Did we need an adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ where Emma is a d-bag?

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I wouldn’t dare to call myself an expert on Jane Austen adaptations, although I have seen so many of them. As I get older, I appreciate the story of Persuasion more and more, and one of the best adaptations of that is the 2007 version starring Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot. You might also remember that I’m a fan of both the OG Pride and Prejudice BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth AND the 2005 movie starring Keira Knightley. They’re both good in different ways, and I enjoy both readings of Mr. Darcy (conceited/pompous versus emo).

Did you also know that I love a good Emma adaptation? Emma is, in my opinion, the best Austen book for adaptations, and truly, I’ve never seen a bad adaptation. The Gwyneth Paltrow version is great (and one of Goop’s best roles). I love the 2009 miniseries starring Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai too, and I find that version so faithful to the book, and the casting is SO on-point with every character. So… I haven’t paid much attention to this latest adaptation, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, but let’s have a look at the trailer together.

Doesn’t this feel like a very “CW” read on Emma? Which is sort of fair – Emma, as a character, is very much in the same vein as Pretty Little Liars/Gossip Girl. But the snootiness and aggressive Mean Girl vibe… I’m not quite sure I’m here for it? The director apparently thinks that Emma is a completely obnoxious character too:

Whenever Emma Woodhouse, the beautiful and bratty amateur matchmaker at the center of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, is translated to the screen, something tends to be lost. Previous big- and small-screen adaptations have often softened the personality Austen famously imagined that “no one but myself will much like.” Emma is an anti-heroine, after all. Her meddlesome arrogance should often repel us. Yet onscreen, filmmakers and actors frequently lose their nerve, creating instead a romantic heroine who is charmingly stuck-up. Adorably arrogant. Spoiled and selfish, but sweetly so.

What a live-action Emma rarely is? Human. Horny. And sometimes blithely, viciously cruel. Autumn de Wilde, the director of a vibrant new Emma adaptation in theaters this week, underscores the latter point matter-of-factly. “Yeah,” she says, “Emma’s a dick.”

A laugh erupts shortly after she says it; she then proceeds with the put-upon air of a parent as she discusses her movie’s Miss Woodhouse, brought to life by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) and scripted by Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton. Much of de Wilde’s Emma. (stylized with a period in the title, connoting the exasperation and awe the character inspires) adapts Austen’s story faithfully, preserving its satirical take on the absurdities of high society and the fussy boredom of small-town life.

[From The Daily Beast]

IS Emma a total d-ck? I don’t think she is. I think the book is about how – much like Mr. Darcy in P&P – she was raised in wealth and privilege and she doesn’t know how to act in the real world, and she makes a series of terrible mistakes and she learns from them. Yes, she’s a queen bee, but she gets very little of what she thought she wanted. I don’t know. I might have to pass on this version? Plus, the casting doesn’t look great for the other characters.

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Promotional images courtesy of ‘Emma.’

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90 Responses to “Did we need an adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ where Emma is a d-bag?”

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  1. Lightpurple says:

    Bill Nighy.
    I am here for Bill Nighy.

    And the best Emma was Clueless.

    • grabbyhands says:

      Bill Nighy is a MAJOR selling point for me wanting to see this.

    • Jane says:

      Clueless was the perfect Emma. Sweet, spoiled, flawed, smart.

    • maximeducamp says:

      Agree about Bill Nighy and will add Miranda Hart.

    • Bettyrose says:

      No question best Emma was Clueless. Adaptations love to turn it into a soppy romance, but Clueless was completely faithful to the class struggle at the heart of the book (and sure the semi incestuous romance is weird, but also faithful to the book and the long aristo tradition of marrying family to preserve the wealth).

    • Louisa says:

      Was just coming to say that. I will watch Bill Nighy in anything! And also Miranda Hart (Chummy!) so I am in.

    • manda says:

      I love him with all of my heart. I’m happy to see so many other fans! I thought I was kind of weirdo for being so into him. People are always like, “the science guy?”

    • My ticket was BOUGHT the minute I found out Bill Nighy would be in it. 💃🏻 I love me some Bill Nighy!

    • Lua says:

      YES!!!! Cher is my favorite Emma

    • Snappyfish says:

      Clueless WAS the best! Hands down. AS IF there was a question!! Although I must admit I love me some Nighy.

    • osito says:

      I literally lol’ed at Bill Nighy in the trailer, and ‘Clueless’ is one of the greatest movies of all time.

      Am I wrong in thinking that Goop’s Emma lacked the sincerity and sweetness of Alicia Silverstone’s Cher? I just remember Goop’s Emma feeling pretty saccharine, while Cher Horowitz had enough personality and sass to make pre-teen me *love* her and want to be her.

    • Thirtynine says:

      Mmm, totally agree about Clueless. But I like the look of this. Emma was a Mean Girl, and this is a Mean Girl take on her. And Bill Nighy, too! I’m in!

    • harlequin says:

      Agree! Clueless is a classic! I did enjoy Gwyneth’s Emma too.

  2. Corrine says:

    Personally, I think clueless is the best Emma adaptation. And the 2 times I’ve read the book, she never read like a dick to me 🤷🏻‍♀️

  3. Scollins says:

    Please don’t make me was my first thought seeing the trailer.

  4. wildwaffles says:

    Don’t forget my favorite adaption of Emma, Clueless!! ;)

    I do not think Emma is a d-bag. She’s what you said – a sheltered woman of privilege who makes some mistakes and acts out of frustration and learns from those to become a better person.

  5. KJ says:

    Go see the film for yourself, then decide. (I enjoyed it, Emma is quite spoiled, but she learns her lessons in a bigger way; Nighy is also incredible as Mr. Woodhouse, so funny.)

  6. Aang says:

    Another vote for Clueless.

  7. OriginalLala says:

    After Clueless there was no need for another Emma adaptation. It was the best.

  8. Livvers says:

    Emma makes an economically vulnerable and socially marginalized woman the butt of her jokes and adopts a poor illegitimate girl as a pet and feeds her with ambitions that in their rigid society she could never achieve. It doesn’t matter where Emma’s heart is, it’s the harm of her actions that matter, and for that reason, Emma is a dick. It doesn’t mean she is irredeemable, and Emma does grow as a person – but yes, she’s a dick, and that doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of the novel.

    • Becks1 says:

      This has always been my impression. Emma is supposed to be a dick, at least in her actions. she may have a good heart, but she’s pretty terrible as a person. and I think she is a queen bee in that the fact that she is cute and charming makes people excuse her behavior.

      It doesn’t mean its a terrible story or that she doesn’t grow or change, because its not and she does. but at the beginning – she is absolutely supposed to be unlikeable.

      And honestly, I think Cher is too in Clueless. Shes charming and sweet, but she’s also pampered and entitled and lazy and manipulative. She grows and changes, that’s the point of the story.

    • Mara says:

      Totally agree. Emma is a brilliant coming of age/redemption story in which a brat grows up to discover that the less powerful people around her are not her playthings but humans in their own right. She is a dick but that doesn’t make me love her or the story any less.

    • Dee says:

      Excellent take. I’m definitely going to see it. All the pearl clutchers on the British Period Drama forums are so sure Jane is rolling in her grave, that I absolutely have to see it now. LOL

      • Nic919 says:

        Worst case scenario this adaptation can’t be any worse than whatever Sanditon was supposed to be.

      • Anners says:

        I’ve never seen the Sanditon film (or even heard of it) – should I not watch it? I really enjoyed the book (impressed with how well the author continued on from the fragment).

      • Deering24 says:

        The Sanditon mini-series was awful, to put it mildly. The hero was a jerk, pure and simple—the script did not thread the Darcy needle nearly skillfully enough. The incest/fighting over the estate subplots were alternately yucky or tedious. The Miss Lambe subplot was annoying (and do _not_ get me started on that racist cruel-to-be-kind crap Lady Denham pulled on her.) And the ending…well, of that we won’t speak. 😛😛 A character tone-deaf miscalculation all the way down the line.

    • DS9 says:

      Exactly. I read thr first few comments and was fairly confused that no one else saw this character the way I do.

      She is redeemed at the end but her selfishness is where we start and what guides her behavior through most of it.

      Emma doesn’t see people as individuals and not her playthings to treat carelessly for her own amusement until at least 2/3rds of the way through.

      There’s honestly little to distinguish her in the first third from some of Austen’s self absorbed characters from other novels.

    • Courtney B says:

      That seen in the Paltrow version where they’re out on the picnic and she jealously and spitefully makes Miss Bates the butt of her jokes is PAINFUL. Sophie Thompson (emma’s Sister!) was so great in that scene. Always tears me up. And Jeremy Northam’s speech reminding her, when she’s defensive, that Miss Bates was born poor and every year , as a spinster, she will sink further in society’s estimation and deserves Emma’s compassion rather than her ridicule? Ouch. ‘Very badly done, Emma.’

    • Cee says:

      ITA. Emma has always been a dick.

  9. Nic919 says:

    I have my concerns with the guy who plays Knightley. He comes off as a pretty boy in the trailers and doesn’t seem to have the serious nature that the other Knightleys have had in the other adaptations. Plus they give him those super high collars which was always code for fop so maybe the costume people don’t understand anything about the time period.

    Bill Nighy I am sure will be great as Mr Woodhouse so I guess I will see this to at least know if it’s any good.

    I read the book for fun and then had to study it for two different lit classes. Emma is more bossy than mean and if they don’t thread that line they will not have understood the character. The entire box hill incident is to show that she crossed a line to meanness that she never had done before.

    • MO says:

      @Nic919: Curious to learn what a “fop” is! Would you be so nice?

    • Where'sMyTiara says:

      He also looks like the wrong age to be playing Knightley. In the books he’s 16yrs her senior.

      The choice of Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton is a stroke of comic genius though. I have hopes of his being as good at it as Alan Cumming was in the ’96 version.

      Why is there no Mrs. Bates in the cast list? Was it because Phyllida Law was so good in ’96, they couldn’t find anyone to come near to her performance?

  10. Mumbles says:

    When Jane Austen started writing Emma she said she was going to create a character that nobody liked. But I loved her. She was a busybody but her heart was in the right place. And she learned from her mistakes. This just has a mean queen bee vibe. I might watch it if it goes on cable. So glad the post mentioned the Romola Garai version, I loved that one. (Not really there for Goop and her bad accent.)

    • Kk2 says:

      I also loved the version with romola garai and Jonny Lee Miller. But I’m down for this, why not? No need to remake the movie the exact same way over and over. If you’re going to do it, you should have a fresh take on it (like Clueless).

  11. GR says:

    She starts out as kind of a jerk in some ways – oblivious and arrogant. But the novel is about her learning empathy and humility.

  12. lemonylips says:

    I lasted 15 minutes. I like it when Emma is fun, but this film clearly indicates that she’s a spoiled brat in an opening scene. To be fair, she is, but she’s also charming being like that – she genuinly thinks she’s found her calling. Heck, if I lived like that at that time I’d probably be the same at that age. I love Nighy but I skipped it. I’m gonna play myself some Austenland tonight. Love that film

  13. Jackie Jormp-Jomp says:

    Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart as Miss Bates have me excited to see this one!

  14. Sof says:

    The first time I read Emma I found her really annoying and rude, but it had to do with her being spoiled and immature.
    If she wasn’t as interested in Mr. Knightley, the only character that called her out when she was rude to Miss Bates and Jane, would she have changed by the end?

  15. Sass says:

    I’m going to see it. Where did she come off as a dck in this trailer exactly? She said two words when a guy fell on top of her. Bill Nighy as always looks divine.

  16. Hrefna says:

    I’ve seen this, it’s wonderful. The cast, the music, the dancing, it’s delightful! I will definitely watch it again, it’s very rewatchable. And as for Emma, the whole point of the book is that she is a spoilt brat who grows up a bit over the course of the story. So yes, she’s meant to start out a d bag. This is a delightfully spiky adaptation, it softens the book in several ways, but it doesn’t go near the syrupy sentiment that a lot of Emma adaptations indulge in, and it’s all the better for it. The thing to remember about Austen is that when she wrote about marriage she mostly wasn’t writing about love matches, she was writing in a world where people married for money, social position, power and/or safety. Accepting or refusing a proposal was the most serious financial decision a woman was allowed to make. Modern adaptations flinch away from this, and even this one does a bit, but it keeps the satirical spirit of the book alive.

    • Kate says:

      I loved it too and also thought it was terrific, so I’m surprised to see so much hate for it here (although it seems like mostly from people who haven’t seen it). I thought the casting was also spot on. My husband loved it too and he was very skeptical going in.

  17. Belli says:

    I love the Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller adaptation. It’s luscious and faithful and perfect for watching with your nan.

    But of course, it’s Clueless that really nailed the spirit of Emma.

  18. Faithmobile says:

    I am definitely going to see this. Though Emma is one of my least favorite characters, I do really like the book. And fresh off the Sanditon finally-I’m ready for more Austen, faithful adaptation or not.

  19. Scal says:

    Adding in the chorus that clueless is the best adaptation of Emma.

    I’m just ready for a good version of Brontes Agnes Grey.

  20. Case says:

    I’m excited to see this. Was thinking I might treat myself to a solo movie theater viewing of it!

  21. Lucy says:

    I spotted Tanya Lou Reynolds in the trailer and she is one of the best parts of Sex Education, so this can’t be that bad. Same goes for Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart. As for the best Emma adaptation ever, I will just say Silverstone >>>>>>>>>>>> Paltrow.

  22. Anne says:

    That trailer was really terrible. Just a bunch of very quick scenes with no cohesion.

  23. Gabrielle says:

    She’s just a virgin who can’t drive!

  24. Nuzzybear says:

    I always thought Emma was kind of a passive-aggressive douchebag. This version is just less passive about it.

  25. Feeshalori says:

    And that’s Josh O’Connor from The Crown and the Durrells in Corfu playing the reverend.

    • Eugh says:

      I love Josh O’Connor, he’s such a superb actor. During The Crown I had to question why i was hot for Charles

  26. Diamond Rottweiler says:

    I think one of the most interesting things about Emma is that this is one of the fewer cases in which an Austen heroine isn’t in economic peril, but rather it’s Emma’s soul that’s immediately at stake. Without Knightley waiting there in the end to enlarge her world and “instruct” her (as Elizabeth Bennett looks forward to in her marriage with Darcy), Austen shows us that Emma is at serious risk of becoming the kind of horrible, thwarted creature gentry culture turned many women into at the time, a very young woman starting to turn rancid due to the crushing boredom of upper class women’s lives and not being allowed any sort of interesting occupation. Which is why I think Emma is a very, very tough character to play. She really is an agent of chaos at the start, stirring the pot because her sister and her mother figure have moved on without her. Emma has zero to do, no equal to talk to, left alone for days and days with her dotty, hypochondriac father and a couple servants, often trapped inside because of the frequently crap British weather, not even allowed to go to many social events because her family is considered too good for their neighbors. Good lord, can you imagine how desperately trapped you’d feel? So the actress playing her has to make us feel that frustration, and fear, and deep loneliness; that there’s something significant at stake behind all the frivolous country house drama, but without making us entirely hate Emma. It’s a tricky line to walk, and I think most films default to the easy sell, overly charming version of Emma, a character we know immediately isn’t really at risk. Kinda hoping this version puts some actual fangs into her. Austen certainly wrote her with fangs, based on the idle women she knew through her wealthy brother’s social circle. I mean, otherwise, Emma is just any other romance novel. (Sorry. That was a lot. As you see, I have strong feelings about Austen. Lol.)

  27. Mara says:

    As I mentioned above, I abosultley adore Emma but if you retold the story from Jane Fairfax’s point of view, Emma would definitely be a Miss Bingley type character who gossips about the heroine behind her back, mocks her family and, although unwittingly, flirts with her man (don’t even get me started on how much Churchill does not deserve Miss Fairfax).

  28. lucywins says:

    I really enjoyed it! Emma is a dick – that’s the point, but she learns and evolves. I thought it was a great adapatation.

  29. Ann says:

    I remember reading somewhere that Jane Austen wrote a letter (maybe to her sister?) that mentioned that no one would like the main character in the book she was writing. So Emma’s unlikeability is on purpose from Jane herself. When Emma jokingly teases and profoundly insults Miss Bates at the picnic and everyone is horrified . . . oh my.

  30. Beth says:

    Did anyone watch Sanditon on PBS? Actually loved it despite it not being terribly Jane-like.

  31. Swan Lake says:

    My least favorite Austen by far.

  32. olala says:

    Went to see it few weeks ago. It is well made, cast is brilliant especially Nighy and Hart. Knightley is hot lol i went for: costumes and interiors :) )))

  33. Sue M says:

    I haven’t seen Persuasion with Sally Hawkins, didn’t know it even existed. I will have to track it down. However, I did see the movie Persuasion with Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciarin Hinds as Captain Wentworth. It is actually my favourite Jane Austen adaptation so far. It’s just terrific.

    • Livvers says:

      I only really remember the ridiculous scenes along the seawall, where the seas were apparently so strong the day of filming that the sea spray is washing over them and it looks like the actors could be swept away at any moment. But I do love Sally Hawkins.

    • Ladiabla says:

      @Sue M I absolutely love that version of Persuasion – the one with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds. The supporting cast is amazing too. I totally wanted to push her older sister down a flight of stairs she was so horrible lol. Although this movie is perfection, I’d rather a have a remake of Persuasion than Emma, which has already been made so many times. Emma with GP is pretty delightful and Clueless is hilarious and a modern classic. Maybe with a bearded Tom Hiddleston as Capt Wentworth?? Anne would be much more difficult to cast. Carey Mulligan maybe? Love her but I’m not sure.

    • Nic919 says:

      I agree with you that the 1995 Persuasion is the best. Ciaran Hands plays Wentworth closest to the authors intent I believe. I just couldn’t get into Rupert Penry Jones having already seen Hinds in the role.

    • L4frimaire says:

      Same here. That’s the only Persuasion I’ve seen. I love that movie. One of the best Austen films.

    • Midnightatthemuseum says:

      You’re so right about this version of Persuasion. Perfectly cast, perfectly written, perfectly filmed, wonderful. The closer you stick to the book the better, in my experience.

    • Valerie says:

      That’s just a perfect adaptation. I LOVE Ciaran Hinds. He looks part, even though he’s a bit older. Rupert was well-suited to that particular adaptation (which is good, not great), but I just couldn’t buy him as a weathered or even heartbroken sailor. He just looked kind of bored all the time, lol. Amanda Root is fantastic as well – An all-around great cast.

  34. Marigold says:

    Yes, I feel pretty safe in saying that Emma was a total d-bag at the start of the story. She takes credit for things she had no hand in. She is the very image of privileged paternalism. She looks down at the peasantry and excuses herself by doing public acts of charity. It’s a very white knight attitude that Emma has. Smug superiority and entitled to use everyone around her for her whims. She isn’t just a protected, privileged, and cloistered woman with no wisdom. She is all of those things, but she is also self-important, self-aggrandizing, lazy, and entitled to a toxic degree. She did not learn any of those traits from her governess-mother or her father; they are traits she took on as she grew, by choice. Her father and governess over-indulged her but their examples were true charity, empathy, and gratitude.

    So yeah, she was a total d-ck, and that’s why the story of redemption is such a good one. I’ve always thought Emma was too soft in adaptations. The one with Gwyneth came closest to getting her right, but even there, she was far too soft and sympathetic. I’m looking forward to a full-on bronze bitch version of Emma.

    • Nic919 says:

      Gwyneth was playing a version of herself, which is probably why it was her best role. Goop is certainly something Emma Woodhouse would be doing in the 21st century.

  35. L4frimaire says:

    She definitely gives off a queen bee vibe, but it looks quite good. I’d see it. My issue with a lot of these period dramas is how clean and pastel everything looks. Want more accuracy.

  36. sue denim says:

    I love the Jane Austen Book Club, both the book and the movie, highly recommend. And also fun was Austenland… Can’t wait for vacation to re-read Emma and re-watch Clueless now too!

  37. Nimi says:

    Nah, Emma’s not a dick but your classic anti-heroine who cannot see past her own privilege.

    But by the end of the story Emma grows and sees the error of her ways, that’s how you know she’s not an utter dickette. Frank Churchill however is the dick-du-jour and poor Jane Fairfax the unsung heroine of the story.

    I like Emma as it’s hard to do an anti-heroine well in a world where Mary Sues are now published ad nauseum and anti-heroines often slip into being unrelatable psychos. And I have to agree that Clueless is one of the best versions out there.

    But do we need more Austentatious adaptions? Well every Pride and Prejudice brings its own modern sensibilties to each version. Although I liked Colin Firth’s more stoic Darcy, I also enjoyed McFadyen’s more vulnerable depiction. But David Rintoul’s 80s Darcy was also pretty smouldering.

    However I’m not sure Mansfield Park or Persuasion are considered dramatic enough for the big screen, perhaps that is why they tend to repeat Emma and P&P. But it would be nice for studios to take more risks, that’s how cinema advances.

    • Valerie says:

      Austentatious, heheh. Yeah, I’m not sure about that. Part of me thinks that we should give the classics enough time to become such, rather than rushing to update them every few years. For instance, I don’t see why they had to make P&P with Keira Knightley when the 1995 version was only 10 years old. I know BBC adaptations can be a bit on the long side and seem kind of stuffy or look quickly outdated, but these are also stories from 100+ years ago! And who doesn’t love Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth??

      • Nimi says:

        Oh now I definitely agree with you about Jeniffer Ehle and Colin Firth. :-)

        The 1995 is my personal favourite and truer to the book in my opinion.

  38. WIntryMix says:

    And here I’d thought Emma was a giant douchebag in *every* adaptation! She’s always been my least favorite of the Austen heroines (and I agree with you that Persuasion is far the superior book).