Like clockwork, the BBC has come out with a television serial of Jane Austen’s classic, Emma. Weirdly, film adaptations of this particular novel seem to come in pairs: both Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed the eponymous heroine in 1996 — on British television and American movie theaters, respectively. This sated our hankering for a few years, but 2010 found us hungry for more: along with the British mini-series there is also, following in the footsteps of “Bride and Prejudice,” a Bollywood version of this story, “Aisha” in the works.
Surely the world could have survived without another depiction of the misguided Emma ensnaring herself and others in the convolutions of her well-intentioned but short-sighted matchmaking. There remains an audience for every new adaptation, however, no matter how similar it may seem to the multitude already in existence. Though this could be ascribed to Jane Austen’s being a more savory version of pulpy romance novels, or the pervasive cultural appetite for quantity over quality, I prefer to see it as evidence that Austen’s work bears repeated representation.
Austen’s attention to the microcosm of relationships within a small social sphere in 18th century England continues to entertain and instruct her many devoted fans. This is highlighted in Laura Linny’s introduction to each of the mini-series’ three segments, where she marvels (somewhat heavy-handedly) that Austen continues to compel without the magic or superpowers that we tend to prefer in entertainment; though, thanks to Seth Grahame-Smith, we don’t need to choose between them.
Austen bears further adaptation because no representation exhausts all that her sparkling wit and subtle satire has offered us — this is why Shakespeare’s plays can bear to be performed endlessly, and why we can read and reread Emily Dickenson’s poems. Classics reward repeated attention, and making a televised mini-series is one way of paying Austen the attention she merits. This particular adaptation proves my point well.
With Romola Garai as Emma, the image of Austen’s heroine as pert, pretty, and blonde is cemented, confirming the precedent of Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone. In fact, there is hardly an actress in the entire film who is not pert, pretty, and blonde, which can lead to confusion for those not well acquainted with the plot. Garai captures the carefree impetuosity of Austen’s Emma, which earlier adaptations have stifled in efforts to enforce her superior social status and lady-likeness: Paltrow’s stilted performance comes to mind. Though she might be indicted for overacting, Garai’s natural insouciance carries her through, and makes Emma’s good-natured blundering believable. She routinely talks — or, rather, fumes — out loud to herself, a cinematic trick which works to convey Austen’s omniscient narration of Emma’s thoughts more seamlessly than a voice-over.
This adaptation is particularly strong in its use of cinematography to convey to the viewer the carefully crafted ambiguity of the scenes which embroil Emma in such confusion. For a viewer privy to the plot, this offers plenty of dramatic irony; for a viewer new to the story, it enforced Emma’s perspective. The ambiguity of glance, speech, and siltation makes Emma’s belief that Mr. Elton favors Harriet believable, though his preference for Emma is obvious for those who know to look for it. Later, when Emma looks on approvingly at the romantically feckless Harriet, who appears to her to be gazing with admiration on Mr. Churchhill, we see that she could also be looking at Mr. Knightly, whom viewers know to be the real object of Harriet’s affection.
This version succeeds in drawing out themes latent in the Austen’s text which are likely to be overlooked. It develops a poignant contrast between Emma Woodhouse, and the more peripheral characters Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Emma, though bereft of her mother at an early age, grew up in comfort and prosperity and is now the self-sufficient mistress of her father’s house. Both Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, likewise orphaned early, were forced to leave their homes and live as dependents on friends and relatives. We see the precariousness of their social positions, how they must ingratiate themselves to those irksome to them in order to maintain economic stability. The film conveys well how arbitrary the fortune of Austen’s characters is, how a death or a marriage in the family could force an individual into poverty or secure her material comfort. Though this version emphasizes Frank’s caddishness, we genuinely pity his plight.
Another theme unique to this adaptation is Emma’s chafing at her home-bound life. Her worrywart father, enjoyably and believably played by Michael Gambon, is tyrannical in his fear of the outside world, and throughout the film Emma wonders what she is missing by having never been away from Highbury. Her marriage to Mr. Knightly is an even sweeter conclusion in the film, thanks to this added subplot, when he surprises her with a honeymoon at the seaside, which she has never seen.
Though not accurate in every detail, this most recent version of Austen’s beloved novel manages to do what a good adaptation should. It adheres to the spirit of the text, teasing out themes which are likely to be overlooked and which were not explored in previous adaptations. It gives flesh to her characters in a way that allows the viewer to see them in a different light, to learn different things about them. Though it may be long and involved for someone not well-versed in the Austen canon, for a true fan, this most recent adaptation leaves nothing to be desired, and materially adds a new voice to the body of films already available. The BBC’s Emma is available for purchase online here. I encourage you to watch it, and allow a different perspective on the classic text to send you back to it better informed. ‘