Between the Lines Book Club: Film Adaptations of Emma

between the lines book club logoEmma is an outlier among Jane Austen novels. Other Jane Austen novels feature a genteel but impoverished heroine who must triumph in the face of one or more rich mean girls. In Emma, the main character is the rich mean girl, although she’s not mean so much as misguided and, let’s face it, snobby. Austen always points out the many foibles of her heroines, but none are as entertainingly, gloriously, persistently and spectacularly flawed as Emma. Also, as Richard Rodi points out in Bitch in a Bonnet Vol 2, Emma is remarkably short on tension. If the Bennett girls (from Pride and Prejudice) don’t marry, they could end up on the street. If Emma doesn’t marry – so what? Even Emma is cool with not marrying. The person playing a high stakes game is supporting character Jane Fairfax, and most of her story happens off the page.


Both in spite of these things and because of them, Emma is probably Austen’ most beloved novel aside from Pride and Prejudice. Who can resist watching Emma miss every clue that is lobbed at her head?   Who can fail to roll on the floor laughing when Austen drops anvils of foreshadowing (“I shall never fall in love” HAHAHA EMMA YOU ARE SO FUNNY)? We hate Emma enough to enjoy seeing her humbled and we love her enough that we love to see her triumph. Plus this book has some of Austen’s most roll-on-the-floor funny supporting characters.


As part of my latest Emma immersion project I watched the two most famous film adaptations of Emma. The 1996 film version of Emma is a more-or-less period faithful adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow, while Clueless, from 1995, gives us a loose version set in high school with Alicia Silverstone playing Cher (Emma). So who’s the winner? Let’s break it down, shall we?


Best Emma: Gwyneth. She actually glows – did they just follow her around with a backlight, or what? Her concern for Harriet is sincere and so is her pride, and sad Emma after the picnic is the saddest sad ever. Also, she tries to cheer Harriet up by showing her puppies, and when Harriet isn’t sufficiently cheered she all but throws the puppies at her head in a desperate attempt to perk her up. You have to love that.


I had a very satisfying epiphany when I realized that Gwyneth is basically playing herself. The reason people hate poor Gwyneth is that she comes across as having all of Emma’s worst qualities – no sense of her own privilege, a compulsive need to give everyone advice (most of which is incredibly unrealistic, see: privilege) and a definite sense of herself as All That. But I always have a soft spot for her because I suspect the presence of Emma’s best qualities – by all accounts from people who know her, she’s a good friend who just wants to make people happy. Also she’s a hell of an actress, and she sure brings her ‘A’ game to this movie.


Best Clothes: Emma version again. Behold:




Best Mr. Knightly: Jeremy Northam. Sweet Merciful Heavens that man is sexy. I’ll be in my bunk.




Best Supporting Cast: Emma. Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Elton, y’all. You can’t compete with that. Plus we get Ewan McGregor unleashing lethal quantities of charm as Frank Churchill.


Best Ensemble Cast: Clueless. The cast of Emma is full of standout, A-list actors who show off. That’s fine, because the characters in the book spend a lot of time trying to out-grandstand each other, and it’s funny. But a more central theme in the book is of community. Emma involves a core group of people who know each other all too well. Even the characters that arrive from elsewhere and shake everything up have been thoroughly dissected by gossip before they arrive at the village. So it’s really important that the cast of Clueless works as an ensemble. The high school works so well as a metaphor for a small village in which everything is everyone else’s business, and I believe that these people know each other intimately in a way that I don’t believe in Emma.




Funniest Movie: Aside from Juliet Stevenson mangling the scenery and clearly having the time of her life, Clueless is much more funny than Emma. Maybe that’s because I like simple pleasures, and the humor in Clueless is more accessible than Emma. But I think that Emma focuses more on contemplating society and Clueless just rips society to shreds and throws popcorn all over the remains. I give you Brittany Murphy’s greatest burn (“You’re a virgin who can’t drive!”), Cher’s desperate efforts to improve herself (“I thought they declared peace in the Middle East.”), and the tumultuous relationship between Cher’s friends Dionne and Murray. The one-liners just keep coming, and even though they are relentlessly 1990’s they also tie in perfectly with the themes of the book.


Most Heartwarming: I’m gonna go with Clueless again. Take the scene in which Cher points out the best qualities of all her friends, or the scene in which her father reminds her that she takes care of everyone in the family. A lot of the heartwarming comes from the fact that while in general I think Gwyneth is a better actress than Alicia, Alica is wonderful at showing how badly Cher wants to be a good person, and how hard she tries.


Most Romantic: Emma. Did I mention Jeremy Northam. Here, have more Jeremy.





Wednesday Videos Miss Orphan Black

WednesdayVideoI miss Orphan Black so much, you guys.  It will be back on April 18 but that’s so far away *whines*.  Luckily I found this video to tide me over.  suddenly “Shake it Off” is my new favorite song – something I hadn’t thought possible (I love Taylor Swift absolutely and unironically, but until now I found that particular song to be annoying).  Here’s Sarah and her sestras soldiering on.

Kickass Women in History: Lady Dorothy Feilding-Moor

Time for me to link over to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books where this month’s Kickass Woman is Lady Dorothy Feilding-Moor, who was an ambulance driver in WWI.  I had so much fun researching this article – could’ve spent years reading about Lady Feilding and her compatriots.  Enjoy!



Book Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

5110avaFj9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How on earth did Jo Walton manage to make a riveting page-turner out of a book which consists almost entirely of philosophical discussions?  I could not stop reading The Just City, which since I was in the middle of packing for a trip and meeting a ton of deadlines was very inconvenient.

In The Just City, Athena and Apollo decide to set up a real version of Plato’s Republic, tucked away in a timeless city that is destined to be destroyed by a volcano.  This city is founded by Athena, who forms the first generation out of people who pray to her to live in The Republic.  The second generation is made of children who are brought to the city our of their own timelines, in which the children are slaves.  The next is children who are born in the city during randomized fertility rites and raised communally.

Apollo chooses to experience the city as a mortal.  He is baffled, because he pursed a mortal, Daphne, for sex, and she choose to transform herself into a tree rather than sleep with him.  Apollo is not deliberately cruel, just totally obtuse.  How could Daphne not want to sleep with him?  Wasn’t she just playing?  Athena explains the concept of choice to him, and he decided to become mortal to learn about “Volition. Our equal significance”.

The Just City is at once a utopia and a dystopia, depending on the speaker’s point of view.  Two slave children are brought to the city together – one lives his life blaming the masters of the city for taking him away from his life, while the other sees the city as a refuge.  The realities of childcare, sex, birth, and work overwhelm the city’s founders.  There are cruelties and injustices, but most involve good intentions.  The cracks in the system are what give the book so much tension, and the tension is more interesting because there’s no one right or simplistic way to look at the city.

When Sokrates shows up, he shakes up everything, of course.  Above all, he questions Athena’s intentions.  Can a city be just if no one can leave?  Can a city be just if children were brought to the city against their will, even if they like it here?  As the book progresses, people experience conflict primarily over relationships.  No one is supposed to have a special attachment to one child or one lover, yet these attachments occur.  Everything is supposed to be fair, yet the city’s founders cheat in order to make things work.  It’s not as simple as a horrible dystopian nightmare.  Many people love the city and thrive there.  But others suffer because of the absence of volition and equal significance.

I’ve admired everything Jo Walton has written, but nothing has been as amazing to me as Among Others, a book that was so luminous I expected it to give off a physical glow.  The Just City was a different experience – it’s not designed to make you glow but to make you thing.  Among Others was a celebration of reading.  The Just City is a celebration of talking and thinking. Walton’s earlier books were celebrations of history and fantasy.  The common thread in her books is that our shared humanity is the most important thing – our volition, our equal significance.  This book is the first in a planned trilogy and it ends on a dramatic cliffhanger that has me ripping out my hair, so be warned.

Even if you don’t read the book, read this passage by Apollo, and just tell me if it doesn’t make you want to be “your best self”:

On my temple in Delphi there are two words written: Know Thyself.  It’s good advice.  Know yourself.  You are worth knowing.  Examine your life.  The unexamined life is not worth living.  Be aware that other people have equal significance.  Give them the space to make their own choices, and let their choices count as you want them to let your choices count.  Remember that excellence has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it.  Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say.  Live the best life you can, and become the best self you can.  You cannot know which of your actions is the lever that will move worlds.  Not even Necessity knows all ends.  Know yourself.

Between the Lines Book Club: Sir Walter Scott Reviews Emma

between the lines book club logoThis month, we are reading Emma in book club.  Leave a comment below, and/or join us in person at Arden Dimick Library, on February 28th at 10:30AM!

Jane Austen published anonymously, but her identity was such an open secret, an  d her books had achieved sufficient acclaim, that the Prince Regent asked her to dedicate a book to him.  The book she dedicated was Emma, and it was quite awkward as she loathed the Prince Regent but there are some requests that one cannot easily refuse.

The job of reviewing books is about as old as the job of writing them, so Austen’s books had a lot of contemporary reviews, mostly positive.

In 1815, Sir Walter Scott reviewed Emma.  In the review, Scott defends the practice of reading novels (novels were considered a mite scandalous – certainly a big waste of time and brain power).  Scott gives a short history of the novel, discussing how the fantastical novels that were fashionable for so long are giving way to a new genre – the realistic novel:

We, therefore, bestow no mean compliment upon the author of Emma, when we say that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality,that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of
uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners and sentiments, greatly above our own. In this class she stands almost alone; for the scenes of Miss Edgeworth are laid in higher life, varied by more romantic incident, and by her remarkable power of embodying and illustrating national character. But the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country
gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis
personae conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. The kind of moral, also, which these novels inculcate, applies equally to the paths of common life, as will best appear from a short notice of the author’s former works, with a more full abstract of that which we at present have under consideration.

The review is interesting not only because it’s exciting to hear what Austen’s contemporaries think about her, but because Scott gives such a detailed picture of how different Austen’s novels are, and why they work:

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting.  The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.

You can find the full review at Only A Novel.

Wednesday Videos: Good Chemistry

WednesdayVideoA high schooler, Eli Cirino, made this sweet romance video to explain chemical bonds.

Sample lyric:

The story starts with me and you

A positive ion and negative too

There’s billions of you that I could choose from

But you’re the one for me ’cause you’re the closest one.

Awwww.  Happy late Valentine’s Day!

Link: Jupiter Ascending is a Terrible Movie and I Want to Marry It

MV5BMTQyNzk2MjA2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjEwNzk3MjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_No big post today, since I’m on a plane.  But here’s a link to my review of Jupiter Ascending over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  An excerpt:

Is the movie “good”?

No, in the sense that it was relentlessly derivative, totally soapy, had some god-awful lines, a plot that frankly never did make much sense, and characters that had very little development and when they did develop it was in peculiar ways.

Yes, in the sense that Channing Tatum roller blades in anti gravity boots and fights an alien space dragon-dinosaur soldier while everything in the background explodes.

Happy President’s Week!