A few weeks ago, my incredible fellow intern Grace wrote about how so many book-to-film adaptations can go wrong and examined how Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) was one of the few adaptations that got things right because of Gerwig’s passion for the original source material. The film is spectacular (it’s one of my favorites from 2019) and is sure to be a timeless classic to re–watch over and over again.
In that same vein, there is another book often turned into film adaptations that I’d like to draw your attention to: Emma by Jane Austen. Though many book-to-film adaptations are seen as dark and intimidating, Clueless (dir. Amy Heckerling, 1995) and Emma. (dir. Autumn de Wilde, 2020) are two of Emma’s most well-known film adaptations that change how audiences, specifically teenage audiences, perceive these types of films and turn them into classic watches.
Clueless completely changed how many of us saw what an adaptation could be. Pulling the characters from 1800s England into 1990s California was an unprecedented move. Heckerling saw the world of Emma as one that fit in well with the culture of the time, focused on image and fitting in in a high school environment. Noted as a satire of 90s high school culture, the film gently pokes fun at the seemingly isolated world of privileged teens in the San Fernando Valley. The characters of Cher (Alicia Silverstone), Dionne (Stacey Dash), and Tai (Brittany Murphy) became inspirations for teenagers who loved the group’s fun, seemingly supportive dynamic and well-intentioned mishaps. The small problems in the film are slightly over-dramatized, to fit in with how teens think that such small issues are the end of the world when they really aren’t. The teenagers who saw this film were drawn in by the modern fashions and catch phrases in a “Valley accent” while unknowingly consuming a take on a classic British novel.
With Emma. (with the all–important period at the end of the title), it strays closer to a more faithful literary adaptation, adding in a few modern notes. The set design of the film is immaculate, filled with pastel colors and pin-straight lines. Every part of the film seems to be hyper-detailed and precisely framed, reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film. As Emma. is predominantly a British production (as opposed to Clueless’ Hollywood production), the humor in the film is more witty and dry to appeal to the country’s audiences, using the small comedic moments of Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) to lighten up the matchmaking adventures. The film also slowly teases out the inevitable romantic relationship between Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), showing them transition from a more formal acquaintance to a romantic interest in a single ballroom scene focused on miniscule touches of an elbow or waist and extreme closeups of faces (this scene literally made some people in my screening of the film audibly swoon).
How are both films poised to become classics? Because of how they focus intimately on the details of the book to make them more accessible to audiences – specifically teenage audiences. Both Cher and Emma have an innate desire for control – they are teenage girls who feel the need to control something in their lives as they barrel closer to adulthood – and try to have everyone around them fit into their comfortable world. Cher and Emma are driven, goal-oriented, and passionate, yet they sometimes don’t entirely acknowledge the more upper-class privileges they both have by trying to manipulate the lower-class companions around them. They try to do their best to help other less fortunate people, specifically in their relationship problems, they genuinely believe they are doing a public service and that they know what is best. Cher in the film asks if she wants to use her popularity for a good cause, which sums up what both Cher and Emma want to do in their respective films. They just overall want to see people happy as a result of their actions.
Like Gerwig, the directors tap into their passion for the source material and tap into their passion for the characters of Cher and Emma. Despite both being such different takes of the same classic novel, both films are able to appeal and resonate with teenagers simply through the characters’ actions and maybe show them that a classic Jane Austen novel might actually be fun to read.