Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)


Extensive Grounds and Classic Columns: Emma on Film

William Phillips (email: has taught in the US, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. He has written/presented on such topics as women in American musicals, AIDS education in Japan, and teaching film criticism in Japanese EFL.

Louise Heal (email: has taught in the UK, France, and Japan. She has published or spoken on TheatreSports and the use of drama, literature, and film in the EFL classroom as well as Austen on film.

Emma doubted the truth of this sentiment. She had a great idea that people who had extensive grounds themselves cared very little for the extensive grounds of any body else . . . .Emma (273)

"Isn’t my house classic? The columns date all the way back to 1972." Cher--Clueless

This consideration focuses on the adaptations of Emma that are readily available on video. The intention here is not to weigh into the controversy that has raged since 1902 over the relative merit of film adaptations in general. We recommend the works of Boyum along with Giddings, Selby, and Wensley for their comprehensive and accessible discussions of the adaptation controversy and the contrasting capabilities of film and prose as narrative forms. The controversy notwithstanding, some reference to critical stance seems warranted. The assumption is that we address an Emma-familiar audience. The point of view that has been most influential is that of Neil Sinyard, who sets out three qualities by which he believes screen adaptations of novels should be judged:

It does seem to me that the great screen adaptations are the ones that go for the spirit rather than the letter of the text; or exploit a unique affinity between the personalities of the original writer and the present film-maker; or use the camera to interpret and not simply illustrate the tale. (Sinyard x)

Sinyard sees film adaptations of novels as a species of critical essay in that they select, delete, compress, and offer preferred alternatives among other critical activities. In that light, he looks for an adaptation to "bring the novels to vivid visual and dramatic life." At the same time, good adaptation is "not afraid to kick the novels around, to take liberties, . . . go for intensity of illumination more than a shapeless inclusiveness" (Sinyard 171). Given this framework, the discussion here examines the four adaptations in terms of one principal question: In what way do elements of any particular adaptation cause us to re-engage in a dialogue with the novel?

Extensive Grounds and Classic Columns

It is in no way surprising to suggest that Emma is similar to her great rival, Mrs. Elton. Certainly Emma is less abrasive and better behaved, and Emma learns and grows while Mrs. Elton does not. However, the Emma who, early in their relationship, announces to Harriet Smith, "‘Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want . . . ’" (84), is not so very different in one respect of character from a Mrs. Elton who would say to Emma upon their second meeting, "‘Blessed with so many resources within myself, the world was not necessary to me’" (276). A fair number of the elements in the litany of negatives that Emma has already applied to Mrs. Elton upon this occasion could well be applied to Emma: "extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; . . . that all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish, she was ignorant . . . " (272). Let us examine the four films in relation to this observation about the character of Emma.

All three of the "period" adaptations portray the first meetings between Emma and Mrs. Elton in ways that warrant the claim of one-sidedness. They display the build-up of Mrs. Elton’s distressing manner, Emma’s increasing irritation with her, and Emma’s ultimate "Insufferable woman!" response, which Austen presents as a private monologue (279). In all three, however, we are deprived of clues to the similarities between these two women.

The Glenister/Constanduros (1972) production chooses to exclude the wonderful line about "extensive grounds." The discussion of the similarity between Maple Grove and Hartfield does take place, although the setting has been changed to the vicarage and Harriet Smith is in the scene. Mrs. Elton’s total focus on Emma and her neglect of Harriet to the point of being ill-mannered are not lost on Emma who is clearly building toward the "Insufferable woman!" explosion, delivered to Mr. Knightley in the next scene.

The Lawrence/Davies (1997) film preserves Austen’s Hartfield setting but adds Harriet Smith to the scene. The dialogue is virtually word for word from Austen when Mrs. Elton speaks of people with "extensive grounds" being pleased with anything "in the same style." Actress Lucy Robinson’s portrayal of Mrs. Elton with a suggested Somerset accent whose heavy post-vocalic "r" (perhaps intended to remind viewers of certain American accents) certainly helps establish a growing irritation in the viewer parallel to the same irritation that is amply shown in Kate Beckinsale’s portrayal of Emma. This scene ends with a jump cut to Emma’s "Insufferable woman!" outburst, delivered in this case to Mrs. Weston.

McGrath’s Emma (1996) preserves the Hartfield setting of this encounter and, like the novel, does not have Harriet Smith around. McGrath’s repetition of the phrase "extensive grounds" to replace "in the same style" may be one of the few improvements on the source that can be claimed by this film. The delivery and timing of Juliet Stevenson in a brilliant performance as Mrs. Elton are unrivaled in the other films and in this one, unfortunately, not matched in the scenes of this particular encounter by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma. Emma’s growing irritation does become apparent (if too sweet in Paltrow’s performance) and the "Insufferable woman" sentiment follows, here delivered to Harriet Smith.

In sum, none of the period adaptations adequately recognizes that to some degree Mrs. Elton is a reflection of Emma’s character. In none of these three films—in this or in any of the subsequent encounters between Emma and Mrs. Elton—do we get interior monologue, behavior, or speech that provides very much in the way of clues to a potential similarity between the women.

The opposite is true of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 "teen-flick" Clueless, by now well established as a contemporary adaptation of Emma. The fact that Jane Austen is not credited in the Heckerling film may be one of its chief faults. Heckerling herself told a seminar of film students that the structure of Clueless is all to be found in Austen (AFI Online). A few of the obvious character parallels should be mentioned for purposes of discussion: Cher/Emma; Cher’s father, Mel/Mr. Woodhouse; Josh/Mr. Knightley; Tai/Harriet; Christian/Frank; Elton/Mr. Elton; Amber/Mrs. Elton, Travis/Robert Martin. Heckerling has created what we would like to term an "alphabet puzzle approach" to her treatment of plot in adapting Emma (see Emma, 347). Events in the story are divided up and rearranged in a kind of image anagram for the Emma-familiar viewer to solve. To locate themes parallel to those in Emma, viewers must rearrange some events to master the puzzle. Early in the film, there is a brief scene in which we follow Cher home. As Cher drives into the forecourt of her Beverly Hills home, the first person narrator (Cher herself) delivers the "classic" line cited at the beginning of this piece. It is followed upon her entrance into the house by Cher’s proudly showing her "98" in geometry to the portrait of her dead mother. The whole picture seems to illuminate the pride in home and self reflected in the novel’s narrative passages mentioned above. Probably the drive—note the "‘glimpse of a fine large tree’" (273)—and the architectural details of the Horowitz house, resembling as they do the "sweep" and Palladian/Greek Revival features of many fine houses built throughout the eighteenth century in England, are no accident. Cher even tells us that the columns date from 1972, the year of the Glenister/Constanduros film.

Cher sees herself as superior to Amber in taste and manners. Her references to Amber’s "designer impostor perfume" and her looks as "full on Monet. . . . It’s like the paintings, see? From far away it’s OK, but up close it’s a big old mess" seem to us to be clear allusions to Mrs. Elton’s under-bred finery, among other characteristics. In addition, Heckerling has left a trail of clues to the similarity between Cher and Amber in taste and temperament. Their first encounter is a debate in Mr. Hall’s class. As if to support her opinion of herself in relation to Amber, Cher is classically attired in the yellow cardigan and yellow plaid pleated skirt we see her choose in the opening of the film. Amber is rather overdone with a formfitting jacket and hair fillet both trimmed in black feathers. The clue to the similarity in taste comes when Cher goes to a party in the San Fernando Valley wearing a wrap with black feather trim. At that same party, Tai (Harriet) notices that Amber is wearing a red dress identical to one Cher wore to school earlier in the week. As for temperament, in their various encounters both Cher and Amber resort to the mindless "put down" phrases—"As if," "Whatever" and "Hello!—so common in the speech of mid-1990s American teens.

In our view, Heckerling has done the superior job of illuminating this dimension of similarity between Emma/Mrs. Elton and Cher/Amber.

Where Is "Dear Jane" Anyway?

The Jane Fairfax of Glenister/Constanduros (1972) is for the most part a spirited, resolute woman who stands up for herself as best she can against the pushy Mrs. Elton and keeps a demure distance from the less raucous but equally aggressive Emma. She even goes so far on one occasion as to shout at Miss Bates in the company of others. She is certainly a character whose presence is felt. As might be expected, this longer "mini-series" includes more about this essential supporting character than the other films, but there are peculiar changes. As in the source, Frank inadvertently talks of Perry’s carriage. In this version, the camera is used intriguingly here to focus both on Jane’s embarrassed reaction and Mr. Knightley’s thoughtful expression, but foregoes the alphabet puzzle game afterwards, thus failing to show the next clue in the mystery. Yet another change is even more extraordinary. Inexplicably, Jane is not present on the trip to Box Hill (nor, in fact, is Mr. Elton) and no reference is made to their absence. While the scene of Emma’s humiliation of Miss Bates unfolds more or less as Austen wrote it, it cannot have all the same implications without those two characters. Among such implications are Jane’s observation of Frank’s attentions to Emma and the conversation between Frank and Jane on unfortunate acquaintances formed in public places (372-73). Given the overall philosophy apparent in this lengthy adaptation, it seems an incongruous decision. It is as if Jane has disappeared at a key moment of her role, and as if the director and/or writer do not value the importance of the Jane Fairfax mystery.

McGrath (1996) gives even shorter shrift to the Jane and Frank subplot and changes their relationship even more than either the Glenister or Lawrence productions. The characters come over as rather pale shadows of their novel selves. Film must select and compress, so the criticism here is not of "time on screen" but of the reduced consequence of the Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill characters and their relationships. Their mysterious engagement does not seem particularly surprising, as the subplot of a possible Frank/Emma romance is, from early in the film, overshadowed by that between Emma and Mr. Knightley, the development of which rather too quickly becomes a mystery to no one. Most glaringly, the "blunder" incident is not featured at all, thus depriving the viewer of any chance to observe the interaction between Jane and Frank, or the consequent excursion into Mr. Knightley’s thoughts (347-48). Although Jane is present at Box Hill, she is given very little to say in response to Mrs. Elton’s machinations and the issue of her plight is quickly dropped. Jane Fairfax seems to be there in body but not in spirit. As a result of these changes, we feel that McGrath almost completely violates the spirit of the parallel mysteries that occupy the very core of the story, and he fails to replace them with other mysteries as Heckerling does in Clueless.

The 1997 Lawrence/Davies film appears on the surface to be the version in which the spirit of Jane Fairfax is most clearly present. A strong, outspoken character, she (almost) gives Mrs. Elton as good as she gets. Jane’s comment on the "flesh trade" rings painfully true in a film version that chooses to focus on the hardships endured by the servants surrounding Austen’s characters. Lawrence visualizes the scene alluded to in the novel where Jane is seen (here by the farmer Robert Martin) "wandering about the meadows" (391). In this version, which features social class issues more strongly than the others, perhaps it is Robert Martin who is able to identify with Jane’s real feelings rather better than Emma does. Robert Martin belongs to that emerging class in nineteenth-century English society comprising neither servants nor people of property. Jane Fairfax seems, at this point in the story, set to enter that same group.

Lawrence and Davies have clearly decided that Jane is an interesting character who deserves to be strongly featured. The clues to the Jane/Frank mystery are mostly there, while the story does not bludgeon us with the Emma/Mr. Knightley romance as the McGrath version does. The Lawrence/Davies film features the alphabet puzzle game, combined with the Box Hill outing, in a most acceptable use of cinematic compression. The viewer has the chance to observe the interaction between Frank and Jane, particularly her discomfort at being passed the "Dixon" anagram. She also most forcefully expresses the feelings of Austen’s Jane Fairfax regarding an acquaintance formed in a public place, with the observation that "only the weakest of characters would allow it to become an oppression forever." Lawrence/Davies’s Jane is a tough character, and the viewer sees the trouble and pain she is forced to endure in her unfortunate situation. This is a memorable Jane Fairfax, not the shadow of a character.

Heckerling’s previously mentioned "alphabet puzzle approach" to events also applies to the characters, who are divided up and rearranged. Presumably, this is no "blunder" on Heckerling’s part, but an inspired contemporary use of elements of Austen’s story. In addition to the obvious character parallels between the novel and this film, other characters who at first glance do not seem to belong in the original Emma, on closer observation possess characteristics of one or more of Austen’s creations. Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston is sometimes represented by Miss Geist—obvious parallels being that she is Cher’s teacher and the object of her matchmaking. Dionne is also part of Mrs. Weston. She is Cher’s closest friend, a little older and more knowledgeable in the ways of the world as the story begins, already with a settled partner. By implication Murray then represents a second face of Mr. Weston. The close relationship that the two have with Cher, resembling that of Emma with the Westons, would seem to support this claim. It is Murray who breaks the news to Cher of Christian’s homosexuality when the three are out driving together, a scene reminiscent of the moment in the novel when Mr. Weston fetches Emma to Randalls to hear Frank’s "secret" from his wife.

Among the observations about Clueless has been the loss of the character of Jane Fairfax, due to the changing of Frank Churchill’s "secret" into his gayness. Although Clueless does not offer an obvious parallel, Jane is there, and she does have her Frank. Their romance is very much alive in Dionne and Murray at various points in the Clueless story. As the story begins, Dionne is already somewhat sexually experienced, although she is "technically a virgin." This would seem to be an appropriate contemporary equivalent of someone with a secret attachment to a man such as Frank Churchill. Nicholas Preus argues that Frank and Jane represent the "secret," less acceptable side of sexuality in Austen’s story while Emma and Mr. Knightley represent the "public" acceptable face of sexuality. His analysis would hold true in an interpretation of Murray and Dionne as Frank and Jane. The obvious difference from Emma would be that Dionne and Murray’s relationship is known to everyone in the community, but we would argue that the true nature of that relationship is not always seen. In a very revealing moment in the film, Cher reflects on the good points of all her friends. Of Dionne and Murray she says, "When they think no one else is watching, [they] are so considerate of each other." Just as with Jane and Frank, what we tend to see on the outside is a lack of affection, even insults. Observing the "cheap K-Mart hair extension" reportedly found by Dionne in the back of his car, Murray comments, "That looks like one of your stringy something-or-others that you got up here . . . ," reminding us of Frank’s attack on Jane’s hairstyle (222). Dionne responds by accusing him of "jeeping," revealing the kind of jealousy Jane suffered at Frank’s persistent attentions towards Emma, particularly at Box Hill, and providing further illustration of Murray and Dionne as representatives of the less acceptable side of sexuality in the story. Numerous other scenes, including the haircut at the Val party where, much to Murray’s horror, Dionne threatens to call his mother (a.k.a. Mrs. Churchill?) suggest Jane/Frank incidents in the novel.

Miss Geist’s marriage to a character who functions as one of the Mr. Weston parallels (Mr. Hall) shifts from the beginning to the end of the story. This change, in part, gives Cher (Emma) a bit more credit than Josh (Mr. Knightley) has done earlier in the story. The device also allows the story to end with the happiness of a wedding. Austen’s three younger couples are happily united at the end, with Murray and Dionne as Frank and Jane at this point, and they even discuss weddings. Dionne’s "naval" wedding motif may well be an allusion to sailing at Weymouth. However, weddings for these three couples must, necessarily, be future tense as Heckerling has made them teenagers, and as Cher says, "As if! I’m only 16, and this is California, not Kentucky."

What Becomes of Harriet?

The possibility of a future relationship between the Martins of Abbey Mill Farm and the Knightleys of Hartfield is illustrative of the fact that all the period adaptations change the clear social boundaries at the end of Emma. Austen does not violate the social conventions she herself so clearly embraced. As Mark Parker has argued, the social limits are firmly enforced in Austen. Of Robert Martin, Mr. Knightley says, "‘His rank in society I would alter if I could; which is saying a great deal I assure you, Emma’" (472-73). At the same time, Emma is not troubled by the "fact that the intimacy between her (Harriet) and Emma must sink . . . " (482). Clearly, gentleman farmer and tenant farmer will not be social friends in the Austen future.

If the makers of the period adaptations were aware of this point, they chose to overlook it, or purposely violated the Austen sensibility in favor of more contemporary social attitudes. The Glenister/Constanduros film makes the mildest departure from Austen. Harriet brings Mr. Martin to be received at Hartfield, where Emma warmly invites him to visit again. The McGrath and Lawrence /Davies films depart much more substantially. In the penultimate scene of the McGrath film, Harriet visits Emma to tell her of her betrothal to Mr. Martin, and the two women embrace warmly with every suggestion of a continuing intimacy. Emma also turns to kiss Harriet in the ultimate wedding scene of this film. The Lawrence/Davies film has a similar warm encounter between Emma and Harriet and a rather remarkable cinematic coda in which the three betrothed couples dance together at a harvest festival with this film’s Mr. Knightley virtually playing the incipient democrat (albeit pledging "stability"). Meanwhile, Emma, upon her formal introduction to Robert Martin, warmly takes his hand and invites him to bring both Harriet and his sister to Hartfield soon.

Perhaps the rigid class distinctions of Regency England would be too much for a general film audience in contemporary democratic English speaking societies to handle. Clearly, the film-makers either did not feel the need to preserve this feature of the society they were depicting or simply didn’t want to make the effort to leave viewers with much sympathy for characters who remained so firmly class conscious. The Lawrence/Davies movie even suggests this unwillingness by placing the only remaining class snobbishness squarely with the already disliked Eltons, who express dismay at "sitting down with hobbledyhoys."

The Heckerling film, by contrast, seems to resolve the relationship between Cher and Tai (Emma and Harriet) in a manner that is in keeping with the spirit of both the adaptation and of Jane Austen. In Clueless, behavioral propriety rather than class distinction is foremost. Tai’s initial romantic interest, Travis, was unacceptable in Cher’s circle because he was a "loadie," (a regular user of marijuana). Near the end of the film, Cher learns that Travis has joined a twelve-step group in order to change, and she accepts his invitation to a skateboard competition. In the social context of Clueless, there was no class reason to scorn Travis, only a behavioral one. That barrier having been removed, Cher may welcome him into her circle.

At least one other aspect of the continuing character of Austen’s Emma is worthy of note at this point. The narrator presents this bit of information, "she [Emma] had no sooner an opportunity of being one hour alone with Harriet, than she became perfectly satisfied—unaccountable as it was!—that Robert Martin had thoroughly supplanted Mr. Knightley . . . " (481). Given the competition for Mr. Knightley’s affections that Emma had feared, there can be no doubt that Emma is delighted to have won. None of the period adaptations makes this "victory" clear, while Clueless does. Cher encounters Tai at the skateboard meet. The two hug and make up and then cheer Travis on. Cher is delighted when she sees "sparks" fly between Tai and Travis. She is happy for them, but her main reason (given by the first person narrator) is that it means Tai is no competition for Josh. Cher has won.

The contemporary setting of Heckerling’s adaptation has the advantage of allowing Cher to avoid Emma’s class-consciousness, while permitting Cher to parallel Emma’s superior sense of self in other respects. Emotionally, Cher behaves very like Emma. Given the resolution of Cher’s relationship with Tai that is so well in line with the feelings and character of Emma, we posit that Clueless is truer to the spirit of the novel than the period adaptations.

Parting Shots

The above discussion provides the basis for at least some preliminary responses to the initial question of how these four films encourage the viewer to reengage the novel and how well they reflect the spirit of their source.

The Glenister/Constanduros film (1972) is the least interesting of the four. It does what a film isn’t particularly necessary for: it tells the story of Emma and not much more. As our discussion suggests, it neither distorts its source enough to distress anyone unduly (except perhaps at the exclusion of Jane Fairfax at Box Hill and the alphabet puzzle game), nor extends the characters in directions that send anyone scrambling back to Austen to explore ideas. One distressing (if not surprising) aspect of this film is that it is rather "male oriented." The male characters tend to have principal focus in their scenes, the concentration on the fretting by Mr. Woodhouse being a good example. There is even some superfluous "good old boy" chatting between men in at least one scene. This aspect of the film is perhaps the one area in which this film warrants further scrutiny.

The McGrath film (1996) is perhaps the prettiest and most cinematically clever of the four. Its technique of using verbal and visual segues between key scenes is a notable use of cinematic compression. Nevertheless, this discussion has shown that characterization is too one dimensional or capricious. The viewer is encouraged to see Harriet as a continuing friend of Emma, to like Emma and dislike Mrs. Elton, and to overlook Jane Fairfax. All these considerably violate the spirit of Austen. In addition, the stance here has been parallel to that of Deborah Kaplan’s claim that the film over-romanticizes the Emma-Knightley relationship. Kaplan’s analysis, however, derails because she argues only that the film trivializes Emma. The argument here that the film eviscerates the novel seems more to the point. Among other problems, the elements of mystery are gone, and the film also shoves Jane Fairfax into a relatively insignificant corner. This is an enjoyable movie but not an adaptation that asks the viewer to engage Austen at all seriously.

The Lawrence/Davies film (1997) is perhaps the most important of the period adaptations. Even though this discussion has criticized the film for violating the spirit of Emma, the very fact of what the film adds makes it worthy of further investigation. As suggested above, the film raises questions about the lives of characters who rarely, if ever, appear in the pages of Austen—the servants. A corollary to this is the "democratization" of some of the characters. Andrew Davies, whose screenplays are often controversial, has said he particularly relishes adapting Austen. He claims that "there's {sic} always some hidden scenes in the book that Austen didn't get around to writing herself, and it's nice to fill in some of the little gaps." In addition to raising the questions for further study, Davies's vision of what is between the lines gives this film some of its visually better moments, such as several scenes which elaborate Austen's characterization of Emma as an "imaginist" (335).

This discussion has suggested that Amy Heckerling’s mid-1990s treatment of the story of Emma shows that Heckerling has a great affinity for Jane Austen. The rearranging of events and characters in the form of mysteries parallel to those of Austen in Emma is evidence of this claim. The film can encourage the Emma-familiar viewer to explore dimensions of character such as the similarity between Emma and Mrs. Elton, which the viewer might have overlooked before. Almost every viewing of the film generates further questions of interest about the novel, which is perhaps the greatest compliment to an early nineteenth-century writer from the film-viewing public at the turn of the twenty-first. To give just one example: this film’s setting in a contemporary society whose characters are affluent, over-burdened with leisure, self-absorbed, and parochial encourages the viewer to explore parallels with the society Austen depicted. If Austen showed us the beginnings of contemporary "commercial" society, perhaps Clueless asks viewers to contemplate the seeds of its demise two centuries later.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933. Heckerling, Amy. Harold Lloyd Seminars of the American Film Institute. AFI Online, September 14, 1995.
Boyum, Joy Gould. Double Exposure: Fiction into Film. New York: Universe Books, 1985. Emma. Writer Andrew Davies. Director Diarmuid Lawrence. With Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Meridian-ITV/A&E, 1996.
Clueless. Writer and director Amy Heckerling. With Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd. Paramount, 1995 Kaplan, Deborah. "Mass Marketing Jane Austen: Men, Women, and Courtship in Two of the Recent Films," Persuasions: Journal of JASNA, 18 (1996) 171-81.
Davies, Andrew. Interview on A&E home page Parker, Mark. "The End of Emma: Drawing the Boundaries of Class in Austen," Journal of English and German Philology, 91: 3 (1991) 344-59.
Emma. Writer Denis Constanduros. Director John Glenister. With Doran Godwin and John Carson. BBC, 1972. Preus, Nicholas E. "Sexuality in Emma: A Case History," Studies in the Novel, 23: 2 (1991) 196-216.
Emma. Writer and director Douglas McGrath. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Miramax, 1996. Sinyard, Neil. Filming Literature: The Art of Screen Adaptation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
Giddings, Robert, Keith Selby and Chris Wensley. Screening the Novel: The Theory and Practice of Literary Dramatization. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.  

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