It’s often said that “A picture is worth a thousand words,” but is that always true? Specifically, is there something a movie can do that a book can’t? Even more specifically, is there something a movie adaptation of Emma (again) can do that the book can’t, or can’t do as readily? And, I wondered on my way to AMC Boston Common, what will that be?
The answer to this (I might have guessed): display. Apart from Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma, interior decoration stars in this movie: ornate furniture (especially, the folding screens), portrait painting, and sculpture busts. The camera homes in on all these lovely things, but the folding screens do come in for particular attention. They are integral to the story. They first appear in order to keep away a draft (feared by Emma’s father, played by Bill Nighy), then later to create much-needed privacy for Emma and Mr. Knightley (played by Johnny Flynn). The screens serve a crucial function. Not quite as crucial but as much on display—all the food set out for a ball, the variety of merchandise at a town store. Certainly, too, the English countryside near London, the setting for Emma, is on display (and looking lovely as ever). It all feels a little like glossy Town and Country—and Emma, like any of Jane Austen’s novels, does have a Town and Country aspect.
But, unquestionably (asserts the former English major) there is another aspect to Emma, and that is Jane Austen’s satiric wit, gentle but persistent. Her wit comes through in her use of language, sometimes in quotable dialogue but often not, as in “[Mr. Elton’s] welfare twenty miles off would administer most satisfaction.” (from Volume II, Chapter IV, of Emma). This is definitely an LOL sort of comment, but it’s subtly worded, a subtlety that is typical of Austen, but not typical of movies—and that includes this version of Emma. So, for instance, while Mr. Elton becomes disagreeable to Emma in the book, he descends into an utter caricature of pretension in the movie—a probable event, but not incontrovertible. After Volume II, Chapter IV, of Emma, Mr. Elton (played by Josh O’Connor) tends to disappear behind his bossy wife Augusta (played by Tanya Reynolds), who is incontrovertibly a caricature of pretension in both book and movie. Still, caricatures are not common in the book. Most obviously—while Emma’s father’s hypochondria could easily be caricatured by Austen, it never is a joke, in large part because ill health is an ongoing concern for all the characters in Emma. Mr. Woodhouse’s anxieties about his health are extreme but not, evidently, unfounded. In this movie, however, he is definitely and only a caricature of hypochondria. But I’m getting off the point…
The burning question is, can this movie version of Emma recreate Jane Austen’s satiric wit on screen, given that her wit comes through in her use of language? To some extent, it can. At the start, the movie presents the opening sentence of Emma on screen, on intertitles (like a silent film). In this way, the viewer gets Jane Austen’s words, and can sense a gentle jab between the lines:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich…had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. (from Volume I, Chapter I, of Emma)
The implication: Emma was a spoiled girl. Happily, the intertitles provide Jane Austen’s clever wording. Unhappily, intertitles do not appear again. Instead, Austen’s words appear in character’s mouths—e.g., when Emma in the movie criticizes Mrs. Elton’s manners, she quotes words (and it’s a quote, not a paraphrase) from the book. But, this happens only occasionally, perhaps because a scriptwriter doesn’t wish to be derivative. Such a wish is understandable, and yet…Austen’s clever use of language disappears.
Then again, Austen’s clever use of language disappears in any adaptation of any of her novels (and here I am thinking of Sanditon on PBS, in which the Town and Country aspect of Jane Austen’s writing is paramount). Still, her novels—and not only IMHO—should get filmed. So what to do?
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.