Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Janespotting: Emma (1972 miniseries)

As one of Austen's most popular novels, Emma has been adapted for film and television multiple times, including twice in 1996 alone. I doubt I'll be able to view all of these adaptations, considering the earliest was in 1948, but I'm going to do my best. I'm particularly wanting to get the 1960 BBC miniseries with David McCallum, currently playing "Ducky" on NCIS, as Frank Churchill, but since I can't find it on DVD/tape anywhere, I'm starting with a later BBC version.

The 1972 BBC miniseries of Emma—amazingly, available at my library—is six 42-minute episodes. At nearly 4½ hours, that's long enough to be extremely faithful ... or extremely boring. You never know what to expect with some of these older adaptations, which can be overly formal, strangely decorated, or otherwise not suitable for modern tastes. This one was a pleasant surprise. The sets and costumes were appropriate, the direction was paced well and didn't call attention to itself, and the acting was, for the most part, restrained.

I did have some quibbles with the acting/casting choices, however. While the actress playing the title role was the right age for the part, she played Emma with a certain smugness I found off-putting. Her verbal sparring matches with Mr. Knightley were playful, but there was an unpleasant edge to them, like Emma cared more about winning the argument than listening to her friend. 

There were also some particularly weird changes concerning Jane Fairfax. First, on the occasion in the book that Emma and Harriet visit Miss Bates and end up hearing a letter from Jane Fairfax, instead she actually is in residence. Instead of the Dixons being the daughter and son-in-law of the Campbells, the family who took Jane in, they are a couple Jane meets on holiday who have offered her a position as governess. And when Miss Bates reveals that the Dixons have made such an offer, Jane Fairfax becomes upset that Miss Bates has revealed anything—to the point where she objects furiously, something out of character for someone who is supposed to be so reserved.

Why vary from the story, if not for time considerations? After watching for a while, it seemed as if the writer wanted the viewers to understand what was going on before Emma does. So we see Jane Fairfax clearly upset and hiding something, where in the book it's unclear why she is waiting to get a governess position. We get a new scene showing Harriet the day after the dance with Mr. Knightley, swooning over the chance to go to Donwell; in the book we are surprised along with Emma to learn that Harriet considers this dance a big service, not Frank Churchill saving her from gypsies.

Strangest of all, the writer removed both Mr. Elton and Jane Fairfax from the outing on Box Hill. Presumably getting rid of Elton was to emphasize that Mrs. Elton was taking liberties with leadership of Mr. Knightley's party, but that was already shown in the strawberry picking party. But by removing Jane as a witness to Frank and Emma's flirtation, there's no reason for her to suddenly accept a governess position and reject Emma's advances of friendship. After making Jane's discomfort so obvious before, that seems a strange choice.

Lastly, the ending had the characters seeming oddly direct for circumspect Austen characters. Emma never directly apologized to Miss Bates for insulting her in the book, but that awkward scene is in the film. In the book Mr. Wodehouse never says no to Emma's match with Mr. Knightley, although "he tried earnestly to dissuade her from it," but in the film he forbids it, briefly, before the report of hen thieves changes his mind.

While overall this was a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, the changes they did make seemed to underestimate the viewers' intelligence, and also undermine Emma's character. When you read the book, Emma seems charming in her conviction, and we are just as surprised as she is when her matchmaking comes back to haunt her. In the film version, Emma seems a little snotty, even more so as we see how wrong she is while she continues in her mistakes. So while this was a very watchable version of Emma, it wasn't entirely satisfactory. Next time we'll see what differences condensing the story into a feature-length film can make.

1 comment:

  1. ["Her verbal sparring matches with Mr. Knightley were playful, but there was an unpleasant edge to them, like Emma cared more about winning the argument than listening to her friend."]

    That has been the case in the four versions I've seen of "EMMA".