Last March, just before COVID-19 caused most of the world to go into lockdown, I actually went to a movie theater. That’s how I got to see Emma. in all its glory on the big screen, just like God and Hollywood intended.
And what a treat it is! Emma. is a confection of a movie, whipped up in pretty candy color hues of yellow, blue, and pink. This visual sweetness is offset by Jane Austen’s tart observations. The story is further embellished with lush scenery, beautiful costumes (I don’t think Emma wears the same gown twice), and a soundtrack featuring Mozart and Haydn as well as traditional English melodies.
Emma was the fourth novel Jane published, and by 1815 when the book came out she was a successful author writing under her own name. Her fame was such that even the Prince Regent was an admirer. Through an intermediary, he invited her to dedicate Emma to him.
|The Prince Regent in 1816|
That request must have bemused Jane. She was no fan of Prinny; she sided with his estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick. Writing about the royal couple in 1813 to her friend Martha Lloyd, Jane said: “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can because she is a Woman, and because I hate her husband.”
But Jane must have realized that when the future king asks a favor, it’s best to grant it. So Jane wrote a rather fulsome dedication anyway, calling herself “His Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant.” I like to think she wrote it tongue-in-cheek.
What sets Emma apart from Austen’s previously published novels is that the young heroine is immature and not very likable at the outset of the story. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice or Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, Emma lacks self-awareness. She’s good-hearted but basically self-centered.
“Handsome, clever, and rich,” Emma is a big fish in a small pond and occupies the top tier of her local society. Immune to her own privileged circumstances, she can be surprisingly insensitive and even carelessly cruel to people of lower rank.
And she is quite full of herself. She thinks she knows what’s best for everyone, and doesn’t scruple to manipulate people and situations to achieve her aims.
So it’s not surprising that Emma decides to conduct a social experiment. She takes a less fortunate school friend under her wing and decides to play matchmaker.
Harriet Smith doesn't know who her parents are, but she does know that someone is paying her tuition. It's assumed that she is "illegitimate," the offspring of unwed parents, and in those days illegitimacy was almost always an insurmountable barrier to social acceptance. But Emma arrogantly believes that her friendship and guidance will be enough to elevate Harriet from her inferior rank into a higher social stratum.
So Emma convinces Harriet to reject a humble farmer’s proposal and set her matrimonial sights instead on the local vicar.
And as Emma counsels her protégé, she also meddles in the lives of several people in her social circle. All the while Emma is oblivious to what’s really going on beneath the surface. Wealthy and wise local landowner Mr. Knightley tries to warn Emma, but she refuses to listen until it’s almost too late.
Emma’s saving grace is that she matures throughout the book. She’s sincerely contrite when she realizes her mistakes and she does her best to make amends. And of course, there’s a happy ending for everyone involved.
Austen described Emma as a character that no one other than herself would much like. But history has proved Jane wrong. Emma is one of Austen’s most popular novels. It’s comical, light-hearted, and fun.
Plus, there’s something rather endearing about Emma that shines through all he machinations. After all, she means well, even though most of the time she has no idea what’s going on.
In recent years Emma has been in vogue, with four mostly faithful adaptations of Austen’s novel. In 1996 there was a television movie starring Kate Beckinsale in the title role. That year also saw a lavish big-screen version of Jane’s tale with Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead.
Fast forward almost a decade and you have a four-part BBC miniseries in 2009, starring Romola Garai. And of course, just this year there’s Emma. with Ana Taylor Joy. (The period in the title is intentional – the director wanted to stress that this is a faithful adaptation of the novel, a real “period piece”).
But my favorite adaptation of Emma is 1995’s Clueless, a sparkling modern take on Jane’s classic story.
In Clueless, Emma is portrayed by Alicia Silverstone as an entitled but sweet Beverley Hills teenager. The setting is about as far away from the early 19th-century English countryside as you can get, but somehow this film captures the spirit of Austen’s story better than the other adaptations, in my opinion.
But you can judge the best adaptation for yourself. Even though cinemas remain closed for most of us, you can still see the theatrical release of Emma. For $15 you can download it on YouTube, Amazon Prime, or Google Play.
Take it from me, this movie is a great way to sink into Jane Austen’s world and forget about the present, at least for a couple of hours.
Do you have a favorite Emma adaptation? Tell us in the comments.