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Sandy Welch is one of the best screen play writers there is to turn great books into greater movies. BBC’s North and South is one example. Emma (2009), also a BBC production, is yet another example.

Emma is not my most favourite Austen book, but it is also not my least favourite Austen book. So there is some attachment and some apprehension watching adaptations on screen. But Welch’s screenplay is spectacular. It softens Austen’s sharp words, rounds her caricatures into characters, shades them with complexities and yet stays true to the book.

Emma, while reading the book, may come across as an exasperating character. She is admittedly that, quite a few times. But the movie version brings out a vulnerability and a wistfulness, which is not exactly the spoilt poor little rich girl image I was expecting to see.

The most wonderful surprise was Mr Woodhouse, the perennial worrier, terrified about cake, draughts, chills, and everything else. He still gets his chance to forbid the children from eating cakes, and forlornly hoping that terrible things like marriages might never happen again, but you also see him tender and protective of his daughters, only to an extreme.

“Fear is something you will only truly know after you have a child of your own”

The class consciousness, the whole sub plot line about Harriet Smith not being worthy because of her possible illegitimate birth and her general ignorance and silliness gets turned on its head in a brilliant argument between Emma and Mr Knightley. Compare Austen’s words

“You are a very warm friend to Mr. Martin; but, as I said before, are unjust to Harriet. Harriet’s claims to marry well are not so contemptible as you represent them. She is not a clever girl, but she has better sense than you are aware of, and does not deserve to have her understanding spoken of so slightingly. Waiving that point, however, and supposing her to be, as you describe her, only pretty and good-natured, let me tell you, that in the degree she possesses them, they are not trivial recommendations to the world in general, for she is, in fact, a beautiful girl, and must be thought so by ninety-nine people out of an hundred; and till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after, of having the power of chusing from among many, consequently a claim to be nice. Her good-nature, too, is not so very slight a claim, comprehending, as it does, real, thorough sweetness of temper and manner, a very humble opinion of herself, and a great readiness to be pleased with other people. I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess.”

And what Sandy Welch makes her Emma retort in great anger to Mr Knightley who’s clearly at a loss for words.

Emma : “Well, then. Let us, as you say, live in the real world. Where men of course always reject a girl with a pretty face in favour of one with a well informed mind. 

Mr Knightley (spluttering) : “What ?!”

Emma : “Oh no no no ! I bow to your superior knowledge. You must know best ! Harriet, with her good looks and easy temperament will be right at the back of the queue with your sex when it comes to choosing a mate“

Austen’s Emma in this scene is trying to be playful. Whilst Welch’s Emma is clearly worked up and well, so much better for it. Isn’t it genius ?

And compare that again to Mr Knightley, more in sorrow than in anger rebuking Emma after her ridiculing of Miss Bates at the picnic spot. Welch leaves Austen’s words almost untouched

“Badly done, Emma. Badly done indeed !”

I could go on and on. It is a four part series and these are liberally sprinkled with brilliant moments. And the casting is almost perfect. Only Jonny Lee Miller is too handsome to be Austen’s Mr Knightley. But that seems to be a running fault in all of Welch’s leading men (Richard Armitage *cough* Thornton)

By the way, the screen caps above are of Jane Fairfax and Emma. One, dark haired, leaving home, all alone, bravely smiling. Another, blonde, hand held, looking on wonderingly at the world from the confines of her home. Two images. And a story told.

Link : And here is an interview with Sandy Welch on adapting Emma for the screen

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