Emma 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.