Emma Formatted to Fit Your Screen: Andrew Davies, Douglas McGrath, and Sandy Welch’s ‘Emma’s

Do screen adaptations of Austen betray her writing
or, as Butler has claimed, signify its universality? Discuss with detailed
reference to particular adaptations.

In 1957, George Bluestone asserted that adapting a novel for film is a mistake because film is an essentially inferior art form to the novel and thus cannot avoid butchering the source text. [1] As cinematic art developed, scholarly opinion changed, until now critics such as Marc Di Paolo can “assume that a film can have artistic merit” and that “a film can—at least in some manner—be ‘worthy’ of the culturally treasured source novel that it is based on.”[2] By 2000, it was possible for Deidre Lynch to suggest that “[t]o concentrate on whether the meanings of the novels have been ‘misrepresented’” in Austen film adaptations “is to defer more interesting if more difficult questions.”[3] Yet this traditional question is precisely the one at hand—whether or not Austen film
adaptations are valid. I will first address literary critics’ views of what it might mean for a film to “betray” Austen, and then analyze three adaptations of Emma from the scholars’ perspective: Diarmuid Lawrence and Andrew Davies’ telefilm Jane Austen’s “Emma” (1996), Douglas McGrath’s Miramax film Emma (1996), and Jim O’Hanlon and Sandy Welch’s television miniseries Emma (2009). Using these films as examples, I will argue that Austen has universal appeal, and discuss whether it is grounded in nostalgia for her world or love for her characters.


Betrayal and Fidelity on the Screen

“Betrayal” implies relationship. Interviews with Jane Austen’s “Emma” screenwriter Andrew Davies and with the Miramax Emma director and screenwriter Douglas McGrath reveal that both filmmakers, even in the absence of copyright restrictions on Austen’s work, believe they have a responsibility to Austen. “You can’t change the actual story,” said Davies. The “certain amount of liberty” a screenwriter must take when adapting a novel to film, for Davies, is justified because every novel has “hidden scenes” that the author “didn’t get around to writing herself.”[4] Similarly, McGrath praises Austen as “a good collaborator” because of her
“superb dialogue,” “memorable characters,” and “extremely clever skill for plotting.” Like Davies, McGrath sees himself as working with the person Jane Austen; as with any “collaborator,” he has agreed to honor her work.

But what does it mean to “honor her work”? Presumably, it means adhering to her text; yet critics mean different things by “adhere to the text.”  John Wiltshire, [5] Neil Sinyard,[6]  and Di Paolo[7] compare Austen adaptations to critical essays that emphasize particular aspects of a work to the expense of other facets to make a point. Since Austen’s novels have been adapted to film several times, “the weight of responsibility” not to betray Austen “is shared by other, parallel, literary adaptations.”[8] No film need be “definitive”—a relief to filmmakers, since no 120-page-screenplay adaptation of a 400-page novel can be.

Helpfully, Geoffrey Wagner invented three classifications for film adaptations of novels: “A ‘transposition’ follows the novel closely; a ‘commentary’ alters the novel slightly, with a new emphasis or new structure; and ‘analogy’ uses the novel as a point of
departure.”[9] Sue Parrill offers Pride and Prejudice (1995), which takes nearly all its dialogue from the novel, as a “transposition”; Mansfield Park (1999), which “reinterprets the novel” from a postmodern view of its historical context, as a “commentary”; and Clueless (1996), Emma retold in 1990s Los Angeles, as an “analogy.”[10] Implicit in Wagner’s classifications is the belief that any film that corresponds to a category does not “betray” Austen—even the revisionist Mansfield Park and contemporary Clueless. Further liberating film adaptations, Brian McFarlane told the Literature/Film Association that “with film adaptations….playing around is more effective” than “fidelity.”[11] In the last fifteen years, many literary critics have accepted that films—as different than yet equal to novels—cannot “definitively” represent Austen’s work, and thus that filmmakers should concentrate on making excellent films. Such a critical consensus indicates that the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” film adaptations—between “betraying” and remaining “faithful” to Austen—has been deconstructed in favor of a confidence that adaptation has something
interesting to say about Austen.

“Emma”: Social and Psychological Order in the Opening and Closing Scenes of Three “Emma” Adaptations

Emma, as Austen’s most complex novel, spawns the most divergent interpretations.[12] According to Di Paolo, critics tend to see Emma either as a “domestic Bildungsroman” or as “a social critique.”[13] The three most recent Emma adaptations fall into these two groups: the Miramax and BBC versions are Bildungsromans, and the Meridian/A&E version a social critique. Additionally, one can categorize the films according to Wagner’s standards: the Miramax is a transposition; the BBC slips between transposition and commentary, highlighting minor themes, supplying new dialogue, and yet faithfully representing the plot and characters; and the “Marxist”[14] Meridian is clearly a commentary. In each of these films, the filmmakers especially use the opening and closing scenes to communicate their readings of Austen’s novel.

The Opening Scenes

From its first scene, Diarmuid Lawrence and Andrew Davies’ verson highlights Emma’s social context—class divisions in Highbury. According to David Monagham, screenwriter Andrew Davies renders both the novel’s “Burkeian view of the social contract”[15]
and its historical context, namely the lower classes’ “discontent…in the wake of the French revolution.”[16] For Burke and Austen, “society is not frozen into a state of immutable perfection,” but is “a living organism” that “must either grow or wither and
die.”[17] Davies asserts that Highbury’s small community, led by its insular upper class, is too static to survive the nineteenth century’s social changes.

In his essay “Emma and the Art of Adaptation,” Monagham describes how Davies establishes his reading of Highbury
in his first scene: working-class thieves raid Hartfield’s chicken coups, observed by a sleepy and bored Emma. Emma’s depiction in this scene contrasts with the lower-class characters’: she is captured by a still camera, framed by a white window, and moves slowly, while the thieves’ running feet are followed by the camera. The upper-class, static Emma is separated from the turbulent
lower-class. In the next scene, Mr. Woodhouse tells Miss Taylor not to marry Mr. Weston as they and Emma ride in a carriage past Highbury’s poor; Davies juxtaposes the inert upper class—represented by Mr. Woodhouse’s hatred of change—with the need for change. In the third scene, the newly wedded Mr. and Mrs. Weston run to their carriage, followed by the camera like the chicken
thieves. The upbeat music, moving camera, and jostling carriage indicate that marriage represents healthy change in Davies’ Highbury.[18]

In contrast to Davies’ telefilm, Douglas McGrath’s Emma (1996) focuses on Emma’s peers as her pertinent social context,
prompting Carol M. Dole to criticize the McGrath film for ignoring Emma’s social context and perpetuating
the “American ‘myth of classlessness.’”[19] Nevertheless, McGrath’s film depicts Emma
as a Bildungsroman,[20] showing how Emma matures by interacting with her friends until she can marry
her dearest friend, Mr. Knightly. McGrath’s opening sequence features portraits of the important characters: Mrs. and Miss Bates, Mr. Elton, Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Mr. Knightly, Mr. Woodhouse, and Emma. The characters pictured here constitute Emma’s social context, as the narrator’s first line emphasizes: “In a time when one’s town was one’s world, and the actions at a dance excited
greater interest than the movement of armies, there lived a young woman who knew how this world should be run.”[21]
The camera, fittingly, moves from the spinning globe to Emma’s face. McGrath’s ironic opening line indicates that Emma’s interactions with her friends will teach her that she does not know “how this world should be run.” McGrath is
interested in how the society fosters the individual. For instance, in the first scene, Emma tells Mrs. Weston: “Such happiness this brings to all of us.”[22] The camera again focuses on Emma’s painted globe, which symbolizes Mrs. Weston’s inclination to indulge Emma and allow her to waste her gifts instead of using them to help her peers.[23] Mrs. Weston’s decisions—like each character’s—do not affect only her, but her peers.

Emma’s relevant social context in screenwriter Sandy Welch’s Emma (2009) is even more limited than in McGrath’s film; Welch
begins with a prologue sequence dramatizing Emma, Frank, and Jane’s childhoods. As Emma says in the first episode, “Jane, Frank Churchill and I are bound together in a mysterious sort of way.”[24] The prologue shows how the tragedies in Emma, Jane, and Frank’s childhoods are aberrations in Highbury’s social order: an upper-class family becomes poor, two mothers die, and two children leave and “trust their fortune to strangers.”[25] The rattling carriages that carry Jane and Frank from Highbury represent social disorder. Yet Welch, like McGrath more interested in psychological than social order, emphasizes how Emma, Jane, and Frank’s childhood experiences of loss and loneliness affect their actions as adults.

In the first scene, Welch reveals how Mrs. Woodhouse’s death affects Emma’s childhood. A young Emma plays with dolls beneath a table, the table’s legs and curtains surrounding her, isolating her from the other people in the room. As Emma hears Miss Bates talk of Jane, she rolls her eyes at Miss Taylor, already rejecting Jane’s friendship. Mr. Woodhouse shushes Miss Bates lest Emma should
hear of Jane going to the seaside with the Campbells; thus, the sea represents maturity, liberty, and community for the viewer, who sees the child Emma still trapped beneath the table, alone with her dolls. With the prologue and first scene, the film presents Emma as alienated from others by her mother’s death.

The Closing Scenes

Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong as Emma and Mr Knightly in Andrew Davies' adaptation

Having established their favored interpretation of Austen’s novel, the filmmakers must conclude by consummating their themes. In Davies’s telefilm, the opening scenes’ contrast between chaos and immobility merges in a dance’s orderly movement. The camera
follows Emma as she trots agitatedly after discovering that Harriet loves Mr. Knightly, and cuts quickly from Emma to Harriet as they nearly collide and nervously tell of their engagements. After Mr. Knightly promises both
“stability” and “change” to his tenants, [26] the three happy couples dance together, surrounded by both upper- and
lower-class characters, as an unmistakable image of “class harmony.”[27] Although the dancing couples would make an ideal final image, Davies concludes with a second chicken raid. Monagham argues that the second raid depicts Highbury as a nineteenth century wasteland that can only be healed by the balance between stability and change that marriage offers.[28]
Yet while the opening scenes presented marriage among the upper class as heralding change to a proper social order, the second raid implies that marriage alone cannot heal Highbury.

In contrast, the McGrath film lingers on the proposal itself, presenting Mr. Knightly as Emma’s most important friend. Mr. Knightly and Emma say the word “friend” and its variations eight times during the proposal scene,[29] climaxing with Mr. Knightly asking Emma to marry him: “Marry me, my wonderful, darling friend.”[30] Moreover, while the novel nods at the “iron sharpens iron” element of their friendship,[31] McGrath highlights their friendship’s improving nature by adapting Austen’s
line: “I’ve humbled you, and I’ve lectured you, and you have borne it as no one could’ve borne it. Maybe it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.”[32] McGrath shows that Emma’s close friendships, particularly with Mr. Knightly,
have matured her so that she can now marry Mr. Knightly and integrate with society.

Mr Knightly (Jeremy Northam) proposes to Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) in McGrath's adaptation

Additionally, the post-proposal scenes highlight only Emma’s most important friends: Harriet occupies the two scenes before the wedding, which features Mrs. Elton, Frank and Jane, and Mr. and Mrs. Weston. As the wedding segues into the portraits of
Emma and her friends from the film’s beginning, the narrator says, “[T]he wishes, faith, and the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the
union.”[33] The portraits—including one of Jane, Frank, and Mrs. and Miss Bates, who do not leave Highbury in McGrath’s film—are neatly arranged beneath that of Mr. and Mrs. Knightly, visually representing the consummation of Highbury’s social
order brought about by Emma’s marriage.

As the Welch Emma’s prologue narrowed Emma’s society further to just her, Jane, and Frank, the film’s conclusion
emphasizes their connection. Welch’s proposal resembles Austen’s more than McGrath’s in that hers, like Austen’s, contrasts Frank and Jane’s secret engagement with Mr. Knightly and Emma’s honesty towards each other.[34] While Emma and Knightly use the word “secret” twice to describe Jane and Frank in the film, they speak of their “honesty” towards each other eight times.[35]

Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller as Emma and Mr Knightly in Welch's adaptation

In the following scenes, Emma reconciles with Frank and Jane, who show no sign of leaving Highbury. Frank, whom Emma had previously called a “little lost boy,” has finally “come home” to Highbury with Jane;[36] as the lonely children who lost loved family members find love again, social order is restored. But as the Davies film refused to end on a romanticized image of social order, Welch disrupts the newly-restored order. Emma says good-bye to her father and—echoing Jane and Frank’s departures in the
prologue—is handed into a carriage by Mr. Knightly as they head to their seaside honeymoon. In this final scene, Welch combines the images of social disorder and psychological isolation established in the prologue and first scene to comment on Emma’s character at the story’s end. For Welch, Emma’s marriage has ended the isolation caused by her mother’s death. When the sea was
first mentioned in the first scene, Emma was trapped beneath a table, playing with dolls by herself. In the last shot, Emma and Mr. Knightly gaze at the sea, holding hands. Emma’s interactions with Jane, Frank, and Mr. Knightly have taught her to be honest with people, not to manipulate them like toys. More importantly, Emma’s mature honesty has enabled her to escape her isolation.


As the three different Emmas indicate, the broad possibilities for Austen adaptations stem from the novels’
intellectual richness and their universal popularity. Julian North,[37]  Andrew Davies,[38] Judith Lowder Newton,[39] Diedre Lynch,[40] Douglas McGrath[41] and others attribute Austen’s modern popular appeal to nostalgia for a pre-industrial age of politeness and beauty. One could also attribute Austen’s 1990s popularity to politics: according to Marilyn Butler, Austen is
an intellectual conservative whose ideals of moral and social order are uniquely ground in the actual world.[42]
The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s fall in 1990,[43] and the Treaty on European Union’s signing in 1992[44]
may have attracted filmgoers and readers anxious about society and politics to Austen in the 1990s.

Fifteen years after Davies’ and McGrath’s Emmas, there is no consensus among film and literary critics about which film is
“better”; yet it seems that the former has fared worse than the latter. In 2008, Paul Mavis of DVD Talk criticized
the Lawrence-Davies adaptation for being “miscast,” “misdirected,” and “not very funny.” To Mavis, Kate
Beckinsale’s Emma is “bitchy, snotty,” and Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightly is “too stern and cross”[45]—characterizations
in tune with Davies’ depiction of a complacent, static, and supercilious upper class. Mavis’ review reveals that the social commentary in Davies’ film negatively affected the characters’ portrayals, which has caused the film’s reception to grow colder with the years. In contrast, Hilary Schor noted in 2003 that McGrath’s Emma “seem[s] classic to most viewers” because of its “strategic deployment of characters’ voices.”[46] As the McGrath film used society to further character development, critics’
continued positive reviews of his film suggest that Austen’s popularity has more to do with her characters than with her world. Therefore, as Welch’s film developed Emma, Jane, and Frank’s psychologies even more thoroughly than McGrath’s,
it is likely that critics will still view the latest Emma adaptation positively in another decade. If so, McGrath’s and
Welch’s Emma adaptations demonstrate that Austen’s loveable characters—not her beautiful, pre-materialistic, orderly
society—render her work universal.

Marc Di Paolo, Emma Adapted: Jane
Austen’s Heroine from Book to Film
(New York: Lang, 2007), 12.

Ibid., 12.

 [3] Deidre Lynch, “Introduction: Sharing with Our
Neighbors,” in Janeites: Austen’s
Disciples and Devotees
, edited by Deidre Lynch, 3-24 (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2000), 5.

 [4] David
Goldman, “Jane Austen’s Emma: Meet
the Production Team” (1996): http://www.pemberley.com/janeausten. Quoted in Gina
Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald, “Introduction,” in Jane Austen on Screen, edited by Gina Macdonald and Andrew F.
Macdonald, 1-8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 5.

 [5] John
Wiltshire, Recreating Jane Austen (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2001), 5. Quoted in Di Paolo, 8-9.

 [6] Neil
Sinyard, Filming Literature: The Art of
Screen Adaptation
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 117. Quoted in Sue
Parrill, Jane Austen on Film and
Television: A Critical Study of the
Adaptations (Jefferson, North Carolina:
MacFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2002), 5.

 [7] Di
Paolo, 16.

 [8] Ibid.,

Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and Cinema (London:
Tantivy Press, 1975), 222-226. Quoted in Parrill, 9.

Parrill, 8-9.

 [11] Brian
McFarlane, “It Wasn’t Like That in the Book,” Literature/Film Quarterly 28:3 164-169 (2000), 165. Quoted in
Parrill, 8.

 [12] Di
Paolo, 19.

Ibid., 22.

Di Paolo, 105.

 [15] David
Monagham, “Emma and the Art of
Adaptation,” in Jane Austen on Screen,
edited by Gina Macdonald and Andrew F. Macdonald, 197-227 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003), 200.

Ibid., 202.

Ibid., 203.

Monagham, 199-212. Jane Austen’s “Emma”, DVD, directed by Diamuid Lawrence (London:
Meridian [ITV] /A&E, 1996).

 [19] Di
Paolo, 8.

Ibid., 22.

 [21] Emma, DVD, directed by Douglas McGrath
(Santa Monica, California: Miramax, 1996).

[22] Emma, McGrath.

[23] For
Hilary Schor, the globe represents the power Emma exerts on the people around
her, which is clearly supported by the
narrator’s ironic comment that Emma “knew how this world should be run”
(Hilary Schor, “Emma, Interrupted:
Speaking Jane Austen in Fiction and Film,” in Jane Austen on Screen, edited by Gina Macdonald and Andrew F.
Macdonald, 144-174 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 147-8). Yet
in the first scene, Emma, Mr. Elton, and Mrs. Weston discuss Emma’s skill (or
lack thereof) evidenced by the globe, which justifies my interpretation of the
globe’s symbolism.

“Episode 1,” Emma, DVD, directed by
Jim O’Hanlon (London: BBC, 2009).


[26] Jane Austen’s “Emma.”

Monagham, 211.

Ibid., 211.

 [29] In
Austen’s text, Emma dignifies both Mr. Knightly and Harriet by calling each one
her “friend” twice, and Mr. Knightly only once says the word “friend” (Jane
Austen, Emma [London: Dover
Publications, 2011],  368-375).

[30] Emma, McGrath.

 [31] “I
have blamed you,” Mr. Knightly says, “and lectured you, and you have borne it
as no other woman in England would have borne it” (Austen 373).

 [32] Emma, McGrath.

 [33] Ibid.

 [34] Austen’s diction in the proposal scene emphasizes
truth and deception: “blind” or “blindness” appears six times (Austen 368),
“secret” (369) and “concealment” (372) once each, and “truth” four times

“Episode 4,” Emma, DVD, directed by
Jim O’Hanlon (London: BBC, 2009).

“Episode 1,” Emma, O’Hanlon.

Parrill, 38.

Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, The
Making of Jane Austen’s Emma
(London: Penguin, 1996), 7-8. Quoted in
Parrill, 123.

 [39] James
Thompson, “How to Do Things with Austen,” in Jane Austen and Co., edited by Suzanne R. Pucci and James Thompson, 13-32 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 23.

Lynch, 6.

Parrill, 6-7.

 [42] Marilyn Butler, Jane
Austen and the War of Ideas
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1-3.

“Margaret Thatcher (1925 – ),” BBC
, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/ thatcher_margaret.shtml
(accessed 5 April 2011).

“1980-1989: The Changing Face of Europe—The Fall of the Berlin Wall,” Europa: The History of the European Union, http://europa.eu/abc/history/1980-1989/index_en.htm
(accessed 5 April 2011).

Paul Mavis, “Romance Collection: Special Ed. (Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet
Pimpernel, Emma, Tom Jones, Jane Eyre, Lorne Doone, Ivanhoe),” DVD Talk, 2 June 2008, http://www.dvdtalk.com

(accessed 5 April 2011).

Schor, 145.


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