Austen as a Hot Property: Part II
It Had to Be You:
Hollywood Comes Courting 1995-96
Sense and Sensibility was Hollywood's first attempt at an adaptation since 1940. This time it was Columbia House Pictures. Although producer Lindsay Doran is an Austen fan, she did not envision a line by line adaptation of the book: "[S]ome scenes and dialogue would have to be altered or invented" (Thompson 12), but Doran knew she wanted the movie to show respect for Austen: "Our fondest hope is that people who love Jane Austen will find the film to be faithful to the humour and wisdom of the original novel" (16). In 1990, Doran approached Emma Thompson about writing a screenplay. Although she had never written a film script before, Thompson is a graduate of Cambridge University with a BA in English Literature, an experienced actress, and an Austen fan who was well up to the task. Her initial response was that either Emma or Persuasion would be better novels to adapt, but, on rereading Sense and Sensibility, Thompson changed her mind: "[T]here's more action in S & S than I'd remembered and its elements translate to drama very effectively" (209).
It took Thompson five years to finish the screenplay, writing between acting jobs, but when the script was finished, several scenes were immediately cut due to budgetary considerations; they just did not have enough money to film them. Thompson had written her Edward Ferrars character with Hugh Grant in mind, and she was particularly grateful to Grant when he agreed to be in the film even though after Four Weddings and a Funeral he could command a much higher salary than they were able to offer (210). Kate Winslet was an unknown and willing to work cheap. As actress and screenwriter, Emma Thompson did double duty, acting during the day and doing rewrites at night. Costumes were recycled, local people served as extras, and sheep already in the fields were used to add atmosphere.
The added scenes that were not cut were those that were inexpensive to film, but they also helped to develop the characters, especially Colonel Brandon. Cheryl Nixon notes:
visually striking additions are made to the actions of Colonel
Brandon. Brandon is given a dramatic rescue of the rain-soaked
Marianne, a dramatic horseback ride to fetch Mrs. Dashwood to
Marianne's sickbed, and a dramatic poetry reading signaling his
slow conquering of Marianne's heart, among several other added
Another addition was Colonel Brandon's surprise gift of a pianoforte, an incident in Austen's Emma, but it seems appropriate. It also neatly demonstrates Marianne's character development: "It is not just for me; it is for all of us." Although Thompson's script varies from the book, she managed to remain true to Austen's spirit and maintain her sense of humor and irony. Sense and Sensibility achieved the impossible; gaining both critical acclaim and making money at the box office, everyone seemed to love it.
The total budget for Sense and Sensibility was $15.5 million, a fraction of the $70 million budget for the 1996 action movie Independence Day. Marketing of Sense and Sensibility was minimal, yet it was still able to gross over $125 million (Kaplan 179). Released the following year, Miramax's Emma, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, had a budget of only $7 million.
Emma's director, Douglas McGrath, was another Austen fan whose screenplay adhered fairly faithfully to the book: "[S]o much of Austen is dialogue that it's already written - you can just copy it down onto the script page" (55). But McGrath did not care for the BBC's Austen: "I wanted to avoid making an adaptation like some of the television versions, which are so reverential that the air kind of goes out of them" (qtd. in Tyler 268). So much for good intentions.
The 1996 Emma was an adaptation that, while following the plot of the book for the most part, still managed to fall into the same error as the 1940 Pride and Prejudice. Like Leonard before him, McGrath also attempted "to keep it light, bright, and pleasant." The result was hauntingly familiar. The humor is broad, much too broad. Paltrow's facial expressions and body language are exaggerated. Toni Collette, as a half witted Harriet Smith, annoyingly giggles her way through the film. The characters could have come out of a comic book. Emma fails to recognize that she is in love with Mr. Knightley through the first half of the novel, though Mr. Knightley is played by the devastatingly handsome Jeremy Northam- hardly a man to be overlooked. The extremely bright lights, the shining hair, the pretty colors, the flashes of gleaming teeth, the picture perfect sets, and the bookend quality of Paltrow and Northam when they share the screen add to the sense of unreality. This version of Emma is much more Hollywood than Austen. It requires the constitution of a teenager just to sit through it.
Perhaps the biggest problem was the star status of Gwyneth Paltrow. Other characters are forced to make way for her. Mr. Woodhouse becomes no more than a piece of furniture in the film, and Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are mostly edited out. Though Sophie Thompson, Emma Thompson's sister, does a brilliant job as Miss Bates, the majority of her lines were cut, and her screen time was minimal. McGrath recognizes this, but he still felt he was able to do her justice (Tyler 267). Nora Nachumi noted that the film was used as a vehicle to launch Paltrow's career: "Indeed, the movie works hard to deify Paltrow. She is lit to perfection. In interior scenes, she always seems to be in a little more light than the rest of the cast. The camera, notes Maslin, loves to linger on her" (135). Paltrow positively dominates the movie, and Austen is also sacrificed to promote her. Nachumi concurs: "McGrath's worship of Paltrow ultimately undermines the movie's original project" (136). Nevertheless, the film did relatively well at the box office, and, fortunately for Austen purists, Paltrow's Emma was not the only show in town.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch:
The Brits Fight Back
Attempting to straddle the fence between the BBC and Hollywood, Persuasion was originally an acclaimed 1995 BBC production which went on to be distributed in the United States by Columbia, still flushed with the success of Sense and Sensibility. At this point, Hollywood seemed to be willing to grab on to anything Austen, as the two adaptations have little in common. Screenwriters Nick Dear and Jeremy Sams appear to have had very little to do, lifting the plot and most of the dialogue in tact from the page. Director Roger Mitchell takes great pains to recreate the look of an age lit by fireplaces and candle light, when people bathed as well as they could with a basin of more or less warm water.
What this adaptation does that none of the others attempt is to leave much of the interpretation to the viewer. In what John Wiltshire calls "a replication of the novel's characteristic strategy" (95), Anne Elliot rarely speaks, and her face is often an inscrutable blank: "The camera focuses on her as she looks sadly, thoughtfully, perhaps resignedly, sideways, away from the camera. Everything that is not spoken therefore is invested by the viewer in her face." It is no doubt a risky thing for the filmmaker to do, and puts all of the burden for revealing the character's inner life on the director: "These thoughts or emotions are in effect located elsewhere in the film, generated by its lighting, by the movement of the camera, by the music, by that mise en scene which invests Kellynch with darkness and shadows and flickering but bright candlelight" (95). Anne is seen sitting or standing alone in a large room, working quietly among the servants, or occupying a seat in a corner, dwarfed by her surroundings and ignored by those around her, more or less cut off from the rest of humanity. Her isolation and the loneliness of her life is shown rather than stated. Often, Anne has no dialogue but sits listening to the mindless conversations of others, or, occupied with some task, listening to nothing at all. There are many periods of silence in the film, which is not to say that the film is without interest or action, but there will be no voice over or garrulous character to explain things to the inattentive. This is a carefully crafted film, and the viewer is expected to be a willing participant.
The 1995 BBC Persuasion is generally the favorite adaptation of Austen purists, but it is a rather somber film, almost entirely lacking in the biting wit and ironic humor that are Austen's trademarks. The book itself was Austen's last, written when she was slowly, and at times painfully, dying of Addison's disease, and perhaps, understandably, her sense of humor was flagging. Sophie Thompson and Corin Redgrave provide what little comic relief there is as the egocentric Mary Musgrove and her equally self absorbed father. For the most part, the film is quiet, thoughtful, and very realistic, making the happy ending all the more welcome and no doubt a pleasant surprise for those who have never read the novel.
In 1996, there were two adaptations of Emma being filmed, one in England starring Kate Beckinsale and the one in California with Gwyneth Paltrow. The two studios were racing to finish before their competitors. They ended in a dead heat, each opening first in its country of origin. After the success of the BBC/A&E collaboration on Pride and Prejudice, the production companies came together again to back another Andrew Davies Austen adaptation. This time it was Emma, officially titled Jane Austen's Emma distinguishing it from its upstart American cousin.
Jane Austen's Emma was another triumph for Davies. Following hard on the heels of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, the continued successes seem to suggest that the BBC has finally mastered the Austen adaptation. Davies and director Diarmuid Lawrence do a brilliant job of maintaining Austen's wit and irony while remaining largely faithful to the novel. Davies' Emma sticks as close to the plot as Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility, and although it is generally considered faithful as adaptations go, nevertheless, in "Emma Becomes Clueless," Suzanne Ferriss criticizes Davies for taking liberties:
Davies's adaptation exploits cinematic innovations to probe
Emma's psyche in typical twentieth century psychoanalytic style,
and Lawrence's directing employs contemporary cinematic
techniques to stress the heroine's inner states and longing.
Emma identifies Harriet Smith as a possible mate for Mr. Elton
when a beam of light "miraculously" illuminates her. A similar
"miracle" of cinema occurs as Emma gazes dreamily on a
portrait of Frank Churchill. The painted image morphs into the
real man, who leans forward to kiss her gloved hand. Emma's
imaginist tendencies are presented more as unconscious
processes than as willed creations. (128)
Andrew Davies defends his choices as a screenwriter in The Making of Pride and Prejudice:
You have to offer an interpretation of the novel. There's this
nonsense which some people say about adaptations that you've
"destroyed" the book if it's not scene by scene. The novel is
still there for anybody to read - and everybody has their own
"adaptation" in a sense when they're reading it.
(qtd. in Birtwistle & Conklin 3).
Say what you will about the Davies' adaptation, compared to the Paltrow Emma, this is straight from Austen's pen.
A few scenes are edited or compressed, but the rest of the cast is not eliminated in order to showcase Kate Beckinsale. Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley has presence, but he is no Jeremy Northam. Raymond Coulthard as Frank Churchill would turn any woman's head. Emma's flirtation with Frank Churchill and original oversight of Mr. Knightley makes sense, as it does in the novel. There are strong performances from the supporting cast whose characters remain in tact and are given lines. Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates, and Mrs. Elton are vital to convey Austen's social commentary and humor. The viewer gets a sense of Highbury, another casualty in the Hollywood Emma, as a real place, a community where everyone knows everyone else. This adaptation is funny, it rings true, and it looks and feels like Austen.
Stop the Press: The Bust
Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas and is preparing to teach a course on Austen in film and literature. A full bibliography for this article is available upon request.