EMMA HAS RECENTLY HAD ADAPTATIONS AROUND THE WORLD: an updated version set in Los Angeles, another set in Delhi, and a classic serial from the BBC. All three adaptations share features that do not derive from Austen’s novel but that show values of the twenty-first century, sometimes satirized, and sometimes celebrated. One of those values is the materialism that flows into these Emmas via the 1995 film Clueless. That film’s investment in clothes and objects was influential even though the novel itself does not particularly foreground possessions beyond purchases of men’s gloves, lengths of muslin, and the occasional piano. And it is not Emma who is doing the buying. The second imported value is fun. Life in the twenty-first century should be colorful and constantly amusing, and the only problem in all three adaptations is that the pursuit of fun leads the characters into lives of cheerful desperation. In Austen’s novel, fun is not the primary goal of the more worthy characters, and the pursuit of it often leads to trouble (at the expedition to Box Hill, for example). Value number three, unquestioned in our century, is personal integrity: the greatest good is to be true to yourself, and the greatest fault is to invade the psychological space of others. In these terms, the three Emmas we find in these adaptations are great sinners indeed. In contrast, Austen’s novel is much more about Emma’s learning to adapt her behavior in order to live with others in a stable community. Social good is equal in importance to personal good.
This four-part serial, the first filming of the novel by the BBC since 1972, features Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller, and Michael Gambon. Jim O’Hanlon directed. It clearly tries to be different from the two productions of 1996, the elegant and classical Miramax film starring Gwyneth Paltrow (in pretty much every scene) and focusing on the character of Emma, and the ITV telefilm with Kate Beckinsale, which emphasizes community building and social integration. The BBC serial was originally aimed for production in the mid-1990s, but the release of the other two adaptations put the project on hold for nearly twenty years.
The concern in this BBC version is not with elegance nor with social integration but with a search for personal happiness. The series begins with a triple set-up of back stories for Emma, Jane, and Frank, showing each as a child in Highbury. The opening exposition sets up parallel stories of individuals whose lives have been marked by early tragedy.
Emma is born in the sunshine, with a carefree mother and a “father who always feared for the worst”; the scene then cuts to a view of the mother in her coffin and the voice-over tells us, “The worst did happen.” The camera then switches to Captain Weston’s hurriedly bringing Dr. Perry to minister to his dying wife, then a youthful Frank being taken away by Mrs. Churchill. Another quick cut to little Jane Fairfax permanently leaving the vicarage with Colonel Campbell as the recently-widowed Mrs. Bates weeps and Miss Bates tries forlornly to cheer her. Three children, all motherless.
In contrast to the Miramax Emma, with its heroine as its main focus, and the ITV Emma, with a portrait of a society as its focus, the aim of this serial is to braid several plot threads together. Three protagonists will move past and around each other as they aim to resolve their fates and find happiness. Other characters are also given more psychological depth. Mr. Weston, Frank’s father, is developed: we see his tears as the carriage bears away his son to Yorkshire. Miss Bates is much less silly than in the novel: we understand her fall from the vicarage into genteel poverty, having seen her former state in the opening of the serial. We get a more complex Mr. Woodhouse than in earlier films—when you have Michael Gambon, you want to use him. He is now an understandably anxious father since his fears for his daughters and Mrs. Weston stem from the early death of his wife. He also plays up the self-awareness of his crotchetiness, appearing sensitive and rather pathetic, not a fool. Like Miss Bates and Mr. Weston, he, too, has a past. Emma is the one character not really marked by her past. Her childhood is safe and comfortable. As we watch Emma grow up, we see an ominous shot (if we know the plot) of Emma under a table playing with dolls—a bride doll and a groom doll. This scene foreshadows how Emma, the most privileged of the three children, will go overboard in the future, treating others like her dolls.
Despite the somber opening with its triple deaths, this version is the most visually vivid of the period adaptations of Austen’s novel. The colors are often bright, almost garish: furniture, houses, gardens, and clothes pop on the screen. The physical world seems as much a character as the people. This brightness may be a reaction against the pastel restraint and neoclassical air of the Miramax Emma. In that film, Paltrow often appeared in classical poses, for example, positioned symmetrically between two columns. The attitude struck by Toni Collette as Harriet also rocked the classics: she posed for artist Emma in a white gown, one arm raised and the other holding a Grecian lyre. The novel, of course, says nothing about such a contrived pose: it merely mentions Harriet’s being seated outdoors with a little shawl over her shoulders and a leafy tree in the background (48). In this 2009 version, O’Hanlon parodies the pose by having his Emma not only paint Harriet as if she were a standing classical Greek figure but also by giving Harriet a hefty amphora to hold aloft—with obvious difficulty. But outside of that bit of visual parody, the BBC film runs far away from the Miramax film’s neoclassicism, with Emma’s red dresses standing out against bright wallpaper or yellow fields of flowers. Garai’s smiling and laughing and running also brighten the production compared to Paltrow’s portrayal of Emma’s near-constant restraint.
After the deaths and partings of the opening sequence, the bright colors and characters running about create a frantic cheeriness, with characters pursing happiness hard because it seems so fragile. Laurie Kaplan finds Garai’s Emma too jolly and “flibbertigibbet”; we find her smiles to be, not jolly, but too frequent, too broad, grimace-like, and desperate. But “flibbertigibbet” is about right: this Emma seeks not correct behavior, not an ordered society with herself at the top, but the distraction of fun, having not yet outgrown her toys.
In some ways, this Bollywood adaptation, starring Sonam Kapoor and directed by Rajshree Ojha, is really a remake of Clueless, and it goes in opposite directions from the serial of the previous year. Instead of giving characters as much back story as possible, thereby accounting for their various emotional states, Aisha is occupied almost entirely with the present. The characters exist as they are, with no past or psychological coherence.
Characters are remade as needed, provided with little motivation. For instance, Randhir (Mr. Elton) turns from a person who is selfish, unpleasant, and uncool to one who is nice and perfectly acceptable to the most outrageous of Aisha’s friends, Pinky (modeled on the character Dionne from Clueless and without a counterpart in the novel). For no reason, Pinky goes from a sarcastic, fashion-forward dresser, skeptical of everyone, to someone desperate to be married and capable of sympathizing even with Randhir. Aisha (the Emma character) rather casually tries to get Shefali (Harriet) and Randhir hooked up by renting them a room at an isolated hotel and leaving them stranded there, but neither of them holds a grudge or even seems offended by this crude ploy, which needless to say, does not work. Dhruv (the Frank Churchill character) goes from being an attractive sleazebag who suggests to Arjun (Mr. Knightley) that they share Aisha between them (Arjun punches him) to participating in parties happily with Arjun. And Dhruv takes over Arjun’s former and very hot girlfriend, Aarti, whom, without a shrug or reason, Arjun gives up part way through the film.
These people live so much in the present moment that they can remake themselves instantly without the taint of their pasts clinging to them. In a way, one can make sense of such changeability as part of the social satire, but whether that was what the film intended is unsure. Shefali is the one character who has some depth. At the end of the film, she chastises Emma for her meddling and ordering her about, something that Austen’s Harriet would never conceive of doing.
But, like everyone else, Shefali instantly forgives Aisha and they remain fast friends. No one in this world bears grudges.
There is also a geographical superficiality much at odds with Austen’s Emma, which paints a rich picture of life in Highbury. In Aisha, there is little sense of place despite the script’s always informing us where the characters are—in different parts of Delhi, in Mumbai, or at a mountain resort. Place does not really matter: some parts of Delhi we are told are not safe, yet Aisha walks through them and nothing at all happens. Austen’s novel, the BBC serial, and Clueless all have a strong sense of place. Things happen because one is in a particular spot: Harriet meets gypsies on a secluded part of the Richmond road, Cher is robbed at gunpoint when she finds herself in a bad neighborhood. Not here: events could take place anywhere. In fact, important scenes are often set in anonymous places (an office, a shopping center, an elevator, a restaurant).
The less-anonymous scenes are still relatively placeless. There are many scenes showing the rich amusing themselves by shopping, but the upscale malls like the DLF Emporio of New Delhi featured in the film could be anywhere in the world. The overt product placement so strong in this film is for international brands like Christian Dior and L’Oreal Paris. The effect is to westernize Aisha’s world. As Theresa Kenney notes, the first half of the film seems almost like a series of commercials. And for good reason. Sonam Kapoor, who played Aisha, did a series of tie-in ads for L’Oreal Paris, and the company sponsored a contest that granted the winner a chance to “walk the red carpet with Sonam Kapoor” (“L’Oreal Paris”).
The make-over sequence, modeled on that in Clueless, transforms middle-class villager Shefali into a universalized westerner. Aisha takes her shopping, to a beauty salon, and then to a celebrity event. Shefali is transformed into an Aisha clone: gone are the bindi on her forehead, her long braid, and her Indian wardrobe; they are replaced by plucked eyebrows, highlighted hair, and a designer frock.
You would never know you were in India. This branch of Dior or that red carpet could be anywhere in the world. Shefali could be a resident of Los Angeles, London, or New York. Her ethnicity is erased, just as this film erases Indian locations.1 Whereas the BBC serial showcased “English verdure,” this film does not showcase India. It is as urban and as materialistic as Clueless but less clearly localized.
Yet, in one sense, Aisha links with the BBC Emma: both are bright, colorful, and cheery. The colorfulness comes partly from Clueless and partly from Bollywood tradition. Aisha herself, however, plays down color, wearing muted tones when her friends wear bright colors. When she wears a plaid suit, it is nothing like the yellow number Mona May created for Cher in Clueless. Yet the production still seems bright because the other characters are in strong shades. Its Indian roots may be muted, but they are not entirely concealed.
The cheeriness of these adaptations, one British and one Indian, inspires two reactions in us as we think back upon the novel Emma. The first suggests a facet of Austen’s world readers may be mis-imagining and onto which these films, at least, open a perspective. The second reaction sheds more light upon current times than Austen’s but may sharpen a contrast between her society and current global life.
First, just as the Regency falsely thought of classical times as featuring white statues and columns—statues and columns that were actually brightly painted in their day—so the modern age tones down the colors of the Regency. History fades in our memory—literally. We see buildings looking worn and historical clothing in museums dulled by the passing years, but furniture in Austen’s time could be garish and wallpaper and carpets vivid (consider Brighton Pavilion). Because Austen gives so little description of fields, rooms, and clothing, we tend to fill in the gaps with sepia, not living color. Regency life probably was not that restrained and tasteful, but modern period films have tended to wash out the brightness. Films like Aisha and the BBC Emma can usefully raise another mental view, a brighter and livelier way to fill in the unwritten details of the early-nineteenth-century world.
The adaptations are flamboyant in their colorful cheerfulness. This coloration is not just a matter of being upbeat, a mood that hit its peak in the 2004 Bride and Prejudice, about the same time the 2005 film Pride & Prejudice pushed in the opposite direction, toward romantic weepiness with browns and grays, mud and dripping skies. In the two Emmas discussed so far, not only has color won out but the happiness associated with bright color has also been pushed further. Aisha shares with the BBC Emma that desperate cheeriness.
Our second reaction has more directly to do with modern attitudes. In our childhood, the cry uttered constantly from the back seat of the station wagon was “Are we there yet?” But now, technology is bent on offering up as its greatest accomplishment the ability to provide non-stop entertainment every hour of the day. The cry from the back of the minivan has morphed into “Are we having fun yet?”2 Everything must be fun: students praise professors on course evaluations for being “fun”; the U.K.’s National Farmers’ Union urges parents to cut children’s veggies into “fun animal shapes”; and we are all exhorted nowadays to acquire “fun facts.”3 Even those attending the film of Aisha are exhorted on the theater poster to “Join the fun.”
The life of noisy desperation that Aisha leads—nightclubbing, pot smoking, whitewater rafting, partying, dancing—with that strained smile recurring in every scene, is all a relentless pursuit of fun, of entertainment sought externally. Other people and her surroundings must amuse her. Unlike Austen’s heroine, Aisha is no imaginist who can find delight in the simplest sights in Highbury:
Emma went to the door for amusement.—Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; . . . and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer. (E 233)
Amusement cannot be quiet and passive in the modern world in which Aisha and her friends live. It depends on expensive consumption: shopping, dining, partying, and vacationing. This lack of inner resources, however, is not seen as a problem by any of the characters. In their big confrontation, Arjun accuses Aisha only of being “shallow”—there is no complaint of her being “‘unfeeling’” (E 374) or of committing social improprieties, charges leveled at Emma by Mr. Knightley. Pinky and Shefali, who both turn on Aisha, accuse her of being “manipulative,” of treating others like her toys, but they remain fast friends with Aisha, so the charge is not very serious.
What seems lacking in this world is any concern with Aisha’s judgments being wrong or her “‘acting wrong’” (E 374), the central problem for Emma in Austen’s novel. Even though Aisha is repeatedly wrong in judgments, it is no big deal. Everybody is wrong at some time or other in this film, and no one holds that against him or her. Attitude is all that matters, and most in the film have the attitude that pursuing fun is the goal of life as long as it does not infringe upon the fun of others—and if it does, it hardly matters since no one will mind for long.
Aisha the character is “shallow”; Aisha the film is, too. Rajshree Ojha, the director, was also dissatisfied with how the film turned out, suggesting that production decisions overrode the original, complex interpretation she intended. The “film that I had conceptualised was not the one the audience saw,” she states. “When we decided to do an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, there were many layers to the character. However, I don’t know where those layers vanished. . . . I had no control over the final cut. . . . Jane Austen wouldn’t recognise my Aisha to be her Emma” (“Aisha Was Not My Film”). The film shows a society bent on consumption and amusement and with little criticism of those goals, unlike Austen’s novel and even, in many ways, unlike Clueless.
Emma Approved (2014)
Emma Approved comes from Pemberley Digital, the same Los Angeles production company that created the Emmy-award-winning YouTube serial The Lizzie Bennet Diaries in 2012-2013. Like that adaptation, this one has, at its core, a fictional Internet video blog or vlog. Its seventy-two episodes, each lasting four to six minutes, were originally broadcast over eleven months (October 2013 to August 2014) and are now available at the Pemberley Digital website and on YouTube.
The most multimedia of these three adaptations has professionalized fun. Emma Woodhouse (Joanna Sotomura) runs the event-planning, life-coaching, match-making division of the Highbury Partners Lifestyle Group, a company owned by her father. The first event is planning the elaborate wedding of her friend Annie Taylor to the wealthy Mr. Weston, a business associate of her father’s. Of course, Emma helped make the match (the twist in the plot is that she has to spend a good deal of time preventing Annie from breaking off the wedding). Emma’s childhood buddy, Alex Knightley, is her business partner, financial manager, and bookkeeper. Harriet Smith, not as dim as in the novel, is a newly hired personal assistant. Robert Martin is the IT guy, a nerd who does origami and watches birds but also fixes computers and solves software glitches. Frank Churchill, an “entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and philanthropist,” is the stepbrother of Mr. Weston. Mr. Elton is a state senator, and Jane Fairfax, now back in her native Los Angeles after a stint working in London, is the client wrangler for the young business, although her real interest is in social-justice advocacy.
The vlog format is perfect for Emma since it permits her to violate the personal integrity of others in a very modern way. She installs cameras in her office and those of her three employees, intruding into the space of others so that she can record documentary footage of herself at work in anticipation of her receiving a “lifetime achievement award in lifestyle excellence.” The series opens with Emma generating sample copy for the imagined documentary:
Most of the episodes follow this format, showing stylishly and brightly dressed Emma in a cheerful salmon-colored office talking to a camera, often joined by one or two other characters. A few scenes are set in other offices, as needed. Older characters are mostly eliminated. Jane Fairfax’s aunt, Maddy Bates, now an accountant, appears from time to time, and we hear about Mr. Woodhouse, but he is a silent partner in the business and never appears on screen. The vlog format is highly restrictive: all episodes take place in the office suite in front of a fixed camera; off-site events handled by the business—the Weston wedding reception, the Elton engagement party, a charity auction, the grand opening of a celebrity restaurant—are not shown. Action hardly exists. It is all talk.
Much of the plot closely follows Austen’s novel. Emma makes matches, misreads people, humiliates herself in front of her friends, and finds love. The incidents and attitudes are updated, and the cast is multicultural. Box Hill is replaced by a trendy restaurant called Boxx located in “the Hills.” Jane Fairfax keeps her romance a secret because she wants to make it on her own, not as rich Frank’s girlfriend. Emma and Alex Knightley worry about Emma’s father because he does not approve of office romances. Most updated of all, the major characters do not even think of marriage; the triumph is just becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. The only ones to marry are minor characters: Annie Taylor and Mr. Weston, Senator Elton and Caroline Lee (the snobby sister of Bing Lee, imported from The Lizzie Bennet Diaries). Weddings provide events for the company to manage but are not the end point of the plots.
Nonetheless, there is a desire to reproduce plot and dialogue while simultaneously making things as modern as possible. For instance, the secret-gift scene is reworked for the twenty-first century, with an Apple laptop, not a piano, as the expensive item Jane receives. Emma is dying of curiosity about who sent it, so she confides in both her personal assistant, Harriet, and her client Frank Churchill, who has dropped in (yet again) because Emma’s company is arranging a fundraiser for a human-rights charity he is involved with.
The plot of the adaptation is close to Austen’s, with some of the language closely paralleling the original. For example, Austen’s dialogue between Emma and Frank (“‘Why do you smile?’ . . . ‘Nay, why do you?’” [E 216]) becomes
Emma. Why are you smiling?
Frank. I’m not. Why are you smiling?
Austen’s “‘I smile because you smile, and shall probably suspect whatever I find you suspect’” (E 216) becomes “I will probably suspect the same thing that you suspect as soon as you tell me what you’re suspecting.” But the scene is also updated. Instead of just using her imagination and speculating about Jane and Mr. Dixon, as the character does in the novel, the video’s Emma pulls up Jane’s Twitter feed to look for clues about her life and relationships.
In its quest to be at the cutting edge, Emma Approved pushes some boundaries, doing even more transmedia work than The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.4 Pemberley Digital perfected the fictional vlog, blurring the lines between the real and the fictional. The “real” seems to predominate here. Actual Internet sites are maintained by fictional characters. Harriet runs an online music club, like the one proposed by Mrs. Elton in the novel, in which viewers can take an active part. Emma maintains an advice blog and a fashion blog, as well as accounts on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, and other sites. To further blur matters, during the initial airing, the fictional characters had real-world Twitter accounts and interacted with each other and with viewers. (There really is a tweet from Jane Fairfax that mentions the Dixons.) The restaurant Boxx has a website, and there’s a profile page for the bachelors and bachelorettes being auctioned off as part of Frank’s fundraiser.
Most interesting, a genuine online fundraiser took place in June 2014 alongside the fictional one in the series. While single persons were not being auctioned off, anyone could donate in the name of one of the four “team members” (Emma, Alex, Frank, Jane), with all money raised going to the human-rights-advocacy group 27 Million, which fights human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Perhaps the reference Jane Fairfax makes to the slave trade in the novel inspired the choice of charities. Viewers of Emma Approved raised $4540, with fans of Alex Knightley raising the most (Woodhouse “Support”).
But alongside such commendable charitable activity comes a celebration of materialism and superficiality. Emma and the other women sport colorful, new outfits in almost every episode. Emma’s advice blog provides information on how to throw a party and how to be a better person, as if those two things are equal. Emma’s posts combine comments on how to approach life and what to wear as you take on the challenge. In fact, the blogs provide direct links to real vendor’s pages so that viewers can buy the outfits being worn on the show. The two principal shopping sites affiliated with the series, ModCloth and Lulu’s, sell very inexpensive clothing and are socially sensitive companies, but there is something unnerving about combining a psychological makeover with a fashion makeover. The clothes being worn and sold certainly contribute to the impression of fun. There are bright colors, plaids, and perky styles on display. Life for these Los Angelinos is colorful and fashion forward. And the viewing audience can be part of all the fun by tweeting, reading blogs, recording music, making donations, and wearing clothing from the series. They can interact with the series in many ways.
Emma Approved’s Emma is in the business of making others happy. Her motto in nine words is “I make your life better and I never fail,” and that goal apparently requires a level of activity of which Mrs. Elton would approve. Life in Emma Approved is a constant series of social events—a little like Aisha’s world but not much like Austen’s Highbury, which contains a “‘very quiet set of people, . . . more disposed to stay at home than engage in schemes of pleasure’” (E 274). Yet the busier Emma is, the more anxious she becomes, and she reaches a breaking point, not unlike that experienced by Frank Churchill or Jane Fairfax in the novel. Emma’s insult to Maddy Bates at the Boxx restaurant opening and her ignoring of Annie Weston during her baby shower happen because she is overworked and overwhelmed. She is too busy making sure everyone has fun to have fun herself. The “fun industry” in which Emma works turns out to be no fun at all—for her, at least.
Near the end of the series, in episode 65, Harriet has to rescue Emma from a bout of depression. A frustrated Jane Fairfax has told Emma off and resigned; Alex has chided her for putting the company’s reputation ahead of Maddy Bates’s feelings at the Boxx event and, as a result, has resigned. Harriet finds Emma in the office, wearing no makeup, dressed in dull colors and sweatpants, eating ice cream from a carton. Emma is not having fun. But with Harriet’s help (a reversal of what happens in the novel), Emma goes back to being bright and perky, ready to be delighted. She apologizes to those who need to hear apologies, sorts out her priorities, and gets back to work.
One of Emma’s final advice blogs outlines her multistep plan for reform, though the reform does not seem very deep:
It was a long road getting here but it’s finally over! I’ve completed all the steps of recovery and now, inspired by Harriet’s journey, I’m going to try for a happy and fulfilling life. The first step is gratitude. I have so much to be thankful for, have so many wonderful people in my life, that it makes me feel free, simple, and easy. This outfit captures all that and more. A refreshing, light, crisp white dress with a halter top and a drawstring waist. Plus, what could be easier than jewelry already attached? (Woodhouse, “Step 1”)
As expected in this slick world, a moral makeover is accompanied by appropriate fashion choices (and commercial plugs). It is ultimately about style and not substance, consumption and not conscience. Clothes become the most important form of personal expression as one searches for personal fulfillment in relationships and work.
At a young age, Austen understood a longing for entertainment in life. A fragment of a musical survives in the second volume of her Juvenilia, simply called “The first Act of a Comedy.” The second brief scene brings in “Chloe & a chorus of ploughboys”:
Chloe) Where am I? At Hounslow. Where go I? To London—. What to do? To be married—. Unto whom? Unto Strephon. Who is he? A Youth. Then I will Sing a Song.
I go to town
And when I come down
I shall be married to Streephon
And that to me will be fun.
Chorus) Be fun, be fun, be fun,
And that to me will be fun. (MW 173)
This is a view of life Austen could comprehend and mock. Some two decades later, when she writes Emma, Austen approaches her critique of such an attitude more seriously. For her, fun in itself is not the purpose of life. In fact, the word fun never appears in the novel Emma. Austen regards the word, if not the concept, with skepticism and rarely uses it: she puts the term only into the mouths of the shallow characters Lydia Bennet and John Thorpe. Austen does not confuse fun with happiness, though some of her characters do. Happiness is a state of tranquil being, not the pursuit of anything. We, by contrast, live, not in a tranquil age of happiness, but a stressful, “fun” one of getting and spending, constantly seeking diversion and distraction. In the twenty-first century, we confuse fun with happiness, self-worth with material possessions, as these three adaptations of Emma reflect. They show us not Austen’s world but our own.
The clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.
3Students use “fun” more than five times as often as they use “smart” in positive evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com (Schmidt); on fun food, see Gosden; a Google n-gram of the phrase “fun facts” barely registers before 1985 but spikes after 1995.