The new Emma film by Autumn de Wilde is the latest in a very long line of Austen adaptations, but by no means the strangest. Even in Austen’s lifetime there were pirated editions and translations of her books that took liberties with the originals, and the first illustrated editions raised howls of objection, too, at their ‘lamentable’ interference (as E.M. Forster thought) with the sacred text. Early stage versions all made free with ‘Divine Jane’ according to whim.
The very first motion picture of an Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice (1940), rather flaunted its carelessness about accuracy, transposing the action into the 1850s to accommodate the costume designer Edith Head’s preferences and softening Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s heart in the final scenes. Aldous Huxley was one of the scriptwriters on that film, but presumably not responsible for the line given to Darcy (played by Laurence Olivier): ‘Shall we not call it quits and start again?’ As the months went by, the director, Robert Leonard, made increasingly strange demands for tweaks to the plot, and Huxley was only just able to fight off a duel scene between Mr Bennet and Wickham.
There was a war on, Leonard might have answered, and anyway, what are national treasures for? It was Austenness he was channelling, not a work of literature. ‘I thought Jane Austen would be a good collaborator,’ Douglas McGrath said of his own 1996 screenplay for Emma, ‘because she writes, you know, superb dialogue…and she’s dead.’ Everyone wants their version of the books to be distinctive, of course, but never for literary reasons; often it’s to showcase a star, or celebrate an anniversary; very often, in Austen’s case, to tease a willing audience. Ever since the wild success of the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice, it’s been de rigeur to add sexiness to Austen’s famously decorous stories (in which no one even kisses, of course). The iconic scene in that film, it will be remembered, did not come from Austen but from the screenwriter, Andrew Davies, who was as surprised as anyone at its impact. ‘There was a period… when you would go to parties and whenever you went into the kitchen there would be a picture of Mr Darcy and his wet shirt tacked up over the dishwasher. I’m very proud of that.’
Subsequent dramatizations all strove to inject a bit of testosterone into Austen’s heroes by giving them some log-chopping and riding in the rain to do, while cleavage and feistiness became obligatory for the female characters, as a way of making them seem modern and relatable. The casting of Billie Piper as Fanny Price, in the 2007 Mansfield Park, was perhaps the most bizarre example of the trend. ‘Once you’ve cast Billie, you could never pretend she’s anything other than startling-looking,’ the producer said, explaining why they then changed the whole characterization of Austen’s mousiest heroine to fit the look of the star.
Austenmania on the big and small screen also brought out themes in the novels that Austen had kept deliberately shadowy; Willoughby’s shameful past in Sense and Sensibility (inserted as a seduction in the 2008 mini-series), or the brief but significant mention of the slave trade in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park.
Nobody has sought a return, though, to the earnest doggedness of the old TV versions, such as Emma from 1972 starring Doran Godwin and John Carson, which kept to the novel’s plot and dialogue as faithfully as possible, while microphone boom shadows followed the cast around cramped and flimsy sets. This would now be anathema. All sorts of things might occur in an Austen film that never appear in an Austen novel — Darcy may dive into a lake in his shirt, Knightley may strip off completely — but heaven help the producer who puts them in poor costumes, an implausible location, or among inauthentic props.
There’s been a Bollywood Emma (Aisha, 2010), but as yet no big-screen mash-up like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), and no weird fantasy projection such as the recent TV treatment of Sanditon. Deviance isn’t always bad news, though. Undoubtedly the most original version of Emma to be made in the past 30 years was the one that looks least like it, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which set the story in a contemporary Beverly Hills high school, to gloriously fresh effect. There’s already been a musical version of the 1995 film, and a remake for television is in the works, though a lot of people have never spotted the connection with Emma. Clueless is its own classic now, the subject of anxious commentary from fans that the original is being disrespected.
Heckerling’s success with Clueless might have been partly due to her handling of the love story, with the introduction of a gay character, Christian, and acknowledgment of the queasy incestuous Emma-Knightley vibe. This has always been a problem for film-makers and I can’t think of a single adaptation where the chemistry really works; Romola Garai is a lovely Emma in the 2009 mini-series, but Johnny Lee Miller looks both too young and too cool to be her stern monitor; Jeremy Northam is very Knightley in the McGrath film, but has to contend with Gwyneth Paltrow’s vanilla heroine. Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong made another unconvincing pair in 1996. No one wants to depict the actual age difference between the characters in the book, or the fact that Mr Knightley has been monitoring Emma’s progress since birth, acting as a much-needed back-up to her fretful and inadequate father.
Autumn de Wilde has made her Knightley young, handsome, virile and buff. He and the rest of the lovely cast inhabit a brightly colored world that both is and is not anything like Austen’s. Does it matter? Austen wrote Emma in high spirits, at the height of her success, and it shows; it is the most buoyant and cheerful of all her books, with an unquenchably optimistic view of life, so no wonder it’s often voted the nation’s favorite romance, even by people who haven’t read it. ‘The novels of Jane Austen/ Are the ones to get lost in,’ G.K. Chesterton’s clerihew says, and we do get lost in them, over and over again. They’re bound to get a bit lost in the process too.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.