Thursday, November 5, 2009

Emma Mashup

So there are now four cinematic adaptations of Emma available to the modern audience (there were apparently versions made in 1948 and 1960 but I can't find them): BBC's 1972 mini-series, Douglas McGrath's 1996 Hollywood adaptation, Andrew Davies' 1996 TV version, and the new BBC mini-series we've all been abuzz about. All have their strong points but I find none of them perfectly satisfying. So here's an endeavor in futility - if I could pick my favorite portrayals of each character, this is the Emma that would result. A lot of this is arbitrary and based on my personal biases; I would love to hear how much you disagree with me!

Emma Woodhouse - I have to go with Gwyneth Paltrow. She just looks the way I think Emma should. I like all the different portrayals of Emma for one reason or another but her's is the one that stays in my mind. She has all the beauty, poise, arrogance, and petulance that the character requires.

Mr. Knightly - Who am I to break up a Hollywood match? Jeremy Northam captures Mr. Knightly's maturit, kindness, and, most importantly, he is swoon worthy. I really like some of the other portrayals of him but they're just not attractive enough. I am vain creature, aren't I?

Mr. Woodhouse - Some actors I absolutely adore have played this character (Bernard Hepton, Michael Gambon) but my favorite is Donald Eccles from the '72 version. He looses none of the humor of the character, admirably balancing courtly instincts with hypochondria.

Mrs. Weston - Samantha Bond from the '96 TV version. This is a very biased decision. I loved her portrayal of Maria Bertram in the '83 version of Mansfield Park and am always pleased to see the same actors in Austen adaptations. Besides, she made a very fine Mrs. Weston.

Mr. Weston
- Raymond Adamson, '72. I can't find a picture of him in this role but he was the perfect, jolly Mr. Weston.

Jane Fairfax - I have to favor Olivia Williams in the '96 TV adaptation. She does an excellent job of balancing Jane's refinement with the awkwardness of her predicament. I would like to prefer Polly Walker from the Hollywood version (I have been rather obsessed with this actress ever since she blew my mind away as Atia in Rome) but I cannot.

Frank Churchill - This is a really arbitrary choice as none of the portrayals of this character truly satisfy me. Falling back on looks again, I have to say Robert East from '72 but alas, no picture. I like Raymound Couthard's portrayal from the '96 TV version but just cannot reconcile myself to the idea of Frank Churchill as a blonde.

Harriet Smith - Without hesitation I say Debbie Bowen from '72. She is the only actress to have ever played the role to my satisfaction. In appearance and deportment she is the perfect Harriet Smith.

Miss Bates - Another one for Hollywood! Sophie Thompson portrays all the sweetness and silliness that this character requires. Most importantly, she keeps me laughing, as Miss Bates should. I must admit that Tamsin Greig in this role in the new version of Emma left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. It was a creepy portrayal.

(In regards to Mrs. Bates I have nothing to say. They are all silent old ladies in frilly caps and rather interchangeable).

Mr. Elton - Blake Ritson in the new version nails this role! He's absolutely fabulous, simpering and smirking to my heart's content. This portrayal so far surpasses all the previous Mr. Eltons that I can barely tolerate watching them anymore. He is one of the highlights of this adaptation.

Mrs. Elton - This is a much harder call. Each portrayal has its merits (it must be such a fun role to play) but I think I have to go with the Fiona Walker in '72, probably because she's the one who I would be most tempted to hit if forced to endure her company.

Mr. John Knightly - A favorite character of mine. Dan Frendenburgh did an excellent job in the new mini-series of portraying his cantankerous nature. You would think with all the wonderful pictures available of this version online I could find at least one of him, but I can't. Why is he always overlooked? They didn't even bother including him in the Hollywood adaptation.

Isabella Knightly - Another overlooked role. I thought Meg Gleed did her credit in '72. Again, no pictures.

Mrs. Goddard - My own biases make me prefer Mollie Sugden, of Are You Being Served? fame for this small part.

Robert Martin - Edward Woodall, Hollywood. He just has such a pleasant, cheerful face, exactly as I always pictured Robert Martin.


  1. Hmmm. We think rather differently on the subject (other than dear Olivia as Jane). But then, I'm satisfied with both the Davies and new series, and really dislike the other two. While I think Paltrow and Northam as fine actors (I adore them in Proof and The Winslow Boy, respectively), I really dislike both of them in these roles. And I mostly blame the script - I think it really cheapens Austen's dialogue into clumsy slapstick and limp jokes. Which is not to say I insist on perfect fidelity in dialogue (naturally, as I love passionately the new series, which, to say mildly, does not adhere to the letter at all), but I do like it to be less obvious and Hollywoody. (Same problem with most feature film versions of Austen, actually, except for the 95 Persuasion). Donald Eccles as Mr. Woodhouse (actually, all of the 1972 Emma) really bothers me, as he's constantly jumping up and down - very different than my idea of Mr. Woodhouse as mostly sedentary, attempting to help people to gruel while sitting down. I admit to liking Mr. Weston in the newest version mostly because they showed the dark side of his sociability - inviting those he knows to be unpleasant to others.

    Unfortunately, my most violent disagreement comes with Sophie Thompson. I love her as an actress - her performances in Sherlock Holmes and Persuasion are nothing short of masterpieces, but here she embodies an extremely offensive caricature of behavior towards deaf people. My mom was trained as a sign language interpreter, and thus I was exposed to deaf culture while fairly young, and repeating oneself more loudly is extremely rude in that context. To see it played as comedy really bothers me.

    I do think Mrs. Elton in the 72 series is the only part I found remotely entertaining - watching her go about bossing people was rather funny. But I have to say she can't make up for the fact that I loathe the adaptation.

    Really? The new John Knightley? I thought he was rather too grumpy - he almost frightened me, though he lightens up considerably in the last two episodes. I think Guy Henry in the Davies version was much more dry and amusing, rather than unpredictable and really bad tempered.

    Sorry for being so negative. Really, I don't have that many quibbles with the casts of the two versions I like - and I like having more than one version to compare and bring out different aspects of the book. I think probably the ideal cast for me would be the 2009 film plus a slightly more faithful script in the first two episodes and Olivia Williams as Jane. Which is not at all to disregard that I hold Kate and Mark in equal regard. But if I had to choose, I think that's what I'd do.

  2. No need to apologize - this is fabulous! I knew we would disagree and I love debating this kind of thing. I only hope some more people take the bait and put as much thought into this as you did!

    Honestly, I never considered Sophie Thompson's portrayal of Miss Bates from your perspective before and can certainly understand why you would find it offensive. I always interpreted her behavior towards Mrs. Bates as illustrative of the general cluelessness of her character. It does seem in keeping with the way she describes coping with her mother's deafness in the book: "By only raising my voice, and saying anything two or three times over, she is sure to hear; but then she is used to my voice." What did you think of Mrs. Bates "finding her voice" at the end of the new version? Why make her mute? This might be my biggest complaint about this adaptation: I did not like the portrayal of either Mrs. or Miss Bates.

    I continue to be interested in why you hate the '72 version so much, particularly because I really like it. When we last debated this, you mentioned that John Glenister interpreted the book in some rather disturbing ways but I have been unable to find any information on his thoughts behind the film. I would very much appreciate it if you would point me in the right direction to find his commentary.

    Didn't you once say you hated John Knightly? I have an odd penchant for surly, anti-social characters which definitely influences my opinion of his portrayal. I love how he blatantly makes Mr. Woodhouse squirm in the new version (which probably indicates something rather unpleasant about my own personality), especially because Michael Gambon portrays him as such a grump. I will defend my choice of Donald Eccles in this role - I think the nervous energy he displays emphasizes the fact that Mr. Woodhouse isn't quite as sickly as he'd like to fancy himself, "...for having been a valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind and body, he was a much older man in ways than in years...though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper...." It's this amiability that others fail to capture and Eccles portrays so well.

    Having rewatched the new Emma in a single sitting I'm actually a lot happier with it than I was at first. It's a beautiful film - a week or so ago on Jane Austen Today it was aptly observed how the interior shots look like Vermeer paintings (I can't think of a reason why this would be appropriate but I like the effect nonetheless). Ramola Garai, despite the weird body language, makes an excellent Emma. If I could overlook the flailing limbs and the fact that her mouth is constantly hanging open she might have topped Gwyneth.

  3. This may not be "taking the bait" but why does Emma have to be a blonde (or Frank Churchill a brunette)? I like Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong as Emma and Knightly.

  4. I like Kate Beckinsale too but, overall, I think her portrayal of Emma is a bit stern. She's so serious. Emma doesn't have to be a blonde but I like my Austen heroes (including Frank Churchill) to be dark ala Colin Firth. It's a personal bias.

    I don't like Mark Strong's rather intense portrayal of Mr. Knightly. On the superficial side, this has everything to do with the receding hairline, but more than that he's just too passionate for Mr. Knightly, who should be calm and reserved - the proper English gentleman. I think this has a lot to do with why I wasn't overwhelmed with Jonny Lee Miller in the role either. He's just not staid enough which, in all fairness, probably has everything to do with the attempt to modernize the characters' manners.

    And this is taking the bait - thanks for joining in the fray!

  5. Funnily enough, my buddies in class two nights ago were telling me I shouldn't play poker cause they could tell exactly what I was thinking from my face. Which I think is probably a big reason I love Romola's Emma - she is a terrible poker player too! :-)

    You bring up a good quote from the book about Miss Bates, but I think my real problem is twofold: a) McGrath doesn't do the "two or three words," he does only one; b) it's clearly for comedy, and I don't think that's appropriate. But again, it's a personal experience thing. I just think McGrath should have done his research instead of going for the cheap joke.

    As for Mrs. Bates finding her voice - I've always found this portrayal of Mrs. and Miss Bates moving rather than creepy, so I liked it a lot.

    The comments about the director come from a friend and a review of a book from the 70s/80s about the book. I think the book at the end of this review is it: I think there's also a reference in "Jane Austen on Film and Television" by Sue Parrill (very boring book, but great reference, and a lot of behind the scenes stuff - too bad it's mostly just summary). I can also ask my friend what the book is called, and if I can borrow or look at it.

    I don't hate John Knightley - I just hate the actor's interpretation in the new one. I think he's supposed to be like Mr. Palmer in S&S - grumpy, but funny because he's so wry and silly in his grumpiness. This one was very scary to me. Though Michael Gambon's Mr. Woodhouse was such a strong personality I could understand why he had such a reaction. I just didn't like how he snapped at Mr. Elton too.

    Funny, I too think Mr. Woodhouse isn't actually sick - but I don't think he's jumpy, either. I also just can't see him as skinny.

    Glad you liked it better on a complete watchthrough - I got to do that last night, and loved it. Though I still think episode two is really annoying sometimes (seriously, Mrs. Elton has 10,000 pounds, not 20,000!)

  6. Thanks! Maybe I could get these volumes from the library as I think I've already blown through my November book budget, all on Austen adaptations. I might force myself to step back and read something else before delving into it all, for the sake of my mental health nothing Victorian either. I have a copy of Mann's Doctor Faustus that has been patiently waiting to be read - that should shake things up a bit.

    Enough of that tangent.

    Sorry to misinterpret you sentiments towards John Knightly. I guess I can sort of see the connection between him and Mr. Palmer, perhaps particularly in this adaptation, in their gruff style. But John Knightly would never mock his wife or deprecate his children in the manner of Mr. Palmer. Whatever else can be said of him, he is unquestionably a very dedicated (nuclear) family man.

    I rationalized the 10,000 vs. 20,000 pounds discrepancy as possibly not referring, in this film, to the Hawkins family but some other miscellaneous brood of girls. It's the best I can do on this one as 20,000 pounds would raise Mrs. Elton to Emma's status which is totally distasteful and I can't abide it.

    And you're absolutely correct - Romola, as Emma, has a terrible poker face.

  7. No, I don't think John Knightley is identical to Mr. Palmer - though he is perfectly willing to be rather sarcastic to Isabella about her shoes.

    Actually that kind of remind me of my current obsession with trying to see how Austen recasts her figures - Mr. Collins becoming Mr. Elton, but with the power structure different (Emma having power instead of Mr. Collins), etc. Great game!

    Well, Emma has 30,000 pounds, though they don't mention that in the series. But still, giving Augusta such a huge fortune is a problem. And such an easily fixed one!

    Terrible poker faces of the world, unite! Though I have to say, if Romola and I were to meet, I'd probably spend most of my time trying not to stare and stutter.

  8. So Emma does! Can you spell BLUNDER? That will teach me to respond to these things while still lying in bed.

    Fun activity - tracing the similarities in Austen's character's across books. It's all too tempting to classify her character's according to prototype - the conniving young woman, the socially ambitious mother, the kind but annoying elderly woman, the failed patriarch, etc. Have you just been mulling this over in your head or have you done any reading and writing on the subject?

    Of course you do realize that if you just stared and stuttered at Romola you would be perfectly living up to your bad poker face (if I didn't loath emoticons I would put a smiley face here).

  9. B-L-U- oh, wait, you were being rhetorical? :-)

    I would hope, though, that I could do better, were I to ever meet Romola in real life. And I hope my love of emoticons doesn't bother you.

    Oooh, check this out!
    Romola writing about a week in her life, with some thoughts on Emma! Very fun.

    As for the character types thing, I've been doing a class on Arthurian retellings, in which I'm doing a project tracing how authors reuse and reshape major characters in the legend, which made me think of the way Austen's characters often fill similar positions, but with different results and motivations. I just think it's pretty interesting - maybe there's a paper in there someday, but for now, I'm just playing, seeing if I can find a pattern or overall scheme. Or if Austen is just a brilliant reworker! Or both!

  10. I don't judge people on emoticons - just try to avoid them myself.

    Romola Garai is a great writer! Very fun article. "Babysitting is absolutely my favourite pastime at the moment." This is a sentiment I heartily agree with as babysitting is what keeps me sane and grounded.

    If you do produce a paper on the subject I'd love to read it. May you would like to put your thought together and share them here? Since this blog, so far, has been mostly you and I going back and forth it would seem totally appropriate to let you step into my not so bright spotlight.

  11. I agree why should Emma be a blonde. I think that my best Emma is also Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong as Knightley. They act such well together with great chemistry.

  12. Thanks for chiming in!

    I agree, there is a lot of chemistry between Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. We're all entitled to our personal biases and mine are heavily at play in this post.

    The '96 versions came out when I was seventeen. I preferred the Hollywood version and, like the stubborn teenager I was, defended my preference by seeking fault in the other (quite in the manner of Caroline Bingley, when I think of it). I have since learned to appreciate the TV adaptation but can't seem to think of anyone but Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma. In my head she will always be a blonde.

    Plus Mark Strong does have that receding hairline. Reminds me of my dad.

  13. A receding hairline isn't a make it or break it issue in my book! I think Mark Strong brought to life Mr. Knightly's passionate side.

  14. To each his own.

    I actually thought Mark Strong was too passionate. I always thought of Mr. Knightly as a very sedate, even tempered gentleman - never ruffled - the proper English squire in direct opposition to the Mr. Westons of the previous generation (I refer not the gentleman who marries Mr. Taylor in Highbury but the drunken, tyrannical father in Tom Jones).