What can I say?
I remember thinking, several years ago, that the Paltrow film was all right—not as good as Clueless, and not as good as the Beckinsale one, but now that I’ve seen it again, I’m appalled at how much it strays from the novel and retains barely any of its spirit.
Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse is good at heart. She goes about doing matchmaking because she has nothing to do, but also wants to bring people happiness. She can be wilful and snobbish, but her main fault is misinterpreting everything and meddling in people’s lives—her mistakes are consequences of misguided kindness, not malice. She might hurt people, Miss Bates for example, but can bear Knightley’s lectures because she has self-reflection and knows that she’s wrong, and she tries to make amends.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma is a bitch.
This is an essay that voices the same thoughts I have about the adaptation:
“But in Paltrow’s hands, Emma doesn’t seem young or innocent, so much as contemptuous and superior. When she dismisses a well-written offer for Harriet’s hand in marriage (“It is a good letter. One of his sisters must have helped him.”), she sounds as snide and resentful as Austen’s sort-of-villain Mrs. Elton. Mock-praising Mr. Knightley for arranging a ride for Jane Fairfax, who plays the pianoforte better than Emma, Emma sounds downright bitchy. (“How sweet to have lent your carriage to her, so that her fingers would be warm enough for the performance.”) She doesn’t come across as naïve so much as catty, petty, and jealous. When she assumes Frank Churchill is in love with her, she adds smug and insufferable to the mix; when she alternates grousing to Harriet about Mrs. Elton with bright greetings for other people around her, she seems two-faced as well. Austen’s Emma has some growing up to do, but Paltrow’s needs a full personality transplant.”This is not really Paltrow’s fault. The fault lies with Douglas McGrath (writer-director)—the problem is in the script and the directing.
If Jane Austen’s Emma is snobbish and thinks Robert Martin is not a gentleman, Paltrow’s Emma is contemptuous and doesn’t even want to make him her acquaintance because he’s beneath her, and she sounds mean about the letter.
Whilst Jane Austen’s Emma can’t warm to Jane Fairfax because of Jane’s reserved nature and because of her own envy, Paltrow’s Emma is a bitch, referring to Jane as “that ninny”, and comes across as petty and spiteful. Her manners towards Miss Bates don’t look like a lady’s civility towards an acquaintance she finds slightly annoying (but harmless), but there’s a two-facedness about her manners that makes her look like an insufferable hypocrite.
Even her friendship with Harriet Smith strays far from the book. Emma may be a bad influence, and almost makes Harriet lose her chance of happiness, but she’s not a false friend. In the novel, she sees Harriet as a friend from beginning to end—the talk about George Knightley only makes her jealous, which makes her realise that she loves him, but it doesn’t impact her friendship with Harriet.
In the film, upon hearing Harriet’s confession of her feelings, Paltrow’s Emma has a look of shock mixed with contempt like Harriet is so much beneath Knightley and it’s shocking that she dares to have feelings for him. Later, in a soliloquy, she hopes that Knightley thinks it through, and cries that Harriet’s parents “may be pirates!”. Douglas McGrath even adds a scene of Emma taking down her painting of Harriet and replacing it with image of a dog.
Emma Woodhouse, in the writing and directing of Douglas McGrath, appears disdainful, petty, spiteful, jealous, two-faced, and just insufferable.
Not only so, he also turns Harriet (Toni Collette) into a clown—the simple, naive, and impressionable Harriet in the book now becomes comic relief, an unfunny kind of comic relief.
Knightley too is a disappointment. Maybe I have high standards after seeing Mark Strong, but Jeremy Northam’s Knightley, although all right for the large part, a few times gets awkward, in a comic way, and it’s ridiculous. Knightley might struggle to express his feelings (that famous line “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more”), but he’s too old and mature to have that schoolboy’s awkwardness. This adaptation doesn’t have a lot of Knightley though—it mostly focuses on Emma and Harriet.
In short, this is a bad adaptation that betrays its source.
I’m afraid the new one would be the same.