Two months ago, I showcased an extensive list of all the Pride and Prejudice adaptations and movies or shows inspired by it. This month, I decided to do the same with Emma. Though there aren’t quite as many versions of Emma out there, it’s still popular enough to have been done multiple times as a historical adaptation, and even a few modern-day renditions.
The BBC miniseries starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller is my personal favorite adaptation. Romola’s facial expressions are truly priceless, and the 6-episode series is quite faithful to the book. Jonny is a stellar Mr. Knightley, the bossy, but utterly adorable, boy-next-door type of hero, and we also see some fine performances by Blake Ritson as Mr. Elton, Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton, and Louise Dylan as Harriet Smith, not to mention the rest of the fine cast.
The feature film adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma is a fan-favorite for many Austenites. I’ll admit, this is not my favorite performance from Paltrow, but the film has many redeeming qualities, one of which is the amazing Jeremy Northam’s performance as Mr. Knightley. I was surprised to see Ewan McGregor in one of his breakout roles as Frank Churchill (pre-Star Wars and Moulin Rouge fame).
Emma was so popular in the ‘90’s, that less than one year after the film starring Paltrow came out in theatres, a TV movie was released starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Most adaptations cast Emma as a blonde, so it was a nice change to see them cast a dark-haired actress this time. Beckinsale, who went on to star as Lady Susan in the Austen adaptation titled “Love and Friendship”, wet her chops nicely for the rich socialite-type character as Emma. I liked that this adaptation showed off Emma’s fanciful daydreams as well as the story.
Speaking of the ‘90’s and Emma-craze, one of the best modern-day Emma adaptations, Clueless, came out in 1995, just before the two historical adaptations I mentioned, and the same year as both the Pride and Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth, the Sense and Sensibility movie with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, and the Persuasion movie with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds— a banner year for Austen fans! Alicia Silverstone absolutely killed in her role as the spoiled teen Cher Horowitz, whose determination to remake the look and lovelife of newcomer Tai (Brittany Murphy) wreaks more havoc than good. Paul Rudd plays Cher’s ex-stepbrother who now works for her father, encapsulating that odd “family, but not-quite-family” relationship that Emma and Knightley have in the book. Clueless did a great job of bringing the Emma storyline into the 20th century and making it relevant as a teen romantic comedy, and was popular enough to spawn a TV series.
The newest feature film to-date starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn was met with mixed reactions from fans. I personally loved the comedic spin that director Autumn de Wilde put on the story, especially the exaggeration of Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy)’s fear of catching cold, and the overall silliness of Mrs. Bates, Harriet Smith, and Mrs. Elton. The costumes were also colorful and beautiful, and the director highlighted the story’s timeline through the progression of the seasons. Anya Taylor-Joy played up on Emma’s snooty attitude for most of the story, which makes her character’s growth into a kind and caring friend all the more meaningful.
Like the other BBC productions of the 70’s and 80’s, this adaptation comes off as a bit quaint and outdated. I watched it for posterity, but it was probably my least favorite of all the versions. One redeeming virtue: this version included an actual apology from Emma to Mrs. Bates when she calls on her following the Box Hill outing, which I’ve always felt was implied in the book, but most adaptations do not outright give.
Made by the same producers as the Lizzy Bennet Diaries, this modern-day web series is set up as an ongoing documentary that Emma is filming about her career as a matchmaker, life-coach, and event planner through the company she and Alex Knightley founded, Emma Approved. Harriet Smith is hired on as Emma’s assistant and later promoted to event coordinator. In this version, Emma is portrayed as far more pushy than her book counterpart, insisting that her best friend Annie Taylor not to call off her wedding to Mr. Weston despite her hesitations, all to save the elaborate wedding Emma has planned. She also interferes in her sister’s marriage, and spies on Jane Fairfax. The series is full of great characters, from the hilarious financial planner Maddy Bates to the charming and likeable business tycoon Frank Churchill. There’s even a surprise crossover character from Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Despite Emma’s bossy personality, she really does have a caring heart. The series did a great job of showing Emma’s world come crashing down as a result of her mistakes, and an even better job showing the love and forgiveness of the people who really care about her.
Which of these Emma versions have you seen? Which ones are your favorites? Tell me in the comments!