Emma (Paltrow 1996)

Having just read Jane Austen’s Emma, I thought this movie version of Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow felt shallow and rushed. It’s conventional to say, especially with classics, that the book is better than the movie, but let’s go beyond that and attempt to say why.

One reason is that the movie must show where the narration can tell, and in this case, telling is better than showing, because Austen’s conveyance of characters’ feelings and attitudes is masterful. Her storytelling will be remembered when the names on the avenue of stars cease to evoke even the faintest flickers of recognition.

Another reason is that since in the novel there is a lot of narration, and the “action” consists primarily of people having conversations, the moviemakers invented “plausible” activities for the characters so that the actors have something to do in each scene apart from talk. The activities came across as contrived, though. I’d rather have been a bit bored by the characters’ social lives than feel distracted because the characters were acting like puppets on strings pulled this way and that by the needs of modern Hollywood.

The scene in which Emma and Mr. Knightley practice archery was particularly unsubtle, since it showed that her conclusions were, shall we say, totally off the mark, while his were, you guessed it, right on target. If you’re not already groaning from the overbearingness of the metaphor, consider that Emma’s mistakes are matchmaking errors; she’s trying to play cupid (as the text on DVD cover informs us, lest we fail to notice this entire bit of cleverness).

A third reason this version of Emma was slightly disappointing was that it pales in comparison to the just as short but more authentic A&E version of Emma starring Kate Bekinsale (also released in 1996). I remember the raw emotion of the scene at Box Hill vividly, though I watched it almost two years ago.

I must have remembered how the actors in the Beckinsale version looked and behaved, because the characters all seemed off in the Paltrow version. I don’t think it was just that I saw the Beckinsale version first. Can anyone believe a beauty like Gywneth Paltrow could be vulnerable, let alone mistaken? She’s the embodiment of smug confidence. Bekinsale portrays Emma’s characteristic overconfidence without the uncharacteristic hotshot attitude shown in the photo that adorns the cover of the Paltrow DVD.


I had a similar issue with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice. She’s just too spunky and exaggerated for the character to be historically believable. As in 2005, Hollywood tried to up the entertainment value, and that spoils it for me.

Give me history or give me death.

Or rather, if you’re going to modernize Emma, go all the way.