Emma & Jane

janeMy relationship with BBC costume dramas has ebbed and flowed over the years.  When I was growing up, “exactly like the book” seemed to be the guiding principle – I can remember doggedly enduring something like fourteen episodes of The Jewel in the Crown, twelve of I Claudius, and God knows how many of Brideshead Revisited. I don’t think I’d quite cottoned onto the notion of a text as an interpretive rather than absolute space, so to my young mind the success of these adaptations hinged on how precisely they adhered to my (often imperfect) understanding of the book. I can remember being actively disdainful of Colin Firth’s maritime adventures in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, being at that point a rather prim young gentleman who felt that Colin Firth in a clinging, transparent shirt brought absolutely nothing to the original novel. (Reader, I now understand completely, I feel that he actively improves it). Sometimes, I’ll discover that these venerable artefacts are available on Lovefilm or DVD, and I’ll gleefully force my partner into a re-watch. “Well,” we inevitably say, eighteen exhausted hours later, “they don’t make them like that any more.”

Nowadays, I value costume dramas as acts of interpretation. I’m also quite busy, so while I may once have lamented that any production of less than twenty-seven episodes would require the loss of vital – yes vital – material, now four is pretty much my limit. I took a run at the 2005 Bleak House not so long ago, and while I could probably spend fifteen hours watching Gillian Anderson be magnificently bored, I bogged down in the rest of the Dickensian shit, and gave up.

So, now that I’ve established my credentials as a shallow bastard, I’d like to talk about the two most successful adaptations I’ve seen recent times. These are 2006 Jane Eyre (with Ruth ‘Murderer Chick’ Wilson and Toby ‘Maggie Smith’ Stephens) and the 2009 Emma (with Romola Garai, and maybe some other people, I’m not sure, whenever Ms Garai is on screen I am only capable of looking at her). I know some of you will want to fight me over North and South, which is also really good, but I get all freaked out that they snog in public. On a train. In 1855.

Jane Eyre 2006 works for me because it allows me to see something in the text that I’m sure is there – i.e. that it’s romantic – but am completely unable to find for myself in the original. I’m fascinated by Jane Eyre, and I have been for as long as I can remember, but part of my fascination springs from my complete bewilderment. I know, from things I have read and conversations with other people, that it is possible to find it genuinely engaging and satisfying as a love story on its own terms. The best I can come up with, however, is a romance of selfhood: a poor, plain young woman rises from obscurity to get absolutely everything she wants, including family, money, security, respect and – incomprehensibly – a grumpy, self-pitying, immoral git who isn’t worthy of her. And while I can see on a rational level that for someone as love-starved as Jane, a man who is completely obsessed with her, and dependent on her, would be a bonus … I just struggle to find it in any way, romantic.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots I admire about Jane Eyre. It’s got, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks. Enormous, shiny, in your face bollocks. The way it co-opts patriarchal religious discourse for the language of love: that is some crazy shit, especially when you have your hero literally comparing to the heroine to some kind of personal Jesus figure. I respect how completely and comprehensively Rochester is disempowered from basically the first moment he appears. This figure of dominant masculinity who gallops into the text on a big, black horse, promptly falls off it – injuring himself – and spends the rest of the novel being rescued by Jane, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And let’s not forget the amazing scene in the garden when Jane demands her to right to everything she damn well wants – including love – while Rochester is, as usual, too chickenshit to do anything for himself.

What I like about the 2006 adaptation is that it somehow contrives to present Rochester as a man you could conceivably respect and fall in love with, something I just can’t find in the text, no matter how hard I squint. Honestly, it might just be Toby Stephens’ mouth, which has these two deep brackets on either side, suggesting secret mirth. But I find him an unexpectedly likeable Rochester, a man with a sense of self-irony, who seems to be always on the verge on smiling when he’s with Jane. It also helps he has a hobby – naturalism – and knowledge of the world garnered on his travels, which must surely be attractive to someone as sheltered as Jane. And when they’re together, there’s an intense chemistry between them, leavened by understanding, sympathy and a current of merriment (something else, I’ve never been particularly been able to find in the book, which has always struck me as unremittingly serious with the possible exception of “I must keep in good health and not die.”).

My favourite scene is this one, where they bicker about Jane having to visit her dying aunt. In the book, it always came across to me like Rochester was being a complete dick for no reason, trying to control Jane’s movements, and showing off the fact he has wealth and she doesn’t. But, on screen, you can see how they look at each other, and respond: it’s nothing but a game to them, a wicked, secret little piece of flirtation. And Rochester’s weird insistence on her coming back within two weeks is a clumsy attempt to reassure her that she is wanted, she is valuable and needed, regardless of her aunt’s rejection.

Excuse me a moment, I need to melt all over the floor.

emmaEmma is my favourite Jane Austen heroine, but I’ve never yet managed to find an adaptation in which she wasn’t either smug or shrill. But then Romola Garai existed, and everything was good. Emma 2009 is a light and quite self-consciously “modern” adaptation (which I can see some people finding off-putting), but I like it because it treats all the characters with sympathy and kindness. Much of Emma (the book) is filtered through Emma’s unreliable and occasionally ungenerous perception of the people around her – people, incidentally, she has known her whole life, so there’s an extent to which she hasn’t learned to balance childish frustrations with adult understanding. And a lot of adaptations have essentially supported those readings – so you have Miss Bates being unbearably irritating, Jane so reserved as to be practically non-existent, and Frank utterly charming until he turns out not to be – which has a knock-on effect on how we react to Emma’s behaviour. If Miss Bates has spent an entire adaptation being basically a cartoon, then it’s hard to actually given a damn when Emma tells her to STFU at a picnic, and if Jane is a background figure of no interest or personality, then there’s nothing lost by Emma’s failure to recognise an opportunity for real friendship with an equal.

But in this particular adaptation the layers of perception, interpretation, and meaning stack up really nicely. Miss Bates (while still annoying) is painfully vulnerable, and there’s a real sincerity and sadness to Jane, underlying her reserve. Frank is exactly as charming and engaging as you would expect, but at the same time, shifty, restless and erratic. Mr Elton, while slimy, pushy and hypocritical, is also handsome and relatively socially competent, so the fact he would aspire to Emma, and Emma would find him a good match for Harriet, are both genuinely plausible. Harriet, incidentally, comes across as a warm and giving person, with just enough awareness to understand the precariousness of her social position.  And, even Mr Wodehouse’s fussy selfishness is underpinned by real love (which I’m not sure is in the book, but I don’t really care, because again it kind of adds emotional depth to Emma’s refusal to marry, and her care for him, making it as much choice as duty)

Which brings me to Emma herself. What I find particularly interesting about Emma, especially when set against Jane Austen’s other heroines, is her emotional vulnerability. All of Austen other heroines are socially vulnerable, but they tend to have strong personal resources: Elinor has her sense, Lizzie her wit, Fanny her morals, Catherine her kindness, Anne her resilience. But Emma … Emma is lonely. And, yes, she may think too well of herself, and be too used to getting her own way, but while that may lead her into errors of judgement, what I find really heartbreaking is the way a lot of her behaviour is motivated by both the certainty and the fear of loss. Her mother’s death, and her father’s reaction to it, Miss Taylor’s marriage to Mr Weston, and Frank Churchill being basically shipped off to be raised by his aunt. It’s a tiny, claustrophobic world, and at the same time a deeply unstable one. Poor Emma has spent her whole life with too much power, and not enough.  The 2009 adaptation centralises these themes very effectively – we get to see the young Frank Churchill being swept off in a carriage, and there’s always an air of sadness underlying the excitement whenever he’s spoken of.

I can imagine some readers/viewers might prefer a more poised Emma to Garai’s, but I really like the thread of uncertainty in her confidence. Her enthusiasm for gossip, and even the simplest changes to the routine of village life, serve to highlight just how stifled she is, and how alone. In the adaptation, at least, her interest in Frank Churchill (even before she’s met him) seems to be as much a desire to be in love with him, and to have a special friend, than real feeling. Frank’s behaviour – while perhaps understandable (there’s real joy in a small, added scene, when the engagement finally comes out, and Frank and Jane rush into each other’s arms) – is particularly cruel to both Emma and Jane because it tortures Jane and uses Emma’s loneliness against her. She isn’t in any danger of falling for him, and I think on some level they both recognise this, but she’s so desperate for any kinship and comradeship that she accepts even a facsimile of it, without fully understanding the way Frank is using her, or the hurt they’re both causing Jane. Again, the intricacies of this are beautifully depicted in the adaptation, with Frank often moody and restless, and Emma confused and quite frustrated with him.

I especially like the picnic at Boxhill because it’s deliciously socially awkward, and full of undercurrents, even before Emma puts her foot in it. It’s just a really well constructed and contextualised scene, as all the competing emotions and agendas and needs and wants flow together to accidentally create this incivility warhead that Emma – blind to everything that’s going on around her, confused at everyone’s misery and Frank’s over-done flirtation, and desperate to wring some pleasure out of an experience that meant a lot to her – fires at Miss Bates.

I know it probably sounds like I like these particular adaptations for completely different, and perhaps contradictory, reasons since the Jane Eyre 2006 goes against my interpretations, the Emma 2009 doesn’t. But I think what connects them in my appreciation is the way they engage with the base text. I’ve come a long way since my “give me moving pictures of the book please” phase and, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (the Harry Potter franchise seems to have followed this principle very successfully, although tellingly my favourite of the movies are III and VI which stray closest to being their own entities), for me, a successful adaptation of a classic text essentially all comes down to the way it formulates and presents its argument. It turns out I don’t really mind what that argument is – whether you want to show me that Jane and Rochester are really in love, or that Emma is emotionally vulnerable – or even whether I agree with it. Just that it’s there, and that someone has seen something in a text, and has found a way to show it to me.

The truth is, a good adaptation makes me feel spoken to. It’s feels like a conversation with a friend about a book you both love. And I honestly can’t imagine anything more satisfying or interesting than that.

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24 Responses to Emma & Jane

  1. I’ve shown that Colin Firth P&P to some fledgling academics who had a tenuous relationship with English at best, and they gasp at that scene every time because they think he is committing suicide–no joke. The first time this happened I was surprised. Now I’m delighted at their interpretation. Because who else would dive into a pond covered in algae except the severely heart broken. Poor suicidal Darcy.

    • Elinor Aspen says:

      It’s amazing how many people do not understand what life was like before air conditioning, and the things people would do to cool off.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I … can’t tell you how much I love this. And he is messing around with sweatily with swords earlier (again a scene my young self scorned for not being in the book) so I can actually see that emotional trajectory. “I will conquer this … oh fuck it, I’ll just drown myself instead.”

      It’s actually the following scene I remember most fondly though – when he runs into a mortified Elizabeth in his surprisingly un-alge-smeared state. The first time we saw that, my mother (who was not a happy person) suddenly burst into hysterical giggles, and wouldn’t explain why. Later, re-watching it … I have no idea if it’s deliberate or not … but Darcy is looking fixedly at a point to the left of Elizabeth’s shoulder, and she’s looking fixedly sort of down and to the right … I’m sure it’s that they’re too embarrassed to meet each other’s eyes, but it’s scarily to imagine he’s sporting the most enormous boner, and he’s trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, and she’s trying not to stare.


      • Sarah Frantz says:

        I’ve read the “making of” books for P+P (because of course I have) and Andrew Davies’ explicit (heh) direction to Firth during all the outdoor scene was “you have an enormous erection.” So…yes. Good reading of subtext. :)

  2. Shari Slade says:

    Oh, I love so much in this post…that shift from wanting moving book-pictures to appreciating a good adaptation. Yes!

    I have thinky thoughts, so I will try to come back to this later when I’m not chained to my EDJ desk.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you :)

      Of course both have advantages, and sometimes it’s really nice just to see the picture but on screen, especially if it’s something quite visually or narratively iconic – the LotR movies are very much of the ‘all the things occasionally crassly’ school, I think, but equally it’s just nice to see Ian McKellen in a grey cloak leading a bunch of English actors across New Zealand.

  3. Lila says:

    Love your take on Jane Eyre the book. I had the same reaction to it: This is supposed to be romantic?! I will most definitely have to watch the 2006 movie now. Although I can’t look at Toby Stephens without seeing that comic-villain cocky sneer from Die Another Day.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think whether you find it romantic or not depends on how you feel about Rochester, and I think he’s an inept weasel so… ;)

      As for Toby Stephens, the man has a very versatile mouth. It sneers very effectively, but also smiles :)

  4. willaful says:

    Coincidentally enough, I think it was that “Jane Eyre” that broke me of wanting total faithfulness. I had already gotten tired of adaptations that have every little damn thing in them (another version of JE comes to mind, but I don’t remember which one) but I still tended to fixate on accuracy. And then it was so nice to see the basic story, but changed enough to be fresh and newly interesting.

    I don’t really see anything new in that particular scene though… that’s just how I read them.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’ve seen a bunch of Jane Eyres for some random reason … there’s a stultifyingly lengthy one with Timothy Dalton, and then there’s the one with Michael Fassbender which bored the hell out of me … which is so wrong I can’t even. How could something with Michael Fassbender be *boring* and yet it was :/

      I’ve just checked, and I think both Jane Eyre and Emma were adapted by the same person, so that might explain why I love them so much. I think both of them do a wonderful job of feeling both spiritually/emotionally respectful of the original material, and – as you say – making it fresh and interesting.

      I just re-read that scene … and I can sort of see flirty in it? But it doesn’t have Ruth Wilson’s eyes and Toby Stephen’s mouth so mainly what comes across to me in the book is him being annoying, and her seriously needing to punch him.

      Again, I think that’s why a good adaptation can be so important – it can show you things you can’t see for yourself.

  5. Serena Bell says:

    Ooh, thanks — I love having new adaptations of old favorites (Emma especially) to investigate.

    I reread Emma about two years ago and found her totally unsympathetic (even reformed/redeemed later in the story). Whereas when I read her as a teenager/college student, she made much more sense to me. But I also think my attitude toward heroines had been altered in the meantime by reading so much romance, and I was much less willing to spend time in the head of someone I found unlikeable. (I’m not necessarily proud of this development.)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Weirdly, I had that expect same experience with Dorothea Brooke. When I first read Middlemarch I was head over heels in love with her, and when I re-read it a couple of years ago, I found her self-righteous and unbearable :/ So, as you say, I think how you respond to characters is very much contextualised against who you are at the time, what’s informing you internal textual landscape.

      Probably part of the reason CLUELESS is so awesome is that it taps into all the ways Emma is quite immature :) I agree she’s not necessarily likeable but … I just like her anyway. I feel I understand why she’s unlikeable, which makes me sympathetic, and I respect how “unheroine-like” a lot of her unlikeable traits – she’s proud and willful and stubborn and too convinced of her own intelligence. And, like I said in the post, I always read vulnerability in her selfishness in that she is – unlike Austen’s other heroines who usually have female siblings around them – very alone, and a little bit lost.

      But, equally, I can totally see why you might consider life too short to hang around with someone who annoys you :) I slightly feel that way about Rochester ;)

  6. wonderful piece.

    and I am glad you see sense on the issue of Moistened Mr. Firth.

  7. Your post has made me want to re-read Emma – a novel I haven’t touched since ‘A’ levels, even though Jane Fairfax is one of my favourite characters of all time. At school I was surrounded by socially confident Emmas who mistook my shyness for “disgusting reserve”. I thoroughly identified with Jane Fairfax. And she got the glamorous guy! In your face, Emma! (Never mind that Frank made Jane unhappy. Unhappiness is just the lot of the introvert.)
    Jane Austen famously created in Emma a heroine whom no one would like, and as a teenager I really didn’t. She’s bossy and controlling and selfish. It’s interesting that you say the film portrays Emma as vulnerable and essentially lonely. This didn’t come across to me as a teenager reading the novel, but then I was probably too fixated with my own issues to realise the outwardly confident girls around me probably had their own problems, and were dealing with them the best way they knew.
    It’s a testament to the brilliance of Austen’s writing that because of Jane Fairfax’s unhappiness I’ve found this book too painful to read for decades, even though I’ve read all her other novels time and again. You’ve finally persuaded me to give it another shot. Maybe this time I’ll see the vulnerability behind the interfering and match-making Emma that I couldn’t see as a teenager.
    My heart still bleeds for Jane, though.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I don’t know if you’ve seen this adaptation, but I felt it had a lot of time for Jane. I think it did a good job of making the love between her and Frank sufficiently real and present so that you weren’t left thinking she was a complete doormat for forgiving him, and sticking by him as she does. One of the things I really enjoy about EMMA is the “other book” that’s embedded in there, which is this deeply romantic story Emma entirely fails notice is happening right under her nose.

      Bless you, Emma, just bless you.

      Yes, I love Austen’s take on Emma – a heroine only she could like, I think she says. And I agree that Emma is unlikeable, but as I was saying to Serena above, I find her unlikeable in a deeply human and sympathetic way. The loneliness/vulnerability thing might just be me over-stretching the text (but over-stretching texts is fun sometimes) but I genuinely think there’s something a little bit tragic about Emma’s collection of abandoned hobbies, her excitement over really trivial social engagements (like being to go to Boxhill) and the fact she’s never even been able to get as far as the seaside. I tend to see her control-freakiness as a sort compensatory behaviour, trying to do *something* with her life, since there’s nothing else available to her, and also trying to keep the people she loves close at hand.

      PERSUASION is the Austen I read regularly for warm fuzzy feelings :)

      • willaful says:

        I listened to Emma on audio a while back and had a realization… people like to ascribe autistic traits to Darcy, there’s an entire book about it, yet the most clearly, obviously autistic character in Austen is Mr. Woodhouse. Or it might be a combination of several psychological issues rather than autism, but the fixation on routine, the way anything new is scary and anything familiar is good, the repetitive conversation, the obsessive anxiety about health… all this is very familiar to me. Which gives a whole new dimension to how isolated and bored Emma is, as his caregiver, and how very difficult it is for her to enjoy herself without a substitute caregiver for him. I’ve been wondering since how Austen might have encountered such a person.

  8. I haven’t seen either of these adaptations, although now I want to do so! I think I’m normally pretty flexible, seeing movies as someone else’s (or many someone elses’s) interpretation of a book, but I think I’m less successful at retaining this attitude when it’s a book I love than one I just enjoy. I didn’t mind all of the additions to Mansfield Park about the slave trade and the cousin’s nightmares about his years in Antigua, because that book is one I merely like. But changes to the story of Persuasion would irk me more, because I adore that book.

    As far as I’m concerned, Darcy diving into the pond was clearly a deleted scene from P&P that someone must have found on a scrap of paper in an old diary somewhere. It’s obviously canon. ;)

  9. Kaetrin says:

    I did a big comment a few days ago wherein I compared Timothy Dalton’s bad makeup in Jane Eyre (er, in the version he was in, of course) to the bad make up on Zaphod Beeblebrox in the BBC version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It had links in it so perhaps it’s gone to spam? (Also, it was very witty.) ;P

  10. Cat C says:

    Thanks for this article! I love adaptations for a lot of reasons. One of them is that they help me find a story I love, but told in different ways (as you’ve demonstrated here). Relevant recommendation here–Carrie Sessarego’s Pride and Prejudice and Popcorn reviews TV and film adaptations of P&P, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. Fun!

    Another is that adaptations help me get through challenging material. Teenage me couldn’t make it through Jane’s awful childhood or figure out why Pride & Prejudice had a reputation for being funny, until I saw the Ruth Wilson and Keira Knightley adaptations, respectively. The compressed timeline and visualization helped motivate me through the original prose. Actually, this same thing just happened to me with Game of Thrones–I tried to read the book around the time the TV show premiered (adaptations are also handy in that sometimes instead of paying to watch a movie in theaters, I get the book from the library) but didn’t make it very far. “Politics and snow” was my impression…then two months ago Entertainment Weekly did an article on GoT season 4, and I read it and got really interested in where the story was headed–as you might be able to tell, I am all about being spoiled and knowing what’s coming–and that motivated me to read the books. (And watch all three previous seasons of the TV show in like 5 days instead of caring about grad school, oops.)

    I also love adaptations because in they often bring the original material to a wider–or at least slightly different–audience. I saw the Phantom of the Opera movie (2004 with Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum)(the 2011 25th anniversary production is infinitely better, just saying) then fell in love with the musical then got interested in the book. (And then I did my senior college thesis on some of the many musical adaptations of the book.) And I found the novelization of 10 Things I Hate About You as a teenager, got interested in the movie, then read Taming of the Shrew. Movie versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing also helped get me into Shakespeare’s comedies. And some of my family saw Les Miserables for the first time when it came out in movie theaters two years ago. (On a related note, I hope that The Last Five Years movie, when it finally comes out, brings Jason Robert Brown to a wider audience!)

    Not sure I have an overarching thought here besides: thanks so much for your analyses! Adaptations are both a personal and a scholarly interest of mine, and I love to geek out about them and hear other people’s opinions.

  11. Jackie Horne says:

    So glad to find someone else who just loves the Romola Garai version. It’s the first one to really capture the kind, caring aspects of Emma’s personality, as well as the annoying, condescending ones, both of which are there in the text for a reader who is willing to see them. I wanted to take a copy of the DVD and wave it in the face of an old male English prof I had during my graduate school days, who deemed Emma “unfit for marriage” because she was too self-absorbed…

    Haven’t checked out a JANE EYRE since the 1990’s version with Charlotte Gainsborough (whom I loved) and William Hurt (whom I found abysmally miscast). So looking forward to checking out this more recent version (especially since the wee child will be reading JE for school next year…)

    Thanks, Alexis, for a great post.