Killing Miss Austen

The BBC's adaptation of Emma might promote sexual chemistry but it lacks all tension

Nick Cohen

Over-sexed: Romola Garai as Emma in the new BBC adaptation 

Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition”, seemed to unite most of the blessings TV drama producers ever wanted. Nothing in her life could vex them. They could hire an actress who was more ravishing than “handsome”, without doing undue violence to Miss Austen’s intentions. They could instruct her to turn Emma’s “happy disposition” into the feisty style that so commends itself to today’s commissioning editors. And if the location manager decided that Emma’s “comfortable home” should be a Georgian mansion of the type long coveted by Britons of all classes, no one but a cavilling critic could object.

What a catch that girl has been over the decades: as reliable as an inheritance in the funds. A flock of Emmas schemed their way through the mid-1990s. Clueless set the story in LA and had Alicia Silverstone play Emma as a Beverly Hills girl. Andrew Davies produced a conventional TV adaptation, which found itself up against a second Emma-the-movie in as many years, this time starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Bollywood is proposing to move Highbury to New Delhi and now the BBC has a new version.

Emma is Austen’s most technically brilliant work. Never again would she display such mastery of her material. Yet modern producers invariably go wrong because they cannot come to terms with a type of conservative writer that no longer exists. Austen is rooted in the anti-Jacobin reaction of the 1790s against the Rousseau-ian assumption that the spontaneous and the natural are superior to the restrained and the learned — it is this dangerous assumption which her Tory contemporaries believed had led to the terror of the French Revolution. As her finest modern critic, Marilynn Butler, says, Austen is rare among the great novelists in her “desire to place the individual in a pre-ordained moral framework”.

Emma is not just a beautiful woman who makes enchantingly silly mistakes. She is the best surviving protagonist of the Georgian morality tale. Emma, like so many inferior creations from the time, goes through the hard task of discovering the good in herself and others, before receiving a respectable place in a Christian society as a reward for her self-knowledge.

She is 20 at the start of the novel. Mr Knightley is 37 going on 57. He spends most of the book telling her off, but surpasses himself in the story’s turning point, the mortifying scene on Box Hill when Emma cannot resist mocking poor Miss Bates for being too dull for superior company. “I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance,” he tells her in the voice of a disappointed schoolteacher. “How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible.” Emma realises she has failed to understand that her position in society requires her to show compassion to her shabby-genteel neighbour. After hearing him out, she decides that “she never had been so depressed”.

Imagine pitching Austen’s plot to a studio boss and then concluding with a shout of triumph, “And you’ll never guess the twist. Emma, right, she’s so taken with the old dude who keeps nagging her, she decides he’s hot and marries him!”

The temptation to turn Mr Knightley into a conventional romantic lead is hard to resist, but adapters who succumb fatally diminish the book’s moral force. 

Criticising the current BBC series feels like clubbing an invalid who is recovering from assault and battery. BBC documentaries remain as shallow as they have been for years, but the drama department is showing encouraging signs of emerging from the asinine populism Greg Dyke inflicted on the corporation. Before I go any further, I must therefore say in kindness that Emma is well made and beautifully acted. Romola Garai’s eyes widen with delight as her mind hits on a matchmaking project. Jonny Lee Miller (Mr Knightley) gives a star-quality performance. And any supporting cast that includes Michael Gambon will always be worth watching. And yet, the best actors in the world could not save this production. Kate Harwood, controller of BBC serials, announced that she did not want “stuffy period characters” but a fresh, modern Austen. “The casting of Romola and Jonny is an absolute joy,” she purred, because of the “tremendous chemistry” between them.

Indeed there is. So much chemistry, in fact, I was surprised they did not spontaneously combust. In an opening scene, Mr Knightley upbraids Emma, and she turns to face him with a glittering come-hither smile on her face. By the end of the second, she is showing visible signs of jealousy at the thought he may be in love with someone else.

The viewer cannot blame her because Jonny Lee Miller does not look almost twice her age or even five years older than she. He is just as attractive as the dangerously seductive Frank Churchill whom Austen dangles
before Emma — and much, much richer. Far from being the culmination of a search for self-knowledge, Emma and Knightley’s marriage feels inevitable from the start — two young, beautiful moneyed people shack up, what could be more natural? The BBC may be pleasing modern tastes, but by removing the stuffy period characters and promoting sexual chemistry, Harwood has not produced a fresh adaptation, but a lifeless drama, with the tension drained out of it. 

Before he died, Dennis Potter told how delighted he was when Hollywood bought his Pennies from Heaven. The producers flew him to a luxurious apartment and asked him to write a new screenplay. They took it from him and said they needed a rewrite. Potter complained, so they gave him more money. The rewritten script was rewritten again and again, and every time the producers gave Potter more money. They then tested the finished film with trial audiences who did not like it, so the producers cut it before general release. By the end, Potter was considerably wealthier, but the Hollywood version of Pennies from Heaven bore no relation to his story.

Potter was baffled. Why had the studio bosses bought his drama in the first place if they did not want it? The same question haunts the latest Emma. If the BBC thinks Austen too stuffy, why bother to adapt her charming but surprisingly tough novel?  

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