Since long before the 2007 box office release of The Jane Austen Book Club, the world has been open to new interpretations of Jane Austen’s satirical comedies. The great English novelist’s popularity on screen has probably never been greater.
Emma, Austen’s masterful comedy of manners, blends wit and irony supremely. Published in 1816, the novel is peopled by the gentry who reside in the kind of English village that Austen knew intimately.
PBS probably expects that airing adaptations of six works by Austen will attract a younger viewing audience to Masterpiece, the cozy Sunday evening staple once known as Masterpiece Theatre. The 39-year-old Gillian Anderson, the show’s new host, may help do the trick. She’s younger and less loquacious than Russell Baker and Alistair Cooke, her staid predecessors.
On Sunday, PBS reprised a 1996 TV production starring Kate Beckinsale as the self-assured Emma and Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law and confidant. Without dwelling on the frustrations that this truncated teleplay presents to lovers of Austen’s books, the show excels in several ways.
Beckinsale’s take on the intelligent, genteel Emma balances the literary heroine’s good-hearted nature with a plausible naiveté about the realities of social class. At 21, Emma has yet to come to terms with the responsibilities of her social position, so she never imagines that her desire to play matchmaker will hurt the ones she tries to help.
Beckinsale’s portrayal of Emma is not necessarily better than Gwyneth Paltrow’s rendering in the 1996 film, which was written and directed by Douglas McGrath. Beckinsale has a more youthful aspect, though. Compared to the film, she brings a different emphasis to scenes involving her rival Jane Fairfax and the opportunistic Frank Churchill. Beckinsale’s Emma passes for a young woman we can continue to like in spite of her social blundering.
The age gap between Emma and Mr. Knightley – she is 21 and he is around 37 – comes through clearly in the PBS production. Playing Mr. Knightley, Mark Strong’s righteous indignation is more pronounced than Jeremy Northam’s quieter rendering in the film. Strong’s Knightley seems harsher with Emma, in part because many of Knightley’s softer moments are slashed from the script. Therein lies the greatest flaw in Andrew Davies’ breezy teleplay, compared to McGrath’s elegant screenplay for the film. Key dialogue and scenes, vital to advancing Austen’s study of character, are missing from the TV version. The teleplay cuts sections that offer insight into the character of Mr. Knightley, Harriet Smith (her friend), Mr. Elton (the vicar), and Frank Churchill (a possible suitor).
In the TV version we do get a clear sense of who Emma is and how she struggles emotionally through Knightley’s reprimands. But we aren’t privy to Emma’s own expressions of remorse after her misguided matchmaking.
On more than one occasion, Emma misguides her friend Harriet Smith on the possibility of finding a husband. In the teleplay, we witness what happens when Emma takes it upon herself to ensure that Harriet turns down a local farmer’s marriage proposal. But we’re not allowed to witness Harriet’s devastation when she learns that it is Emma, and not her, who will win Mr. Knightley’s hand.
Most important, fans of Masterpiece shouldn’t feel the need to read Austen’s book before they watch a TV adaptation. The PBS version does a lousy job of introducing names and family connections that allow viewers to keep track of the characters. Did you scratch your head trying to figure out Mr. Knightley’s exact connection to Emma? Just who is Jane Fairfax and what is her connection to the Campbells and the Dixons? None of these questions is illuminated.
Beckinsale’s fantasies about uniting the men and women around her in matrimony are entertaining. No doubt, lovers of Austen’s book will be put off by these interludes, which don’t exist in the book. In this adaptation, they’re a nice touch.