Emma’s Movie Makeover, by Rebecca Jamison

Emma’s Movie Makeover, by Rebecca Jamison

I love Emma. As someone who’s spent way too much time trying to help other people solve problems that I really had no business trying to solve, I can relate to her.

But not everyone loves Emma. I found this out the hard way when I had to rewrite my retelling of Emma twice. It’s hard to keep a character like Emma from coming across as a snob.

“Why is it so important for Emma to be likable?” you ask. “The point of the story is that snobby Emma changes to become nice Emma.”

In the words of Blake Snyder, it’s important to have a likable main character “because liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into your story.”

I think part of the reason I’ve always loved Emma is that movie-makers have done a great job of smoothing out her rough edges. Today, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from the movie versions of Emma and Clueless about making a character more endearing.

First, make her beautiful! 




The actresses who play Emma are over-the-top gorgeous, which–unfair as this may seem–makes people like them more.

Eliminate the negative. If you compare the book to the movie, you’ll notice that movie-theater Emma is a little less negative than book Emma. For example, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma finds out that Jane Fairfax has a new pianoforte, she doesn’t suggest that it might have come from Mr. Dixon. That bit of gossip comes from Frank Churchill. (In the book, it is just the opposite.)


Give her a best friend. If you give your character a friend, she seems more friendly. Cher in Clueless seems more friendly because she and Dionne get along so well.

Have her do something a little heroic in the beginning. In one of the first scenes of Clueless, we see Cher doing her best to take care of her single father by encouraging him to drink orange juice. We can’t help liking her for this.


Funny dialogue. Cher is also funny. One of my favorite parts is when she rolls through a stop sign and says, “I totally paused.” And that’s not the only funny thing she says. The movie has a ton of hilarious lines. My kids quote her all the time.

Make someone else snobbier. Anyone who’s unfairly treated automatically seems more likable. In both the book and movie versions of Emma, Jane Fairfax is cold and aloof, but seeing this played out on the screen, we sympathize even more for Emma. Just check out this picture:

Suddenly Emma doesn’t seem quite as snobby anymore.

For another example, check out Amber from Clueless, Cher’s snobby rival.

Make us feel sorry for her. In both the Gwyneth Paltrow version and Clueless, we get the feeling during the opening scenes that our main character is lonely. We feel for Emma, losing her best friend to marriage and getting her cart stuck in the stream. We feel for Cher getting ignored by her workaholic father and getting abandoned by her friends after the party.


Of course, I love Emma in the book too. I love that she tries so hard to help Harriet and keep her father comfortable. Her caring heart really comes through for me. How about you? What do you like about Emma?

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11 Responses to Emma’s Movie Makeover, by Rebecca Jamison

  1. Actually the reasons given for the changes in the movies make me dislike most movie versions. Emma was called “the Peak of Perfection” as the theme of one of the JASNA AGMs. I think Emma is only slightly less disliked than Fanny Price . Emma because she is too self confident and Fanny Price because she isn’t self confident enough. Jane Austen didn’t have the advantage of psychology courses or the numerous books and web pages about personality types and yet, she hits them perfectly. Emma and Fanny both act as they do because of their circumstances as much as because of the type of personality of each. Emma has a sister who is so much older than she that Emma might as well have been an only child. She has been an only child for the last several years. She also hasn’t had a mother.
    The one thing I did like about one of the latest movies were the scenes at the beginning that showed Frank, Jane, and Emma all losing their mothers. There was also another– Harriet who we don’t see being taken away from her mother..
    I don’t think Jane Austen translated any person she knew directly to a story– she probably took some bits and pieces of many– however, I think that if she was influenced by any one in writing Emma it was her niece Fanny Austen Knight.

  2. I enjoyed this post, Rebecca. My only complaint about it is that I honestly don’t believe Jane Fairfax was intended to be “snobby” by Jane Austen. Jane Fairfax is clearly an introvert, and, considering the secret she must guard, is uncomfortable with Emma trying to draw her out. She also picks up on Emma’s passive aggressive attitude toward her, which is a signal for her reserve to kick in. I think Jane Fairfax’s worst flaw is actually that she is so biddable, agreeing to be quiet about their engagement and yet watch Frank openly flirt with Emma under the guise of covering up his relationship with Jane. That she could sit there and say nothing to Frank surely must have been nearly killing her! Poor Jane.

  3. Clueless is one of my favorite movies in the comedy genre, period. I saw it ages ago when I was just past my own California high school days, and was clueless myself in regards to it having anything to do with Austen. I loved it just as a hysterical movie that nailed the Valley Girl image I was SO familiar with. Later, awareness of the Austen connection only made me love Clueless more.

    I happen to enjoy ALL of the Austen novel cinematic adaptations, each for their unique perspectives. Emma is one that has translated so well to film every time. Thanks for this insightful post, Rebecca.

  4. That was a great post. I’m sorry to say Emma is my least favourite book of Austen’s. I just can’t warm to her. I also dislike Gwyneth Paltrow intensely so that didn’t help when they made the film. But oh my Mr Knightly is to die for.

  5. Not like Emma? As if! I also felt a little sorry for her throughout the book because she always seems rather desperate to get people to like her. She pretends she isn’t, but yeah she totally is. And she is so lovingly concerned about her father in book and film. I also thought it was sad in the book that she doesn’t get to meet eligible men her own age. Yes, I like Mr Knightley (who wouldn’t?) but he was an adult already when she was born. The only “men” she meets are Mr Elton and Frank Churchill — bad and worse. It wasn’t until I started hanging out with JAFF writers and readers that I learned that Emma is disliked and I was more than a little surprised. Well, chacun a son gout. A delightful post, and a timely reminder that it’s been far too long since I watched Clueless!

  6. I love Emma; it’s in my top three Austen novels (with P&P and S&S). I see Emma as the female Mr. Darcy; their lives are almost parallel. Like Darcy, she was raised as the much-loved child of the great house; since her mother’s death and her sister’s marriage, Emma is large and in charge. Like Darcy dotes on Georgianna, Emma dotes on her father. And like Darcy, she has no reason to doubt that she is respected and admired by everyone she meets. Enter Mr. Knightley (the male equivalent of Elizabeth Bennet) who challenges Emma’s complacency and helps her realize her softer, more caring side. I’ve always found it interesting that the character of Mr. Darcy is so beloved and wildly romanticized by readers, while Emma (who is at her core, simply a female Mr. Darcy) is so often disliked. I’ve watched all the film versions you mentioned in your post, and love them all. Thanks for posting this; it’s nice to find another Emma fan!

  7. I must say that I first read “Emma” when I was quite young (and fell in love with Mr. Knightley), but the book has never been one of my favorites. Mayhap because in my world, girls like Emma Woodhouse were all too common (and they did not learn their lesson). When Clueless came out in 1995 (I was 48 years old), I was too busy working, raising children, etc., to pay it more than a cursory look. I am also not a Gwenyth fan. Others in the 1996 film (most notably Alan Cummings, Jeremy Northam, Sophie Thompson, and Toni Collette make the film palatable.

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