The Many Visions of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” a Guest Post from Eliza Shearer

With the latest release of Emma at the theatres over the weekend, I thought some of you might like to view the various adaptations of Austen’s Emma through the eyes of another. This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on March 3, 2020.

SPOILER ALERT: I don’t wish to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the latest film version of Emma but I discuss it in some detail below, so if you haven’t seen it yet but plan to watch it, please look away now!

We have been eagerly awaiting it since the last trailer made it to YouTube. Emma., with a full stop, is finally here. The bottom line: the visuals are stunning and I enjoyed it, even though I found it lacking in bits. It also got me thinking about the different Emma adaptations that have graced our screens in the last quarter of a century.

Emma: Handsome, Clever, Rich

Gwyneth Paltrow was my first Emma. I saw the 1996 film adaptation before I read the novel, so for years, Paltrow’s portrayal had a substantial impact on how I saw Austen’s character. However, I revisited the film recently, and it didn’t live up to my memories. Paltrow looks the part, but her acting is a bit off. It’s almost as if she was detached from everything happening around her.

Romola Garai in the 2009 BBC mini-series is quite the opposite. This is a much less restrained Emma, a girl full of passion and not beneath the odd tantrum. I did not like Garai in the first episodes; I found her too unladylike, with all that huffing and puffing. However, she does improve in later episodes, and towards the end, I thought she was quite good.

In the new Emma., Anna Taylor-Joy manages to make Emma very likeable despite her flaws, and therein lies my problem: Austen never intended for Emma to be that lovable. “I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” she famously said, but Taylor-Joy’s big brown eyes make us root for her a bit too much.

The Best Friend

Even before they become friends, Emma knows Harriett Smith “very well by sight”, and that she is interested in her “on account of her beauty”. Jane Austen further gives us a detailed physical description of Harriet, something rare in her work, and it’s worth transcribing it in full:

She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of the sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness (…).

Emma, Chapter III

Given this description, why casting directors insist on selecting actresses that don’t fit Austen’s characterisation is a mystery to me. They are never as pretty as Emma (who is merely “handsome”), and as a result, the dynamics of the relationship are entirely skewed. Why would Emma want to become best friends with a rather dim and pliable girl with no family connections, if it wasn’t because she is truly a beauty to behold?

Another point of contention for me is that the actresses who play Harriet are always far too tall (just as Georgiana Darcy is typically played by actresses who are too short). My perfect Harriet would be petite and very pretty, like a live doll that Emma is drawn to play with. However, Gemma Whelan (the latest Harriett) is 5′ 6″, as is Louise Dylan (of the 2009 mini-series). Whelan at least is a blonde. Toni Collette is a terrific actress but, at 5′ 8″ and with her hair dyed red, she is miscast, to say the least.

The Hero

The actors playing Mr Knightley have a tough job. The character walks a fine line, and bringing to the screen the journey from family friend to romantic interest is undoubtedly a challenge. In general, I can only praise the gentlemen who have played him. Johnny Lee Miller, in particular, gets the look just right, although I can’t help but see Edmund Bertram at times in his portrayal.

I always imagined Mr Knightley as dark-haired, but I won’t hold this against Johnny Flynn, who is otherwise a very good actor. My problem with his casting doesn’t lie with his youthful looks for his age, but rather with his evident sex-appeal. When he appeared on screen for the first time, at least half of the audience in the cinema audibly gasped. It’s hard to undergo a believable evolution from uncle figure to dashing lover in that situation.

There is also the issue of the portrayal of the relationship between Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley. In Emma., the supposed friendship between Mr Knightley and Emma’s father is not really shown on screen. As a result, it looks like they don’t have much in common, other than their joint affection for Emma. I realise there are necessary edits to be made in feature films, but this is no excuse: the 1996 version manages much better to create the illusion of closeness between both men.

The Other Men

Mr Elton, in Austen’s words, “was reckoned very handsome”, to the point of Mr Woodhouse calling him “a very pretty young man”. Josh O’Connor isn’t quite right in the 2020 version, and it doesn’t help that he plays Mr Elton as a pseudo-Mr Collins. In comparison, Blake Ritson in the 2009 mini-series is excellent. As well as good-looking, Ritson’s portrayal of the character’s self-interest, vanity and superficiality is spot on.

As to Frank Churchill, I’m afraid the film versions don’t do the character justice. I am a huge Ewan McGregor fan, but that wig spoilt his performance in the 1996 adaptation. As to Rupert Evans (2009) and Callum Turner (2020), is it me or do they look like cousins? Evan’s slightly longer hair may explain a trip to London for its maintenance, but Turner’s buzz cut makes him sound shifty rather than vain. Also, I didn’t think Turner and Taylor-Joy had any chemistry, certainly not of the type presented in Austen’s novel.

The Rest of the Cast

In the 2020 adaptation, Miss Bates, one of my favourite Austen secondary characters, is played by Miranda Hart. Hart is a very well known comedian in the UK on account of the sitcom Miranda, which she co-writes and stars, and as a cast member in the series Call the Midwife. I am not a massive fan, but I think Hart makes a very believable Miss Bates. She brings the right mix of comedy and heartbreaking tragedy to every scene.

Ruper Graves and Gemma Wheelan are excellent as Mr Weston and Mrs Weston in this latest adaptation. They come across as a believable pair, and I love that he is played as a much more spirited man than in prior versions. The very talented Amber Anderson portrays Jane Fairfax very competently, like her predecessors in the role, and I loved the constant presence of servants in every scene. But I’m afraid I have to disagree with the portrait of John Knightley as a sort of Mr Palmer, uncomfortable in his role of parent and husband. And wouldn’t it be nice if the two Knightley brothers had looked remotely alike?

I have run out of space, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the different Emma adaptations! Which is your favourite? If you’ve seen the new film, did you enjoy it? Who do you believe makes the best Emma, Mr Knightley, Mr Woodhouse, Mr Weston, Mrs Weston, Harriet Smith, Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax?

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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4 Responses to The Many Visions of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” a Guest Post from Eliza Shearer

  1. tanya2austin says:

    Thank you! I’ve been eternally cranky over how filmmakers keep miscasting Harriet– she’s supposed to be unusually pretty, pretty enough to make up for her unfortunate antecedents, pretty enough to be noticed by the premiere young lady of the county as a friend. So why do they keep casting perfectly nice-looking but clearly not-as-pretty-as-Emma actresses in the role? (sigh)

    • Although I thought the actress playing Harriet had moments when she appeared quite fetching, she certain could not be called “a great beauty.” I suppose Hollywood assumes the lead actress must be the prettiest or the “hero” will not fall in love with her. Heaven forbid that a female possess more than a pretty face to recommend her to a gentleman.

  2. Glynis says:

    I haven’t seen the latest version but my favourite has Kate Beckinsale as Emma. This is the one that I will rewatch when it’s on tv.
    I will watch the new one but am quite happy to wait until it is shown on tv.

    • The new film is a “fair” rendition, but I was not impressed other than with Miranda Hart who plays Mrs. Bates. The girl who plays Emma is not bad, but there were scenes that were totally not required. Knightley is seen nude while several servants dress him. Emma hikes her skirts up in the back to warm her bare butt by the fire. Emma gets a nose bleed in the midst of Knightley’s proposal. All these seemed a bit inane to me. They were supposed to be comedy; however, my idea of comedy must be quite different from those who made this film. I laughed only once during the screening. I would not spend money to watch it at the theatre again, nor would I purchase the DVD to add to my Austen collection when it is released.

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