Emma is awfully sweet with her. The voice-over should have been female but either way is hugely unnecessary. The whole thing is slow in places.
All round this has my favorite leads, least favorite side characters, and the script has pacing issues.
2020 Anya’s Emma
Emma movie starring Anya Taylor-Joy opposite Johnny Flynn (who is far TOO YOUNG for the role). The filming and costumes and hair are really wonderful ~ super saturated sherbet colors, like Pushing Daisies. This is a very romantic adaptation. It is to Emma what the Kiera Knightly version of Pride & Prejudice is to that oeuvre.
What I like?
I really didn’t see Johnny as Mr Knightly but the chemistry between him and Anya is there by the end. Definitely the best kiss. There is an epic amount of side eye and shade being thrown and the chemistry between Frank and Jane is palpable. I loved how earnest the film was about showing staff. Mr Wodehouse’s constant footmen ballet was truly glorious. The conversation at dinner was very much weary country gentry, and I got a great small town vibe. Mr Martin is the most pineingest white boy to ever pine. Nice to see Harriet get a kiss too, although Lilliput didn’t approve.
What I didn’t like?
This is going to make me unpopular but I don’t love Anya’s acting. The crying scene was like watching an alien who’d never cried before try to do what she thought human crying looked like. Mr Elton got overly angry. Occasionally (like him yelling and her loud sobs) the whole movie broke period drama tone way too much. Was the nose bleed necessary? You know what, no. It wasn’t.
Also, and “I do not profess to be an expert in the field of fashion (though my friends say I have quite the eye) but I can tell you,” there was a shocking lack of gloves!
All round this had some of my favorite minor characters, least favorite leads, and I thought the script a bit overworked with the director relying on silence to carry the film.
- Best Mr Martin: 2020 Connor Swindells, PINE, WHITE BOY, PINE!
- Best Miss Bates: 1997 Prunella Scales
- Best Frank Churchill: 2020 Callum Turner
- Best Jane Fairfax: 1997 Olivia Williams
- Best Mr Wodehouse: 2020 Bill Nighy OF COURSE
- Best Mr Weston: 2020 Rupert Graves, no contest. Freddy my love! So happy to see him, and so jovial.
- Best Mrs Weston: 2009 Jodhi May, one of my favorite actresses from Tipping the Velvet
- Best Mrs Elton: 1996 Juliet Stevenson (also my ideal Sidheag)
- Best Mr Elton: 1996 Alan Cumming, THERE CAN BE NO OTHER
- Best Harriet: 1996 Toni Collette, nash
- Best Mr Knightly: 2009 Jonny Lee Miller, I was tempted by the other Johnny and his edginess, but in the end I went traditional
- Best Emma: 2009 Romola Garai, I just like her best
Honorable mention to Bartholomew and Charles, the ballet-like footmen and their many fire screens in the 2020 version.
- Most Romantic: 2020
- Most Comforting: 1996 for Alan Cumming, Toni Collette, & Juliet Stevenson
- Closest to the Book, Best Adaptation: 2009
So, you are welcome to disagree with me and I would love to debate such a serious matter, but I insist on you having seen them all and read the book! Well informed debate only. Wha ha ha!
Other Adaptations of Note
1972 Doran’s Emma
This a six-part BBC miniseries, starring Doran Godwin as Emma, was available to rent on VHS from the library when I was in high school and I saw it then. I had no inclination to rewatch now, as I remember very much NOT liking it. That could have been my general dislike of Emma, though.
Like all the BBC 1970s adaptations, it’s very much a stage play on screen. It’s likely quite honest to the book. However, the leads were both far too old and there’s a good deal too much chewing the scenery from the side characters.
Clueless is a modernization of Emma set in a Beverly Hills high school. The film was directed by Amy Heckerling and stars Alicia Silverstone and (noted vampire immortal) Paul Rudd.
Honestly this is my favorite Emma.
Only if you’re Paul Rudd, though. For obvs reasons.
What’s weird is how few other Emma adaptations there are (especially when compared to Pride & Prejudice). Honestly, she comes across, to me, as the most modern character Austen ever wrote.
Must ponder further,
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