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‘Let there be Light’: The Gospel According to Dr River Song

Amy: What does the time energy do?


Amy: Tell me!

Doctor: If the time-energy catches up with you, you’ll never have been born. It will erase every moment of your existence. You will never have lived at all. Now….keep your eyes shut, and keep moving.

Remember how scared you were when you first heard Matt Smith speak those four sentences? As Amy clung to the communicator and shook with fright, the BBC National Orchestra’s string section screeched up the scale and you scooted forward on the couch. I scooted forward on my desk chair and started cramming chicken tikka masala into my mouth at factory speed while watching ‘Flesh and Stone’ on my laptop as a dinner-time break from prepping for my Virginia Woolf tutorial. Since BBC iPlayer posted the episodes out of order, I hadn’t known about the cracks until this episode. I didn’t understand what had
happened to Rory at the end of ‘Cold Blood’ until this moment. And I felt very afraid.

Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) gets devoured by time-energy in 'Cold Blood.'

Why are the cracks so very scary? If Rory dies in any “ordinary” fashion—getting sprayed with poisonous green gas, shot with a laser gun, or blown up in the Blitz—we throw our dinner plates at the telly screen, at Steven Moffat, at Amy for rendering Rory unavailable in the first place. We comfort ourselves, knowing that Doctor Who has a history of undignified but epic dues ex machina endings, and that Moffat will probably pull one to bring Rory back.

But Rory erased from existence? All the plate-throwing and rationalizing in the universe can’t dampen our rage, grief, and fear.


Because we know, instinctively, that existence is inherently good and nonexistence inherently evil.

It’s an inalienable truth. We all like existing. Athanasius, an Egyptian theologian born around 298 A. D., expanded on this truth in his book On the Incarnation: ‘It is God alone who exists, evil is non-being [or nonexistence], the negation and antithesis of good.’[1]

In other words, God exists. Goodness exists. Evil does not exist—or, it is nonexistence. Nonexistence threatens to destroy all good things.  So the cracks in Doctor Who that devour all of time and space are evil. They transform everything that exists into nonexistence—they change everything that is good into the ultimate evil. They can even change Rory—who can be too kind-hearted for his own good—into Evil.

And that scares us.

One of the cracks in the fabric of the universe.

But there’s a way to shut the cracks, to bring Rory and otherssucked into nonexistence and evil back into existence:

Angel Bob: The time field is coming. It will destroy our reality.

Doctor: Well, look at you, running away. What can I do for

Angel Bob: There is a rupture in time. The angels calculate that if you throw yourself into it, it will close, and they will be saved.

Doctor: Yeah, yeah, yeah, could do that, could do that, but why?

Angel Bob: Your friends would also be saved.

Doctor: Well, there is that.

River: I’ve travelled in time. I’m a complicated space-time event, too; throw me in!

Doctor: Oh, be serious! Compared to me, these angels are more complicated than you, and it’d take every single one of them to amount to me, so get a grip.

River: I can’t let you do this.

I suspect the Doctor knew then what he had to do. To shut the cracks, he would have to find the explosion that caused the cracks and throw himself into it. That’s exactly what he does in ‘The Big Bang’:

River: The T.A.R.D.I.S. is still burning; it’s exploding at every point in history. If you threw the Pandorica into the explosion, right into the heart of the fire…

Amy: Then what?

River: ….then let there be light.

Vincent Van Vogh's depiction of the T.A.R.D.I.S. exploding.

Specifically, if you threw the Doctor—the most ‘complicated space-time event’ ever—and the Pandorica with its restorative light into the explosion, the Pandorica’s light would shoot through the cracks to every point in time and space, forcing the cracks to regurgitate everything they had swallowed.

Although it’s the Pandorica’s light that brings the universe back into existence, it’s terribly clear that only the Doctor can fly the
Pandorica into the explosion. Only by sacrificing himself—giving himself up to evil, to nonexistence—can the Doctor save the universe from evil.

When River and Amy had that conversation, I immediately thought of the end of C. S. Lewis’ novella The Great Divorce, in which Lewis and others take a bus from hell to heaven—from a huge grey metropolis to an entire world of trees and mountains. When Lewis arrives, he meets Romantic novelist and preacher George MacDonald, who shows
him that hell—which he had thought was huge—was really infinitesimal:

…he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without this aid.

‘I cannot be certain,’ he said, ‘that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye
certainly came.’

‘But—but,’ I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. ‘I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.’

‘Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That bus, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.’

‘Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?’

‘Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real
World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste….’

‘I see,’ I said at last. ‘She couldn’t fit into

He nodded. ‘There’s not room for her,’ he said. ‘Hell could not open its mouth wide enough.’

‘And she couldn’t make herself smaller?—like Alice, you know.’

‘Nothing like small enough. For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it…’

For Lewis, hell is a bleak place of near-nonexistence: you’re trapped inside a crack so small, so close to nonexistence, that no one can fit their arm inside the crack to pull you out. Just as the Doctor alone can enter the explosion to bring people out of nonexistence, Jesus Christ alone can enter hell to bring people out of near-nonexistence. Lewis continues:

‘Then can no one ever reach them?’

‘Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.’

‘And will He ever do so again?’

‘I was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left Earth. All the moments
that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to whom He did not preach.’

‘And some hear him?’


Sound familiar? Only the Doctor—the most complicated space-time event ever, the last of the Time Lords—can throw himself into the explosion and close the cracks. River Song can’t; the weeping angels can’t; the Pandorica alone can’t. And when he does, he restores every moment and place throughout all of space and time. Similarly, only Christ—the most complicated
space-time event ever, the eternal God turned into mortal human flesh—can be crucified and descend through the cracks into hell. And when He does, he rescues every person throughout all of history from evil’s power, giving them the freedom to choose Him, the Light of the world.

As River so aptly says, ‘Let there be light.’

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation., I.4.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 122-4.


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Filed under British Nerdiness, Doctor Who, Film & Telly, Philthy: Philosophy & Theology

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): 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
, 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,
(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,

(accessed 5 April 2011).

Schor, 145.

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Savoring Stories that End: How We Can Save the Film Industry from Sequels

There’s not much to do at 7 p.m. when it’s still 103-degrees and windy in the Eastern Sierra town of Bishop. Your best option? Watching a movie in the air-conditioned Bishop Twin Theatre, the only theatre in town. Twice my dad and I have topped off breathtaking mountain hikes with breathtaking Christopher Nolan films—The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010).

To our surprise, we almost didn’t get seats for The Dark Knight. The movie had opened a week earlier, but apparently half of Bishop’s 3,428 residents turned up to relive Nolan’s Batman Begins sequel. And “relive” is the right word—watching the film in a packed-out theatre was more a relational experience than an aesthetic one. We all gasped, laughed, sobbed, screamed, and cheered in unison.

This summer, Dad and I anticipated the same ecstatic movie-watching when Inception premiered a week before our trip to Bishop. Again, we expected to fight a mob to get good seats.

Not so.

The theatre was nearly empty. A grey-haired couple demurely speculated behind Dad and me, nine boys in baggy jeans bickered across the aisle, and three couples my age made out in the second row. And that was it. Needless to say, the movie-going experience was not the same.

The Dark Knight gathered over twice as much gravy in its first three weeks in theatres as Inception did in the same time frame. Yet most people applaud both films’ artistic excellence. The average critic gave The Dark Knight an 8.5/10[1] and Inception an 8/10.[2] That .5 difference doesn’t warrant such a drastic difference in revenue.

What explains The Dark Knight’s massive $1 billion paycheck[3] and Inception’s comparatively measly $8 million?[4]  Not the economy—the “Great Recession” was in full swing during The Dark Knight’s 2008 release and had struck out by Inception’s 2010 release.[5] So let’s try this hypothesis: The Dark Knight was a sequel, but Inception was an original idea.

 Sequels have been money-making ventures from Hollywood’s start. Thomas F. Dixon, Jr. directed Hollywood’s first sequel, The Death of a Nation, in 1916. According to film scholar Mevlyn Stokes, Death was a “clear attempt to cash in on the success” of The Birth of a Nation (1915), a controversial and profitable film directed by Dixon’s colleague, D. W. Griffith.[6]

Though film sequels appeared in the silent era, Hollywood produced only two or three sequels per year for the next six and a half decades. But everything changed in the 1970s and early 1980s, when four sequels smashed the box office: The Godfather: Part II (1974), The French Connection II (1975), Jaws 2 (1978), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).[7] In the post-Star Wars world, sequels are the most profitable films by far. Since 1980, eleven of the thirty-one worldwide top-grossing films were sequels, and another ten spawned sequels.[8]

Summer 2010 continued this trend—four of the five worldwide top grossing films were sequels. Moviegoers around the planet spent $9.6 billion on Toy Story 3,[9] $737 million on Shrek Forever After,[10] $692 million on The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,[11] and $622 million on Iron Man 2.[12] The only exception was Inception, which has earned $823 million worldwide thus far.[13]

Hollywood makes sequels because we’ll pay to see them. But why do we? Do we merely wish to spend our money on something familiar?

Our willingness to watch sequels isn’t simply economic. After all, sequels didn’t start with The Death of a Nation in 1916—they’ve been around since Homer followed up his visceral Iliad with the delightful Odyssey. Homer didn’t write the Odyssey to drum up drachmas. If neither Achaeans nor Americans spurn sequels, people must naturally crave endless stories.

Humans are narrative creatures. We explain the universe and process traumatic experiences through stories. We understand who we are through stories.

Humans are mortal creatures. More than anything, we fear death. Since stories explain life, a story’s end is a kind of death. An original film—with no promised sequel—aggravates our death-anxiety. To avoid that negative emotion, we flock to flicks like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Spiderman (2002) that guarantee sequels and virtual immortality. As Cobb tells Eames in Inception, “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.”

Inception, this summer’s only non-sequel blockbuster, can help us understand our need for never-ending stories. The protagonist, Dom Cobb, is an “extractor”—in other words, he uses sci-fi technology to steal information from a person’s subconscious while he or she dreams. Cobb hopes his team’s last assignment will enable him to return home to his children, who have been orphaned by their mother’s death and father’s absence.

Cobb uses the dream technology to relive moments with his wife Mal that he regrets. Mal is dead; his life with her is over. Cobb promised Mal that they’d be “together forever.” Now that she’s gone, he wallows in a dream-world in which his wife isn’t dead. “In my dreams,” Cobb says, “we are together.”

For Cobb, ceasing to dream about Mal would mean accepting her death and the reality of life without her. As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb can’t complete his last job—the job he needs to go home to his kids—unless he confronts his grief. To go home, Cobb has to overcome his death-anxiety. To move forward into a new story, Cobb must allow the old one to end.

To enjoy a new story, we must allow the old ones to end. Our favorite characters, like all mortal things, must die.  It’s scary—a story’s end reminds us of our own deaths. But if we want filmmakers to produce original art instead of slipshod sequels, we need to savor stories that end. To save the film industry, we need to confront our death-anxiety and realize that we and our beloved characters won’t be “together forever.”  We need to echo Cobb’s words to Mal: “I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go.”

[In case you’re wondering, I did love Toy Story 3.]

[1] “The Dark Knight,” Rotten Tomatoes, (accessed November 28, 2010).

[2] “Inception,” Rotten Tomatoes, (accessed November 28, 2010).

[3] “The Dark Knight,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed November 27, 2010).

[4] “Inception,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed November 27, 2010).  

 [5] The National Bureau of Economic Research Business Cycle Dating Committee, 20 September 2010 Report, (accessed December 1, 2010).

 [6] Mevlyn Stokes, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Film Ever Made” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 268.

[7] Michael Avila, “What Was the First Movie Sequel?” Life’s Little Mysteries, (accessed November 27, 2010).

[8] “Yearly Box Office,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed November 27, 2010).

 [9] “Toy Story 3,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed November 27, 2010).

[10] “Shrek Forever After,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed November 27, 2010).

 [11] “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed November 27, 2010).

[12] “Iron Man 2,” Box Office Mojo, (accessed November 27, 2010).

 [13] “Inception,” Box Office Mojo.

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Thrill Issues: How “The Bourne Identity” Adheres to Aristotle’s Literary Theory

Best described as a roller-coaster, a thriller film or novel features a carefully-structured, fast-paced, unpredictable plot. Because of its emphasis on plot, the thriller genre naturally maintains Aristotle’s literary theory as presented in his Poetics—perhaps more so than any other genre. The plot, according to Aristotle, is a story’s most important element (Aristotle; moreover, the moments of “reversals and recognitions” are a plot’s most vital parts (Aristotle 1450a.iv). As Aristotle repeatedly offers Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex as a prime example of a well-structured plot, comparing Oedipus Rex’s and The Bourne Identity’s recognition and reversal scenes reveals the extent to which the modern thriller adheres to Aristotle’s literary theory.

A “recognition,” Aristotle writes, is “a change from ignorance to knowledge” (Aristotle 1452a.11). Such a moment occurs at the climax of Oedipus Rex. After having sworn to find and execute the murderer of Thebes’ previous monarch, King Oedipus discovers that he himself killed the late king. Like Sophocles, the writers of The Bourne Identity chose to incorporate a recognition scene into the film’s climax. But screenwriters Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron take the concept of recognition and reversal another step farther: their amnesiac protagonist Jason Bourne recognizes two different, though related, aspects of his own character in the same scene. After having travelled from Marseilles to Zurich to Paris to discover his identity, Bourne finally traps Conklin, the man who knows the answers, and puts a gun to his head: “Who am I?” (The Bourne Identity). Conklin calls Bourne “a malfunctioning, thirty-million dollar weapon” that has inexplicably failed to kill a politician named Nykwana Wombosi in Marseilles (The Bourne Identity). In short, Bourne is a trained assassin working covertly for the U.S. government. Bourne begins to remember; he undergoes the first moment of recognition. Then Bourne experiences a flashback to Marseilles. In a second moment of recognition in the flashback, Bourne, about to shoot his target, realizes that Wombosi is surrounded by his children. Thus, Bourne simultaneously experiences two moments of recognition as he remembers his past.

Any recognition like Bourne’s or Oedipus’ ought to prompt a reversal. Aristotle defines a “reversal” as “a change in the actions to their opposite” (Aristotle 1452a.11). Moments of recognition and reversal are “finest”, according to Aristotle, when they occur simultaneously, as in Oedipus Rex (Aristotle 1452a.11). When Oedipus recognizes that he murdered King Laius, he changes his course of action. Instead of hunting for the killer, he gouges out his own eyes (Sophocles 1268-1272) and exiles himself, saying, “Drive me from here with all the speed you can / to where I may not hear a human voice” (Sophocles 1436-1437). Because of Oedipus’ concurrent recognition and reversal, Aristotle exalts the play as excellently written. Likewise, in The Bourne Identity, a dual reversal accompanies Bourne’s dual recognition. Within the flashback to Marseilles, Bourne recognizes that Wombosi’s children should not witness their father’s murder, prompting him to disobey his orders and flee. Immediately after the flashback, he must respond to his first recognition: he is an assasin. He tells Cronkin, “I don’t want to do this anymore” (The Bourne Identity). Like Oedipus, he exiles himself. Once willing to attract dangerous attention to discover his identity, Bourne reverses his actions and disappears.

Echoing Oedipus Rex and upholding Aristotle’s storytelling standards, The Bourne Identity’s scene of dual recognition and reversal demonstrates the power Aristotle’s Poetics still holds over modern literature.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you think of another modern thriller with a recognition and reversal scene? How effective was the scene? Why do you think it was effective or uneffective?
  2. Other genres in literature use recognition and reversal scenes. For instance, Pride and Prejudice—a character-driven novel—is structured around a recognition and reversal scene at its midpoint (when Elizabeth receives Darcy’s letter). How effective is a recognition and reversal scene in a character-driven novel as opposed to a plot-driven one? Use a recognition and reversal scene from a character-driven novel as an example.


Works Cited

Aristotle. “Poetics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B.

Leitch, et al. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2010. 88-115. Print.

The Bourne Identity. Dir. Doug Liman. Perf. Matt Damon. Universal Studios, 2002. DVD.

Sophocles, “Oedipus Rex.Sophocles I. 2nd ed. Trans. David Grene. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1991. 9-76. Print.

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