“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” Jane Austen once said of her funniest heroine. Two hundred years, and over two dozen adaptations and retellings later, Emma’s “unlikability” is what makes her such a resilient, compelling character.
Emma, published in 1815, tells the tale of Emma Woodhouse, a bored, wealthy young lady in a small English town who takes a poor orphan named Harriet under her wing as her new bestie in order to secure her a wealthy husband. It’s a novel that’s had multiple adaptations, from Douglas McGrath’s Gwyneth Paltrow-led, pastel-toned 1996 version to Clueless, the modern-day reimagining set in Beverly Hills, and the webseries Emma Approved, which imagines Emma as a savvy lifestyle guru. Each of these adaptations turns Emma into a lovable, albeit misguided, busybody. Sure, she might do some annoying things, but she didn’t mean it!
In this year’s Emma., director Autumn de Wilde pushes the matchmaker from a heroine with some unlikable qualities into a full antihero. Though Emma is capable of true goodness — she patiently cares for her hypochondriac father — many of her outward niceties feel like obligations to her high status in the community. But physical tells fully realize a character who’s aware of when she’s mean, unlike so many of her adapted incarnations. De Wilde was drawn to the quality, and wanted to explore it on screen.
“It’s sometimes fun to see someone behaving badly and sometimes eye-opening to maybe that small part of you that might have wanted to [be like that]. You’re relieved that you aren’t as unlikable as that person in that moment,” de Wilde told Polygon in a phone interview. “I think that antiheroes are really important for us to see in men and women. I think we learn a lot about the side of us that is always possible, which is the possibility of selfishness, the possibility of betrayal.”
There is a specific pettiness in the new version of Emma, a snobbishness that her other on-screen counterparts lacked. When Cher in Clueless ends a speech about the refugee crisis with “It does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty!” or mispronounces “Haitian,” we roll our eyes at her, well, cluelessness, but her good intentions are still lovable. Two scenes lifted right from Emma the book, which play out in different ways in the 1996 movie and the 2020 version, also illustrate the divide between how Austen’s young woman can be characterized.
In the 1996 movie, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma listens to Harriet describe a prospective beau, the farmer Mr. Martin, and questions his worthiness. Director Douglas McGrath doesn’t linger too much on Emma’s reaction, face, or tone as she and Harriet amble through a garden. Instead, the film immediately cuts to Harriet spotting Mr. Martin. Emma sighs and smiles fondly: Her new friend can do better than this.
The 2020 movie also finds Emma declaring that Mr. Martin is not low enough for her to care about him. This time, actress Anya Taylor-Joy delivers the line without so much as a hint of a smile. Meanwhile, she’s tearing the room apart with just her eyes; a very pointed glare on an otherwise expressionless face shifts this Emma away from an oblivious rich girl to someone more complex, someone who gets it. She gets social class and decorum quite intimately, and knows how to manipulate them. And why shouldn’t she? In the opening line of Emma, Austen describes the character as “clever.”
As performed by Taylor-Joy, Emma’s most unsympathetic moments are mean. She turns her nose up at people lesser than her while they’re not looking, and knows it’s rude, yet she plays nice when they’re in her company. When her meanness manifests as people are watching, it’s a symptom of her privilege, the malaise that comes with the status.
“When you’re young and you’re intelligent beyond your years, you are expected to behave better. It’s very disappointing when you don’t,” de Wilde said. “She is isolated, lonely, and bored, and a lot of people get into trouble when they get bored — young people, certainly.”
While Emma makes the deliberate, front-facing choice to be poised and pleasant, a perfectly timed glance or eye roll gives us a taste of her inner monologue. During tea with chatterbox Miss Bates, Emma remains courteous — except there’s judgment all over her face as Miss Bates rambles on and on about every detail in the latest letter from her niece.
Unlike other iterations of Emma, her privilege and wealth isn’t an excuse for her behavior in the new film adaptation; it’s the reason. As the wealthiest woman in the neighborhood, Emma must extend her social graces to everyone. She doesn’t always like it. She arranges gatherings, and calls on people like Mr. Elton’s pretentious new wife, because she must, not because she wants to. The choice makes the moments of genuine kindness, like when Emma comes to Harriet in tears over Mr. Elton’s rejection, feel all the more heartfelt.
De Wilde explained that Taylor-Joy’s characters in Thoroughbreds and The Witch, two women who begin as victims but slowly begin to show signs of darkness, impressed her. They were “almost the reverse requirements for my film,” she said.
Emma’s patience with and dedication to her father never wavers throughout the whole movie, even though she’s jealous of Miss Bates’ penniless niece Jane Fairfax for being naturally talented. She cares greatly about Harriet and the Westons, in a way that goes beyond the obligation she feels to the rest of her community. She bickers with Knightley, but is invested in his happiness. Emma has kindness in her; she also has a mean streak. They’re not mutually exclusive, and this duality has more dire effects on the people around her.
The moment when our heroine insults Miss Bates plays out less like a slip of the tongue than an intentional, barbed insult. And when Emma reckons with her unkindness, she’s more self-reflective. This Emma is keenly aware of how power and wealth put her in a position where those beneath her value her opinions of them. Saying something rude to poor Miss Bates isn’t just a faux pas; it’s a devastating blow. Emma realizes that treating her high status as an unwanted obligation is irresponsible. Allowing Austen’s dimensional woman to be mean, as she was written, also lets her grow in the end.
Emma. is out in theaters now.