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Book vs Movie vs TV: My Rocky Romance with Austen’s Emma

March 3, 2014

When I was a teenager, I devoured all of Jane Austen’s books, including Emma. I loved Emma and Mr Knightley, I loved their little town of Highbury, I loved the secondary characters (especially John Knightley), I loved the wit and the honest emotion. I just adored the whole book.


But then something unfortunate happened.

In 1996, two adaptations were released: one was a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow, and the other a made-for-TV movie with Kate Beckinsale. The movies were quite different in tone—the Paltrow version had a dusting of Hollywood sparkle, and the Beckinsale version felt a bit more down to Earth—but they had one thing in common. An unpleasant Emma. Actually, make that two things: Mr Knightley was more of a father figure in both.

When I’d been in love with the book, I’d not once seen Emma as unpleasant. Flawed, definitely, but I still wanted to be her best friend. And Mr Knightley hadn’t felt fatherly to me at all. However, the movies agreed on these points.

Screen shot 2014-03-03 at 7.23.16 PMHad I read it wrong?

I watched both movies several times over the next few years and little by little, my thoughts about the book changed. It was a subtle process, one I barely noticed happening, but I no longer loved the book. I thought Emma petulant and Mr Knightley condescending.

I tried to read the book again (I was rereading Austen’s other books once a year or so) but I kept seeing Gwyneth Paltrow in my mind’s eye, and she was pouting. I put the book down.

EmmaA new TV adaption was made in 2009 but I’d fallen so out of love with Emma, I didn’t bother watching it, until a series of events led to my almost-accidental viewing of the mini-series.

Within the first few minutes I was spellbound. Romola Garai’s Emma was charming. Johnny Lee Miller’s Mr Knightley wasn’t fatherly—more of a big brother figure. I could barely breathe as I watched the episodes, not wanting to jinx it in case Emma suddenly pouted or stamped her foot.

As soon as it ended I watched it again, then took it to my sister’s house and watched it with her.

And then, warily, I opened the book again and began to read. I could barely remember Austen’s own version of Emma, and I was scared I’d find that Garai’s Emma was the aberration. She wasn’t.

EmmaThe book was delightful, fun and honest, and, as I read, I had flashes of memory from the first times I’d read the book, when I was a teenager and in my early twenties. I fell back in love—head over heels, deliciously in love.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about my journey with Emma—how I let an adaptation steal the book from me, but another adaptation gave it back.

I’d always thought I had an exclusive relationship with each medium of the same story, but it’s more complex than that. Inside my mind, a book and its visual adaptations have an interactive relationship—there’s a give and take between the versions.

But that’s enough analysis for now. I’m off to re-watch the 2009 Emma mini-series.

About the Author:

After selling to Harlequin New York in 2008, Rachel Bailey’s first three books were released in 2010, and all three became USA Today bestsellers. Her ninth book will be released in August 2014. Rachel is a past president of Romance Writers of Australia, lives on the Queensland Coast with four dogs and her hero, and is always trying to scam more time to read and watch Jane Austen adaptations. You can visit her at, or on Facebook

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Malvina permalink
    March 4, 2014 2:04 pm

    I haven’t watched this latest Emma as yet. But hello, Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley (sound of DVD player turning on)… And yes, the book is something to keep enjoying, regardless of any film adaptation. Glad you found the right film to make you fall in love with the written Austen again. She is incomparable.

  2. March 4, 2014 7:44 pm

    Malvina, you absolutely must watch JLM as Knightly – he has such a gentle approach to the character. And please let me know what you think about the adaptation when you’ve seen it.

    You’re right about Austen being incomparable – and I’m just about to dive in and read all the others again too. 🙂

  3. March 7, 2014 11:58 am

    My absolute favourite moment of JLM in this role was when he insisted that they go and tell Mr Woodhouse ‘now’. He was so loving, but so exactly what Emma needed in terms of strength and grown-up-ness at the same time that it melts me every time. He makes me buy their romantic relationship in that moment in a way almost better than the book does.

  4. March 7, 2014 12:18 pm

    Imelda, yes! I love that moment too.

    I really like that by the end of the book and the TV mini-series, they are equals in the relationship, but they also both bring something to the relationship that the other needs. Emma needs that extra grounding and strength (as you’ve explained beautifully above), and Knightley needed someone to bring him out of his shell a bit more and to find the fun (as shown in the dancing scene, etc).

    • March 7, 2014 12:36 pm

      Oh, well put. Her playfulness is part of her character, and with his steadying influence, it can continue to spread joy and sweetness (as it has already done – I don’t like it when productions ignore her genuinely good-hearted charity work) without the excesses that get her into trouble of the Miss Bates and Harriet variety.

      • March 7, 2014 12:47 pm

        I like that word, Imelda – playfulness. I hadn’t put it with Emma in my head before, but now you’ve said it, I’m going to keep it there. 🙂

        It’s her playfulness combined with youth that causes her to be carried away by Frank Churchill’s games, but it’s her playfulness that Knightley needs in his life. Add his steadying influence, and you have the best of all worlds.

  5. March 7, 2014 12:33 pm

    I’m posting this comment on behalf of Cassandra Knorr Pennington:

    Not sure if my comment came out – word press doesn’t like me. But even though P&P was my first JA love, Emma was my favourite book. I totally agree that the casting in the adaptations has been at times off. Mr Knightly too old and Emma too petulant as you have said. I don’t know if I have seen the one you mentioned in the post but I’m going to look for it.

    Rachel again:

    P&P was my first JA novel as well (I found it as a teenager after seeing the old B&W Laurence Olivier / Greer Garson movie on late night TV), and I thought it was the most perfect novel ever. Then I read through the rest of her novels and found ones I liked even better. I think my favourite is still Persuasion, but Emma and Mansfield Park are close seconds.

    It’s almost like P&P is the gateway drug to Austen. 🙂

  6. March 7, 2014 6:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Wine, Women & Wordplay and commented:
    I have at least five half-baked posts up my sleeve, but the real world has intruded and prevented me from getting any of them actually onto the screen! So to keep you going, enjoy this charming post about one of my favourite authors by one of my favourite author friends! The event erv doom will be over by the end of the weekend, so I hope I’ll be back bright and early next week!

  7. March 7, 2014 6:42 pm

    Emma is one of my favourite Austen books and I like all adaptations although the BBC series with Romola Garai (exquisitely beautiful though she is) deviates too much from the text for my liking. The best (in my pompous true-English-teacher’s opinion) is the one with Kate Beckinsale as Emma. It is absolutely true to the original novel and I imagine Jane Austen herself would be very happy with it 🙂

    (I hasten to add, I do LOVE the Gywyneth Paltrow one too) It’s high time someone made another film, I’m a bit sick of reruns!)

    • March 7, 2014 11:08 pm

      Lee-Anne, I love that we each have our own relationship with the book, and that people keep making new adaptations so we can all have a favourite version! We might disagree about the adaptations, but we can agree on the book. 🙂

      Out of interest, you said it’s one of your favourites – what are the others? My absolute favourite has always been Persuasion. I can’t wait until someone does a great mini-series for that book.

      • March 8, 2014 7:05 am

        Hi Rachel, Yes, I’d agree that Persuasion is my favourite, although it’s close because Pride and Prejudice is so full of wonderful characters and Austen’s ironic wit and of course Lizzy Bennet is just about the most likeable heroine in literature (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”!!)

        I have 3 versions of Persuasion: BBC 1971 which – never thought I’d say it about the BBC – is awful! The 2007 one with Sally Hawkins and that hot star of Spooks, Rupert Penry-Jones (love it but they change the plot) The best is the 2003 version with Amanda Roots and Ciaran Hinds.

        Yes we’re due for a new mini-series! 🙂

  8. March 8, 2014 1:02 pm

    Lee-Anne, I completely agree with you about the Persuasion adaptations. The RPJ / SH version is pretty and I love it, but yes, the messing with the plot seemed unnecessary. I’m not always against changing plot details in an adaptation, but this seemed not to add enough to justify it. Also, I just couldn’t see that Wentworth commanding a ship of sailors – which is not a comment about the actor, more about the way the character was played.

    The best is definitely the CH/AR version, but I think they overplayed Anne’s ‘lost bloom’. I’d love to see a mini-series, with all the extra scenes and the perfect casting. Perhaps the two of us should contact the BBC and tell them that we’re available for consultation about casting decisions? 😉

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