My First Foray into Austen: Douglas McGrath’s Emma

Everyone had an ‘introduction to Jane Austen,’ and the 1996 Emma was mine. At thirteen years old, I was an average homeschooled costume drama lover… I mostly wanted to watch movies or read books with historical settings and pretty dresses in them. We had a ‘free rental credit’ for Pay Per View, and I begged to see Emma. It was pure love at first sight and started me down the rabbit hole of Jane Austen adaptations.

Before Gwyneth Paltrow became famous for Goop, or played Tony Stark’s girlfriend, or even got an Oscar for playing Viola in Shakespeare in Love, she did a brief but memorable stint as Jane Austen’s most annoying heroine, Emma Woodhouse. In Emma, Jane confessed, she was going to create a character “no one but me will much like.” On the contrary, I liked her very much. Emma is a delightfully catty, two-faced meddler in the lives of unsuspecting people. Fresh off the success of securing a marriage for her governess, she decides to find a new person on which to focus her ‘help’ (matchmaking skills). Soon, a neglected young lady left to the ‘indifferent care of Mrs. Goddard’ comes into her company, Harriet Smith. Jane Austen has made Harriet altogether too agreeable and easily led, because Emma easily convinces her to leave off her thoughts of romance for an ignorant farmer and form more ambitious intentions for the local parish minister, Mr. Elton.

Of course, as everyone knows who has ever read the book, see this adaptation, or watched another one, it ends disastrously—and Emma finds herself in the middle of a mess of her own making in which she might lose the love of her life, Mr. Knightley. Most adaptations follow the book in similar ways, but my enjoyment for this one is it completely emphasizes the hilarity of everything. It’s all played up to a humorous degree. Rather than being merely spiteful, Emma simply comes across as arrogantly immature. The best addition, however, is Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley. Somewhat of a thankless role, Mr. Knightley is a grouchy, sensible alternative to Emma’s determined flights of fancy. When she argues Harriet is a gentleman’s daughter (there is no proof of this, it is something Emma has decided for herself to make her more attractive and justify her attentions), Mr. Knightley points out that no, she isn’t. When Emma hopes to match up Harriet with Mr. Elton, Mr. Knightley rolls his eyes and reminds her of the man’s character, which is shallow, vapid, and has no interest in marriage beneath his station to a ‘nobody.’ The pair of them bicker a great deal, as Emma boastfully tries to control everyone’s love life, and Knightley attempts to correct her attitude.

However… Jeremy takes a different approach than most actors who play Knightley. He adds an element of good-natured teasing to his lines. Except on a few occasions when they really do quarrel, he does not snap, snarl, bark, and command, but tease, flirt, and jest. He takes little digs at her pride while avoiding being insufferable; it turns ill-tempered quarrels into an extended flirtation, so it’s no surprise when they develop feelings for each other. There’s a wonderful chemistry there, built up of years of good-natured arguing. And, like in many of Jane’s books, the hero is someone above reproach, who rescues the girl that needs it at the ball (despite not liking to dance), and who improves the heroine, by forcing her to face her own faults. Emma comes to realize Mr. Knightley is right, and she cannot treat people so carelessly as she does, when her need for attention causes her to insult one of her oldest and dearest (but most annoying) acquaintances.

The movie is not perfect. I’m the first person willing to admit it, even though it was my favorite film for over twenty years and still gets a regular workout on my television. Frank Churchill gets somewhat sidelined and his villainy downplayed—in the book and in longer adaptations, Frank proves a bad influence on Emma. He has a mean spirit and uses public flirtations with Emma to cover up his feelings for Jane Fairfax. He isn’t a nice man, and it’s hard to want him to end up with Jane, because he’s so immature and self-absorbed, but here he’s just a minor player. And Jane herself, while appropriately dull, gets played by Polly Walker, a woman who has always looked ‘mature’ and who has strong features; she doesn’t seem to be eighteen and cannot play a wallflower.

Many criticized Gwyneth for her Emma, but she’s still my favorite actress in the role. I love how easily she slips between telling people what they want to hear and a minute earlier or later, having a spirited outburst about how awful that person is, or how wretched their nephew is. Most of all, though, the film is beautiful, and that’s what made my costume-drama-loving heart happy back in 1996. Everything is artfully arranged to indicate how superficial Emma’s world is. She reads her mail posed between two delicately balanced indoor plants on a beautiful settee. She, her governess, and Mr. Knightley have a conversation in a lovely gazebo garden, in which goldfish are swimming around in sunlit bowls. Mr. Knightley proposes to her beneath an immense old tree that shelters them from a vivid blue sky. She and Harriet practice their sewing outdoors, beneath a white tent on a rich green summer afternoon, with the delicate blue of her gown putting a healthy pink flush into her cheeks, with the wind caressing their curls. It’s just… gorgeous.

The 90s saw a parade of excellent films and campy ones alike. It gave us endless movies of ‘brat kids’ pranking adults, from the Parent Trap remake to Dennis the Menace to Kevin McCallister stuck Home Alone over Christmas and the Olsen twins’ movies. Terrorized us with Jurassic Park. It used the “girl gets a haircut and becomes beautiful and sexy” trope many times. It also gave us a handful of gorgeous costume dramas, including Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, Sense & Sensibility, Remains of the Day, and many others. Foremost among them in my estimation is Emma. And no matter how many other adaptations I see of it, or how many I enjoy, the one that opens with Emma holding the world on a string (in an artful depiction of her arrogance) will always be my favorite.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors and writing novels about them, caring for her beloved cats, running a MBTI typing blog, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

3 thoughts on “My First Foray into Austen: Douglas McGrath’s Emma

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  1. This version of “Emma” wasn’t my introduction to Austen, but it did make me fall in love with the characters and the book. There was something about this lighthearted adaptation that drew me in. And a thousand times yes on what you said in regards to Jeremy Northam. He is, hands down, the best Knightley out there. He and Gwyneth Paltrow had such a natural chemistry, that the leads in the other “Emma” adaptations fall short. I still haven’t seen the new version, out of loyalty to this one.

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    1. He is indeed, because he softens the character’s negativity and makes him more playful and flirtatious, instead of constantly talking down to and berating Emma for her foolishness. He says things with a little twinkle in his eye, and it’s much appreciated.

      The new version is… quite strange. The choices the director made, from the weird costumes to the casting decisions to the odd folk music popping up here and there, are just peculiar. I did see it, and I thought the lead was terrific in being a snotty brat, but the entire thing was a little off to me.

      I enjoy the Romola Garai miniseries, though — it’s a rather sympathetic depiction of Emma and long enough to flesh out the supporting characters such as Jane. You also get more of a sense of what a jerk Frank Churchill is in that version, whereas here he is rather nonexistent. But this movie is my favorite for a quick watch and a smile.


  2. Interestingly enough, “Emma” was also my introduction to Jane Austen. My mom bought a copy of the book and handed it to me when I was 14. I had never really heard the name Austen before and knew nothing about her work, but I was drawn in by the richness of the writing and the vividness of all the characters. Not just the protagonist, but EVERYONE who steps onto the page. I remember laughing over Miss Bates, and being gobsmacked when Frank’s secret was revealed: “He did WHAT?????”

    I still think Emma is Austen’s best novel, although not my personal favorite. But it’s just so good.

    Liked by 1 person

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