Emma Woodhouse considers herself a fine matchmaker after seeing her governess married to the man she believes she chose. When she begins to take an interest in the affairs of others, however, from her new friend Harriet to the dashing Frank Churchill, she may find that her gifts harm more than they help.
Reviewing Emma can seem a little pointless. Either everyone knows the story and already has an opinion on it, right? And if you’re an avid Austen fan, surely you’ve seen the 2009 BBC mini series already. You don’t need me to tell you that you should watch it as soon as possible. The costumes, the actors, the scenery, the story–what perfection! From the creepy Mr. Elton to the charming (but somewhat aggravating) Mr. Knightley, this adaptation got it right.
I still love talking about Emma, though, both because it vies with Pride and Prejudice for my favorite Austen romance, and because it was this adaptation that caused me to see Emma in a new light. I had read Emma before seeing the mini series. And I understood why Jane Austen thought no one but herself would like the titular character.
When I read the book, I saw Emma as manipulative and somewhat vain about her supposed matchmaking powers. I thought the way she meddled with the lives of others like they were her playthings was terrible. She ruined Harriet’s life and felt no remorse–other than, perhaps, feeling stung that Mr. Knightley didn’t approve, couldn’t agree with her that she is always right. As Jane Austen predicted, I didn’t like Emma.
But Romola Garai plays Emma as youthful and high-spirited. Her machinations seem less like, well, machinations, than mistakes (albeit pretty bad ones). She’s only seventeen. She thinks she’s right all the time. She thinks it’s fun to match make and to flirt and to be a little indiscreet at times. In short, she, like so many others her age, thinks she’s indestructible. And then she finds out she’s wrong. She has a heart. And the people whose lives she toys with have hearts, too.
The 2009 mini series is a reminder to me of the power of storytellers to transform a story–that, in turn, can transform us. I might never have read Emma as anything more than mean, had I never watched Garai’s performance. But now that I have, I see everything differently. Like Emma, I’ve come to see that first appearances may not be a true measure of a character at all.