Movies

How the New Emma Movie Departs From Jane Austen’s Novel

The latest adaptation is more faithful than Clueless, but it still takes some significant liberties.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Focus Features and Dover Thrift Editions.

Eleanor Catton, the Booker Prize-winning author behind the new adaptation of Emma, admitted that she had never actually read Jane Austen’s novel when she was approached to tailor it for the big screen. She was, however, already a fan of the modern, Americanized adaptation Clueless, and she had seen the more straight-laced 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Alan Cumming. It’s hardly surprising that Catton would’ve encountered these adaptations before ever turning to the original text: Austen’s comedy of manners—the last of her novels to be published during her lifetime—has inspired dozens of them, including the Indian rom-com Aisha, various miniseries (BBC and otherwise), several staged productions, and a web series from the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

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The latest take on Emma comes from Catton and director Autumn de Wilde, with the latter bringing a daring, even cheeky visual style to her feature debut. But while the visuals are unusually bold for a Regency period drama, 2020’s Emma remains largely faithful to Austen’s story of meddling Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), who plays matchmaker for her new friend Harriet (Mia Goth), with disastrous results. Catton leaves long stretches of dialogue from the book near-untouched, and the essential vignettes from the story are all there, including a claustrophobic confession of love in a carriage, a piano sent by a mysterious benefactor, and the tense Box Hill picnic, to name a few.

Still, while the movie’s ending is no Little Women-style reimagining, Catton does make a few notable departures from the source material, especially in those final scenes. Below, we’ve rounded up some of the most significant changes.

Miss Taylor’s wedding

Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton.
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Emma, the book, opens with a quick introduction to its main character (21-years-old, “handsome, clever, and rich”) and then picks up in the aftermath of her governess’ wedding: “The wedding over, and the bride-people gone, her father and herself were left to dine together, with no prospect of a third to cheer a long evening.”

Though the movie begins with Emma’s famous opening lines, it takes up the story before the wedding of Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves) and Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), granting her and Emma a scene to say goodbye and demonstrate the importance of her role in Emma’s upbringing. We’re also present at the wedding itself, which offers an opportunity to introduce many of the main characters while they’re in the same room. Emma attends with her father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), who laments that it’s a “terrible day.” Silent old Mrs. Bates and her rambling daughter Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) sit in the pews nearby. Performing the service is Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), a social-climbing vicar whose pretentiousness is communicated through his pronunciation of the word innocence as in-no-sense. Meanwhile, Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) is notably absent, since he lives with his uncle and his aunt, who is often sick.

Emma’s father

Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse.
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Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, is a hypochondriac of the highest order on both page and screen, ready to call for a doctor at a moment’s notice and convinced that every person he meets is at risk of catching cold. So notorious are his habits in the book that his neighbors delay sending him a party invitation because they “had been waiting the arrival of a folding-screen from London, which they hoped might keep Mr. Woodhouse from any draught of air, and therefore induce him the more readily to give them the honour of his company.” The movie plays up this preoccupation with getting chilly by having Mr. Woodhouse continuously rearrange the furniture to protect himself and his guests from a phantom draft—ultimately creating a tableaux of fire screens that gives Emma and Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) the privacy to make out on the couch while her father sits in the same room. (This makeout session most certainly does not happen in the novel.)

The Hartfield servants spend much of their time in the movie wordlessly appeasing Mr.
Woodhouse’s whims, sometimes stone-faced, sometimes rolling their eyes. “I would bring out a dimension of the novel that to Emma Woodhouse was so commonplace it was practically invisible,” Catton recounted for the Telegraph, referring to “the servants who were ‘beneath her notice,’ to use her own words, and who personified her snobbery, because she could not see that her existence depended on theirs.” Catton added that when de Wilde came on board she “took this idea much, much further, borrowing from screwball comedies of the Forties and Fifties to create a heightened, highly aestheticised style that focuses the satire squarely where it belongs: on the sheer insanity of privileges.” Though the Woodhouses are undoubtedly snobs, in the book Mr. Woodhouse is actually quite preoccupied with the feelings of his coachman James, even lining up a job for James’ daughter at a nearby house.

The declaration of love

Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley.
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Mr. Knightley finally admitting his feelings to Emma proceeds almost exactly as it does in the novel, right down to the line “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” But while Austen is famously coy in the novel about how Emma responds to this outpouring of feeling (“What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”), there’s no such bashfulness about her answer onscreen, which is to exclaim, frantic, that she can’t marry Mr. Knightley because Harriet is still in love with him. In the book, Emma is not quite so generous to her friend, though the idea that she should refuse Mr. Knightley for Harriet’s sake does fleetingly cross her mind.

Another very unexpected incident takes place during this encounter in the movie: Emma gets a nosebleed. Not only does this not happen in the book, but the novel never suggests that Emma is at all prone to them. De Wilde explained to RadioTimes.com that she gets nosebleeds herself and wanted to turn that otherwise romantic moment “on its head” to show that Emma, like Mr. Knightley, is “a hot mess.” Success!

Class issues

Mia Goth as Harriet and Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma.
Focus Features.
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In the movie, Emma and Mr. Knightley decide that they must persuade Robert Martin—the farmer Emma convinced Harriet she was too good for—to propose to Harriet again. While Mr.
Knightley gallantly offers to go speak to his tenant and friend about it, Emma volunteers instead, announcing “I must go” as though she’s off to the guillotine. Thus Catton puts Emma through one last mortifying trial before she gets her happy ending, making Emma humble herself by bringing a peace offering to Mr. Martin, the man she previously considered too poor to be an equal but not poor enough to be worth her charity. “I have caused you great suffering,” she admits in front of his whole family. Emma gets a chance to exercise this humility again shortly thereafter in another new scene: After Harriet accepts Mr. Martin’s second proposal, she tells Emma defiantly that she has finally found out who her birth father is: not a gentleman but a tradesman, a galoshes-maker from Bristol. Emma tells Harriet to invite her father to Hartfield, and the two reconcile.

This is quite a revision from Austen’s novel, which challenges its heroine’s prejudices but does not quite upend the British class system. In the book, Emma hears of Harriet’s engagement to Robert Martin secondhand and accepts him on her own condescending terms, “acknowledg[ing] in him all the appearance of sense and worth which could bid fairest for her little friend.” Though Harriet and Emma end the book on amicable terms, they do drift apart.

Butts

The movie shows two fully exposed butts. First, Mr. Knightley is seen from behind, completely nude, being dressed by his servants. Later, Emma lifts her skirt to toast her bare bottom at the fireplace. Jane Austen’s novel contains no scenes about butts.

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For more on Emma, check out Marissa Martinelli and Heather Schwedel’s spoiler-stuffed discussion of the movie.