As someone who has read each of Austen's novels at least 20 times, the thought of seeing my beloved characters come to life on the screen is thrilling. And anxiety-producing. Notice I referred to them as "my" characters. I know them so well, they've lived inside my head so long, they've become part of me. Which is where the anxiety part comes in. Will they get "my" characters right? Stay true to "my" story? Or at least its spirit? What will they change? And most important: Will the hero be "my" Mr. Knightley?
It's no wonder I have to watch each new production at least twice to clear my brain enough to appreciate it, not just as an adaptation, but as a work of art in its own right. After all, there can never be a truly faithful adaptation of any literary work, even with source material as eminently adaptable as Austen's.
Let's face it: The medium of film is so inherently different from that of a book that it must--and, it could be argued, should--digress from the original, just as any new film remake must digress from its predecessors in order to justify its very existence. The degree of that digression is what sparks the most lively debates among Austen devotees like myself, and what constitutes at least half the fun in watching each new Austen-inspired movie or miniseries.
This latest EMMA miniseries is no exception, and I am delighted to proclaim it a success, faithful in both spirit and substance to the novel while digressing in ways that are both thoughtful and engaging.
My favorite digression in this EMMA was the fairytale-like opening, in which we see scenes from the past that are only remotely alluded to in the book. And thus we get a psychological glimpse into what made several characters who they are in the present-time of the story.
We see baby Emma with her mother and father, a man who worries that the worst will happen, and it does. When the next shot shows that pretty young mother lying in her coffin, and we see the father comforting and determining to protect his two sad little girls, we get a unique insight into the origins of Mr. Woodhouse's hypochondriacal, overly protective personality. And thus we can feel some compassion for his fears rather than simply laugh at them. We can understand, a little better, Emma's steadfast devotion to and infinite patience for her father, despite the limitations his eccentricities place on her life.
Seeing Emma lose her mother could also provide one more possible explanation for her declaring, "I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall."
We also have an opportunity to see Frank Churchill as little Frank Weston, a small boy who has just lost his mother. We see Frank taken away from his grieving father by his aunt, and we see how the weeping father must have convinced himself that what he did would be best for the boy. And thus not only do we get to see Frank as more than just the grown-up bad boy of the novel, we get quite a different glimpse of the novel's jovial, ever optimistic Mr. Weston.
And finally, we see Jane Fairfax as a little girl being sent away to live with the
Another noteworthy digression in this film is the very physicality of Emma--Romola Garai's expressive face, unladylike, almost masculine walk, and giggling, waving, all-around girlishness. Although Austen purists and others familiar with the period might object to this portrayal of Emma, ultimately I found it to be an interesting and clearly deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers and the actress. And perhaps, on closer analysis, it may not be a digression from the spirit of the novel at all.
Says Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston of Emma in the book: "Such an eye!--the true hazle eye--and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health...There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance." The Emma of this film is certainly bursting with health and vigor, and while not always the picture of a lady in her mannerisms, she is, after all, as my Austen scholar friend Dr. Alice Villaseñor pointed out, someone who never listened to her governess.
And, I will add, Emma is someone who is completely clueless about her heart (and the rest of her body) while fancying herself an expert on reading everyone else's signs. The Emma of this film is as incapable of creating mystery with her facial expressions as she is in solving the mysteries of other people's hearts. This Emma moves around like the overgrown child she is, one who will always be her father's child, a woman-child who treats people as her "playthings," as Knightley declares. And doesn't Emma's own physical awkwardness make her snobbishness all the more comic? Her characterization of Mr. Martin as "clownish" all the more ridiculous?
If there remains any doubt of Emma's physicality being a deliberate choice, consider the contrast between Emma's quick little bob of a curtsey and Mr. Elton's foppish, flourished bow. Therein we have a clever contrast between the artlessness of an open manner and the artfulness of vanity. Yes, Emma is vain as well, but as Mr. Knightley points out, never about her person.
All this discussion about Emma's physicality brings to mind what Austen devotees and those who are familiar with her time often object to in Austen-inspired films: manners, dress, and language that are inaccurate to the period. Although this EMMA definitely takes liberties in these areas, I find them forgivable because they give the production a fresh, contemporary feel that could inspire many more younger viewers to read Jane Austen. And if a movie gets its audience to read Austen, is it really worth getting our knickers in a twist over PDA's and the OED?
What is most important is that the filmmakers did a splendid job of making a heroine, as Jane Austen put it, "whom no-one but myself will much like," eminently likeable. In Romola Garai's portrayal, we see Emma's kind and compassionate heart, girlish naïveté, and absolute cluelessness about the potentially dire consequences of her romantic meddling (for this the bride and groom dolls she played with are a lovely touch). All that, aided by the foil of a most brilliant and appealing Jonny Lee Miller (who does an excellent job of being "my" Mr. Knightley, by the way), makes Emma's snobbishness and vanity more ridiculous than contemptible. And the banter between the two of them certainly makes the romantic sparks fly.
One more thing that must be said in this EMMA's favor: production values. What a pleasure to see a TV version that is shot, lit, and dressed with as much care as a lavish Hollywood production. And oh, those costumes--I'm still lusting after Emma's blue-green sash and tasseled beret. And wondering if Mr. Woodhouse will notice if I borrow one of his pashminas. After all, he's got about seven of them around his neck.