It is ironic that a novel filled with clues similar to those found in a good mystery tale can spin off a film whose clues stand out like a red cape in front of a bull. Jane Austen deftly sprinkled hints about Jane Fairfax’s relationship with Frank Churchill throughout Emma. One has to read the novel twice to find her subtle inferences, and even then one might miss a few. The 1996 film version of Emma, written by Andrew Davies, leaves no stone unturned and drops its clues with such a heavy hand that midway through the film you want to shout – “enough!” Jane and Frank exchange frequent glances, are seen at the piano together in Mrs. and Miss Bates’ apartment, and argue on the terrace at Donwell Abbey. We even see Jane crying after their tiff as she walks through a field hatless. Tsk. Tsk. At least Mr. Davies did not sex up this particular film adaptation.
While I like this film overall, and gave it a favorable review when it was shown during PBS’s presentation of The Complete Jane Austen earlier this year, it did have a cringe worthy moment. Mr. Knightley, forcefully played by Mark Strong, proposes to Emma and says afterwards: “I held you in my arms when you were three weeks old”. Kate Beckinsale as Emma replies before they kiss: “Do you like me now as well as you did then?” Eww! The unfortunate image these words evoke are not at all what Jane intended. Here is how her Mr. Knightley proposes, which is just as it ought to be:
“My dearest Emma,” said he, “for dearest you will always be, whatever the event of this hour’s conversation, my dearest, most beloved Emma—tell me at once. Say ‘No,’ if it is to be said.”—She could really say nothing.—”You are silent,” he cried, with great animation; “absolutely silent! at present I ask no more.”
Emma was almost ready to sink under the agitation of this moment. The dread of being awakened from the happiest dream, was perhaps the most prominent feeling.
“I cannot make speeches, Emma:”—he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—”If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me.—I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.—Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover.—But you understand me.—Yes, you see, you understand my feelings—and will return them if you can. At present, I ask only to hear, once to hear your voice.”
Jane DID bring up the differences in ages, but earlier in her novel, when 21-year-old Emma and 37-year-old Mr. Knightley attended a family gathering soon after Mr. & Mrs. John Knightley arrive for a visit. The conversation occurs some time after Mr. Knightley had chastised Emma for influencing Harriet in declining Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal. In this scene, Emma and Mr. Knightley speak as long-standing friends and as relations through marriage:
Emma: “What a comfort it is, that we think alike about our nephews and nieces. As to men and women, our opinions are sometimes very different; but with regard to these children, I observe we never disagree.”
Mr. Knightley: “If you were as much guided by nature in your estimate of men and women, and as little under the power of fancy and whim in your dealings with them, as you are where these children are concerned, we might always think alike.”
Emma: “To be sure—our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.”
Mr. Knightley: “Yes,” said he, smiling—”and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.”
Emma: “A material difference then,” she replied—”and no doubt you were much my superior in judgment at that period of our lives; but does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?”
Mr. Knightley: “Yes—a good deal nearer.”
Emma: “But still, not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently.”
Mr. Knightley: “I have still the advantage of you by sixteen years’ experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child. Come, my dear Emma, let us be friends and say no more about it. Tell your aunt, little Emma, that she ought to set you a better example than to be renewing old grievances, and that if she were not wrong before, she is now.” – Emma, Chapter 7, Volume One
Since watching this film adaptation, I have often wondered why Mr. Davies inserted those words about Emma as a baby into the script at what should have been a supremely romantic moment. Thankfully the Harvest Ball almost made up for his faux pas, almost, but not quite. Although the scene ends the movie on a perfect note, Jane never wrote it for her novel.
Score: Jane Austen, 100; Andrew Davies, Good try.
For more posts about Emma, 1996, click on the links below:
- The Moody Connection: The 1996 McGrath Emma (with Gwynneth Paltrow)