BOOK TO SCREEN: Emma

(originally broadcast 2009, BBC)

The first Austen adaptation I remember watching was the BBC’s Mansfield Park in 1983 with Sylvestra Le Touzel (what a fabulous name!), Anna Massey and Nicholas Farrell. I identified hugely with Fanny, though was not at an age (I was only ten) at which I could really appreciate the complexity of the novel. Looking at it now, on extracts from YouTube, it looks horribly stagy and un-naturalistic in comparison to later adaptations.

As mentioned in my previous post, I finally got around to reading the novel, Emma, after watching the 2009 BBC television adaptation recently. I maybe wouldn’t have watched it had I not been enjoying Elementary, and chosen to explore a little the filmography of Jonny Lee Miller – who plays Mr Knightley in this version of Emma.

Michael Gambon, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller from BBC 2009 version of 'Emma'

Michael Gambon, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller from BBC 2009 version of ‘Emma’

The series follows the events of the novel very faithfully, with a certain amount of narration in order to convey back-story at the beginning (pre-title sequence, episode 1) and Emma’s thoughts later on. Obviously, a lot of the novel can’t translate to the screen – Austen’s expository text, for example, describing Emma’s sister Isabella and her husband, John Knightley, or the details of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax’s relationship, which is only detailed in a very long letter – but in general the important events are covered nicely.

It’s not a bad version of the book, and there are a lot of good things to enjoy (the Wikipedia article about the adaptation notes that critical reception was mixed). It’s well cast, on the whole, though I’m not altogether sure about Romola Garai’s portrayal of Emma – she gets the spoiled young woman bit but not so much the self-controlled woman of the world which Emma also is – although part of that might be due to the way the character is written. The costumes and locations are superb, with lovely contrasts between the characters, and the places where they live: the Woodhouses’ home, Hartfield, is sunny and open, bright, and full of colour; Donwell Abbey, Mr Knightley’s house, is darker, more subdued, older. Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes, particularly for the men, distinguish nicely the differences in fashion between the slightly old-fashioned garb of Mr Weston, Mr Knightley’s up-to-date but comfortable clothes, and Frank Churchill’s more dandyish attire. There’s certainly a lot of attention to detail in the production which makes it look lovely.

Having read the book after watching the series (four hour-long episodes), and then watched the series again, it’s noticeable that the dramatization is most successful when the dialogue is closest to Austen’s. Sandy Welch, who wrote the adaptation, changed very few things and added very little new, but I did feel that certain additions to the dialogue worked better than others. I was annoyed by the script crassly having Emma’s assert blithely that she and Harriet were going to “visit the poor”, as if “the poor” were merely a corner shop at which one might buy self-satisfaction. Whereas, in the novel, Emma’s errand is to a specific house and family, and her assistance is not a one-off: Austen sees her compassion and understanding as two of her good qualities (and yet brushes over it in a single paragraph!).

The series does have a tendency to foreshadow too early the surprise of the ending. In episode 3, at the ball, Emma and Mr Knightley dance, and this is lingered over in a not-very-subtle way which seems to suggest that even Emma, blind as she can be to others’ emotions, would begin to question her feelings for her old friend: in the book, Mr Knightley’s response to her remark:

“…You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”

“Brother and sister! no, indeed.”

suggests to us that he may feel more for her than has so far been suggested, but it closes the chapter (Volume III chapter II), and Emma reflects the following day more on his good views of Harriet, and their shared dislike of the Eltons’ unkind behaviour towards her, than on that ‘meaningful’ dance. It’s as if the writer and director thought that we, the viewers, should not be as surprised when Emma finds out her real feelings for Mr Knightley as Emma and he are. And maybe the casting of Garai and Miller subverts that surprise already – there’s only ten years between the actors, which is considerably less of an age gap in 2009 than sixteen years in 1816 – and Miller is not unattractive (to say the least!). Garai does play younger than her age, though, which helps.

Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley

Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley

Paul Rudd as Josh in 'Clueless'

Paul Rudd as Josh in ‘Clueless’

Mark Strong as Mr Knightley

Mark Strong as Mr Knightley

Though that might be a problem of recent adaptations – making Mr Knightley too obviously attractive, I mean. Consider: Jeremy Northam in the Gwyneth Paltrow film; Paul Rudd in Clueless; Mark Strong in the Kate Beckinsale TV film (actually, that might be more debateable, given the awful wig he has).

The few hints Austen gives us as to his appearance are merely that he has “a tall, firm and upright figure” and “natural grace” (Vol. III ch. II), but I think it’s Emma’s long friendship with him which precludes her seeing him as a romantic interest – which this adaptation does actually do very well: I do like the fact that we see Knightley at Hartfield so frequently.

There are a few little oddities in terms of continuity. The first is with respect to Emma’s age: Isabella’s marriage when Emma was twelve left her in charge of the household (it’s never actually stated what the age difference is between the two sisters, but is probably about six or seven years, assuming Isabella was eighteen or nineteen when she married); she has evidently been married long enough to have five children (the eldest two of which are seen to be old enough to eat dinner at the table with their family in episode 2), which fits in with her having been married for eight or nine years. Yet Emma is shown in episode 1 as an older girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen, which does make Isabella and John’s five children somewhat harder to believe. Her prediction of John and Isabella’s marriage in this scene, contrary to Mr Knightley’s belief, sets up Emma’s opinion of her skills as a match-maker, again contradicting the novel’s narrative. The second occurs in episode 4, in which Jane’s departure from Donwell is followed only moments later by Frank’s arrival, which suggests that the quarrel they have, and which is one of the precipitating factors in Jane’s decision to leave Highbury and end her engagement, can have lasted only as long as it took Jane to shout, “I hate you, Frank,” before he galloped past!

It’s certainly not a bad adaptation, and most of the characters are very well cast and played: Michael Gambon plays Mr Woodhouse beautifully, and Tamsin Grieg is excellent as Miss Bates (it’s a gift for any actress, really – I remember Sophie Thompson’s excellent portrayal in the Paltrow film). There are also some lovely moments: I particularly liked the scene in which Mr Knightley confesses his feelings for Emma, and afterwards when they sit together talking.

Emma is available on YouTube (probably in violation of copyright): I watched it via iTunes.

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8 Responses to BOOK TO SCREEN: Emma

  1. Nora B. says:

    Dear Ela, in all the Emma adaptations the only thing I like is the Eltons in the Gwyneth Paltrow film –Alan Cumming and Juliet Stevenson make you sympathize with what it must have been like to deal with Emma’s supercilious reception, and there is a lovely moment where they, seeming suddenly vulnerable, exchange glances as Emma maintains a self-possessed silence.

    But I would recommend watching the whole of the old, old 1980s Mansfield Park with the wonderfully named Sylvestra –much better than the ghastly 1990s or 2000s ones which make Fanny’s problem that she has too much vitality! Fanny’s lack of oomph is a mystery but it is part of her character and shouldn’t be dropped –I love the Bertrams in the old one, and the Crawfords looking like twins (intriguing) and also the end in which you see that Fanny really has earned one of Pug’s puppies! do try it. n

    • Ela says:

      It’s quite some time since I watched the Paltrow version of ‘Emma’, so don’t recall the bit you mention. Juliet Stevenson and Alan Cumming are always good value, though.

      Doing ‘Mansfield Park’ for a modern audience is quite tricky, I think, since Fanny has to be very quiet and self-effacing and yet strong-minded – and modern adaptors don’t seem to ‘get’ that at all. Susan is actually a more modern character. However, I do dislike the staginess (and the video filming) of the older adaptations, which is why I probably won’t go back to revisit the 1983 version any time soon!

  2. It is a wonderful book and there are plenty of adaptations to choose from (especially if you include TV) – the one I enjoyed the most remains the Paltrow/Northam adaptation by Doug McGrath

  3. I should get this at the library next time I’m there. I haven’t ever been satisfied with an adaptation of Emma so far (except for Clueless, which is obviously perfect), and I do think Romola Garai is quite good casting!

    • Ela says:

      After having read the book, I do appreciate how well ‘Clueless’ works, both as a film in its own right and as an adaptation of ‘Emma’ – must watch it again! I think Garai is generally pretty good as Emma, though – as mentioned – could have been better served by the script.

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