The Many Faces of Jane Austen’s Emma

by Anissa Sanchez

Jane Austen’s fourth published novel Emma has long been considered one of her most successful novels to feature a beloved heroine with a self-assured personality. The novel itself follows the life of 21 year-old female protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, whose upper crust haughtiness along with her fixation on match-making lead her down a spiral of romantic mix-ups. The plot of Austen’s 1815 novel is thought to be a trailblazer in this conventional, yet entertaining story of a girl attempting to fix everyone’s love life while overlooking her own feelings. Because of this, Emma has seen multiple film adaptations throughout the years. Each film interpretation is unique in its costume design and film location. However, every film manages to not stray far from the original narrative. For this, Emma remains a timeless story that captures the hearts of many thanks to past, current, and future adaptations.

Austen began work on writing Emma in 1814, after her admired previous published novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. The novel would subsequently be published a year later, and was the last of which Austen would live to see the success earned from it. The story’s main heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is portrayed as a young girl who is jaded, yet outgoing at the same time. Emma is constantly snubbing the thought of matrimony, but also finds enjoyment in idealizing potential relationships for those around her, particularly her close friend Harriet Smith. This juxtaposition is precisely what makes Emma a quirky and genuine character. Living with her elderly father, Emma relies on her good friend and neighbor George Knightley for advice and soon realizes that she is falling for him when her matchmaking does not go to plan. As seen in the novel and several film renditions, main character Emma lets her conceit and selfishness get in the way of her well-meant ambitions, leaving a trail of heartache and unforeseen emotions in her path.

Given all of the responsiveness that has occurred over the years, it is safe to assume that Austen herself would be proud to see her work still very much being celebrated. Perhaps the most recognizable adaptation of Austen’s Emma is the 1995 cult-classic Clueless. In this fashionable film, lead character Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone, takes the place of a more contemporary version of Emma Woodhouse, introducing an entirely new generation to the 19th century novel. The setting of the English town of Highbury is exchanged with Beverly Hills, California, and the regal dresses from the time period are swapped for plaid mini-skirts. Although Clueless is visually different from what Austen’s novel details, the similarities mostly lie in the characterization. Silverstone’s reworked portrayal of Emma Woodhouse does not fall far from the original character’s pompous, fiercely sociable, and self-absorbed attitude. In the same light, Austen’s character of Harriet Smith is given a tomboy makeover in Clueless with character Tai, played by Brittany Murphy. Although the film leaves out a few facets from Austen’s novel, it is all the same as effective in its satire of society and managing to showcase the benevolent heroine. The fundamental reason why Clueless remains one of the best adaptations of Emma is because it is renders itself as relatable for the current generation while still staying true to Austen’s initial themes and spirit of her much-loved characters.

Following closely behind Clueless, the 1996 version of Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. This movie rendition gives a dreamlike view into Austen’s created scenery of Highbury. Details such as accurate time period clothing, dialogue, and character quirks that readers are familiar with are shown within the movie, making this adaptation pleasantly faithful to the novel. In addition, Paltrow gives a cheerful and naïve performance of Emma Woodhouse, which is ideal for the reader who seeks to put a picture to Austen’s written descriptions. Starring alongside Paltrow is Toni Collette, who also gives a loyal performance of Emma’s friend Harriet Smith. Together, the two actresses portray a true-to-life friendship between the two girls who struggle with their camaraderie, thanks to Emma’s ego-guided meddling. This film has all of the wittiness, grandeur, and social conflict of the original novel and for these reasons should be considered as the most truthful reworking of Austen’s novel.

In more recent times, Emma has yet again gotten another reimagining. Released in February of 2020, Emma showcases a luxurious rendering of the classic novel. Anya Taylor-Joy plays a demure and charming Emma Woodhouse, who thoroughly captures the personality juxtaposition of the heroine. From the very beginning of the film, viewers get a previously unseen element in prior adaptations. We see the various idiosyncrasies of each character in their own private lives, such as Emma’s emotionally vulnerable moments, Mr. Knightley’s concealed boyish excitement, and the aging Mr. Woodhouse’s untamed irritability with the smallest, most insignificant things. Even more so than previous adaptations, Emma focuses on reeling its viewers in with the doting tension between Mr. Knightly, excellently played by Johnny Flynn, and Emma. We are constantly reminded throughout the film of the unsaid, yet ever so obvious emotions that the two share for each other through their exchanged looks and gestures. It is important to note that this innocent love game between the two characters is performed in such a way that does not feel overly cliché, but rather naturally gradual. These added aspects to Austen’s beloved characters brings new, unexpected life to what many have long become accustomed to seeing. This, along with the seasonal time-lapse, distinctive score, and opulent set design, all come together to make Emma a refreshing 21st century adaptation that makes it impossible not to fall in love with everything it has to offer, and it is easy to imagine that it would have been ten times more enjoyable if movie theaters had been open during the time of its release.

As a novel, Jane Austen’s Emma has been a memorable story that I continue to find more enthralling with each read. I am constantly finding new details that I hadn’t picked up on before, or looking at a character from a different angle. I have also watched every movie adaption mentioned, but it is impossible to pick a favorite – each film is special in its own individual way. However, one element from each film that remains faithful to Austen’s novel is Emma’s benevolent nature. This is one way in which I resonate with Austen’s heroine, and therefore find her a little more charming. Emma discovers that she is only human, after all, and cannot fix everyone’s problems. This is a trait that I think brings her down to earth and makes her more relatable. These three major bi-screen adaptations of Austen’s 1815 story prove how relevant its core themes, like love, companionship, and falling-outs still are in our society today. Even though Austen was writing her story at a time when she felt compelled to satirize the social normalcies during 19th century England, the remnants of these standards continue to linger in our time. And just as much, we still find some matters in society entertaining to watch and critique in our own way. To a certain extent, Jane Austen was a writer who was ahead of her time and, unbeknownst to her, did a successful job at creating timeless stories and unforgettable characters.

Anissa Sanchez is a Senior at HBU, pursuing an English major and a Creative Writing minor. When she is not studying, she enjoys appreciating vintage music and immersing in 19th century literature & art.

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