This week it was 200 years since Jane Austen’s death in 1817, and since I have yet to write anything about Jane Austen on this blog, I figured it was the ideal time to do a post. Jane Austen’s work has been adapted numerous times in a variety of ways now, and her novels work incredibly well on screen and are almost always successful. Her work is still incredibly important today and it’s so great this week especially seeing her life and work celebrated.
Ever since I studied Pride and Prejudice and watched the 2005 version at school, I’ve admired her work and her complex and inspiring heroines. I wanted to discuss my favourite Austen adaption instead of her novels, because to me, it has been the adaptations that have been the best introduction to her work and characters, and without them I think I would have found it difficult to get into her novels in the same way.
There have been a ridiculous number of adaptations I’ve loved, from the classic 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, to the new and innovative From Mansfield With Love, a web series adaptation of Mansfield Park that helped me finally get into Mansfield Park.(Seriously watch it on youtube, it deserves all the love and is the best adaptation of the novel). I was going to write this post on my favourite adaptation from every novel but after I hit 1000 words after just writing about one novel, I thought I’d save everyone from reading a dissertation length post and just focus on the one adaptation. In the future I would like to revisit other adaptations though.
However to get to the point, my number one adaptation of a Jane Austen novel is the BBC 2009 miniseries of Emma.
The temptation to put Clueless was pretty high, especially considering it’s probably my all-time favourite film and a cinematic masterpiece (I will fight you on this). Also Pemberley Digital’s Emma Approved was truly wonderful, and is what helped me actually read the book and watch all the other adaptations, including the 2009 one. However, the BBC’s 2009 TV miniseries will always be the best to me, as it helped truly cement Emma as my number one Austen novel. The 2009 miniseries will always be the one I love the most, and the one I watch whenever I’m having a bad day. One day while Emma Approved was airing, I was really ill and missed school for the day. Naturally I turned to Netflix and considering I had seen pretty much every other adaptation apart from the 2009 one, it seemed like an ideal time to watch it. I had the best day watching it pretty much and it helped my appreciation of the story and the character of Emma herself reach new heights.
Before this turns into a rambling mess, I’ll start going through the key reasons as to why I like this adaptation so much.
Time: Miniseries to me are the most successful way of adapting Jane Austen’s novels, being able to fully develop not only the heroine’s journey and character development, but also allow the supporting cast to shine and the events of the novel to unravel at a steady pace. 2009’s Emma is four hours, which I found to be the perfect time to adapt the novel and fully portray the changes in Emma’s character. The first two hours show Emma’s meddling at its finest, and then the rejection of Elton’s proposal and the realisation of the mistakes she’s made. The last two hours see a shift in Emma’s character, her making the same errors again, but trying to make amends and the revelation of her feelings for Knightley. Which leads me to
Cast: The casting for this was pretty much perfect. First things first, Romola Garai plays Emma incredibly. Emma is a hard character to play because she’s so unlikable, especially in the beginning. Being able to play Emma’s flaws while still making her a watchable heroine as she develops and improves is not easy, and for me Romola is perfect. Emma leads the miniseries and is pretty annoying in the first couple of episodes, yet her love for her father (played spot on by Michael Gambon) and her friendship with Miss Taylor and her disagreements with Knightley, keep the character complex and compelling to watch. I love Emma because she’s so flawed, and that she learns and improves from her mistakes and I doubt I will see a better portrayal of her character again.
Johnny Lee Miller was fantastic, keeping Knightley’s quick wit and making him and Emma so enjoyable to watch, and helping make the best representation of Emma and Knightley’s relationship. Personal highlight for me was Episode 3, the ball scenes where Knightley realises his jealousy of Frank’s closeness with Emma and saves Harriet from humiliation by dancing with her. His disagreements with Emma never came off as being too much like lectures, and he portrayed perfectly the strong morals Knightley has and his dedication to his family and loved ones. The dance scene between Emma and Knightley is the best one in any Austen adaptation, and I love how their friendship and understanding of the other is so well established before they realise their romantic feelings.
Rupert Evans helped make Frank seem charming yet still incredibly manipulative and Tamsin Greig gave the most sympathetic portrayal of Miss Bates yet, keeping her irritating and funny, but with a lot more sadness behind it. Small moments I enjoyed were Emma’s subtle comforting of Mr Weston every time they discussed the absence of Frank Churchill, and how she always spun the situation into praise for Frank and Mr Weston, making him feel better and highlighting a strength in her character and her loyalty to her friends.
Set and Cinematography: This is what helps enhance the locations and aspects of Emma’s life that are hinted at in the novel. Everything is so bright and it really emphasises how privileged Emma is in secluded Highbury away from the rest of the world, and as the novel’s opening line states has ‘very little to trouble or vex her’. Emma is one of Austen’s more comic novels and the lighter tone is demonstrated with the bright colours and sunny surroundings. The costumes underline Emma’s high social standing and help show her bold personality. Even the camera shots are wider for Emma’s scenes, and show the life she can breeze through easily without restrictions in her way. All of the houses match the characters so well, and help differentiate between the different classes. The best example of this is through Miss Bates and her cottage, the restricted camera angles and the sharp changes in light and colour help create sympathy for Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax, and how their circumstances in life are now so much harsher, especially after the audience has spent so long in Emma’s rich surroundings.
The adaptation doesn’t always follow the novel in terms of dialogue, but keeps the best lines for the most important scenes, and I love how funny it is while balancing the heart of the novel. Emma‘s not a story or a character that is easy to get invested in straight away, but I can promise you the payoff on this is worth it. If you are going to watch an Emma adaptation, this is the most worthwhile one that has a superb cast and character development.