By Jennifer Abella
Jane Austen might have written a heroine that readers may not much like, but Emma has been brought to life on screens big and small numerous times and in numerous eras. These adaptations can fit any mood and personality. Read on to see which might fit you best.
If you want to see a “darker” side of Highbury…
“Emma” (1996 TV movie)
This adaptation (written by Andrew Davies) isn’t all sweetness and light. It highlights the working class, with pointed glimpses of kitchen maids clearing plates; footmen hauling food and tables up Box Hill; Knightley’s tenants -- including Robert Martin -- working the fields; and ragged young beggars accosting Harriet on the path. Plus, if you love candlelit scenes, dark-wood sets and dark brown dresses, well, this is the production for you. But watch out for this Emma: Kate Beckinsale plays up her haughty side -- she’s a little more mean girl than golden girl. She is not afraid to tell it to you straight.
If you like fashion statements …
Plaid? Check. Sailor dresses? Check. Structured jackets? Check. If your fashion philosophy is "go bold or go home," “Clueless” is your best bet. The film may be 20 years old, but the costumes are still inspiring fashionistas today. And if you grew up in the ‘90s, phrases like “As if!” and "Whatever!" are still part of your lexicon. Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz is a lovable modern Emma, with her heart in the right place even if her plans don’t always work out. She’d make a terrible study partner, but a fantastic shopping buddy … just don’t let her drive you anywhere.
If your passion for fashion veers more toward period dramas ...
"Emma" (2020 feature film)
This movie by Autumn de Wilde is the latest iteration of "Emma" to hit the big screen, and it definitely the "costume" in "costume drama." The color palette seems inspired by a box of fancy macarons, with golds, peaches, pinks, and light greens and blues. Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays our heroine, sports beautiful ensembles throughout, from her stunning yellow coat, to her diaphanous gowns to her wide-brimmed bonnets. In addition Harriet (Mia Goth) catches your eye in her dark-red cloak, and Knightley (Johnny Flynn) shines in his blue and gray jackets. The costumes by Alexandra Byrne as well as the hair and makeup by Marese Langan, Laura Allen and Claudia Stolze) were nominated for Oscars.
If you love Martha Stewart …
“Emma” (1996 feature film)
This film is like Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair: perfectly coiffed, no strand out of the place. Cool, (mostly) calm and sophisticated, this adaptation has a sheen of Hollywood glamour. Who wouldn’t want to live in this version of Highbury? Like Emma, the film strives for perfection; it may occasionally fail, but we love it anyway. Paltrow's heroine is full of helpful hints about love and marriage and even how to embroider. If she ran the Internet, she’d start a lifestyle site like … well … Goop.
If you need cheering up …
Stubborn, exuberant and fun. Did I just describe this adaptation or Emma herself? Actually, it's both. The life of any party, Romola Garai’s Emma could befriend anyone (even if she doesn’t like them), so she’s sure lift your spirits -- if you get on her good side, that is. This lively Emma might stop you from marrying that cute farmer down the way, but she can also lift your spirits. It’ll take some time, though: At four hours in length, this adaptation deserves a full lazy afternoon of viewing.
If you’re a Harriet fan … “Emma” (1972)
Ignore the low-budget production values, the stagey sets and the dated "welcome to the Regency 1970s" look. You can’t help but love this adaptation’s chipper, charming, slightly dim and sweetly indecisive Harriet, played by Debbie Bowen, far left in a striking turquoise bonnet. Doran Godwin brings Emma to prim and proper life, but it’s Harriet who steals the show. You just want to pull an Emma yourself and tell her: Harriet, honey, don’t listen to Emma. Listen to me. (Word the wise: You can find this miniseries here.)
If you have a short attention span …
“Emma Approved” (2013)
Don’t have two hours or an afternoon to spare? This Web series (which we recapped!) is perfect if you have five minutes here, 10 minutes there. This 21st-century Emma (Joanna Sotomura) is a business-savvy version of Cher Horowitz: a self-centered fashionista who thinks she knows what's best for everyone -- except herself. Betcha can’t watch just one episode though. It can be thoroughly addicting.
If you love social media …
“Emma Approved” (2013)
In this day and age, it's hard to go a day without hearing a reference to something someone saw on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. "Emma Approved" allows viewers to experience the story through characters' social media feeds and blogs.
If you need a Knightley fix …
“Emma Approved,” “Emma” (2009), “Emma” (1996 film), "Emma" (2020 film)
This one is a hard choice! If you're looking for an earnest Knightley, Jeremy Northam's iteration (1996) is sweet and big brotherly without veering into avuncular territory. Jonny Lee Miller's 2009 version is a bit tougher, less earnest and more pragmatic with a touch of humor. Brent Bailey from "Emma Approved" plays down the "Knightley knows best" attitude in favor of treating Emma more as an equal. Johnny Flynn's Knightley is a shaggy-haired romantic hero keeping his emotions just under the surface.
Join us for "A Day Out With Emma"
Don't forget: Our "Day Out With Emma" is Dec. 3 in Chapel Hill, NC. You're invited to a day of presentations by Peter Graham and Virginia Claire Nist, holiday shopping, crafts and more -- all leading up to Kate Hamill's new Emma adaptation on stage at PlayMakers Repertory Company. Tickets are limited; RSVP by Nov. 18. View our schedule.