BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor


A Parliament of Critics

Emma Adapted—Jane Austen’s Heroine from Book to Film

By Marc DiPaolo.
Peter Lang, 2007. 190 pages.
Hardcover. $67.95.

Reviewed by Andrew Macdonald and Gina Macdonald.

What is often considered Austen’s most complete novel has been adapted eight times, six times for television, including the 1996 Lawrence-Davies Emma starring Kate Beckinsale, and twice for theatrical release as feature films (Heckerling/ Silverstone’s 1995 Clueless and McGrath/Paltrow’s 1996 Emma). Marc DiPaolo’s Emma Adapted— Jane Austen’s Heroine from Book to Film provides a useful recapitulation of how literary scholars read the novel Emma, a thorough survey of television and film adaptations of Emma, and an evaluation of how the 1990s film adaptations cited above reflect the critical controversies that engage literary scholars. As DiPaolo suggests, an abundance of adaptations is a gift to enthusiasts, allowing through multiple viewings a charting of the coastlines of the original novel and earlier films. No one sighting is definitive; a work like Emma is too rich with meaning ever to be preserved in one attempt at visualization. Unfortunately, three of the television productions are no longer readily available. Thus, DiPaolo’s painstaking descriptions helpfully fill in the prevideo/ DVD period. His subtitle, however, is slightly misleading, for despite attention to Emma as book and film, Emma as heroine does not receive central attention. Instead, the study explores different ways that films and critics turn attention from Emma toward other characters and interpretive concerns.

The Introduction briefly defines the attraction of the topic and its scholarly controversies. Chapter One explores the reaction of modern film critics against George Bluestone’s outmoded view of cinematic adaptations. Chapter Two summarizes recent academic takes on the novel Emma, conflating diverse critical approaches into two categories: the novel as a domestic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story focused on Emma’s maturation/ moral reform, or as a social critique focused on Highbury and its gender/ social/political issues. Chapter Three describes the five television adaptations, drawing heavily on Sue Parrill’s Jane Austen on Film and Television, while Chapter Four contrasts the McGrath and the Lawrence-Davies Emma, and Chapter Five examines Heckerling’s Clueless, with John Mosier as a major reference. Basically, DiPaolo argues that the diversity of scholarly interpretation has inspired the diversity of filmic interpretations, a possibly arguable claim (did the directors consult criticism?). Categorizing Emma’s narrative style as “free-indirect,” DiPaolo borrows terms from film theorist Geoffrey Wagner’s The Novel and the Cinema (1975) to organize his discussion: “transposition” (faithfully conveying novel to screen with minimal changes: McGrath), “commentary” (sacrificing complexity for a distinct directorial point of view: Lawrence-Davies), and “analogy,” also known as “homage” or by the tag “inspired by” (modernizing an original tale to serve a modern function: Heckerling). Thus, Clueless is a mixed Bildungsroman/social critique analogy. The Chapter Six “Overview” values films which return readers to the novel and expose them to unanticipated interpretations but postulates the impossibility cinematic Emma that satisfies all readings (DiPaolo jestingly suggests Rashomon-like multiple takes on single scenes). In the main, the text is a collage of interesting commentaries and observations by Austen critics, both purists and cineasts, with DiPaolo occasionally and dislikes basedon his personal criteria: a genial actor, an engaging scene, a targeted moral point, a modern take on an emerging issue.

Yet, DiPaolo’s approach is somewhat flawed, as his personal perspective seemingly shifts from critic to critic, sometimes in contradiction. Defensive about the value of film-as-film, he seeks to refute the old saw that “the book was better than the film” but without fully acknowledging that some films (though no Jane Austen adaptations) are in fact better than their sources, a virtual commonplace if we view adaptation broadly, not as a contest between the prose of high culture and the visuals of contemporary popular culture. Oddly focused on text-as- text for a writer about film versions of a classic novel, he seems not to have liberated himself from the fallacy that adaptations should be judged on documentary fidelity to historical fact (attention to set design and costuming in the Lawrence Emma), even though he recognizes that authenticity should be a literary, not a sociological or historical, question. If multiple adaptations of Emma only help the viewer see the profundity and variety of possibilities in the text, why not invoke the long-familiar practice of adaptation of other classic works? No stage production filmed play, or film has ever claimed to plumb the depths of Hamlet: Why should Emma adaptations not enjoy the same privilege?

Emma Adapted belongs in the library of anyone who returns to the book and its film adaptations, if only as a reference work: who played Mr. Woodhouse? Which television miniseries? DiPaolo’s discussion of literary criticism, adaptation theory, and particular films is useful, his research is extensive, and his summaries of this scholarship are strikingly clear, succinct, and jargon-free. To quote others with judgment and to articulate their points of view with lucidity are an underappreciated art, but to give all interpretations equal weight ignores the necessary interplay of text and film that all literary adaptations must evoke if they are to be more than mere homages.


Andrew Macdonald, a full professor of English at Loyola University of New Orleans, LA, and Gina Macdonald, an associate professor of Languages and Literature at Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, LA, are co-authors of Jane Austen on Screen ( CUP, 2004), a second edition of which is in progress; their “Jane Austen Versus the Corporations” will appear in the Fall 2007 Sense & Sensibilities.

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