Jane Austen's works are the subject of many a film adaptation and today, I'm focussing on Emma. Our titular heroine is a rich, handsome and clever young woman who plays matchmaker in her little Regency England social circle. Romantic misunderstandings ensue. Like Austen's other works, there is a Happy Ever After for the heroine, in which she ends up with a man. But unlike some of Austen's other works, it is not immediately apparent who that lucky man will be. So if you'd like to keep the suspense going, then I suggest you look away. On the other hand, if you want to know whether you'll like the romance in this story, read on. This piece is intended to help you find an adaptation you'll like. To date, I have only seen four film adaptations of the work. Here they are in no particular order.
But first, a quick rant on the book...
Austen predicted that she had created in Emma a heroine whom no one would like but herself. I'll admit: the one (and only) time I read the book, I disliked Emma. As clever and as lively as she was, I could not forgive Emma's superior manner and selfishness. She treats her “friend” Harriet like a toy – to be picked up and discarded at whim – and I with my 21st century values found Emma's snobbishness to be very off-putting, despite how “appropriate” such behaviour might have been two centuries ago.
Even so, I thought she could have done better in her choice of romantic partner. I mean, Mr Knightley is perhaps the only decent fellow of the lot, but I did not feel their romance at all. Their pairing seemed too convenient, almost but not quite as bad as Marianne and You-Know-Who at the end of Sense and Sensibility (but that's a different rant). Mr Knightley was also old (can you tell I read this when I was young?) and felt more like a relative. When he talks about having known her since she was a baby and starting to love her since she was thirteen – he, at the time, being almost thirty – then yeah... not sexy. At least, not for me with my prudish 21st century Western sensibilities.
Still, it's Austen, so I don't think I need to say that it's a good book, my dislike of the heroine aside. As you might expect, the characterisation is deft and there's a lot of comedy in this comedy of manners. Further, if you're watching a Regency drama then you at least know (in an Austen story) that the plot and character arcs will come together in a largely satisfying way.
This version, starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma, was the first adaptation I watched. I don't remember much of this other than thinking, at the time, that it was a faithful adaptation of the book. It has a similar look to the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries and there's a muted darkness to the colours. Beckinsale is appropriately girlish and haughty as Emma while Mark Strong is decidedly avuncular as Mr Knightley (also, I have no idea why he mentions holding her as a baby during his freaking marriage proposal and it haunts my mind to this very day). His hair is also distractingly bad. The Knightley/Emma relationship feels like an adult/child relationship (I got the feeling he'd be the sort to constantly scold her while she'd maybe sulk and cry), but hey, you might like that. Alternatively, you might interpret it differently. I enjoyed the film but liked neither of the main characters. I liked even less that they got together. Otherwise, I remember it being pleasant to watch.
The Gwyneth Paltrow movie is a lighter take on the story, with the comedic aspects of the tale being played up. There are more active, outdoors-y scenes in this one and there's a warm, 90s sort of feel to the aesthetic, not unlike the 1992 version of Little Women. The beginning feels rushed – a lot of information is dumped on the viewer – and for the first half hour or so it feels like everyone is Acting (I also spent way too much time pondering Paltrow's accent than I should have). It took me a while to get into the film, but when I did, I was surprised to find I rather liked it. Emma seems kinder and more of a goody-two-shoes in this version and I liked her the better for it. Jeremy Northam's Mr Knightley exudes a sort of off-duty sexy professor vibe, and as he's much less imposing than Mark Strong, I much preferred this Emma/Knightley pairing to the one in the other 1996 Emma. However, the performances in general are nothing to write home about and I didn't much care for the side characters (though Mrs Weston was distractingly gorgeous). Still, it's good if you want a sweet, romantic film.
This 2009 adaptation really benefits from being a miniseries, as the increased length gives it the opportunity to flesh out both the novel's story-lines and characters. In some ways, everything about the atmosphere of this series feels like a revenge against those criticisms of “stuffiness” as regards Regency costume dramas: there are plenty of bright colours and exterior shots and there is a much greater sense of familiarity (perhaps to the point of excess) between the characters. Romola Garai's Emma is lively and energetic; she's snobby but she seems so eager to do well that it's easier to like her. While largely faithful to the book, there is a major departure from the source in terms of Emma's own romantic arc. The series places more of a focus on this and there is no slow-build “reveal” of Mr Knightley as her One True Love: from the very moment you see Mr Knightley, here played by Jonny Lee Miller, you know he's the Designated Love Interest. Here, Mr Knightley comes across as reasonable and kind, and his relationship with Emma feels like one of equals, so that gets a thumbs up from me. The Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax business seems to drag on towards the end, but overall I think this version is one of the more cohesive ones and has one of the better casts. Michael Gambon is a hoot as the hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse.
The fact it's a very loose adaptation set in a modern American high school might scare some of you off, but really, it's great fun. Emma is reincarnated as Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), a rich white girl who along with her black best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) takes it upon herself to “rescue” new student Tai (Brittany Murphy) from the horrors of unpopularity and loser-dom. What I love about this movie is how it plays with all the movie/high school tropes and how funny and quotable it is. Cher is snobby and silly but she's so well-meaning that you root for her nonetheless. She's taken down a peg or two in this film too, and I appreciated seeing more of her personal growth. I don't have much to say about the Mr Knightley character in this one, other than that he's there, he seems alright and he does what he needs to. I also liked how the Emma/Harriet storyline takes centre-stage over the romance. Worth watching, regardless of whether you like Emma. Probably my favourite adaptation and undoubtedly one of the best American High School films out there.
So there you have it. All these adaptations are different and all have their pros and cons. I don't think any of them are “definitive” adaptations but I do think they cater to different tastes. If you have recommendations or favourites, let me know; I'd be interested to see what else is out there!
(A/N: As you can see, I'm trying something a bit different from the usual reviews. Let me know what you think :))