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Which Version is Better? Emma Edition

Jeremy Northam and Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma. Photo: Miramax Films
Jeremy Northam and Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma. Photo: Miramax Films

Most Austen fans are fond of the matchmaking heroine Emma. Her story is full of wit, life lessons, and romance. Emma has been adapted for the large and small screen numerous times with many good adaptations. The ones chosen for this article to compare are the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremey Northam as well as the 2009 BBC miniseries starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. Both versions are charming, a visual feast for the eyes, and stay true to the heart of Austen’s novel.

1996 Emma

I always felt this was the elegant version of Emma. The acting, sets, and costumes really take you into the society of the time period. Gwyneth is charming  in her role as Emma and is just as meddlesome and vivacious as the character in the books. Northam makes a dry and upright Knightley who is absolutely lovable.  There is also a great supporting cast that includes Alan Cumming and Toni Collette.

On a nostalgic note, this was the first version of Emma I ever viewed. Actually, it’s probably the first Austen drama I watched. It was this movie, in fact, that made me fall in love with the time period. I sympathized with Emma’s cluelessness towards her own feelings. Plus, Gwyneth Paltrow did a great job playing a British woman, and the dynamics between all the characters were great.

However, Emma and Knightley’s romance felt a bit stilted to me, upon watching the romance in later years. The actors are good apart, but I didn’t feel like swooning anymore over their romance. Not to mention, the story felt a bit rushed to fit into the allotted screen time. There wasn’t as much time for Emma and Mr. Churchill to play out their flirtation, either which is central to Emma figuring out her own heart.  And not enough Jane Fairfax to get to know her. (On a side note, I feel like a novel should have been written about her.) Still, the film is excellent. It brings a cinematic brightness to Austen’s story. I love the costumes as well. Emma’s dresses made me want to own regency era gowns.

The 1996 version of Emma is delightful, just rushed a bit and had all the wit and humor found in Austen’s novel. It’s an Austen film class, very much like Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet’s Sense and Sensibility. 

2009 Emma

Emma (2009) adaptation starring Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai. Photo: BBC
Emma (2009) adaptation starring Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai. Photo: BBC

This is a more chapter by chapter adaptation of the book with more screentime devoted to the side stories with Jane and Harriet, for instance. The miniseries format made it possible with the pacing much less rushed. Overall, the 2009 version is really immersive. It’s easy to spend  your whole afternoon watching the whole miniseries.

I love the cast as well. Not only the leads, but Jodhi May as Ann Taylor, Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse, and Blake Ritson as Mr. Elton. The cast acted their parts amazingly. There wasn’t a boring character in the whole mix. And the leads brought Knightley and Emma to life.

Romola Garai played Emma’s clueless, happy go lucky, personality to the letter. Her maturation process was more pronounced in this version. I felt like Paltrow’s Emma was too mature in the beginning. Jonny Lee Miller was a bit young, at least in appearance, but he had Knightley’s censure and compassion perfectly. You could see the romance building between the two slowly. It made the love declaration more poignant. I mean, this line will always echo across Austen history:

“I cannot make speeches, Emma . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

Miller really delivers this line with hesitation and hope – he doesn’t know Emma will say she loves him back. Overall, I enjoyed this Knightley and Emma romance more. The miniseries paid special attention to detail on the costumes and set as well. It’s a stunning addition to the Jane Austen movie collection.

The Verdict

Despite my nostalgia, I must go with the 2009 version. I felt like it was better in so many ways. I really can watch it over and over again. From the acting to the faithfulness to the book, I feel like it excels over other versions. In all, I feel more emotionally invested and have great enjoyment as I watch the 2009 Emma adaptation.

Please share  your favorite version of Emma!

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By on September 17th, 2015

About Mandi Harris

Mandi Harris is a freelance writer and blogger. If she isn't writing, she has her nose in a book. Books are her ultimate addiction. Her other weaknesses include period dramas, chocolate, and her pets. She is working on her own novels now and hopes to one day get published. You can read her book blog over at thepennedpiper.com.

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13 thoughts on “Which Version is Better? Emma Edition”

  1. I do agree with you but for one thing: I always imagined Emma as a dark haired young woman with dark bright eyes., so both actresses don’t really match.

  2. I actually like the 1996 version more. The first time I watched the 2009 version, I thought Romola wasn’t playing Emma refined enough, whereas Gwyneth had that part down perfectly. Also, I wasn’t feeling much chemistry between Romola and Johnny. Upon viewing it a second time, however, I did feel the chemistry a bit more. But Gwyneth and Jeremy sizzled from the start imo 😉

    The 2009 version is still good and is able to delve further into the plot and characters than the 1996 one, but overall, the 1996 version wins hands down.

  3. I love both of these movies so much. I don’t think I can really decide which one I like better. I’ve definitely re-watched the 1996 version more. But I really like the length of the 2009 version, which does feel less rushed. You can really see the growth of the characters in the miniseries.

  4. I agree with you exactly. Both are excellent in their own ways but I did really get swept away by the 2009 mini-series. Romola Garai and Gwyneth Paltrow play the character really differently and its fun to contrast their approaches. In the end I liked Romola Garai’s Emma a bit more which is important in this story where Emma is not always sympathetic.

  5. I prefer the 1996 one. JN’s Mr Knightley so much better he really does these period pieces well. Thought JLM looked far too young even younger than Emma. Sometimes these adaptations seem to get actors who look much too old for the parts for instance Emma Thompson in S & S. Love Emma but much too old for her part in that film. Same thing with Jennifer in P & P series trying to act like a twenty year old. Much preferred the film version with Matthew and Keira but there was so much hype about Colin Firth in a wet shirt…… Ms Austen would have thought it silly. Anyway this post is about t Emma………just think ……’I rode through the rain’ ……..Ahhhhh

  6. I only just watched the first episode of the 2009 BBC version. Of course the costumes and settings are sumptuous and it’s well cast. However, I find the 2009 version treats Emma as a bit ditzy, which I never saw in either the novel or the 1996 version, and I feel it’s not right.

  7. No doubt in my mind 2009 BBC movie beats the competition hands down. Romola made Emma relatable and there was definite chemistry between Miller as Knightley to Romola Emma. I had to buy the 2020 version and hated it It was more like a caricature of the story. Dr Zeuses hair and all. Paltrow is a mediocre actress on a good day. 1996 version was horrible.
    The be all end of a period drama especially one of Jane Austen’s, is the main characters first dance scene. 2009 nailed it.

  8. While I enjoy all of the above I prefer the 1996 ITV version with Mark Strong’s Knightley and Kate Beckinsale as Emma. It is humorous, tender and true to the novel.

  9. For me Romola Garai is like a queen of period dramas and nothing beats Miller has Knightley. The 2009 BBC Miniseries Emma in my opinion is not only the best of these two, but the best of all the Emma’s I’ve ever seen, which might have been all.


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