We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Two of many _Emmas_: More on film adaptations of Austen's novels · 13 July 05

My dear Fanny,

About two weeks ago now Izzy and I watched the 1996 Miramax Emma (Douglas McGrath directed and wrote the screenplay) and this past week the 1996 BBC Emma (directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, screenplay Andrew Davies). I’ve been putting off writing about them because I find I have a hard time telling them apart as I try to remember them, though I know that in many details and emphases they are distinctly different.

The large differences are obvious. The 1996 Miramax Emma makes the Harriet story the central subplot which carries across the movie, with the Jane story between an episode in the arch of the plot-design. Lots of the Jane scenes are dropped. The actor playing Mr Elton (Alan Cummings) makes him a variant on Mr Collins from the 1995 A&E P&P (the gestures were taken over from David Bamber); Juliet Stevenson adds wry wit to the part of Mrs Elton (turning to talk to the audience at one point). Gweneth Paltrow is an anorexic Emma (with matchstick arms) while her Harriet (Toni Collette) is a chubby brunette. Jeremy Northam is a sloe-eyed, sexy Mr Knightley (with gay or homosexual undercurrents), vulnerable, slightly masochistic in his self-control and virtue, unsure of himself, poignant in the proposal scene. The accent has been said to be comic, but there is much deep-musing in the many scenes where we see Gweneth Paltrow as Emma writing in her diary (anticipating Frances O’Connor as Fanny at her desk writing in Rozema’s MP).

The 1996 BBC Emma dispatches the Harriet story less than a 1/3 of the way through, and makes the Jane story central. Lots of the Harriet scenes dropped. Davies seems to have picked up every dark statement Austen uttered and added some of his own; Mr Elton is a smouldering Darcy type (Dominic Rowan was imitating Colin Firth); lines are switched to make Emma more unkind to Harriet and Jane, though Emma’s attribution of a love affair with Mr Dixon is given to the Frank character (Frank Coultard who was a kind of soft-sell Alessandro Nivola, the kinkiness kept subdued). Mark Strong as Mr Knightley is a harsh male, slightly autocratic who is ever scolding and teaching Emma who acknowledges repeatedly she is at fault. Kate Beckinsale is a conventionally virginal rounded Emma (she also played the heroine in Cold Comfort Farm, also a slightly cold and hard presence there), who is given emotional depths by dream sequences where she is punished by watching Mr Knightley marry everyone else while she stands by looking like a poor governess (with Mary Poppins clothes). Here Samantha Morton as Harriet is the anorexic suffering victim who claims our pity.

Yet I think the overall effect is closely similiar. A key scene in both movies (as in the book) occurs when Emma insults Miss Bates. Both Sophie Thompson (the Miramax) and Prunella Scales (the BBC) played the part of the momentarily shattered ridiculed spinster effectively. It was hard to tell the Mr Woodhouses and Janes apart: in both Mr W was a feeble kindly old man, and Jane a covertly sensual healthy animal made desperate by a weakly caddish gentleman rake whose appetite was stronger than his courage. The actresses playing Mrs Weston in both were the same types and indistinguishable. In both still Emma and Harriet’s friendship was a unifying force with several scenes of the pair walking and talking, confiding. The moment at the piano is symbolic in the same way: Mr Knightley drawn to Jane, taking her side against the selfishly indulgent Churchill. As in all Austen films, the dancing sequences were made central to the action. The supposed sombreness of the BBC film was transformed by a festival at the close; the intense sexual feel of suavity and allurement between Paltrow and Northam came out in their dance sequence, making the darker sexual undercurrents of the Miramax film visible.

Both were highly indebted to the 1995 A&E P&P, itself indebted to the 1940 P&P and the 1933 Little Women (with Katherine Hepburn as Jo and also Edna Mae Olivier who was always the curmudgeonly old woman with the heart of gold). The Miramax film similarly framed the movie and scenes with post-card type pictures and frilly frames to distance us and make what we were seeing a fairy tale we need not believe in; the bow and arrow scenes come from the 1940 P&P whose reverential and conservative spirit was reincarnated in the same 1995 P&P. The BBC film was written by the same man as the A&E P&P; had the same producer team head, Sue Birtwistle, and the closeness of much of the speeches in P&P to Austen’s text was repeated, with the choice falling on inward trauma as it manifests itself in public scenes. The sex was mostly wholesome in both. Northam provided the one note that departed—for me a welcome frisson.

On the whole, this time round I preferred the Mirimax to the BBC Emma. Last time, just when they came out, it was the other way round for me1 I used to argue on Austen-l and Janeites and have written for publication that the BBC Emma is actually the closer in spirit to Austen’s Emma. Now I found a harsh register and the teaching emphasis jarring. Emma is snobbish rather than enacting self-respect; self-contained and cold until in a scene which anticipates (only somewhat) Davies’s script ending in Wives and Daughters, where a Justine Waddell Joycean Molly "Yes I will", Kate (as Emma) says a full-throated yes to a Mark (as Knightley) who seems scarely to believe her.

I still think the Miramax film a stronger departure: lines are given to Frank and Harriet which are Austen’s Emma to make Gweneth Paltrow as Emma much kinder. Emma is sexier in her negligee, more dreamy, altogether more romantic. I find I liked that, and also that McGrath’s script kept Emma at the center and close-up to us. The scene with the hypocritical Mr Elton in the coach was given at full length and its raw comedy played to the full (it made me think of the scene in Evelina, Fanny, where Evelina and Willoughby swell and bicker). Gweneth Paltrow playing the young gentlewoman coming into the hideously poor hovel and helping the sick and dying showed more sympathy for the have-nots than the BBC Emma presentation of hard mean gypsies. Kate Beckinsale was nowhere as effective in her parallel scene among the poor in a cottage (kept short and perfunctory). I loved the long proposal scene in the Miramax production with its several movements recurring over a labyrinthine walk, lingering, its slight inconsequentially (as Northram walks away and Paltrow seeming not to follow him at first) repeated in its plot-design of the film where Harriet’s accepting Mr Martin is made penultimate, and thus provides a deflating anticlimax.

Maybe the Miramax Emma seemed to me a more delicate artwork. It projected a sexuality not in Austen’s Emma. Sophie Thompson, and Jeremy Northam together made an atmosphere of evasion. Thompson was nervous; Northam filmed so we only saw his legs as he sat back amid the women. It’s true that the BBC Emma had Samantha Morton mimicking powerlessness, dependence. As she sat waiting for Mr Knightley to walk over to her her pathetic eagerness made one feel she would yield her neck up to a knife were he to hold one out. But that was part of a strident criss-cross, an opposing note to Mark Strong’s determined "masculine" force. There was something fluid about the Miramax film, oblique l’écriture-femme.

Emma is a difficult story to turn into a film. In her letters Austen worries it lacks something, that she is somehow repeating herself. She had given herself the task of making a novel out of very realistic happenings, little melodrama. The highest moment is when a vain unthinking young gentlewoman blunders by insulting a poor perceptive spinster (for Miss Bates in Austen’s novel knows more than people give her credit for). So it’s a hard task to turn it into a movie which keeps moving and has a driving climax. The BBC film tried for this with the proposal scene being that climax. McGrath in the Miramax opted rather for the more challenging task of quiet intense meander.

I called this two of many Emmas because there was an earlier 6 part adaptation (1972, BBC, John Glenister the director, Denis Constanduros the screenplay, with Doran Goodwin as Emma); the modernization Clueless; and there have been several textual sequels. These often try to build up the story of Jane Fairfax or Harriet. By contrast, Diana Birchall has written three sequels featuring Mrs Elton (along with a Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma). There’s also the witty Textermination by Christine Brooke-Rose. And there have been other genuine moving novels by authors responding to Emma, some republished by Virago, not least of which is Elizabeth Jenkins’s Harriet. These are discussed in "The Virago Austen" in Deirdre Lynch’s Janeites. Austen’s matter in Emma is capable of much plumbing because in this book she is infinitely suggestive of so many stories we feel we are brushing over in the conversations.


1 I wrote about these films for publication before. See "Taking Sides and "Jane Austen on Film"

Posted by: Ellen

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