The 2020 film Emma (dir. Autumn de Wilde) is one of those film adaptations that a Jane Austen fan may watch out of curiosity, only to feel afterwards that they should spend that time revisiting the book instead—the film is a fucking car crash.
So far I have seen 4 adaptations of Emma: the 1995 modernisation Clueless, the 2 adaptations from 1996, with Emma portrayed by Kate Beckinsale (TV) and by Gwyneth Paltrow (film), and this one, with Emma played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
As I have written before, the main thing that makes Emma a difficult book to adapt is the casting of Emma Woodhouse—there must be some charm, some innocence and naïvete about her. Emma is snobbish, wilful, and meddlesome, and her main fault is that she misreads everything, but she meddles in people’s lives out of a desire to do good—she is not a bitch. Clueless and Kate Beckinsale’s Emma get this right, whilst Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma betrays the spirit and essence of Jane Austen’s novel. Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma is downright bitchy, contemptuous, petty, catty, and even two-faced.
In a similar way, Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma is also a bitch—at the beginning of the film, she comes across as very bitchy, harsh, cold, disdainful of everyone and everything, and utterly devoid of any innocence or compassion that would make the character likable. The bitchiness comes out the most in the scenes with Miss Bates or with Jane Fairfax, but she doesn’t look like she cares about Harriet Smith as a friend, and even, strangely, seems to dislike her own sister Isabella.
Take the picnic scene where Emma unthinkingly upsets Miss Bates. In the novel, Emma says:
““Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.””Emma in the 2020 film says:
“”Ah! ma’am, but there is the difficulty. When have you ever stopped at three?””Doesn’t she sound like a bitch? The line under Jane Austen’s pen is a slip of the tongue—clear enough, but subtle. The line in the 2020 film is stronger, harsher, and meaner.
Afterwards, when Mr Knightley comes to scold her, at some point she stands up angrily and yells. Emma is not supposed to yell. Emma, as Jane Austen writes her, is embarrassed of herself and upset with what she’s done—she realises right after she has said it. She may at first try to make it less serious by saying that Miss Bates doesn’t know, but afterwards bears it in silence because she is capable of self-reflection and knows what she has done. This is why Mr Knightley knows she’s capable of improvement, and says “I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”
Anya Taylor-Joy, however, yells.
Then in the next scene, we see Emma blaming herself as unfeeling, unkind, etc. out loud, whilst Mr Woodhouse is standing there, awkwardly saying nothing and not knowing what to do. I suppose it must be hard for Mr Woodhouse to stand there, just so Emma can have a reason to say out loud her remorse and upset with herself, which she’s incapable of expressing on her face.
But let’s say that’s a small change. The story of Emma is about a young, rich woman who does matchmaking but misinterprets all the clues and misleads her gullible friend Harriet. I have no idea what the 2020 adaptation is about, but this isn’t it.
At the beginning, the Harriet-Elton plot is so under-developed that it doesn’t look very clear that Harriet is talked into being infatuated with Mr Elton. We see more of Harriet and Robert Martin, so when it turns out that Mr Elton is interested in Emma, Harriet doesn’t look greatly affected.
In the latter part of the film, the Jane Fairfax plot seems to be thrown out of the window. At the scene of the ball, for example, when Mrs Weston suggests that the pianoforte may come from Mr Knightley, Jane Austen’s intention is to leave false clues, to mislead readers—in the film, however, the camera stays on Emma’s face, watching Mr Knightley and Jane Fairfax, and looking jealous.
Frank Churchill becomes less important, the bit about Mr Dixon, for example, comes from Emma herself instead of being planted by him, and lots of details are removed. Autumn de Wilde throws the Jane Fairfax plot out of the window to develop the love story of Emma and Mr Knightley, which, at this point of the story, is too early.
Nor is there anything between Emma and Frank Churchill, except that she seems to like him a lot for about 2 scenes. In Jane Austen’s novel, there is development—before Emma meets him, she convinces herself to fall in love with Frank Churchill, after a while she starts to realise that she doesn’t feel that way about him, but in front of others, including Mr Knightley, Emma and Frank Churchill seem to be a couple. In the 2020 film, as the Jane Fairfax plot is barely there, there is also little of Frank Churchill covering it up by pretending to court Emma, he has little screen time, and there’s little sign for anyone to think that there’s anything between them.
Worst of all must be the plot regarding Harriet in this latter part of the film. For no discernible reasons, the filmmakers make a random change to the plot. In the rewritten scene, Emma is at home, Mr Knightley runs like a madman to her house, like he’s about to make a passionate love confession, but he’s interrupted by Frank Churchill carrying Harriet Smith into the house, after saving her from the gypsies. In the house, the 2 men crawl around Harriet whilst she’s yelling like she’s about to give birth. Then when the 2 men are about to run for help, Harriet says she has fallen in love again, with a man who rendered her some great service. Naturally Emma thinks she’s talking about Frank Churchill, as anyone would.
In the novel, there are 2 moments of a man doing something kind to Harriet, but it’s on a separate occasion, afterwards, that Harriet speaks of it. That is why Harriet thinks of one thing and Emma thinks of another, and they misunderstand each other. In the changed scene, which I hope didn’t come from a desire to improve on Jane Austen, it doesn’t make sense psychologically—Harriet has just been saved after an attack from the gypsies and is still in shock, there is absolutely no reason for her, at that moment, to think about Mr Knightley’s kindness to her at the ball.
Now one might ask, what about the love story between Emma and Mr Knightley?
I must say, everyone in the film is terribly miscast. Anya Taylor-Joy doesn’t have the right face for Emma. Kate Beckinsale and Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) both look innocent and lovable, Anya Taylor-Joy doesn’t have the same qualities, even though she becomes less bitchy throughout the film.
Johnny Flynn doesn’t have the right face for Mr Knightley either. Mr Knightley is mature, perceptive, and considerate—he is the only one who understands Emma and offers her guidance, and tells her exactly what he thinks instead of flattering her like everyone else does. Mr Knightley in my head isn’t awkward—he might find it difficult to express his feelings (“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more”), and he does kind things in a quiet, considerate way, but he isn’t awkward. Mark Strong, for example, is perfect in the role. Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley is awkward, even laughable, and in the scene where he confesses his feelings and says the famous line I’ve just quoted, he doesn’t sound like he means it, at all.
The scene is bad enough, devoid of passion and feeling, then for no discernible reasons, the filmmakers give her a nosebleed, even though she never has a nosebleed anywhere else in the film. The 2020 film is more comedy than Jane Austen’s book, or at least it’s a more quirky, comical approach, but I didn’t really laugh at the comical scenes; I laughed at the love confession scene.
As an adaptation and as a film, this is a disaster.