..faultless in spite of all her faults
Everytime I read people complain claim that Anya Taylor Joy's Emma is 'too mean', a bitch, or even 'cruel' I always get the impression they aren’t really comparing her portrayal to the actual book, and thus the character as it’s really written by Austen, but they are, rather, comparing her to their favorite adaptation(s) and thus the personal interpretation of those writers, and whether the 2020 version aligns with THAT interpretation. While I totally understand that kind of bias, and I don’t think I’m 100% immune to it, it’s honestly frustrating and unfair.
For one, I don't remember where Emma in the 2020 movie is so 'cruel' or mean, or significantly more mean than her book counterpart, anyway. If anything, all the scenes where she's being unlikable at the beginning are taken directly from the book itself (so shouldn’t you blame Austen for that?). Truthfully, they didn't even really include everything. Notably, in the book she's far more manipulative with Harriet (e.g. the whole passive aggressive 'we couldn't be friends if you mixed with those people' narrative), and she makes some snotty comments about Robert Martin, his family and the Coles, and even about Harriet, that Anya's Emma doesn't make because this version omits these things for the most part or only indirectly hints them (such as when Mr Knightley comments being surprised to see her at the Coles’ party). And let's not even forget the fact the movie ultimately makes her way more likable in the end towards Harriet for, in the book, as much as Emma feels bad for manipulating her and she cares about the girl, she still more or less drops her like a hot potato when she realizes she’s in love with Mr Knightley. Book Emma has her character growth and she matures in the end, but she’s still consistently as classist as you’d expect a woman of her status to be even if at her core she’s good. In that aspect, Austen makes no attempt to apologize for or pretend Emma doesn’t have that side in her (or that it does magically disappear completely in the end).
Back to Anya, I've read some complain that scenes like 'I want to keep Harriet to myself' make her seem too selfish and childish but that phrase is in the novel itself, lol. Other adaptations may omit it but I don’t see why de Wilde should’ve done the same. I believe that phrase is important to illustrate the fact that Emma IS childish and selfish there, even though she thinks she's doing what she's doing to 'help' her 'friend' (and yes, she’s also trying to derail Mr Knightley and deny his accusation that she’s matchmaking, let’s not forget that). She's egocentric and selfish (spoiler: she will realize that) and treats Harriet like a doll to manipulate and turn into everything she wants her to be because she’s lonely and bored and her only female friend got married (the fact Harriet ends up wanting the same guy she loves is, IMO, part of Austen’s wicked sense of humor in showing Emma how much her arrogance backfires). Subconsciously, a part of her doesn't really care about Harriet's happiness in that point of the story even if she genuinely convinces herself that she's doing everything for her good. But let’s be real, one of the big reasons why Emma doesn’t want Harriet to marry Robert is because she doesn’t see herself as the friend of the farmer’s wife; that’s part of the reason why she insists wanting to pair Harriet with creepy Elton instead: because she thinks she knows best sure but also it would be more convenient or easier for her to be friends with Harriet if she’s married to a guy closer to her own ‘world’. Notably, though, she’s hypocritical enough to believe Harriet could be Mr Elton’s equal in spite of her being a lower rank than him, but when it’s to her that he ultimately proposes, she is outraged and thinks he’s uppity for even imagining he could be at HER level and thus marry someone like her, Emma Woodhouse. She also does a 180° about dear Harriet when the latter tells her that she thinks Mr Knightley wants to marry her: in the middle of entire paragraphs where Emma is very hard with herself and feels guilty for being once again the reason why her friend may end up with a heartbreak, there also is space for her to find Harriet uppity for thinking that she could get a man like Mr Knightley. She’s actually concerned he may ruin his reputation and degrade himself, essentially ruining his life, to marry his inferior (Harriet) for her fault because she’s the one who ‘included Harriet in the party’ and made her access to a world she would never be allowed to access to without her interference.
Honestly, the movie shows only 2% of that side of book Emma because while they boldly keep her more in character, in my opinion, than previous versions, they aren’t naive and they know that keeping her 100% accurate to the book is near impossible when you want to still sell the movie to a modern audience that likely also has double standards for female characters compared to male ones (e.g., just compare people’s response to Darcy and Emma and how much the first is worshiped and his character growth overinflated, where Emma is only hated for her flaws and her character growth minimized, in spite of him being a male Emma who has pretty similar flaws).
Neverthless, to claim the movie showed only Emma’s bad/annoying side is disingenuos because putting aside the ending where she’s decidedly nicer, there are scenes that hint and illustrate her good/sweet side too and why people care about her since the beginning.
In fact, I believe they did a great job showing that duality in Emma since the very first minutes: the opening scene where you see her acting ‘rich privileged girl’ stereotype with her maid while picking the flowers is contrasted with the next sequence where you see that the flowers actually were for her friend Anne (so you realize she woke up early in the morning to make a nice bouquet to gift to her friend for her wedding) and you do see a sweet, more vulnerable and emotional Emma in their scene; an Emma that kind of seems like another person compared to the girl you just saw a minute before... and yet, both these girls represent the character, albeit different opposite sides of her but both equally true especially at this point of the story.
Similarly, you see other moments in the movie where she’s nice with Harriet, Mr Knightley, Mr and Mrs Weston, and of course her father (I love how subtle and sweet their relationship is portrayed here, such as when she hugs him when he already misses Isabella and you understand why she feels like she can’t leave her father too, or when he tries to comfort her after box hill by just being there with her, sitting next to her on the window).
That's, in a way, the point: Emma is likable only with those she loves and who care about her, that's why those people (saved for Mr Knightley and the reader) are biased about her and cannot see her flaws or faults.
Even with Miss Bates, Anya does a good job conveying Emma's 'inner annoyance' contrasted with her apparently acting nice and polite with the woman.
It’s that annoyance hidden behind even her smiles that is so on point to me, a subtle thing that the audience may see but that Miss Bates is oblivious about until she isn’t in that infamous box hill scene where Anya’s acting is great in showing the exact, subtle moment when she realizes she had said too much and she feels ashamed even as she tries her best keeping her control. Equally effective is the scene later when she ‘apologizes’, in her way, to Miss Bates and you can clearly see how ashamed she feels, how unworthy of the woman’s kind words to her and her respect and genuine affection (the way I see it, and I think it’s realistic, it’s the moment where Emma also really understands - and with her the audience too - that woman’s actual condition and she feels pity for her)
The thing is, in the book most of Emma's real, honest feelings are only in her thoughts and they don’t always coincide with the way she may appear to other characters, or the way she tries to present herself to them.
I always thought Emma was the most complex of Austen heroines (and the hardest to adapt) for this reason too, and I believe trying to convey that dichotomy in a movie adaptation isn't the most simple thing ever because a book and movie have too different narrative devices. However, I do feel Anya's eyes are expressive enough to display that ‘inner life’ of Emma. It’s those contrasting and contradictory feelings that some reviews also praised the actress for being able to express, and I agree about that. The whole “she’s good and can be nice but she’s still spoiled and she’s naturally influenced by the fact she’s a woman from a specific time and context” subtext is also on point.
I also think the movie does a good job conveying the fact Emma is lonely and Harriet may be the only female friend closer to her age that she has, even if their relationship is, ultimately, problematic and will never be real friendship because they aren’t equals.
The way I see it, even some changes such as the infamous nosebleed scene aren't just a gratuitous thing put there just for the sake of being funny or creative.
The movie is often praised for (or minimized as) the beautiful aesthetic but I think many miss the point that de Wilde was, IMO, trying to actually make there. The aesthetic, the care in which they try to accurately represent clothes and hired an etiquette expert to teach the actors about those people’s mannerism, and when and how it was appropriate for them to do things or touch people, in short all that making everything seem so accurate and tidy and pretty and perfect is also a means to actually emphasize how flawed and human the characters actually are when their human imperfections ‘break’ that perfect aesthetic in unexpected ways.
This is an aspect that no doubt the movie displays with Mr Knightley for example but also, foundamentally, with Emma herself.
From the beginning, it seems she is trying to be perfect (and even her world seems to reflect that with its apparent perfection) but then, in the most romantic moment, she cannot be perfect and her humanity completely destroys that facade she created of herself... but she doesn’t care anymore (and HE doesn’t care because he always loved her even with her imperfections).
It's a different yet interesting interpretation of the book character IMO, but it also is consistent as an attempt to convey something hard to convey in a movie that is the fact that, in the book, in that particular moment she's indeed overwhelmed by feelings (both for Mr Knightley but also how guilty and bad she feels about Harriet), but most of that is something you only read in her thoughts and it would be impossible to show it on screen too without a narrator. In fact, you could argue other adaptations of Emma almost make it seems like she doesn’t care about the fact Harriet had told her she loved the guy too only two minutes ago, which isn’t consistent to her character growth at this point. This to point up the fact that, sometimes, following how a scene goes in the book too closely (in this case, by showing things only from the perspective of how book Knightley can see them versus what the readers actually know by reading her thoughts too) may not necessarily work conveying everything you need to convey because a book and movie are too different.
In the end, the nosebleed is no less a personal interpretation and addition than the other adaptations creating other responses/replies from her where there isn't really one written in the book, or making her and Mr Knightley kiss where Austen has them barely touching (and it wouldn’t be realistic for them to kiss the way most of adaptations show them).
Even if you want to argue about the appropriateness of adding comedy to certain moments, I’m going to remind you that Emma IS a comedy. In a way, this adaptation is effective homaging Austen’s witty sense of humor too and the way she was unapologetically true about her characters flaws and the absurdity, weirdness and yes, hypocrisy of highter class/rich people like Emma and Darcy.
Neverthless, if you really want to nitpick, the whole exasperating some things and making scenes more comical than the book makes them isn’t an exclusive to this adaptation either e.g. Emma 2009′s anticlimactic scene (after the quiet mutual love confession) where she runs to Mr Knightley to be a crying and screaming drama-queen about the fact she cannot marry him because of her father isn’t exactly how that moment is actually written in the book, both in terms of dialog - including his response that is more sentimental with words than Mr Knightley actually is there or in general - and her tone and overall characterization.
As far as I'm concerned, Emma 2020 is the version (only followed by Kate Beckinsale's) that had the g u t s to simply portray Emma Woodhouse in a way that is more honest and consistent to Austen's own character. The other adaptations had always made her way too likable and erased her flaws too much in a way that, I believe, is a bit problematic for an accurate adaptation of Emma.
Autumn de Wilde herself pointed up that were she to make her movie ten years ago, executives, especially male ones, would likely demand her to make Emma a more conventionally likable female protagonist.
And yet, making Emma more likable than she is takes away a lot of her character growth and I feel this movie made the latter all the more incisive precisely because they didn't care about trying to make Emma nice at the beginning, or make you like her when she isn't supposed to be so nice. How can you honestly and truly see her maturation and change, and the fact she becomes more nice in the end, if she’s always nice from the beginning?
Austen knew that her heroine wouldn't be liked. She even said that herself. She knew but she didn't write Emma to make people like her or the people Emma allegorically represents. To me, it's deeply ironic that adaptations for the most part took this character and decided to make her seem more nice than she is, and essentially made the character conform to the very clichè expectations for female characters that Austen deliberaly went against when she wrote Emma.
And it’s ironic that the most popular adaptations of Emma are the ones that altered the character the most to make her more...likable.
Is it possible, also, that Anya’s Emma more poised and ladylike mannerism may contribute making her come across as being more ‘mean’ and ‘cold’ (in short, a well known prejudice) for some people among modern audiences, especially those who are used to adaptations that modernize these aspects giving women a significantly more modern, thus relatable, mannerism? Probably. Most likely, actually.
I, for one, think Emma 2020 shows a good range of emotion and she even has sexual agency, which I praise them for. It took a female creative team to understand something as simple as the fact that just because she realizes her feelings only in the end, it doesn’t mean she cannot react to Mr Knightley in a way that is consistent to the feelings that already exist in her as a woman in love. Even the book hints her jealousy and feelings way before the part where she realizes being in love with him. And anyone who reads her thoughts about him at the ball, when she isn’t even dancing with him yet, cannot be so surprised by this movie’s interpretation of the dance scene. Given how distracted she is by how hot she finds him from afar, while it’s with another man she’s dancing, it isn’t so crazy to think she’d have some sort of reaction and not look unaffected when he’s finally dancing with her and touching her.
Honestly, I don’t need Anya or anyone who will play Emma in the future to act like a carbon copy of Garai’s version from the 2009 series to understand she has feelings and see her as a human being. Because let’s admit it, Garai’s Emma is the issue here. It’s the Emma that is used to hate the others. It’s the Emma that is constantly overinflated and put into a competion with the others even before the 2020 came out; the Emma that, to some, had created a set of ‘rules’ all Emma adaptations must follow now, apparently.
All due respect to Emma 2009 fans but I’m tired of people bashing the new movie and its cast, to the extent of posting negative opinions in both the tags and gifsets, because it doesn’t interpret things like the 2009 series did. If you watched the 2020 movie expecting it to be a remake of your favorite adaptation you wasted your time because it never was meant to be that.
As much as I like the series too, it isn’t perfect and I don’t consider it the definitive Emma adaptation that got everything right. Like the 2020 movie, it’s just one of the many interpretations of the book made by modern day authors who need to sell an Austen-based product to a modern audience.
All in all, the thing I’m the most tired about is people judging all the Emmas by comparing them to Garai's portrayal in 2009, that is constantly getting presented as the most faithful and accurate when...it really isn’t for me.
Like Paltrow’s version before her, Garai’s portrayal of Emma is deliberately far more nice, sweet and likable, too likable, than her book counterpart really is. This, alone, is an issue for me in terms of accuracy because the main point is that Emma isn’t so nice at the beginning and actually gives the reader plenty of reasons to dislike her, but she has character growth. How can you really see her character growth and the fact she becomes nicer in the end if she’s always nice, to begin with? How can you even see that Mr Knightley is right about criticizing her?
She is supposed to be young like you’d expect a 21 years old woman in that context to be, but she’s not a child. She’s naive and clueless about some things but not THAT clueless because she actually is the most clever of her family.
Austen makes you ‘see’ her thoughts and how much she often does know that her actions and manipulations are not innocent, but she gives herself excuses to silence her conscience because she thinks she’s still in the right. Mr Knightley is Austen’s voice if you will, the reliable narrator of Emma’s character who notices her flaws and does see her real colors, but loves her in spite of that and is still able to see his own faults. Were Emma a clueless baby and too innocent, Mr Knightley wouldn’t waste his time criticizing her or trying to argue with her. He does that because he knows that she does have a conscience that can put her on the right path and tell her what is goor or bad, if she wants, if she listens to that side of her and doesn’t let her more spoiled and selfish side eclipse it. Her cleverness and intelligence is one of the traits he admires the most about her too, but if you turn Emma into a naive, misuranderstood child who cannot be perceived as anything but angelic and ‘cute’ even when she’s clearly in the wrong, you are taking away her cleverness too that is part of the integrity of the character just like her flaws and ‘bad side’.
A problem that many also ignore is the fact that alterning Emma to make her seem more nice and innocent than she really is actually alters Mr Knightley’s character and their dynamic too for he might come across as far more pushy and paternalistic than he really is. Because if you make Emma too nice, you have to tone down the scenes where he argues with her too, but if you do that too much, how can the part in his final confession where he apologizes for always ‘lecturing and blaming her’ ring true and feel authentic??. If you make Emma too nice and naive from the beginning, he has less a reason to criticize her and his pov and own character growth is essentially erased.
Not less important is another polarizing aspect about Garai’s portrayal that is her inaccurate and too modern mannerism: she is unmistakably much more goofy than how I’d expect book Emma, and the kind of people she contextually represents, to effectively be in real life.
I get their ‘country girl’ interpretation, but I disagree with it. For one, I think her mannerism is just another way to deflect about Emma’s flaws and make her more palatable to a modern audience (2005 P&P, that I also love, probably had an influence on that too). She still does the bad things she does in the book, but you are distracted by her seeming so goofy and funny and cute so it’s easier to forgive her and make up excuses for her behavior even when, perhaps, you shouldn’t do that.
Overall, while I DO see some merit in that ‘country girl’ interpretation, I think they went over the top with it and projected some quite anachronistic prejudices on country people, tbh. It’s decidedly influenced by a modern perspective that not only clashes with the Emma from the book (she’s a REAL snob but she is believable about it and she isn’t without integrity), but also the context and how Austen herself actually depicts people of lower rank than Emma such as Robert Martin (a farmer but still more a gentleman and educated than Emma’s snobby self would allow him), and all her other heroines of poorer condition and rank who (like Emma) lack experience and also live in the country side and are part of a limited social circle. Yes, Emma's world is limited, she probably didn’t have a ‘London season’ and what have you.. but neither did the others and most of ladies at the time. This, however, doesn’t mean she still isn’t part of her own context where some things would more or less be in her dna because it was part of people’s.. normality. Even the clothes they wore educated women about having a certain posture since they were little because, simply put, there wasn’t an alternative for them. There is no hint in the book that Emma isn’t poised and elegant or perceived like that; in fact, they all think Jane is the only one who could be her equal.. and Jane is considered elegant.
The series essentially turns Emma into one of the young Bennet sisters where book Emma would frankly snob those characters.
And listen, you can accuse Emma of having many flaws and yes, she can be a hypocrite with the way she picks and chooses where she has to be classist (or the fact she helps the poor in the same breath she snubs the Coles and Martins), but I believe one thing where she is coherent about and not so hypocritical is the fact I can see why, to someone like her, people like Mrs Elton are gross, and I can see where she can ‘teach’ Harriet about how to be more ladylike in a way ‘improving’ her. This is an aspect I’m affraid adaptations should be a tad believable about.
Her role as a ‘female leader’ in the community, as well as the contrast between her and Mrs ‘new money’ Elton and Harriet should still be obvious and believable, IMO. Mrs Elton in particular is a lot like a caricature of Emma for she shares some of her flaws but unlike Emma, she is delusional about her class, manners and elegance and how people perceive her. She envies Emma and considers her a competition because she likely recognizes that Emma has what she wishes to have but that no money can buy.
The problem with Emma 2009 is also the contrast with how other Austen heroines are depicted. That Emma, of all Austen ladies, would be represented by adaptations (eg BBC ones) as being less refined and poised as a lady than Elizabeth, Jane, Elinor etc will always be far fetched to me and hard to find believable especially when, if anything, in my mind she’s so much a female Darcy that it’s like someone turned him into Bingley and gave him Mr Collins’ mannerism. It’s hard to grasp for me.
For me, Emma’s context and yes the fact she’s a privileged rich girl from the gentry is very important and not an insignificant detail to erase or ignore. Both she and Darcy are good but they have flaws that are, or at least should be, understandable and realistic in their context. Were you to take Emma to the modern world or change her context, would the character still be completely the same? I don’t think so unless you could replicate, in modern time, the exact condition of a rich 1800 lady who grew up with no other opinion but her own and that of people who think like her (yes, I like Clueless and it was effective as a modern au of Emma but you gotta admit even that had limits, it’s inevitable). In fact, a lot of my issues with people who hate Emma isn’t really about the fact I don’t think people have a reason to dislike the character for there are plenty; my issue with the hate she gets is the fact people often project modern expectations on her and fail to understand that for a woman in her context it is realistic she’d behave in a certain way and perceive some things in a way that might seem classist and snotty and cold to us, but it wasn’t like that at the time and it would make perfect sense for someone like Emma to see things like that. The beauty of Austen’s writing is the fact most of her characters are closer, in a way, to what was her own condition at the time and she generally shows rich privileged people in a not so favorable light.. and yet, she still creates characters like Darcy and Emma that show she actually had a more complex and wider perception of people for she recognized that there could be good people even among the ones that, for their context and in part for their personality, are the most flawed and can be the most annoying.
Tl dr: the way I see it, Austen’s Emma probably wouldn’t be as sophisticated as Emma 2020 is, but she wouldn’t be as modern, goofy and unladylike as Emma 2009 is either.
What I’m really trying to get at is the fact Emma 2009 fans accept the series’ own modernizations, narrative devices and changes, they accept those things as artistic licence and rationalize the writers exasperating some things, such as the ‘country girl’ interpretation and the more sentimental tone, to ‘convey something’ about the character and the story.. and yet, they can’t accept Emma 2020 doing the same, but in a different way that goes for an opposite direction that isn’t inherently less valid as an attempt to adapt and convey the book character and her story than the 2009 one. If there really was only one valid Emma, you couldn’t explain people who equally like both adaptations in spite of being so different. Clearly, those people must find in both Emma aspects that are authentic to them as a portrayal of the book character.
Like I pointed up before, the last movie exasperates the accurate costumes, the aesthetic and Emma’s apparent perfection (as well as her unlikable side) to convey the influence of her context and insecurities too, and ultimately let her humanity destroy that perfection to symbolize/emphasize her character growth all the more in the end. It’s an interpretation, one no less valid than what previous Emma adaptations, including the 2009 series, had. In the end, whether you prefer one over the other is just a matter of preference and how you also see the book character.
I always avoided discussions about adaptations for a reason, especially when I saw how bad it was in the Pride and Prejudice fandom where it seems like you aren’t even allowed to be an Austen fan if you like the 2005 movie.
Before I watched 2020 Emma and saw fans of other adaptations non-stop hating on it both in the tags and even the gifsets, making it a competition (when it really isn’t????), I honestly never felt the need to criticize the 2009 series or other Emma adaptations made before it for the aspects that didn’t really align with my own opinion/perception of things. I was aware that some fans of the Paltrow/Beckinsale versions hated Garai’s version back when the series came out, and I did read those negative comments (including the ones complaing that Jonny Lee Miller was too young for Mr Knightley, LOL the same argument now used against Johnny Flynn and it’s funny because they actually are the actors closer in age to the character). Ironically, a lot of emma 2009 fans are now using for the 2020 version some of the arguments that people used against their fav version too and that likely annoyed them at the time and made them defend the series. It’s like a circle where you always get back to the same point with different people doing the same thing to other fans. If there will be another adaptation of Emma after the 2020 one, probably some emma 2020 fans will turn themselves into that kind of fan too and annoy fans of the new adaptation with unnecessary drama.
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