Confession, I just read Emma for the first time this year. I loved it. And it also made me realize that every movie adaptation of the book I’ve ever seen gets it wrong. No matter how accurately or cleverly the plot points are presented, there’s something underneath that’s missing from them all.
Let’s take a closer look. Emma, at least on my first reading, boils down to these essentials:
- A woman in a rut struggles to find her footing when her little world is upset by her best friend’s marriage.
- Insecure, she deems everyone she knows inferior and a poor/non-replacement for her best friend. In her loneliness and frustration, she indulges in petty competition with women she perceives as threatening and wastes time and energy on pointless and ill-conceived romantic entanglements.
- Along the way, though, she finds a moral compass in–and develops fond feelings for–a warm-hearted, one-named authority figure, who expects her to grow up and do better.
In short, I seems to me that the most essentially faithful re-telling of Emma for a modern audience is not the Paltrow, not the Beckinsale, not the BBC version with Johnny Lee Miller (well, ok, I actually haven’t actually seen that one)…It’s not Clueless, though you know I’ve got nothing but love for Clueless.
No, no I’m not. Look!
What comes through in Emma-the-book, and is largely missing, or at least minimized, in the movie versions, is how just plain old unhappy Emma is. Through a combination of circumstances outside her control and her own good and bad choices, she’s just stuck where she is, or at least she believes herself to be. This, of course, is the major theme of Bridesmaids.
Emma’s social circle is tiny, in large part due to her own snobbishness. Figuring out how to live within it or rationalize re-drawing its boundaries to suit her latest whim absorbs a lot of her time and energy.
Emma never leaves Highbury, where she reigns supreme but claims she wouldn’t accept an invitation from half the town. In fact, I think she may be the only Austen heroine who doesn’t travel at all! Even the ones with only 50 pounds a year make it to London or Bath–or at least Lyme or the frickin’ Lake District–but Emma, just 16 miles from London, never cares to? bothers to? can? leave her little hamlet.
And everyone’s all up in her business for being unmarried.
In the Paltrow movie, at least, it’s evident that Emma feels melancholy after Miss Taylor’s wedding, but she seems to move on quickly. In the book, though, this thread continues throughout. I noticed this most in the Christmas party scene, right before Mr. Elton declares his love for Emma. The movie plays up Mr. Elton’s cluelessness and Emma’s irritation with him–he follows her around all night, fetching her punch, interrupting, and generally preventing her from fully enjoying the party. In the book, though, it’s not just the undesirable Mr. Elton who is in the way. Everyone, including Emma’s own sister and dear old Mr. Weston, is a nuisance preventing her from a free and easy, mind-reading, girl-talky session with her BFF.
A few other key relationships from Emma turn up in Bridesmaids: an oh-so-perfect rival, a handsome but lousy loser, some good-hearted but socially awkward sidekicks, an eccentric single parent….
And most important of all: that one-named authority figure who’s not afraid to give our self-centered, thoughtless protagonist the dressing down she deserves:
In a neat little nod (or so I choose to see it), both Rhodes’s and Knightley’s first names–Nathan and George, respectively–are not spoken until practically the end of the story.
Most versions of Emma that I have seen play up the brother-sister factor and the age difference between Emma and Knightley, giving everyone a weird, squicky feeling about the whole thing. Bridesmaids does well, by copping out, so to speak, and giving us an officer of the law rather than an in-law.
But wait, wait, wait, Chameleoninboots, you might well say. Isn’t the whole plot of Emma about her matchmaking and generally interfering with the life of one Miss Smith? Bridesmaids doesn’t even have a Harriet, let alone a Mr. Elton or a Mr. Martin! That’s true–but I’m not convinced it’s a problem. The book made this especially clear to me in a way other movie version do not: in the happy ending of Emma-the-book, Emma and Harriet go their separate ways. Their brief acquaintance was an aberration, an illustration of Emma trying to manage other people’s lives because she couldn’t deal with her own. In short, Harriet was a distraction–giving Emma and the reader something else to focus on besides Emma’s own struggles.
In Bridesmaids, Lillian’s wedding itself, and Annie’s nominal position of power to plan and execute as maid-of-honor replaces the matchmaking plot. Like Emma’s failed attempts to find a match for Harriet, Annie’s plans for shopping, showers, and parties, well, collapse:
And yet all ends merrily in a wedding…if not quite as tastefully as anticipated.
Emma and Annie are both kind of pills. They’re petty, attention-seeking, and pretty careless with the people around them. I gather that a lot of people don’t like Emma for exactly this reason. Why do so many of us, then, find it easy to cheer for Annie? Is it because we recognize and can relate to the obstacles in Annie’s life but can’t quite wrap our minds around Emma’s? Is it just because Emma has money and Annie doesn’t?
Maybe. In any case, this is clearly not a plot-point-by-plot-point retelling of Emma. The characters and events don’t match up one-to-one. Unlike Jane Fairfax, Helen faces off with Annie for Lillian’s affections, but has nothing to do with either Ted or Rhodes. The wedding at the end is not equivalent to Harriet’s or Emma’s, but Miss Taylor’s. And maybe my matchmaking = wedding planning hypothesis is a reach. But still, Bridesmaids, I think, expresses the pitiful ambivalence I see in Emma better than just about anything else out there.