Adaptations and Afterlives of Fiction: Autumn de Wilde’s ‘Emma’

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Jane Austen has mercifully graced our screens many times over the past few decades. Between her most masterful work being occupied by the undead in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to her own life convoluted into a romantic comedy in Becoming Jane, she’s been presented to us in many ways. However, there’s certainly something extremely comforting about the idea of Austen’s work returning to a place that her readers know only too well, seen in Autumn de Wilde’s recent adaptation of Emma.

There is no doubt that Emma Woodhouse is a character who is hard to reign in. Austen hands her snobbish but loveable protagonist to us on a plate in order to gage our own opinion of her – an opinion that can be very two sided. As someone who has still not made up their mind, I would not argue with you if you end up wanting to shake her hard by the shoulders on more than one occasion. It’s difficult to not immediately side with Knightley whenever he tells her the way she behaves is wrong, but that, in itself, is the beauty of this novel. 

Austen hands her snobbish but loveable protagonist to us on a plate in order to gage our own opinion of her

It is Austen’s unique and intricate narrative that allows Emma’s tricky personality to be captured so definitively, something that could potentially prove to be a challenge in the world of film adaptations. However, even the first trailer immediately showed us that it was not going to be one to miss. The comedic tone, brilliant flashes of awkwardness and star studded cast promised something special, and it was special that we received.

Apart from the exquisite wardrobe and colour choices, it was captivating the way Autumn de Wilde and Eleanor Catton, the film’s screenwriter, did masterful work in adapting the novel, embracing the many plot points that matter but also keeping in plenty of the ones that don’t. Miss Bates’ fragmented but comically ridiculous chatterbox moments survive intact, delivered by the ingenious Miranda Hart, but the infamous picnic at Box Hill is one of these points that certainly seemed to receive more emphasis than ever before.

The scene produced an audible gasp around the cinema room, and the effectiveness the adaptation had jumped through the screen. It is this moment that we as viewers fully felt encapsulated in the mind of Emma – her guilt, frustration and despair are thrown at us altogether, as if we too must help her come to a realisation that her actions must change. 

This new release of Emma only shows how Autumn de Wilde is smart enough to trust her source material where it counts

The question of how much to modernise any classical adaptation, especially that of Austen’s, is always a difficult one. There will always be divided opinion no matter what the style is, however I believe interpreting the author will only get tougher the more directors move away from the periodical setting loved by so many.

As Virginia Woolf once stated, Austen “had no wish for things to be other than they are”, and so to really appreciate an Austen story you have to be able to laugh at the pettiness of her characters’ bickering, the brevity of their scandals, and the needlessly ironic roundabout romances whilst also being sincerely invested in their outcomes. This new release of Emma only shows how Autumn de Wilde is smart enough to trust her source material where it counts, and for me, it is nothing short of a huge success. 

Image: Jealous Weekends via Unsplash

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