Emma (2009) vs. Emma (2020)

It’s interesting how the same novel can give rise to multiple screen adaptations that are strikingly different in tone and their approach to the characters. Neither of them is really like the novel either, because you’re not going to capture the experience of reading Austen in a screen adaptation.

Overall, I prefer the 2009 Emma, but there were things I liked about the 2020 one too. I haven’t watched either of them recently, so I’m working from memory here.

In both versions, Emma is conscious of her social rank and needs to become more mature, considerate, and perceptive. The 2009 version brings out something a little vulnerable and lost in her, connected to the fact that she’s led a sheltered life and seen little of the world; also, the acting is more informal in that one, so her mannerisms come across as younger and even childish sometimes. In the 2020 one, she’s steelier and more sophisticated (even though her readings of social situations can be wildly inaccurate, which is part of the humor).

The 2009 version has beautiful pastoral imagery, and the interiors are both grand and soft; they have an earthy palette, lovely furnishings, and a lived-in feel. The 2020 version takes grandeur to another level. The interiors look pristine and lavish. Emma and the other characters are like dolls in a bejeweled dollhouse. This also fits the sense of Emma living in a bubble; nothing exists in the world outside of the dollhouse. (There are similar differences in the outfits – the 2009 adaptation gives Emma some lovely gowns, but the 2020 one takes the fashion to a whole other level.)

The 2020 one plays up the social comedy more, especially with the introduction of the quiet, long-suffering servants who try to iron out every inconvenience in the lives of the wealthy people having fits of drama around them. (The servants’ facial expressions subtly reveal what they dare not say.) 

As for Knightley… overall, I prefer the 2009 one (Jonny Lee Miller), but Johnny Flynn was also good in the 2020 adaptation. I think each Knightley is a good Knightley for the adaptation he’s in.

The 2009 Emma is a mini-series, which makes it feel more expansive and gives the scenes more breathing room. The 2020 one is a regular movie, more constrained in time with a faster pace, and so the humor also has a more staccato feel.

Watching different Austen adaptations is an interesting way to study filmmakers’ choices. What do they try to emphasize from the books? How do they try to communicate a different social world to a modern audience, or bring out a novel’s humor (which in some scenes comes down to a turn of phrase or an ironic tone)? If you’ve watched either of these, share your own opinions on what worked for you.

In Fiction You Don’t Have to Show Everything

Years ago, I watched Laura, a film noir that came out in the 1940s. At the start of the movie, you learn that a young woman has been found murdered in an apartment. The police assume that she’s the apartment’s tenant, Laura Hunt. It’s a reasonable assumption, based on the information they have.

This information doesn’t include facial recognition. Why? Because the murderer fired a shotgun at her face.

It’s a chilling detail. Even though the murder happens entirely offscreen, we don’t need to be told explicitly why a shotgun blast to the face would render someone unrecognizable. We understand why, and we understand how gruesome the scene must have been.

When contemporary novels, movies, and T.V. shows depict graphic violence or sex, explicit portrayals are common. These days, it’s much more likely that the murder or at least its aftermath would be shown onscreen. We’d see the bits of brain and bone and the splashes of blood, maybe a closeup of the ruined head. Would that make the story better in some way?  

What are your preferences when it comes to graphic portrayals? My own, especially for movies and shows, is to not show everything. I have more tolerance for graphic descriptions in text, but even then, I think there can be immense power in hinting at things or at least being more careful about what to depict and what to conceal. There’s power in letting people strain with their imagination towards the shadowed corners, the dark rooms where a horror is unseen but still very much present.

I’m reminded of a scene from Ivanhoe, a novel published in 1819 and set in the days of Robin Hood and Richard I. One of the main characters, Rebecca of York, gets captured by a rapacious knight and brought to a castle. There, Rebecca meets an older captive, Ulrica, a Saxon princess who has been enslaved for years. None of the horrific crimes against Ulrica are described explicitly, but what she tells Rebecca is still dreadful:

Thou wilt have owls for thy neighbours, fair one; and their screams will be heard as far, and as much regarded, as thine own.

What would a contemporary adaptation of Ivanhoe look like? Would it show flashbacks of Ulrica’s captivity with explicit portrayals of her abuse, with her body positioned in a way that an audience might find more titillating than terrifying? It would likely be desensitizing and gratuitous. Nothing like the excerpt from the book.

I won’t say that there’s no room ever for explicit descriptions. They can be done well; they can have a place in a story. I just see so much that isn’t thoughtful. Explicit portrayals are often a knee-jerk choice, included because they’re expected, not because they’re the best way to tell the story.

Your socially awkward Edgar suit

If you’ve watched Men in Black you might remember the scene where the vicious alien kills a farmer and starts wearing his body like a suit (and if you haven’t watched Men in Black then I just spoiled part of the movie for you, sorry).

Anyway, the farmer’s name is (was) Edgar, and when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) figures out what the alien’s done he says, “Imagine a giant cockroach, with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper, is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand-new Edgar suit.

When you’re socially awkward and having a really bad time of it you can feel like your body is an Edgar suit. Your skin doesn’t fit well over your bones. Your smile is a grimace. Maybe your stomach’s coming out of your mouth. People might ask you if you’re ok, and you know they’re quietly wondering if you’re an alien. And you are an alien; that’s how you feel. You don’t have to be vicious – you could be E.T. or Alf – but you’re still an alien, and you’ve landed among people you don’t get and who don’t get you. You try to speak to them but your voice comes out garbled.

That’s what you feel, anyway – that the Edgar suit is coming apart at the seams and sooner or later everyone’s going to see the giant sticky insect within.

You think that everyone else is like Agent J or K, down to the Rayban sunglasses and the fact that if they mess up at something people forget two minutes later. But when you mess up – say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing – stop the presses! The whole world watches and remembers for eternity.

But the reality is, many other people, more people than you think, are staggering around in their own Edgar suits.

Have some sympathy for their Edgar-suited predicaments. People are skin and bone and mortal flesh. Most of them don’t know what the heck is going on most of the time. If they’re loud and seem confident they could be making noise to mask a small panicked voice in their head. You never know. And even if they’re not, remember, they’re skin and bones. Like everyone else they’ll die some day, as will you. I don’t mean to be morbid, but it’s true – there are no gods among us. There are brilliant people, talented people, bright kind people who shine a light wherever they go, and we can admire them and love them, but let’s not worship them. Many of them wrestle daily with insecurity and doubt. (Those who don’t are suspect.)

Indifference towards what other people might think of you – combined with a general benevolence to them – is the way to go. Don’t worry so much about other people, unless they’re a vicious sort of bug, to be avoided in case they want to eat you up like a plate of pierogi.

Show up, be one with your awkwardness, and do what you love. Slowly you’ll get the hang of it and not worry so much about the insect mandibles protruding from your mouth.