Film of the book: ‘Emma’ (1996)

Jane Austen’s novel of 1815 is given the nineties rom-com treatment in this charming film, which was released the year after the TV series ofΒ Pride and Prejudice that introduced the famous ‘wet shirt scene’ to the world. Alas, there is no such scene in this adaptation of Emma.

The basic premise of the story is that Emma, young, wealthy and living with her father on a grand estate, does not need to marry. So she sets about matchmaking for her friend Harriet, a younger girl of a different social class. However, Emma makes misjudgements galore while interfering with other people’s love lives, causing embarrassment and misery. At the same time, her best friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley, is the one for her, but a string of further errors causes conflict between them. Never fear, you know it will turn out all right in the end.

Gwyneth Paltrow makes a perfect, if unsubtle, Emma. Toni Collette is excellent as Harriet Smith; you can see her anxiety at being in grand social situations, as she develops gestures that accentuate her awkwardness rather than cover it. I found Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam) a bit underwhelming. I was probably comparing him to Mr Darcy. Unlike Darcy, Knightley is agreeable to everyone and always knows the correct way to behave – which is what makes him less interesting to me. Really the film version of him is similar to the book, with a touch more playfulness.

The novel is also known for the characters of Mrs and Miss Bates, who live in what you might call genteel poverty. Although they are quite annoying, they are to be treated kindly. In the film, Mrs Bates is portrayed as a stern-looking, silent woman who stares into the distance while her daughter talks and giggles constantly. Fun fact: they are played by real-life mother and daughter, Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson.

As you would expect with a period drama adaptation of a book, the romance and comedy elements are enhanced, while reducing aspects which don’t contribute to the story. This helps to streamline the plot, which is important for a film because hundreds of pages’ worth of story have to be packed into a couple of hours. I wouldn’t say Emma is my favourite film adaptation, but it is my favourite Austen book (at the moment…. I’m planning to re-read them all, so my opinion could change). It made me smile and it warmed my heart. Job well done.


13 thoughts on “Film of the book: ‘Emma’ (1996)”

  1. I love Emma! It’s also my favorite Austen novel. I personally don’t mind the lighthearted tone of the adaptation — I see them as two separate works (the movie vs. the book) and that’s ok. I had no idea the Bates in the movie are related; I’ve watched this movie a ton of times so I can’t believe I’m just finding out about this now!

    I’m also a diehard Knightly fan. I think the attraction to prickly, difficult guys wears off once you’ve dated a few assholes in real life, haha. πŸ™‚ I’ll take a nice, considerate, level-headed leading man any day, no question.

    This was a fun post, thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you! I’m very familiar with the book as it’s (currently) my favourite Austen too! I also see books and films as separate. The Bates thing I probably found out from Wikipedia πŸ˜‰
      I do like Knightley although sometimes he seems more like a father figure to Emma than a romantic partner! Probably due to the age gap. He’s very nice, just not as interesting as Darcy πŸ˜€

    1. I think Jane Austen can be challenging to read, so the films make her stories accessible for everyone (and they focus on the best bits of the stories!)

    1. Glad you liked my review πŸ™‚
      Would recommend watching the film even if you haven’t read the book.

  2. I didn’t realize Mrs and Miss Bates in the film were real-life mom and daughter.

    I quite liked this film and Gwyneth P. as Emma. In fact, you’ve made me want to see this again. And you’ve made me want to re-read the book, which I haven’t read for several years.

    1. I found that out on Wikipedia!
      It’s worth watching again – that was the 2nd time I have watched it. I’ve read the book several times.

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