Here's every movie adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Emma, ranked from worst to best. Every few years Hollywood dives back into the bodiced world of Regency England to resuscitate one of Jane Austen's spunky, whimsical heroines - this year's lavish restoration goes to Autumn de Wilde's version, Emma (2020), starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the captivating conductress of romantic ruination. It's the classic tale of pride, privilege, and one irrepressibly likable heroine.
Published in 1815, Emma follows the story of 21 year-old Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy but bored socialite who rejects the idea of marriage yet takes great pride and pleasure in the art of matchmaking. Emma lives at home with her aging father, interfering in love affairs and deflecting the guidance of her treasured friend and brother-in-law, George Knightley. When vanity and snobbery obscure cupid's well-intentioned aims, Emma finds her foolish intentions have set in motion a Shakespearean maze of misguided emotion, desire, and heartache for her friends and loved ones - and most surprisingly, herself.
Although Austen published only dix novels during her literary career, all of them have received reverent adaptations; and Emma remains one of her most beloved and adapted works (including multiple TV series from the BBC, most recently in 2009 with Romola Garai in the titular role). Every generation has their favorite version of Austen's Emma and picking one over another isn't an easy task for fans. The following ranking considers multiple factors, including actor portrayals, direction and film production, innovation, and the overall success in translating Austen's themes and witticisms to the big screen. Here are the best movie adaptations of Austen's Emma.
4. Douglas McGrath's 1996 Emma
Douglas McGrath's Emma (1996) is visual eye candy and one of the most romanticized and syrupy versions of Austen's novel. The film's idyllic setting, detailed set design, and sumptuous visuals ante up the romance while the cast prances about the lush estates of Hartfield, Randalls, and Donwell Abbey in their period finery. With rosebud cheeks and the smug self-assurance worthy of the actress, model, and lifestyle maven herself, Gwyneth Paltrow delivers one of her best performances as a saccharine, bubbly Emma, who is wholly aware and perfectly delighted with her egotistical influence.
In the 1996 movie, Paltrow's Emma captures the sweet naivety and self-satisfaction of our meddlesome heroine as she flirts with Jeremy Northam's reserved Mr. Knightley and cajoles Toni Collette's vacuous Harriet into ill-advised conquest. But although the film is visually stunning and Northam looks dapper in his tailcoat and calf-high boots, his staid representation of Emma's eventual love interest comes off a bit boring compared with other versions and feels at odds with Paltrow's animated performance. Emma ultimately suffers from the lukewarm chemistry of its leads, which halts any real emotional momentum from building. All the same, Paltrow looks elegant in her pastel gowns and elevates the film's likability with her light-hearted Disney princess version of Austen's heroine.
3. Diarmuid Lawrence's 1996 Emma
A&E released its own TV movie version around the same time Gwyneth Paltrow's swan-necked Emma was gracing theater screens; this lesser-known version, directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, outranks its big screen competitor by offering a more realistic and dramatic version, administering special attention to the social customs and strict decorum of Regency England. Kate Beckinsale's brunette Emma is appropriately girlish, idealistic, and stubborn - if a little snottier than other versions of the character. Although the adaptation is engaging, capturing the fanciful imagination and inner workings of Austen's interfering ingenue, Beckinsale's Emma doesn't offer any progressive emotional development until the end of the film, and doesn't quite achieve the contradictory nuances demonstrated by other portrayals.
Another facet that docks points from the score of this adaptation is Mark Strong's overly stern interpretation of Mr. Knightley, which at times borders on Dickensian proportions. His imposing presence and fierce admonishments weigh down the fun and humor of Austen's original material. Emma makes for an enjoyable watch and the set features fine details and lovely costumes befitting the time period. However, the direction fails to extract much of Austen's light-hearted humor, and the curtailed character arcs of Emma and Mr. Knightley belie the emotional transformations of both characters in the book. Although still considered a beloved version by fans and critics, the film's mitigated comedy and sappy conclusion rob viewers of the novel's satisfactory ending.
2. Autumn de Wilde's 2020 Emma
Emma's newest movie adaptation is a decadent reimagining directed by Autumn de Wilde that stars Anya Taylor-Joy as a coy and captivating Emma, who perfectly translates the heroine's unlikable traits of self-absorption and indulgent snobbery in a precocious, but likable way. (Austen herself admitted the character of Emma was "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.") Replete with jewel-toned costumes and droll hilarity, Austen's tale gets a 21st century treatment thanks to a clever script adapted by Eleanor Catton that delivers on progressive themes like female empowerment and challenges the sexist laws and social hierarchies of Austen's time. By shifting sex politics and rotating gender power dynamics of the Georgian and Regency-era, de Wilde and Catton balance out stale fixtures of the period drama genre and correlate contemporary sensibilities within the centuries-old material.
Mr. Knightley is portrayed with earthy sincerity by Johnny Flynn, who imbues the gentleman farmer with a refreshing artlessness that is striking against the typically cavalier representations of privileged gentlemen in Austenian adaptations. The chemistry between Taylor-Joy and Flynn is electric and volatile; a ballroom scene sizzles with all the heat, passion, and awkwardness of genuine romance, and pushes the audience's focus onto a topic not directly explored in most Austen adaptations - the primal, driving force of sex. The supporting cast is delightfully hilarious, specifically Bill Nighy's scene-chewing eccentricities as the neurotic Mr. Woodhouse, and evoke a physical comedy and stylish slapstick reminiscent of Hollywood's early screwball comedies. A seamless blend of art, bold artistic choices and audacious entertainment, Emma (2020) should not be missed.
1. Amy Hackerling's 1995 Clueless
Amy Heckerling's 1995 cult-classic Clueless is a brilliant contemporary adaptation of Emma that reignites the novel's cultural relevance by giving the story and heroine a 20th century makeover - exposing a new generation to Austen's literary work while simultaneously upgrading teenage lexicons with words like "whatever", "totally buggin", and "as if!" Although 25-years-old, Clueless remains the best, most creative version of Austen's Emma.
Clueless updates the world and status of Emma Woodhouse from a wealthy Regency-era socialite lording over the quaint town of Highbury to the 16-year-old valley girl, Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), who reigns as the most popular girl at her sprawling Beverly Hills high school with the same narcissistic flair and ease of manners as Austen's original protagonist. Silverstone's portrayal of rich, spoiled, and unflappable Cher is endearing and relatable, and rejuvenates the character's foibles in inventive ways, like swapping corsets for miniskirts and changing Emma's aversion to matrimony to Cher's unwillingness to date high school boys. Likewise, Paul Rudd's depiction of a cool 20th century Mr. Knightley - now a 90s counterculture college intellectual renamed Josh - works surprisingly well, even if he's the sneaky hot step-brother to Cher's petulant, self-absorbed teen queen.
Although Clueless omits some elements from Austen's work, like Jane Fairfax, Box Hill, and the pianoforte debacle, the glib dialogue and whip-smart satire poke fun at the material-obsessed superficiality and self-interest of bored rich kids, much in the same way Austen's work satirized the ludicrous extravagances of the British landed gentry. With tongue-in-cheek acerbity, Austen's novel and Heckerling's film still manage to spotlight the overall good heartedness and authenticity of the characters it parodies. Austen never took her stories too seriously, and Heckerling's film marches to a similar rhythm. Clueless succeeds as the best movie adaptation of Emma because it transforms the original material in unexpectedly novel ways, while maintaining the original themes, inherent likability, and essence of Austen's beloved characters.
- Emma (2020)Release date: Feb 21, 2020