It’s pretty difficult – I’ve found it just about impossible – to discuss this film without ‘comparing and contrasting’ to its source material, Jane Austen’s Emma. This is so loose an adaptation as to be almost a completely new animal and yet I find myself drawn back to rereading the original, which is a favourite, and looking at the brutality done to Austen’s story and characters.
Ok, so in the original, Emma Woodhouse is twenty years old, is intelligent and accomplished, tactful (for the most part) and sensible (again, mostly). What she lacks is company of similar capability, any check on her wants (her family is chief in the area and people defer to her from social nicety rather than acknowledgement of her abilities) and experience of the world, so she is wont to overestimate her own capabilities.
The heroine of this film, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is also intelligent and from the top social echelon of her society though a little younger but, where Emma found she had outgrown the intellectual material available to her and found her regular society insufficiently thoughtful and productive for her taste, having lost the governess who was her only regular companion of intellectual prowess, Cher uses her intelligence to avoid doing schoolwork and is woefully ignorant of the world, taking an interest only in fashion, being seen with the ‘right’ people, and ‘reality tv’. Cher may be a more realistic picture of privilige without constraint than Emma, but she is a damn sight harder to like.
Nonetheless, Silverstone does a pretty good job of making Cher likeably silly. She is helped by a script that makes her the least worst of her contemporaries, the film having moved the action from a small English town society in the early 19th Century to a Beverly Hills high school in the 1990s. This rather smart move manages to translate much of the social stratification that otherwise would look unfeasably stuffy today. It does have the unfortunate effect of losing the sense of importance to Emma/Cher’s interference in her friends’ love lives as, in Austen’s time, making the ‘right match’ could be literally a case of life and death. Paul Rudd as Josh, Cher’s not-quite-brother is a good version of Knightly and, having to lose the story of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill for concision, Frank’s role as the pretend-suitor-who-is-clearly-not-really-interested is cleverly taken by the character of Christian who, in this version, is gay. The character most altered is probably her father, in the novel being a gentle and sickly man who gets his way on account of his status and a passive-aggressive solicitude for everyone around him, assuming them to share his views and tastes. In the film, we lose the ‘passive’, and he becomes a gruff and threatening lawyer, specialising in corporate disputes.
Overall, the film works. It’s fun and uses the basic plot of Austen’s novel to construct a new comedy. It is simply a comedy, though. Some of the subtlety of Austen’s original has been jettisoned for laughs, and there are fairly broad jokes here. It also lacks the emotional heft of the novel. There is no moment to compare with Emma’s mortification at insulting Miss Bates at the picnic on Box Hill and subsequent rebuke from Knightly, and the transformation from airhead to caring benefactor is only partial here. In the novel, Emma has to understand herself to realise that she loves Knightly, but the reader is in no doubt that she is worthy of him. In the film, Josh is still a world away from Cher and we have to take on trust that their attraction to one another is enough to overcome their very different temperaments.
(Edit: ok, I’ve gone back to the book and found that I’ve been giving Emma Woodhouse a little too much credit, and the filmmakers too little; Emma isn’t quite as accomplished as I remembered. Knightly discusses her education, early on, with her former governess and it’s clear that Emma, although clever, had never had the discipline to really stick at any one thing to the degree her talents demanded, and the film does reflect this more accurately than did my memory.)