Andrea here, musing today about books, movies, and Jane Austen . . . and when the three collide. I just saw the new iteration of Emma on the silver screen, and have some thoughts and reactions to share.
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
To begin with, Emma (the novel) is not my favorite Austen. (Though I do find the opening sentence nearly as witty and clever as “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .) That distinction lies with P&P (though Persuasion is a very close second . . . pip, pip, for the Ps!) But it isn’t my least favorite either —I have to say that rating lies with Northanger Abbey, which JA wrote as a parody of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, considered the first gothic novel.
And so, (for those of you who are adding and subtracting) it comes fifth out of six finished novel that Austen penned. As Jane herself said, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It’s true—Emma has a number of unattractive traits, which Austen quickly reveals in the first few pages of the book. “The reals evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself . . . .”
Now onto the new film adaptation, directed by Autumn de Wilde. (You can read a very interesting piece on the director and her take on Austen’s Emma here.) As a pure piece of filmmaking, there are a lot of things to like. The the English countryside and house interiors are gorgeous, though everything is achingly picture-perfect. (The village doesn’t have a blade of grass of out of place and the home of the genteelly impoverished Bates mother and daughter is a little too charming)
As for the fashions, they’re quite spectacular . . . never mind that they are totally unbelievable for the characters. Emma’s eye-popping outfits look like she’s just stepped off the catwalk of an Alexander McQueen haute couture show, and even Harriet, a girl of uncertain parentage who assists at the local girl’s boarding school, struts her stuff in one stylish outfit after another.
But let us turn to the story. The screenplay is actually amazingly faithful to the book. Much of the dialogue is Austen’s words. So what could possibly go wrong? Well, my reaction was . . . rather a lot. I was so disappointed with the film that I went back and re-read the book to figure out exactly why it felt so “off.” Indeed, I also watched the Gwyneth Paltrow film version from 1996, just to have another frame of reference. (I very much enjoyed it . . . Jeremy Northam is a wonderful Knightley.)
The problem for me is that the whole heart of the story is the relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley, and how the 16 year difference in age is a key factor. In the book, Austen develops that in a very quiet, nuanced way. There are several scenes—done subtly—that show the change slowly happening between them. All of which make Emma’s realization of her own feelings for him, and his admission of his own feelings both real and satisfyingat the end of the book. Emma’s flaws—and there are many—aren't entirely erased, but maybe that’s what makes it all the more real. (Who of us is perfect?) She does learn and grow.
In the movie , however, the character of Mr. Knightley is totally turned on its head—a deliberate decision by de Wilde, which just really didn’t work for me. She chose Johnny Flynn, a current British heartthrob who looks Emma’s age, to play him, and ramps up the sexual tension between them from the get-go. (Ahem, not that I am complaining about having to look at a naked Flynn’s sculpted form from the rear . . but the scene just didn’t make a lot of sense.)
So this film version of Knightley had nothing to do with Austen’s character, and thus I found Emma never really changed from a Mean Girl, which left the film feeling very disjointed. In all fairness, it very hard to film a story where so much of the action is interior thoughts, and I give de Wilde credit for daring to give a modern interpretation to the story. Still, the complex interactions between the characters didn’t come off well for me. (One of the qualities that helps redeem Emma in the novel is her true love and compassion for her elderly father, and how patient and protective she is of him, even when he’s being absurd.)
That said, there are some delightful bits, if one is willing to forget Austen’s actual story. Emma’s father is very amusing, and the scenes of his concerns with catching a chill are very funny—in fact, the last scene in the movie is wonderful! And Elton and his snob wife are done very well. I'm glad I saw it, but . . .
So what about you Have you seen the new Emma? If so, what do you think? Are you a fan of the book? And what do you think in general of trying to bring Austen to the screen?