Back in 2022, I did a blog post about the three movie adaptations of Emma by Jane Austen. I had a middling reaction to the one from 2020. I admired what a good job Eleanor Catton’s screenplay did of compressing and restructuring the novel to work as a movie while retaining so many great lines from it, but I found Autumn De Wilde’s direction and many of the acting choices off putting. Still, that screenplay was good enough that I gave it an honorable mention in a later blog post about which classics-inspired movie scripts available to read online are the best. That may well have been solely because of my affection for the original book though.
Recently, I was struck “with the speed of an arrow,” to use a phrase from the book, by the biggest dramatic problem with the adaptation. It was one that had been under my nose and relates to criticisms I’ve always had but only now do I really comprehend it. While the acting made it worse than it had to be, this was an issue that was baked into the screenplay. I wrote before of how the movie reimagines Austen’s ending to make it more egalitarian in its message and I had a fairly open mind about that. In theory, the revisionist ending is quite heartwarming. But, as I intend to show with this blog post, the movie made none of the other changes necessary for it to make sense.
This post is going to be full of spoilers for both the book and the movie, so consider yourself warned. For what it’s worth, I’m only going to be focusing on a few of the main characters.
What sets the plot in motion is wealthy 18th century gentlewoman and antiheroine Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), bored and lonely after the marriage of her longtime governess, befriending Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a “parlor boarder at a common school,” of unknown but certainly illegitimate parentage. What induces her to cross class boundaries in such a way? Well, here’s what Jane Austen writes about Emma’s interest in Harriet and Harriet’s reaction to visiting Hartfield (Emma’s home) for the first time.
She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired… Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance. She was not struck by anything remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging—not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk—and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of everything in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense, and deserve encouragement…Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition, was totally free from conceit, and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to.
In other words, Emma likes Harriet because Harriet flatters her ego. But as exploitive as their relationship is, there’s still a sense that Harriet has real virtues which attract Emma or at least some kind of charisma. The 2020 film portrays Harriet, far from being “not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk,” as petrified at being invited to Hartfield and bumbling and fumbling her way through her first conversation with Emma. Certainly, Emma’s continued interest in Harriet in the book is based on her ignoring her lack of sophistication. But here there doesn’t seem to be anything in Harriet’s behavior besides humility to make Emma want to pursue a friendship with her. Being intrigued by the mystery of her birth seems to be her main motivation. In a scene from the script that was deleted from the movie, Emma argues that Harriet’s parentage must be good on the grounds that “if her origins were very low, there would have been no need for secrecy, for there would have been no shame.” Keeping this scene would have made the transition from Emma missing her governess to her having tea with Harriet much smoother but apparently it had to be cut for time unlike the scenes of Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) bathing and changing and of Emma hanging around in her underwear, which were highly essential to the story.
The first thing we hear Emma say to Harriet is “The misfortune of your birth, Harriet, ought to make you particularly careful as to your associates. There can be no doubt of your being a gentleman’s daughter. You must support your claim to that station by everything within your power.” This may sound incredibly snobby to modern audiences, but it can also be seen as kind. No one has probably ever told Harriet that she could be of high birth. Emma is complimenting and encouraging her to think well of herself. It’s noteworthy though that in the book, Emma says this to Harriet after they’ve been friends for some time and she has allowed Harriet to ramble on about her lowly friends, the Martin family, for a while. Having it be the first thing we hear her say risks making Emma sound more like a prissy lecturer than someone who wants Harriet to be her friend and equal. The fact that Harriet, in an awkward attempt at conversation, brings up the Martins and starts praising them right after this rather than before also makes her seem even more clueless than her literary counterpart. These potential problems could have been alleviated by some real warmth on the part of the actress playing Emma and a certain sweetness from the actress playing Harriet. Anya Taylor-Joy’s brittle, icy performance however and Mia Goth’s perpetual deer-in-the-headlights expression during the scene make matters worse.
The first time in the movie we see Emma reacting to the real Harriet, as opposed to the imaginary Harriet in her head, is in a scene at the local haberdasher’s shop. Harriet is taking forever to choose between two ribbons of nearly identical colors and Emma is bored out of her mind. It’s perfectly legitimate and in keeping with the book to have Emma be annoyed by Harriet sometimes. But this movie has less time to develop the relationship between them than the book has and unlike the book, in which, despite their continued affection for each other, Harriet and Emma’s friendship ultimately proves too unhealthy, and they go their separate ways, the movie wants their relationship to be salvageable. And, for all that she’s frequently annoyed by other characters, Emma is capable of tolerating irritating people out of love.In the novel’s equivalent of this moment, “Harriet, tempted by everything and swayed by half a word, was always very long at a purchase; and while she was still hanging over muslins and … Continue reading Witness her relationship with her selfish, hypochondriacal father (Bill Nighy), one of the most heartwarming parts of this adaptation. Ironically, if the movie were building up to the book’s conclusion, this being the first time Emma really reacts to Harriet would be excellent foreshadowing.
In both versions, Emma emotionally blackmails Harriet into turning down a proposal from Robert Martin (Connor Swindells) since such a marriage would put her forever below Emma’s station.The official screenplay gives an additional reason, describing Emma as “a little envious of Harriet’s patent crush- which is more than she has ever felt for anyone.” An interesting idea … Continue reading Instead, she tries to set Harriet up with Mr. Elton (Josh O’ Connor), the local vicar. If she succeeded in that, it would bring her closer to Emma’s station though still not quite there. (Let’s not get crazy or anything! Emma wouldn’t really want them totally on the same level.) Of course, this plan backfires spectacularly. Harriet, under her misguided patroness’s influence, becomes besotted with Mr. Elton but he interprets Emma’s matchmaking as her being interested in him for herself. In the movie, the scene of Emma breaking this bad news to Harriet begins with her angrily denouncing Mr. Elton for seeking to “aggrandize and enrich himself” by marrying a woman at the top of the local social ladder. This is what Emma thinks in the book too, but it’s a questionable way to begin the scene of her apologizing to Harriet. Our first impression is that Emma is largely angry for her own sake.Perhaps it’s significant that in the filmmakers’ audio commentary for the scene of Mr. Elton’s proposal, they describe Emma’s discomfort as due to him being a sexual threat. … Continue reading Still, apologize to Harriet she does, and Harriet doesn’t blame her for misleading her. In this adaptation, Harriet’s next act is to try to burn the portrait Emma painted of her with the frame that Mr. Elton got. “Burn the frame if you like but you must keep the likeness,” says Emma and when Harriet can’t seem to bear the sight of even that, she agrees to keep it herself and “treasure it as a picture of my friend.” Doubtless, the script intended this to convey that, for all her faults, Emma is basically a good friend. But Taylor-Joy’s bossy line delivery makes this feel like just another example of Emma dictating Harriet’s life for her. The scene would have benefited greatly from an emphasis on Emma’s genuine remorse, her gratitude for Harriet’s forgiveness and her desire to make everything up to her. At this point in her version, Jane Austen writes that Emma thought “that Harriet was the superior creature of the two—and that to resemble her would be more for her own welfare and happiness than all that genius or intelligence could do.”Of course, being Jane Austen, she also couldn’t help but add that “It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant.”
In the next scene of the two women together, months have elapsed, and Harriet is still talking about Mr. Elton who has left the neighborhood after Emma’s rejection. “Enough about Mr. Elton!” Emma snaps. I don’t want to be too hard on her here. Since it’s gone from winter to spring and Harriet is still talking about the same thing, I can’t blame Emma for feeling less guilty at this point and more exasperated. Still, we’ve only had one scene showcasing Emma’s repentance and not a very powerful one, so it’s hard to avoid the impression that she’s a jerk. At this point in the book, Emma is so desperate to distract Harriet from her romantic regrets that she takes her to visit the annoying Miss Bates. Eleanor Catton’s script has a nod to this, describing Emma as “almost relieved to see” Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) run up to her. But Anya Taylor-Joy conveys this relief so subtly, I’m not convinced she conveys it at all. (Her sigh can be interpreted as irritation or relief.)
To be fair to the film, while Harriet fades into the background during much of the second half as other subplots take over, there are subtle indications that she and Emma are good friends. Harriet encourages Emma when’s she nervous about her piano playing. Emma allows Harriet to sit with her in church, which is implied to be an honor she rarely bestows. There’s a brief scene of Harriet having a sleepover at Hartfield and she and Emma practicing dancing for an upcoming ball.And even before Elton’s proposal, Emma visits Harriet when she’s ill. But all this is in the background. It’s never really the focus of a scene. Even the dance practice is more about showing Emma’s excitement over Frank Churchill (Callum Turner.) None of it is enough to overcome the general impression the movie conveys that Emma just uses Harriet as a sounding board for her complaints about othersTo its credit, this works well as a way for the movie to give us access to Emma’s thoughts. and that Harriet goes back and forth between being terrified of offending Emma and obliviously annoying her. To get around that, there needs to be more friendly chemistry between the actresses.According the audio commentary, Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy are actually best friends in real life, so I’m not sure what went wrong here.
If we do start to get a sense of that, it’s toward the end when Harriet confides in Emma that she’s in love again. Emma assumes that she’s fallen for Frank Churchill, in whom she herself has lost interest, and heartily endorses the match. Later, she’s horrified to learn that Harriet means Mr. Knightley whom Emma has just realized she loves.In the book, it’s at this moment that Emma realizes it. In the movie, it’s before, which isn’t a bad change. In an interesting departure from Austen, Harriet realizes the reason Emma isn’t responding to her news more positively, berates her for wrongly raising her hopes and causing her to reject Mr. Martin and then storms off. When Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma in the book, she immediately accepts and rejects “any of that heroism of sentiment which might have prompted her to entreat him to transfer his affection from herself to Harriet, as infinitely the most worthy of the two—or even the more simple sublimity of resolving to refuse him at once and for ever, without vouchsafing any motive, because he could not marry them both.” She pities Harriet and regrets unintentionally encouraging her feelings for the upper class Knightley but maintains that a marriage between them would be “most unequal and degrading” for him. The 2020 movie brazenly ignores this, having Emma tearfully refuse Mr. Knightley’s hand, saying that she can’t be responsible for breaking Harriet’s heart twice.
In the book, Emma writes to Harriet, apologetically telling her the news, and she replies “without reproaches, or apparent sense of ill-usage; and yet Emma fancied there was a something of resentment, a something bordering on it in her style, which increased the desirableness of their being separate.” Emma arranges for Harriet visit her (Emma’s) relatives in London to distract her from her disappointment and avoid awkward interactions between them. There Harriet falls in with Mr. Martin again and Emma is delighted to hear that she accepts his second proposal. Their next meeting is a friendly one but upon learning that Harriet’s father is a mere tradesman, Emma is horrified to think of “what a connection had she been preparing for Mr. Knightley—or for the Churchills—or even for Mr. Elton!Keep in mind, this is long after she has dismissed Elton as a worthless jerk.—The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed.” With Harriet’s marriage, the books tell us “The intimacy between her and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill” but that, according to Austen, was as it should be. None of that plays well with mainstream audiences nowadays and every adaptation softens it to some extent. The 2020 movie really takes the cake on that score though. Its Emma visits Robert Martin of her own initiative and apologizes to him for ruining his relationship with Harriet, encouraging him to renew his pursuit of her. (In an amusing touch, Emma brings a dressed goose as a conciliatory gift when the Martins have a whole flock of geese in their yard.) Harriet is the one who delivers the news of engagement to Emma in a rather defiant tone. She retains that tone even after Emma has given the couple her blessing as she tells her that her father has revealed himself to be a tradesman and that he’s coming to visit her. “I hope you will bring him to Hartfield,” says Emma humbly. Only then does Harriet melt and the two friends embrace each other, closer than ever.
I’m modern enough in my thinking to find this new climax heartwarming in theory and I like the idea of giving Harriet more depth and dignity in the end than the book grants her. I love it when characters seem at first like they’re sheer comic relief and then turn out to be dramatic. Well, I love that when it’s well done, that is. But the movie and Goth have portrayed Harriet as even more broadly ditzy than the book earlier and it feels less like she’s undergone character development or that we’re being shown a new side of her than like she’s suddenly transformed into a different person.To be fair, there are a few subtle hints earlier that Harriet has the potential for intelligence. She notices a discrepancy in Frank Churchill’s excuse for missing his father’s wedding … Continue reading What’s more, the movie has done too little too late to get me invested in Emma and Harriet’s friendship. At least, not invested in the sense that I think it’s worth preserving. Most of it has seemed to be setting up the same thing the book does, that the bond between Harriet and Emma has ultimately been bad for both and they need to grow apart. If anything, I think I’ve demonstrated above that the movie passes up opportunities the original text gives to show a more positive side to their relationship.It’s instructive to compare this movie to the web series Emma Approved, which transplanted the story of Emma to modern day corporate America. It also made Harriet a more positive, competent … Continue reading A lot of this I’ve blamed on the actresses, but I should clarify that I think Anya Taylor-Joy and Mia Goth were just doing what the director wanted them to do. It’s just that I don’t think what she wanted them to do served the story she wished to tell.
Having written all that, I still like this adaptation better than Clueless.
|↑1||In the novel’s equivalent of this moment, “Harriet, tempted by everything and swayed by half a word, was always very long at a purchase; and while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement… she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.”|
|↑2||The official screenplay gives an additional reason, describing Emma as “a little envious of Harriet’s patent crush- which is more than she has ever felt for anyone.” An interesting idea though not one that you can pick up from Taylor-Joy’s opaque performance.|
|↑3||Perhaps it’s significant that in the filmmakers’ audio commentary for the scene of Mr. Elton’s proposal, they describe Emma’s discomfort as due to him being a sexual threat. They don’t focus on how his proposal upends all her plans and reveals her blindness to her.|
|↑4||Of course, being Jane Austen, she also couldn’t help but add that “It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant.”|
|↑5||And even before Elton’s proposal, Emma visits Harriet when she’s ill.|
|↑6||To its credit, this works well as a way for the movie to give us access to Emma’s thoughts.|
|↑7||According the audio commentary, Mia Goth and Anya Taylor-Joy are actually best friends in real life, so I’m not sure what went wrong here.|
|↑8||In the book, it’s at this moment that Emma realizes it. In the movie, it’s before, which isn’t a bad change.|
|↑9||Keep in mind, this is long after she has dismissed Elton as a worthless jerk.|
|↑10||To be fair, there are a few subtle hints earlier that Harriet has the potential for intelligence. She notices a discrepancy in Frank Churchill’s excuse for missing his father’s wedding that Emma ignores, and the script’s stage directions imply that she pities Miss Bates when Emma publicly insults her. (It’s not certain in the book that Harriet is one of those whom Mr. Knightley says would be entirely guided by Emma’s treatment of Miss Bates but it’s possible.) However, the movie’s broad cartoony style doesn’t encourage viewers to pay attention to subtleties and I doubt anyone not prejudiced in its favor would notice these things.|
|↑11||It’s instructive to compare this movie to the web series Emma Approved, which transplanted the story of Emma to modern day corporate America. It also made Harriet a more positive, competent character and made the themes more egalitarian, but it did a much better job of those things.|