The creative forces behind the much-anticipated new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma have revealed what drew them to the author’s work.
The tale of the “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma Woodhouse (here played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a meddlesome literary heroine who plays at being a matchmaker, has captivated readers and cinema-goers across many generations, as she is faced with moral dilemmas such as the truth of her identity and relationship with family friend Mr Knightley (portrayed by Johnny Flynn in the new film).
This major new adaptation from music video director and photographer Autumn de Wilde is her feature film debut but is only the latest screen version of Emma with previous incarnations including the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and the iconic 1995 teen comedy adaptation Clueless which transported the tale loosely to an American high school.
There are eternally powerful reasons for the continued fascination with this particular beloved tale and with the works of Jane Austen in general.
“I think that Jane Austen was a genius and had very astute observations of small town life as a class system and of basic human relationship issues,” revealed de Wilde to Mirror Online. “Mr Knightley and Emma are sorts of brother-and-sister-type friends, family friends, best friends, and we still, all of us, have someone we did end up with or sort of wish maybe we did end up with if we just tried kissing them.
“That’s something she noticed and wrote about and is something that travels through all time periods and cultures.”
The director also revealed that while many often write Austen novels off as romantic comedies, there's another layer to proceedings also at play that makes it carry great human importance for readers.
She explains: “No matter what’s going on in the world – wars, environmental disasters, political disasters – we still have these really simple, ridiculous problems with love and friendship – they’ll never go away until we’re all dead…it might be too simple for some but a little pretend and going back in time is a really wonderful escape.”
In this new adaptation, de Wilde was keen to prioritise the power of early female friendships, especially the relationship between Emma and the dim-witted but sweet Harriet Smith, played by Mia Goth in the film.
“The Harriet and Emma relationship was really important for me to bring out, rather than it just be a comedic button,” says de Wilde, “that first friendship between two girls is a sort of obsessive love.”
“Often in high school or junior high school in those teen years, people choose friends for power and not for the right reasons and that’s why Clueless was so incredible and Emma was translated so well, as in American high school that’s where class systems are translated and it feels like that never goes away.”
It is something that the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton, was also keen to bring to the script of the film too.
“It seemed to me that a lot of the previous adaptations had kind of made fun of Harriet – whether intentionally or unintentionally – and sneered at her a little bit or had not taken the friendship and what was at stake between the two of them seriously,” opines Catton to Mirror Online.
Like de Wilde, she believes their friendship should be seen “as a romance in its own right.”
The screenwriter was similarly keen to bring out the class elements of Austen’s work and ensure that the servants around Emma were clearly represented too.
“The way that Emma’s social snobbery makes her unable to see and communicate with the people that she shares her house with was something that I wanted to play on,” says Catton.
However, taking on such a literary classic and transforming it into a script for a two-hour film is no easy feat, especially with such a complicated lead character.
“Emma is such a famously unlikable heroine – well, people say unlikeable but in my experience of her, she’s very likeable,” she explains. “She is definitely flawed and is impossible to approve of. She’s not a well-behaved heroine and she makes mistakes and those mistakes hurt people.”
Yet, it is in her flaws that Miss Woodhouse becomes such a captivating protagonist for readers to follow.
“We all make mistakes that are based on the fact that we’re too self-centred,” considers Catton. “I can’t think of a single person in the world who that hasn’t happened to at some point.
“I think she reflects us at our worst and I think there's something very alluring about that.”
They are aspects known all too well by Professor John Mullan, Lord Northcliffe Chair of Modern English Literature and Head of English at University College London, who is the author of the book What Matters in Jane Austen?
“The really massive challenge for a film of Emma, more than any of Austen’s other novels, is that Emma is narrated almost entirely from the point of view of Emma and Emma is 80-90% wrong about things,” explains Professor Mullan to Mirror Online. “To read Emma the novel is to see the world through her wrong-headed eyes, so much so that it’s written with so many clues as to what is going on but these can only be understood in retrospect.”
Professor Mullan feels that often that the adaptions get too obsessed with trying to make Austen relevant to today through additional original material, but he argues there is already enough there to satisfy readers and audiences in the novel.
“People do try and make her ‘relevant’ or make her belong to the day and generally the harder they try, the less successful they are,” he opines.
“Whenever you put things in that aren’t there – Andrew Davies notoriously puts in sex sometimes, even in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice – and that’s just embarrassing because there’s plenty of sexual implication in the novel already and it’s counter-productive and jarring if you try and provide what she didn’t provide.”
The more subtle approach to sensuality and focus on the unsaid and minute details was also a vital component for de Wilde when adapting the classic book.
She noted: “The physicality of etiquette was important – I would never modernise that – because I feel that creates the exciting other layers of things that are not being said.
“I think people forget how much that exists in real life when you see someone across a room and you know you like them and you haven’t touched yet – that’s really powerful.”
Professor Mullan agrees, stating that the eroticism in Austen’s work goes on “in the gaps of the novel and behind the novel.”
With a focus in many costume drama films often being on overly grand settings for sumptuous views and elaborate period fashion styles – of which this picture-perfect new film is no exception – Professor Mullan believes the true appeal for filmmakers actually lies in two other more important reasons.
He outlines: “One is that Austen writes absolutely brilliant dialogue. So even if you can only include a small amount of it and even if it has to be really pared down, it is still electric.
“It’s no accident that adaptors and filmmakers so love things like Elizabeth and Mr Darcy [of Pride and Prejudice] because it’s not just the psychology of it but the brilliant way in which they speak to each other.
“The second thing is the psychology of it. She like no other novelist gives herself over to her characters.
“Virginia Woolf said about Jane Austen, ‘She’s not there at all’, and there are some novelists where they are right there and that’s fine as some of them are really good novelists, like Charles Dickens and George Elliot, but she’s not there at all.
“It’s like the characters exist so clearly and so probably that she can leave the book to them.”
Comparing the works of Austen with those of legendary playwright William Shakespeare for their intricate detail accompanied with grounded simplicity, Professor Mullan believes that different takes and details can be unpacked by different people of all ages or even across time by the same readers.
He says: “I’ve read Emma fifteen to seventeen times and I’ve just turned sixty and I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before and that’s a really really incredible thing… it’s that mixture of absolute simplicity and almost unending complicatedness, she did a deal with the devil!”
The ability for different readers and filmmakers to find new angles or revelations in Austen’s work is something that de Wilde agrees with and celebrates.
She notes: “Jane Austen, like Shakespeare, can be translated in many ways and people should always make new Jane Austen films because it’s interesting to see what parts of the book they are focusing on.”
In fact, it was an opportunity that the artist who has worked with stars such as Fiona Apple and The White Stripes could not pass up.
“To be a female director and to have my first film be about a female anti-hero felt incredible and to craft an unlikable person that you also fall in love with, that was also important to me,“ concludes the director.
EMMA. is out in UK cinemas now.
Are you a Jane Austen fan and, if so, why? Let us know in the comments below.
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