Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)
Introduction to Emma on Film

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the L.A. Times. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

It didn’t take the recent spate of Jane Austen novels on film to turn the great novelist into, to quote Raymond Chandler about his transformation of the detective story, "something that intellectuals claw each other about." They were doing that to Austen before the films arrived and will no doubt continue into the indefinite future.

Yet there can be no doubt that we’re living through a period more committed to putting Austen on film than any in the history of cinema. (And it’s not over yet: a version of Mansfield Park is about to arrive in theaters.) And, as Sue Parrill points out in her paper, Emma has been especially blessed (or cursed) with adaptations. The BBC did one in 1972, and three others appeared between 1995 and 1996: Amy Heckerling’s delightful Clueless, another theatrical feature starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and a televised BBC production broadcast in this country on the A&E network.

Perhaps, as Sally B. Palmer theorizes, our wistful appetite for Austen’s seemingly tidy world is behind the current activity. "A modern-day nostalgia for this kind of settled order," she writes, "has been suggested as one of the reasons for the renaissance of Austen’s novels in the frenzied and chaotic 90’s."

Whatever the reason, all these films have given scholars, as these papers attest, new windows through which to examine how the novels in general and Emma in particular function in the world. Robert Eggleston, for instance, amusingly recounts what it’s like to use the film versions to introduce Austen’s work to a first year literature class, as well as his realization that what Hollywood has done is recast the author so she’s no longer "Jane Austen, novelist" but rather "Jane Austen, collaborator, idea person, screenwriter."

Sarah Morrison, for her part, makes analytical use of "those invented scenes and bits of dialogue not to be found in the novels themselves." And Lisa Hopkins wonders about how the actors speak, lamenting that the Paltrow-starring Emma’s use of accents is ultimately "a thinner one than that provided by the rich texture of subtly different Englishes being played off against each other that we hear in Sense and Sensibility."

Interestingly enough, several of the papers deal with that most English of subjects, the class structure. While Christine Colón lauds the Paltrow-starring Douglas McGrath Emma for its ability to "remain attentive to class issues despite the simplification of the plot," Sally Palmer feels the BBC version has tried too hard to make the story "more politically up-to-date."

While it’s possible, as these papers and the others in the group demonstrate, to have almost as many points of view on the Emma films as it is on the original work, it’s a fine tribute (not that one was needed) to the continuing vitality of a novel that can inspire so much cinema and even more interpretations.

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