Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Author Spotlight: Austen’s Emma Dilemma


Next to Pride and Prejudice,Jane Austen’s Emma seems to be the novel most cinematized. Case in point, another Emma opened to theatres as the covoid shut them down. Just as we got our hopes up for an Austen on screen they were dashed—much like the promise of Frank Churchill arriving for a visit and then not showing up.

Ozge’s World meme
(oh that Frank—tsk)

The basics of Emma are Austen pointing out the class differences in Regency society along with following the exploits of a rich girl’s ennui as we wait for her character arc of improvement. In the mean time, the reader is entertained by a couple of intrigues by way of mistaken romances. The foundation of oh so many stories we see today.

What is problematic for the reader is deciding if Emma is likable as a character. There is no doubt Lizzie Bennet wins the Favored Austen Girl Award, but are we supposed to appreciate Emma as well? It’s doubtful. Even Jane Austen admitted to have created a character that only she would probably like.

Lizzie through the years

The novel starts out leaning towards the idea Emma is a privileged girl with the possibility of becoming or could possibility be a (ready for it?) snob:

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.

With that introduction, Emma could go either way: beloved of all or too good to believe. Austen indicates that Emma Woodhouse being pleasant, pretty, privileged has one obvious fault:

The real 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…

And that’s where it gets interesting when it comes to interpreting Emma for the silver screen.

The faces of Emma through the cinematic lens

Gwyneth Paltrow leads out with her elegant, polished Emma in the 1996 version. This version applies a favored eye towards Emma who is presented as a charming young woman who struggles to emerge on the other side of being accomplished in the art of having “grown up.” The story fairly follows Austen’s novel. Emma is quite likable and the audience appreciates her struggles as she blunders her way through the office of being a beautiful rich daughter of a gentlemen.

Gwyenth Paltrow providing perfection

Also in 1996 is the lesser known version starring Kate Beckinsdale whose Emma is just tad snobbier than Gwenth’s version and her character arc is much less visible. This version seems to focus more on the class differences, with wide shots of servants and the poor which populate Highbury.

Kate Beckinsdale portrays a refined demure heroine

Then there is the leap to 2009 with Romali Garai appearing in a decidedly contemporary version. Although the four part series is quite lush and pretty with its costumes and setting, it lacks Regency decorum. The director’s intent was to create a hybrid Emma by dressing everyone up Regency style, yet acting as if they are in a modern rom-com. This Emma acts more like a teen debutante with her expressive eyes and outward manner, she is all dressed up but forgetting how to behave. She even allows Frank Churchill to rest his head on her lap during the Box Hill picnic. *Shocking*

Romali Garai romps as a Regency girl just wants to have fu-un

There is the Clueless version—a sort of the ‘90’s offering of taking a classic and setting it in high school as in Ten Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man. This is not a Regency Emma and kind of pays tribute to Austen’s Emma, but it’s not the book. Maybe not even the Sparknotes version.

Then there is the 2020 version. This was supposed to be the senior lit class outing as we had just wrapped up our Austen unit. Good thing I didn’t reserve the bus since school went into soft closure while the theatres went into shutter mode. I have been waiting to view this newest entry for ever so long. My anticipation turned into disappointment as the entire movie became too, too much. The colors, clothing, setting is that of Easter candy cloyingly overdone. The tone of the movie is snarky, with Emma coming off as a mean girl. And just when we think she isn’t quite human, she bleeds, quite literally, when faced with being really, truly in love.

Don’t cross Ana Taylor-Joy’s Emma

With all these Emmas to chose from it’s difficult to decide which best represents Austen’s ideal. Paltrow’s poised Regency princess?Beckinsdale’s aloof elite gentlemen’s daughter? Garai’s winsome, youthful rich girl? Taylor-Joy’s prickly fashion plate?

If Austen’s intent was to showcase the time period while gently mocking the societal hierarchy by inserting some well-placed humor, as we watch Emma’s character arc emerge I would say place Paltrow’s Emma with its range of characters, infuse with the gorgeous palette of Garai’s version and insert Beckinsdale’s pointed shots of the struggling lower classes. Not sure about Taylor-Joy’s contribution and I am Clueless about adaptions and where they fit in Austen remakes.

If you are an Austen Emma fan, what are your thoughts towards the Emma dilemma? What is she all about—favored princess, snob, airhead, snark—or somewhere in between?

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4 thoughts on “Author Spotlight: Austen’s Emma Dilemma

  1. Sarah Thomas on said:

    Emma has always been my least favorite! I have never been able to really like her and Mr. Knightley seems to only want her because he thinks he can change her for the better. Not sure that’s the best foundation for a marriage!

  2. I’m partial to the Paltrow version. Also that Clueless was a hoot.

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