An archival review of Emma 2.
Tracking Jane Austen: Emma v. Emma
By Peter M. Nichols
March 7, 1997
For a year, it has been a scramble to keep track of all the Jane Austen on film and tape. Basically the problem has been that several adaptations of three of the author's six novels showed up more or less at once, beginning in late 1995. Persuasion, a film starring Susan Fleetwood, Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, came first. Then there was Sense and Sensibility, the film with Emma Thompson, and a month later Pride and Prejudice, the acclaimed BBC production, which was shown on A&E.
All went on to create a bit of an Austen glut on home video in 1996, and now there are two more highly regarded Austens to consider: Emma and Emma. Friday, A&E released the tape of the British television Emma, shown here last month, with Kate Beckinsale in the title role. On April 15, Miramax will issue Doug McGrath's film, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Videophiles, left to choose between the two, might want to try both.
Critics generally describe McGrath's Emma as the prettier and more lighthearted of the two treatments of Austen's story about a charming if meddlesome young woman who figures she's as qualified as anybody to arrange the love lives of her friends and acquaintances among the early-19th-century English gentry.
The British version takes the same edgy approach to the material that Austen did, with Ms. Beckinsale making a plainer and tarter Emma than Ms. Paltrow's graceful character.
However one prefers the story, the people who made each production choose words carefully when making comparisons. McGrath tuned in to the British Emma but didn't stick it through. "I couldn't watch it because it was just too disconcerting," he said. "It's disorienting to see something you've done yourself done by somebody else."
He is now finishing a screenplay and developing a film biography of Jacques D'Amboise. "I have very little curiosity remaining about dramatic ways to do Emma, " he said.
The British Emma was produced by Sue Birtwistle, written by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence. "I can see why Doug McGrath's film was so popular," Ms. Birtwistle said. "I went to see it with Mark Strong, who's our Mr. Knightley, as a treat one night after filming. It's a wonderfully done light romantic comedy."
For her, she explained, the story was something else. "It has a darker strand," she said. Noting that in the book the question of who landed with whom had psychological connotations, she added, "It's one of the earliest detective stories and a brilliant one."
Ms. Birtwistle and Davies also teamed on Pride and Prejudice, which took them eight years to sell to television. "No one thought anybody would be interested in Jane Austen," she said.
She and Davies are making a series based on Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters for the BBC. But theirs isn't the only Pride and Prejudice out there. The 1940 film with Greer Garson is still available, as is the 1985 BBC production with Elizabeth Garvie. In fact, there's even another Emma, a 1972 production, again from the BBC.