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Emma (1996) TV Film Review – Adaptation of Austen’s Most Humorous Story

Emma 1997 Screencap5

Emma 1996 ITV Review

There is a kind of universal language in Austen stories. No matter how far removed we continue to pull away from them they somehow remain significant. Unlike some of her other works, I think Emma seems to be Austen’s most comedic story. It’s less about the social ins and outs of the period (though that does still make its presence known) and more about being a comedy of errors. For anyone who might be unfamiliar with the story, it revolves around a wealthy young woman (Emma) who fancies herself a charmed kind of matchmaker following the lucky pairing she helped put together between her beloved governess and neighboring widower. Now that Emma has had a taste of matching people, she sets her heart on finding the perfect someone for the penniless orphan Harriet Smith. Without need of fortune or title, Emma never craves love for herself until the possibility of catching newcomer Frank Churchill captures her fancy all while the only person she really respects – Mr. Knightley, begins to pull away.

Emma 1997 Screencap3

In the ’90s, a string of British films were produced by A&E. This was among them. It cast Kate Beckinsale in the titular role, Mark Strong as Knightley, Samantha Bond as Miss Taylor, Samantha Morton as Harriet and a whole lot of other familiar British talent. Nonetheless, I’d not seen this adaptation for several years and can still recall the first time I did. Mainly because when it first began playing, I was sure the wrong tape had been put inside the jacket (the opening was so unlike what I was expecting). But when sitting down to re-watch it, I couldn’t help but notice some production flaws. The camera work isn’t up to snuff in the most glaring surprise. Perhaps it was the thing to do in this era of filming, but the tight shots of the actor’s faces do nothing to steer the emotional reactions in the right direction. There is a time when this method is needed and it works. Unfortunately, this is not such an occasion.

Moving beyond that, I also don’t think this is as well adapted as some of its peers. Oddly enough, Andrew Davies adapted it. He’s, of course, the man behind masterpieces like Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Bleak House. The alarming pace (I realize the film is only 90 minutes, but still…) at which the story moves isn’t helped by the lack of good character introduction. I felt as if the writer was just assuming we already knew all of the players and what they meant to each other; an interview with him reveals he believes Emma was his most challenging to adapt.

That being said, this is still a solid film. Having not read this novel nor am I any kind of student of the era, my estimation is this adaptation does the best job of being period accurate. Everything from the lighting (lots of candles) to the costumes seems authentic whereas other films take a more modern approach to the adapting process.

Emma 1997 Screencap1

As with any story that has the misfortunate of being remade time and again, comparisons are bound to be made. I remember my mother liked Mark Strong as Knightley from the start. As someone who’s always been fond of this particular Austen hero, I sort of balked at him in the role. He wasn’t at all suited to what my mental image of him had been (this, I can blame on Jeremy Northam). Subsequently, each time I watched this, I grew more and more fond of Strong in the role until I have reached the point where I can appreciate each of the portrayals of the men who’ve stepped into the iconic role (beginning with the 1996 box office adaptation). They bring something different to the leading man. Kate always plays Emma with a sense of individuality. She’s definitely the most self-assured and almost “cruel” Emma I’ve encountered on-screen. At the very least, she’s certainly the most unpleasant Emma I’ve met and Kate pulls this off with her cool aristocratic beauty.

If Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s defining work, then Emma is certainly her most lighthearted. Whether or not it’s your favorite version of the story, A&E’s adaptation has plenty to offer. It won a handful of awards and is definitely full of whimsical moments unlike its peers (Emma is quite the daydreamer in this story). From the hilarious chicken thieves’ subplot to the complete and memorably sweet ending, Emma is worth any Austen aficionados’ time.

Have you seen this adaptation? What’s your favorite thing about it? Sound off down below!

Photos: A&E/ITV

Overall Rating

four heart rating
“Hello, Gorgeous.”

Romance Rating

Four corset rating
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My

feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me

to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”


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By on September 16th, 2015

About Rissi JC

Rissi is a self-diagnosed Bookaholic and TV fandom addict. She’s currently an avid blogger and reader who enjoys interacting with readers, and often dreams about finishing her first novel. When not writing or reading, she can be found working as an INSPYs advisory board member or contributing to e-zines. Her scribbles are housed on her blog Finding Wonderland (https://www.rissiwrites.com).

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4 thoughts on “Emma (1996) TV Film Review – Adaptation of Austen’s Most Humorous Story”

  1. I’ve seen this one, and I have to admit I was disappointed. It’s ok, but it really doesn’t do the novel justice, and I thought Mark Strong was miscast as Mr. Knightley. Ironically, even though I don’t care too much for Gwyneth Paltrow as an actress, she is my favorite Emma!

    • I really like the Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation. It’s got a contemporary feel, which adds a unique marker. I’m planning to re-watch it as well; it’s always fun to compare the adaptations. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tiffany. 🙂

  2. In my opinion, Mark Strong is the best Mr Knightley so far. He ist tall (why are all the others not?), he is not sweet (I really like Jeremy Northam and he sure is the sweetest Mr. Knightley – but then, Mr K in the book never seems to be sweet and charming – except to Mr Woodhouse 😉 ) he really lectures Emma… and he is most like the Mr Knightley I imagined while reading. But obviously this is different for everyone.
    I like Kate Beckinsale as Emma too – maybe not perfect – but I like her much more than all the Emmas in the new adaptions – what are the doing there??? The Knightleys in the newer films are not the thing, either. They should have asked Richard Armitage 10 years ago after all… 😉
    And Samantha Morton is great as Harriet Smith!
    😀 😀

  3. Thank you for this!
    I watched this version and the Miramax in the same week (having watched this before) and I would say they are both enjoyable!
    The other one is more cinematic so I might say that one’s a bit better but I love Kate as Emma! She is so Emma-ish! And Samantha Morton excels playing good-natured and easily swayed Harriet!
    Mr Elton in this one is so apt in his portrayal of eager overconfidence and also I loved both versions casting for Mr Knightley but prefer Northam.


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