So, as I have now read Austen’s work and equally seen the two 1996 adaptations: one TV-version by A&E with Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong as Emma Woodhouse and Mr George Knightley, and the Miramax-version with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam as our two protagonists, I feel compelled to put my thoughts down on the book and the two adaptations.
I firstly have to say, that the two adaptations were different. Maybe it is a cliché, but the Americans did something totally different with the same material. I don’t know whether it was for the better… It was too Disney-like (would it be a coincidence that Miramax is actually a division of that company?), too simple. Austen, despite the surface, is not at all simple slapstick comedy. It is psychological comedy which turns out into a transformation or coming to terms for at least the two main characters. Emma proved to be even more of that. A&E did something really great with the novel, employing the same writer as they did for their legendary Pride and Prejudice adaptation from 1995. Indeed, echoes came back: nature as a heeling force and endless cycle, but humans who have to find back themselves under that big layer of polish. All that came to a lovely conclusion in a harvest feast where Emma meets Robert Martin, talks to Frank Churchill about Jane Fairfax and where Knightley plays his role as liberal and kind landlord. With a song called Come haste to the wedding in the background of Churchill praising his wife-to-be and after that a set of three made up out of all the couples formed in the story, it is a lovely conclusion that tells us that nature will take its course and that the attraction between people is something natural, not something artificial dictated by society. Emma tried the latter, but it wasn’t to be; Mr and Mrs Weston fancied Churchill and Emma together, but it wasn’t to be. That distinction between nature and society had already been used in 1995 and Davies used it again because it is heavily present in the background of Austen’s books. It is 18th century philosophy.
The only bad thing that can be remotely said about the A&E adaptation is that it was a shame that not enough time was afforded for it. It became a film of 107 minutes. Davies did his best, but if he had been given as much time as for Pride and Prejudice he could have made another masterpiece. It was not to be. All the casting in this piece was superb. Austen does not describe her characters much, so a lot can be done with them on the outside. Emma must have hazel eyes, but that is the only real feature she definitely has. Mr Frank Churchill is ‘handsome’ but what is that? So, there is no real problem in casting. The only thing the characters need to be is real as to Austen-terms. Davies’s characters were very real.
That proved to be a problem in the Miramax-version. Although they afforded slightly more time to their adaptation (121 minutes), it did not become a better one in my opinion. The main problem lay in Mr Knightley who was too unreserved, Frank Churchill who was not a dandy as he had to be nor honourable, and an overall easiness that concluded In sugary romance.
A list of characters:
Emma Woodhouse: Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow had a go. I found Beckinsale more convincing. She was a headstrong, vain girl who got daydreams about people thanking her for the services she was going to render them (something that of course did not happen). Particularly her first epiphany In the church, Harriet bathing in sunlight as if struck by a divine light, is hilarious. This Emma was also pretty, so we could see how Knightley fell in love. Paltrow was not totally unconvincing and was put on the screen as a two-faced girl, but I think she was too simple. Beckinsale’s Emma gets a sudden ‘Clapham Junction’-moment (to say it in Pratchett’s words) during the storm where she suddenly realises that she has been in love all the while with Knightley. This was the serious note of Austen: all through the book Emma has been convinced of everything she has said, she has even tried to persuade the reader of that, but suddenly she seems to be wrong. It is lightning that strikes her; it is a problem she does not know: what is owning that you are wrong? Paltrow’s Emma did not realise this, or the process was not put on screen, so she professes it to Mrs Weston… But this, although it has the same contents, is doing Austen short. In the original the coming to terms of Emma mirrored what was happening in Brunswig Square in London. There, Knightley was trying to reflect on what happened at the party on Box Hill. After Emma made a cruel joke at the cost of Miss Bates, he reproaches her that it was ‘badly done’, but he has now become aware of feelings he did not think he had. Because, why would he care about what Emma said if he does not care about Miss Bates (is not hurt because Miss Bates was hurt)? why is it that he cares about how Emma comes across in public? He is confused and tries to find rest at his brother’s house, but there he sees his sister-in-law Isabella who makes him think of more superior Emma. During that stormy night of rain, he and Emma come to terms with their love for each other, certainly as she has now become confused as Harriet Smith has told her that she is in love with Knightley and that she believes he returns her affections. The thinking process, which ridiculously started with her nephew Henry (the poor heir presumptive who is going to be deprived of everything if Knightley marries), is very important, because it features a serious theme of emotional growth. It is that that was not featured in the Miramax-version. This time Romola Garai will have a go. Although I believe her too old for the part (she is 27), in this day and age we do not look old at that age, nor do I personally. As her counterpart who plays Mr Knightley is 10 years her senior it could work well. But they will have to take pains as she is a blonde (at least that is how she is on her portfolio photo on IMDb), to not let her come across as a stupid vain spoilt girl. The stigma of the dumb or nasty blonde is very much instilled in the common brain and therefore a blonde Emma can come across as the opposite of what she is: stupid. She must be intelligent, but vain because of which she does not see and does not want to see she is wrong. Gwyneth Paltrow also came across as a spoilt girl with not a lot of intelligence, but that is what Emma is just not and that is also what makes the whole thing so entertaining.
Mr (George) Knightley: Mark Strong and Jeremy Northam had a go at this one. Although both actors looked good for the part (no real outer features are supposed to be there, as in most Austen characters), Mark Strong was the better one, though only for his speeches. What needs to be said about Strong is that he was slightly more believable to be a lot older and to have held Emma in his arms when she was born. Though Jeremy Northam was older than Mark Strong, he looked a lot younger, but maybe because of his clothing which was rather light. Mark Strong’s, like Darcy’s a year before, was rather dark. Contrasted with Frank Churchill, Knightley looks a lot older. Other than this, Northam’s Knightley was not Austen’s Knighltey not even remotely. Mr (George) Knightley is a man who is intelligent and quiet, and who speaks truth, only truth. He will not speak unless it is necessary. Pointless conversation is not for him. In the end, even when proposing he says: ‘I can’t make speeches.’ Indeed, he loves Emma and that’s it. He will not tart his feelings up, nor will he do them injustice. When he feels he must speak he tells Emma plainly what is on his heart. He is sharply contrasted with a Mr Elton who professes to love Emma deeply and when she rejects him, takes another wife within weeks. The latter is talkative, but not truthful as Frank Churchill In a way. Strong’s Knightley was Austen’s Knightley. Northam’s Knightley did not even come close to the quiet intelligent truth-speaking man. Also his level of propriety was too low. Grabbing Emma by the arm in order to be able to tell her something after the Box Hill party was not done in the 19th century, although it might be done now. In the original and the A&E adaptation Knightley only tells her she was wrong and hands her into her carriage. That is a vast difference to Knightley who looses it, yells at Emma and walks off in a huff. Emotions were not to be shown. In that, Northam’s Knightley was much too emotional at times. One capital mistake that the Miramax adaptation made was making out to have Knightley going to London in order to speak with his brother about a ‘delicate matter’ (i.e. his marriage). This was certainly not the aim of his trip to Brunswig Square. Far from even. Of course it does highlight the Harriet-problem in Emma’s head, but it stands no doubt that Knightley did not at all have any intention of marrying when he left. As in much of Austen’s books, reflection leads to salvation; reflection leads to logic and logic offers the solution; giving the mind its power of decision, leads to good decisions. It is like that for Darcy, Elizabeth, Marian, Willoughby, Elenor, Wentworth and here, Knightley and Emma. It is important that the public does not get into Emma’s frame of mind as that is totally wrong. If the audience gets there, the whole film/novel looses its irony. This did not feature at all in the Miramax adaptation and thus did its original short in a big way. This time it will be Jonny Lee Miller who takes on the role. He is ten years Romola Garai’s senior, so it is plausible that he held her as a baby. If they now let him speak sensibly and only when he must, then it could come in order.
Between Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley there is also a large degree of fighting with words. One might say that it is a fight of two personalities who think too much in the same way although on a different level: opposites attract while equals push each other away. Although both come across as different, they are very much alike. Both are convinced of their own superiority and of their own opinion being right. In chapter 8 of the book they discuss Harriet and her superiority (Emma) or inferiority (Knightley). Emma sees her as superior because ‘surely she has a gentleman-father’, something which will turn out not to be true because in the end she seems to be the illegitimate daughter of a tradesman. Knightley finds her inferior because she does not know much and has no connections. Although he is right on the connection-front, he will have to re-adjust his opinion about her when he has danced with her at the Westons’ ball. Emma and Knightley can only attract each other at the end, when they have both experienced what it is to be wrong. Although it seems that Emma would suit Churchill better because they have both a very open personality, their minds are totally not alike (she is intelligent, he a dandy); they would not know what to tell each other after the honeymoon. The duality Emma-Knightley came very much across in the A&E-version again, but subtlety is clearly not given to Miramax. They made Emma rather a light comedy without deeper themes and certainly not with a fight of minds involved.
Mr Elton: Dominic Rowan and Alan Cumming had a stab. Although Alan Cumming was slightly more laughable directly, Dominic Rowan was more subtly so. ‘Indeed, Augusta’ was his catch-phrase and it really summed up his whole personality. He is a man of weak mind who seeks inevitably to be dominated by his future wife. He firstly goes for Emma (superior in strength of mind certainly), who actually paired him up in her mind with Harriet (what a view of him she has!), then he takes this horribly vain overbearing society girl. When Augusta complains of ‘puppies’ at the Westons’ ball we might ask what the hell she means, because she herself married one. But then, she probably doesn’t notice because she doesn’t listen anyway. His weakness of mind also makes him gullible as to his conduct after his marriage. It is clear that it is his wife who influenced him when at the Westons’ ball he refuses to dance with Harriet, obviously out of contempt with her status and out of personal contempt for Emma (as if being rejected is a personal cause for feud, or would it have to do with his vanity being hurt?). Miramax tried to have this come across, but did not totally succeed as the Elton-couple rather turns out to be largely made up of Mrs Elton. In the A&E-adaptation they turn out a conceited couple which might be closer to the truth. What is more is that Rowan’s Mr Elton was much more proper in his proposal of marriage in the carriage. Cumming’s Mr Elton followed Emma too much about in her carriage. Austen’s proposals are a happening of words, not of deeds and as such Cumming’s Mr Elton was highly improper. Although he was a little improper for Austen too, Cumming’s Elton was too overbearing in persisting. This time Mr Elton will be played by Blake Ritson. He looks good, so he can have enough reason to believe that he can be vain. He is 4 years older than Emma. And also than his future wife played by Christina Cole who is as old as Emma’s actress.
Mrs Elton: Lucy Robinson and Juliet Stevenson gave this one a try. Although both Mrs Eltons were equally annoying and overbearing, I found still Robinson’s version more convincing. Robinson’s Mrs Elton was less rude in her overbearing streak. She at least let her husband the time to say: ‘Indeed, Augusta’, something which Mr Elton was denied in Miramax’s adaptation at the cost of Mr Elton’s ridiculous nature as dominated man in a time of male supremacy. Although Miramax let her vanity come across in sentences like ‘I wouldn’t say I am beautiful, but my friends do say I am actually’, it becomes boring after a while. This is not Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton actually thinks herself the focal point of Highbury and comports herself to that notion, to the great detriment of Emma, who might just feel vexed in her vanity too by that as she is no doubt the focal point of Highbury with her status as gentleman’s daughter (how dare Mrs Elton!). Mrs Elton’s vanity does not stop at outer things like beauty, taste in music etc, it carries on in her total image of herself. Miramax stopped at the surface (praising herself by putting other people’s comments forward), but A&E carried on by making her think of herself as the reference in Highbury, as in Austen’s original. Christina Cole will take on the role in the new adaptation. She is also a blonde, which I think more appropriate for her than for Emma. A nasty character (the vain bitch of little intelligence) is easier as a blonde, although it will be very difficult to better Robinson’s performance. What’s more is that Cole also played Blanche Ingram in the last Jane Eyre adaptation of 2006 and Caroline Bingley in ITV’s Lost in Austen. She did not do badly in either of the two, so she promises to be a good choice for this part. Certainly if she affords Mrs Elton a large amount of Caroline Bingley with a thick sauce of conceited speech over her. Although, she might prefer to play something else after this. Before you know it, you don’t get any other roles than bitch-roles any more.
Mr Elton’s relationship with his wife is a peculiar one, more so in Austen’s days. Although we don’t really get a lot of impressions from Austen’s side about their actual relationship In terms of private moments, from the time there is a Mrs Elton we do not seem to hear Mr Elton anymore. That says a lot. Davies managed to put that into comedy by giving Mr Elton the catch-phrase ‘Indeed, Augusta’, but in Miramax’s version this look on Elton was totally forgotten but for his being silenced every time he speaks by his wife. This, though funny, is a very un-Austenesk way of dealing with that issue because it was highly improper to silence someone at all. Then Davies’s choice to do it with ‘Indeed, Augusta’ was a much more contemporary one which came across as even more ridiculous as that is mainly the only thing he still says apart from agreeing with his wife in longer terms.
Harriet Smith: Samantha Morton and Toni Collette attempted to portray her. Although Morton was extremely young at the time, she put down a highly convincing Miss Smith. It is hard to picture Collette at all in this role, although she does do her best. However, it is easier to see a small, curly blonde, young girl as stupid (‘Will he pass through Bath as well as Oxford?’) and naïve than a big and buxom girl like Collette is one. The fact that Morton was definitely smaller and a lot younger than Beckinsale made it easier for the viewer to feel that she was naïve and ridiculous. The equality in size between Paltrow and Collette did not afford the contrast a comedy needs. Although Collette did not do badly in portraying a stupid tall girl, it was difficult to see it at once. But in a longer version that might work very well. This time Louise Dylan will attempt the role. Although not much is known, she seems to be a good choice. We will see what she makes of her first big role on TV.
Mr Frank Churchill: Raymond Coulthard and Ewan McGregor had a go at this role. Clearly the better of the two was here Coulthard’s Churchill. Ewan McGregor I found very unconvincing as the endearing, handsome and mirthful Frank Churchill. McGregor himself might not have had anything to do with this, though. He had to play a part that was totally misinterpreted. In Miramax’s version, Frank Churchill was a little bit of a fraud: he courts Emma while he has no intentions, he sings with Emma, he comes up with the scheme that Mr Dixon in fact was the one to send the pianoforte. Austen’s Frank Churchill was none of that. She intended him to be an honourable and sensitive young man, much like his father, with a greatly positive and mirthful look on life. He falls in love with Jane Fairfax, a girl of inferior descent, and asks her to marry him. However, he is conscious of the fact that his aunt will never allow him to marry or even worse, will take away his inheritance. In that case, he is nowhere, because his father’s fortune is not big enough. So, he decides to wait and tries to see his Jane whenever he can (once a year). When his aunt lets him go to his father from Yorkshire, he subtly courts Jane, not least by going off on a whim to London ‘to get his hair cut’ in order to buy her a pianoforte. When his aunt then finally moves to Richmond where she will die, he comes every day and courts his Jane despite giving another impression to others. The most ridiculous things pass, one of which is the fixing of Jane’s grandmother’s spectacles (this maybe symbolically so as he will have the power later to re-adjust the image he has left). It takes an awfully long time. The most endearing part of his courtship is when he sings with Jane and compliments her on her hairdo, although he makes out that he finds it extremely strange. One feels for him when he has to stop singing with her that evening, because it is the only time they can really be together without raising suspicion. It is also very very moving that he always takes up a place where he can see her (opposite her or at least far enough away in order to be able to observe her as that is the only thing he can do undisturbed). Despite his two-faced façade, Churchill actually never tells a lie about Jane. The most difficult part for him in the beginning is to redirect the attention from himself to another when it comes to Jane in Weymouth. If people can suspect Jane of having an affair with Mr Dixon, they can suspect him. He does that redirection very cleverly: by letting Emma make her mind up about things. He knows she will never think straight away about himself as a possible suitor and source for the pianoforte (despite his trip to London), because of her feel for status, so he feeds her thoughts much as she fed Harriet’s about Mr Martin. And when he then goes off to buy Jane’s pianoforte, he enforces this suspicion of others by putting Irish songs in the packet, too. Despite that two-faced façade, Austen manages to redeem him. His last letter to Mrs Weston, clarifying a great deal (not only about his secret engagement and the trouble it ran in when Jane was having a hard time), states that he courted Emma knowing that she was never truly in love with him. That is amazing because she herself at a certain time believed that she was in love with him, which was not really true. He was on the verge of confiding in her, but did not. Particularly his knowledge of Emma (that he could never penetrate her heart) highlights him as an extremely sensitive and honourable man, much like Mr Knightley, but unreserved. When he then praises Jane while talking to Emma, it really takes the reader’s breath away. You wish him well. He is an extremely positive and loveable figure (ironically so as he has conned everyone yet everyone still loves him) and Davies and Coulthard did him great justice. It will be very hard to equal or better that performance for Rupert Evans, although he does not look bad for the part.
Jane Fairfax: Olivia Williams and Polly Walker both portrayed this character. Although Polly Walker did her best, again A&E managed to put Williams better in her role. They chose a slightly less noticeable actress to play the part of a very unnoticeable reserved girl. Jane Fairfax is one who rarely speaks, if only for the fact that her aunt Miss Bates continuously talks over her… But she should still be worthy and beautiful enough to claim a Mr Frank Churchill as hers… In short, she should be attractive enough from afar to be able to be likely to have been noticed by Churchill in the first place. She needs to be equally intelligent to keep a quick mind like Frank’s occupied and she must be pleasant in conversation. Despite her seeming lack of feeling, she needs to have storms rage inside her (like Elenor of Sense and Sensibility). That duality is not really easy to play, certainly not if one has to come across as reserved, but I think it rather asks the writer to write the appropriate scenes for that… In the next adaptation it will be Laura Pyper who will take on the role. It could be good, because she seems sweet enough, if she has a reserved part to play. They should however get rid of the fringe, because in Austen’s days they did not exist. Although, with some curling irons that is quickly solved. Auburn hair for a Jane Fairfax is certainly not a nono, although she should not come across as smarter than a blonde Emma as there is then a danger of Emma coming across as a blonde bimbo which she is definitely not…
Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax’s relationship is a peculiar one too. She is reserved, he is totally not, and still the two found each other; he fell violently in love and is prepared to risk all, she is conscious of her inferior nature and starts to doubt his love for her. At the start, Frank professes that it is not possible to love one who is reserved… How wrong Emma will be inn believing it. That, though, highlights the typical Austenesk duality between sense and sensibility. Wherever either of the two takes the foreground, things go wrong.
Miss Bates: Prunella Scales and Sophie Thompson. Although both Miss Bateses were laughable, as they should be, Scales was the more Austenesk one. Her incessant talking was slightly more incessant than Thompson’s one. Miramax had a good try in making her ridiculous, but Davies managed it in a more authentic manner. Like Mr Knightley says to Emma, Miss Bates’s fate is a sad one. She knows it and it is as if she does not want to stop talking because if she stops she might dwell on her sad state of affairs. She was once a girl with a fortune, but sunk as she did not marry and now cares for her mother on a small income which compels others to charity. She always dwells on the ‘good neighbours’ she has, but deep inside feels probably mortified at the thought that she now has to in fact rely on them. She cannot afford to quarrel with Emma after the latter’s nasty remark on Box Hill. That kind of sadness under the superficial gaiety she displays lavishly was certainly present in Prunella Scales’s superior performance. Miss Bates was toned down by Miramax (again) to a laughable girl with glasses. Also Scales’s voice was more suited to the part (not that Thompson can help that). For the next adaptation it will be Tamsin Greig who attempts the role. I do have to admit, I don’t really hold good hopes for this casting. She might be a very good actress, but she is much too young, or at least too young looking (that is a compliment). Miss Bates was at least 40 and as such was an old woman. This beautiful woman of 42 looks at least only 32 and taken into account that people looked much older then than they look now at the age of 40, I don’t think this was a good cast. But we will see what she/they make of it. It is a great part to play and it could work, if she is allowed her long and boring speeches and if she is adorned with a cap that hides her black hair or a wig that makes her hair grey.
Mrs Bates: Sylvia Barter and Phyllida Law played the deaf woman. Although both looked good in their wordless role, maybe here, Miramax did a good thing in making her really look bored with her own daughter. Although she should not be able to hear her, at a certain time Miss Bates honestly makes the (slightly ironic) remark that ‘[her] mother hears everything Jane says’ because ‘she speaks so clearly’. Maybe Mrs Bates was just making out she couldn’t hear her daughter… But then again, we should also acknowledge what the consequence of being hard of hearing was in Austen’s days: people who were deaf (to start with the deaf-and-dumb) were considered not to understand what was going on. They were considered as mentally deficient and so did not learn to read. Of course, this does not apply to Mrs Bates, but being hard of hearing would have got her a stigma as not being able to participate and thus being obsolete. The only thing she does do, in the novel, is occupy Mr Woodhouse when Emma is out… He needs a stick to talk to so to say and Mrs Bates will supply it, because she can’t hear him anyway so there will be no danger of boring her (not that anyone listens to him). I think Miramax could actually have enhanced the mentally deficient image by making her daughter shout single words at her (‘Pork!’) rather than nothing or whole sentences and making the woman in question look excluded and bored. In that sense A&E left a great possibility, but I suppose they rather focused on Miss Bates instead as being more entertaining given the short amount of time the film was afforded. Nothing is known about the actress who will play Mrs Bates yet. If there isn’t one, it will be a total shame, certainly as the amount of time does afford a chance for a Mrs Bates to be occupied in her deafness. We will see.
Mr Woodhouse: Bernard Hepton and Denys Hawthorne played the very concerned old man. Bernard Hepton was clearly the better one (again). Mr Woodhouse is concerned with everyone’s health and is moving that way, but at the same time he is also a typically old person who is wrapped up in his own existence and time too much. He does not like change and feels that he has been deserted by Miss Taylor when she got married to Mr Weston, was deserted by Isabella first when she married Mr John Knightley, and now to his great detriment Nr Knightley also plotted against him by taking Emma for himself. It is ridiculous but nonetheless endearing… I found that the A&E version of Mr Woodhouse by Bernard Hepton was the better one. He was slightly more believable being weak and sleeping an awful lot of the time. Denys Hawthorne was too able and therefore not really believable in a character that is a little scared of the outside world. The next Mr Woodhouse will be played by Michael Gambon. He looks a little young for the role, but with older clothing, it works (an actor still has to be able to move in order to be able to do his work). As he played Gandalf in the Harry Potter-series we can see him as a sufficiently old man. He is certainly able to do it. Now only still a good part…
Mrs Weston/Miss Taylor: Samantha Bond and Greta Scacchi gave this woman a go. I don’t think any of those two came across exactly like Mrs Weston from the original Emma… Mrs Weston is Emma’s best friend and former governess, but that has its consequences: instead of being a good teacher, she left Emma much to herself and as a result Emma turned out quite spoilt. Unlike Knightley who does not give in, Mrs Weston gave in too much and therefore Emma’s projects turn out unfinished… If anyone is really to blame for Emma’s arrogance in thinking she is always right, it is Mrs Weston who did not profess truth (as Knightley), but always agreed with her. She is also the one to tell Emma that Knightley has affection for Jane and she is the one who matches Emma with Churchill. We wonder where the match-making in Emma’s head and the courtship ideas came from… Mrs Weston is actually a great laugh because she is as wrong as Emma and her husband. Not only in putting Emma next to Churchill, but also in her image of the world. Fortunately Emma was quite intelligent, otherwise she would have ended up as stupid as Harriet. Both A&E and Miramax’s Mrs Weston were rather nice friends of Emma’s, not corrupting forces like the original. It is mainly down to the fact that Emma has no mother, that the teacher had a double role to fulfil: the role of teacher and wise loving counsel. It is that where Mrs Weston failed miserably in being too indulging. As Austen was also occupied with the issue ‘education’ we can presume that here as well, she made an irony towards the type of governesses that were around… In the subsequent adaptation it is Jodhi May who will give Mrs Weston a face. Although I have seen her before in Einstein end Eddington, there she had a small role. Probably she will suit the role in looks, but it is mainly her part that needs to be ironic enough. We will hope that Sandy Welch wrote the above in Mrs Weston’s part.
Mr Weston: James Hazeldine and James Cosmo put him on the scene. Although both characterisations were good enough, James Cosmo had a capital mistake on his face in the form of a moustache. As far as I recall, I have never seen a moustache in a period drama of Austen. Because there were no moustaches. Slightly longer hair, huge whiskers (in somewhat later days) did exist for men, but all men were clean shaven. It was a sign of wealth that you could afford to shave every day. Mr Weston is an extremely nice man, but also a little too forgiving for his son and in-laws as they took his son away out of pride after the death of his wife. It is sad really that he doesn’t see that. He should come across as a little naïve for his age. We can see a little how he must have been 20 years prior to when the story starts when Frank Churchill comes on the scene again… In the next adaptation it will be Robert Bathurst who takes on the role. I hold hopes for him, although he looks a little young for his role…
Then there is still a last pair to be talked of, or at least the male part of that:
Isabella and Mr John Knightley: Isabella is not that important as she barely says a few words. But Mr John Knightley is, though. He is a little Mr Palmer (Sense and Sensibility), although not out of humour because of his wife, just not really disposed to be nice in order to humour everyone. He is also one ‘who speaks truth’, like his brother and the two Mr Knightleys get on very well with each other. No doubt speaking truth to each other. He is a realistic person, being a barrister in London, and he speaks very plain to Emma. Guy Henry and Brian Capron played this role. I seem to remember that Guy Henry was better because he was allowed to play the role of ‘spoilsport’ at the Christmas party of the Westons when it starts to snow, but was also the nice brother-in-law in his first scene. Although, nothing disturbed me in Capron’s role. What I did miss in the two versions was the ‘admirable’ intervention of ‘the two Mr Knightleys’ when the turkey-thieves strike again. It is the reason why Mr Woodhouse finally sees that an able man in the house might be favourable and that Mr Knightley is actually the man they need; it because of that admirable intervention as brothers that Mr Woodhouse is settled with the marriage of Emma in his mind. It would be lovely to have that in the next adaptation although it might be too boring to have something more after the conclusion… In the next adaptation it is Dan Fredenburgh who will take on the role. Although I think he might be too young for a man with several children and a profession as barrister, we will see what he makes of it. On the other hand Henry was also quite young-looking when he played the part and it is certainly true that Jonny Lee Miller and he could be brothers.
What I am really anxious for is the interpretation Sandy Welch is going to give Austen’s creation. After having seen her interpretation of Jane Eyre in 2006, I don’t hold much hope. I found she misinterpreted Rochester’s part and she destroyed a great deal of the symbolic layer of the book, only briefly alluding to The Beauty and the Beast in the beginning, but not carrying it on. Brontë was a very well read woman and she did not just tell a story. She told a story within a whole load of references and she made her book so deep that it is difficult to see the whole picture. Yet, it is not impossible to give it the right interpretation without actually carrying the whole thing to the full (A&E 1997). Sandy Welch, though, misinterpreted Rochester’s part and made him a tragic wretch all the way through and made Jane one after her shattered wedding. Neither of the characters actually mature, and that is what should happen. Not only in Jane, but also in Rochester. It is dangerous to read a classic merely on the story level and as such, a lot of Austen goes amiss when she is read on just that level. ITV’s adaptation of Persuasion in 2007 made such a drama of it, that one could not even recognise Austen’s tone in the original. Even the parts that should be sad or very serious, are not in Austen’s books. Because of some peculiar process, she succeeds in keeping her story interesting and funny, even at sad moments. It is the ironic thoughts of the main character and sometimes the minor ones too that make a serious situation ridiculous. In Pride and Prejudice it is the pride of both Elizabeth and Darcy that makes the first proposal not a drama, but a total cock-up of great proportion. He asks why she refuses him after professing that she is his inferior and she cries after refusing him, despite the fact that she hates him… In Emma, however, the same 'I am right'-mode is a little more difficult, certainly on film, as her arrogance and convictions take place on an exclusively personal level. Although Mrs Weston is a good friend, she is unavailable at the start because she is on honeymoon. Harriet, Emma’s new friend, takes (unwittingly) part in the matchmaking scheme, so she can’t serve as ‘talking-prop’ in order to reveal Emma’s thoughts. (Elizabeth could talk to Jane and reveal her views thus exposing her personality, Emma cannot talk to Harriet, nor to Mrs Weston). For the first part of the story Emma has no talking-prop and it is a problem because the start is important to get the character known to the viewer. Davies solved that question through making Emma dream up images from time to time. This was great, but one can’t really repeat what has been done before. Miramax did it with a diary, but that takes interesting time away from the film.. I am eager to see how they are going to solve that problem.
I hope Sandy Welch took a leaf out of Davies’s book and considered wider contemporary contexts. What I certainly do hope most heartily is that she did not get guided by feminist interpretations of Austen, as they are without context. Austen is about wit, satire and the human psyche, not about women alone. As such, Emma might be Emma’s protagonist, but Mr Knightley is that too and the two of them go through a process of emotional growth. Austen is about the whole of society then and the people in it (how they are affected, what they are taught to think), and not about the protagonist herself. I hope she got that, and then, we can see another 1995 triumph.