Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)
Filming Highbury: Reducing the Community in Emma to the Screen

Sayre Greenfield (email: and Linda Troost (email: jointly edited Jane Austen in Hollywood in 1998 (UP of Kentucky). In addition, Sayre, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, has published The Ends of Allegory (U of Delaware P, 1998), and Linda, an Associate Professor of English at Washington and Jefferson College, is the editor of the annual Eighteenth-Century Women (AMS Press).

Sir Walter Scott, in his review of Austen’s Emma, observes that the "author’s knowledge of the world . . . reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader" (369). To explain the different positions of the community of Highbury in the two 1996 films of Emma, let us start with a comparison to two Flemish painters that spring to mind. The Miramax film of Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is like the work of Vermeer. In his pictures, we see the artist’s gaze focus on the details of genteel life and on subjects that project calm self-possession. "The Music Lesson," for example, focuses contemplatively on two people surrounded by the trappings of tasteful gentry life—a viola da gamba, a virginal, and a Turkish carpet—complementing the calm, confident, and independent subjects in the portrait, the woman’s face reflected in a mirror. The Meridian telefilm of Emma with Kate Beckinsale (screenplay by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence), by contrast, has something of Bruegel to it, perhaps his "Wedding Feast." This painting is communal, filled with many people, both young and old, in the actions of everyday life—eating, talking, drinking—and it opens out toward the viewers, inviting them into the society. Neither Bruegel’s communal nor Vermeer’s individual visions, however, can represent Austen’s complex novel accurately. Nonetheless, one can see the work of these artists as the extremes toward which the cinematic versions tend. Making Emma into a film requires portraying Emma’s social context and placing her as a focal point, but the limitations of the genre inhibit the detailed attention to both a novel can give.

One could argue that Emma is simultaneously the most individual and most social of Austen’s six major novels. It is the only one named after its heroine and the only one that sticks entirely to one community—Highbury. Frank Churchill may head to London for his haircut and piano purchasing, but the readers never do. One might also claim that this novel has the most sympathetic portrayal of the heroine’s hometown—which is odd, given that the people occupying it (Mr. Elton, Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates) are not terribly attractive. Yet passages of pleased observation appear in Emma that seem unusual for Austen:

Emma went to the door [of Ford’s] for amusement.—Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;—Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole’s carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer. (233)

An image of Emma’s content with the small sphere of Highbury is important, given the conclusion of the novel. This novel offers no disruption of the community, which every other Austen novel seems to entail. The function of the Highbury community is to provide the setting for the resolution: that is, Emma accepts her position within the community and does not flee from it into marriage. Contrast this conclusion with Meryton’s role in Pride and Prejudice. Even the estate of Mansfield Park suffers a slightly greater degree of disruption at the end of the novel, as Fanny Price gets her sister Susan to take her place with Lady Bertram.

But Emma will remain within Highbury and Hartfield, and that means we must accept her in the company of Mrs. Elton and her father as part of the happy ending—we name these two figures because the end of the novel reminds the reader that these people in particular will be present—no retreat to Derbyshire as Elizabeth Bennet manages. In fact, Mr. Woodhouse (the most immobile character of all) becomes the static center-point toward which the plot resolves, as Mr. Knightley moves in with him and Emma.

Usually in romances, Austen’s included, marriage is not reward enough for the heroine. She gets wealth, a higher position in society, escape from an intolerable situation—some sort of bonus to confirm the happiness of the conclusion. Not in Emma. At least the social setting can provide no significant reward. So, if the community of Highbury cannot provide the additional reward, what bonus beyond Mr. Knightley does Emma get? Why, just what she ought, of course: self-knowledge. Between the mental distance Emma travels and the physical immobility she accepts, we can see how carefully this novel balances between being one about a society and being one about an individual.

The two recent films unbalance the novel into two different directions, which is all right since a two-hour adaptation cannot and should not try to do everything. The community around Highbury does not clinch the happy ending in the novel because Emma has that community to begin with. By the end of the novel, Emma has only Augusta Elton (lamenting the pitiful lack of white satin at the wedding) as a significant addition to her circle, and she loses Harriet Smith, "which was not to be regretted" (482). Though Emma finally comes to appreciate Jane Fairfax, that lady departs Highbury, to return to the Campbells and prepare for marriage to Frank Churchill. Not so in the Davies film: the community does provide the joyous conclusion. Any mention of Frank and Jane’s departure is omitted, and Harriet and Robert Martin are welcomed into the company of the gentlefolk, with no sense of contact to be diminished. Though the last shot in the telefilm is of turkey thieves, reminding us there is still trouble in paradise, the images before that generally reinforce a sense of expanded community as the clincher for the happy ending.

The finale of the McGrath film is conventional and focuses attention on the beautiful heroine and her reward, Mr. Knightley, by showing the wedding. The Davies screenplay, however, concludes with a Bruegelesque harvest supper that greatly changes the focus since we now see Emma within her world with all its social classes. In addition, the three betrothed couples (of assorted social classes themselves) join in a traditional dramatic emblem of unity, a country dance. As the director notes, the dance is intended to show the "three couples, who’ve been cast asunder, now happily with their partners, and backed up by a harmonious society" (Lawrence 60, italics ours). We get to see a scene in which Mrs. Elton is affronted by Emma’s more egalitarian social recognition of Robert Martin. A fuller acceptance of her community is exactly what Emma, in contrast to Mrs. Elton, achieves in this film. The harmony at the conclusion of the Davies production comes as a relief after all the social disjunction that film has been careful to show us. Admittedly, the McGrath film shows Emma interacting with members of other social classes in various ways—visiting the sick and the poor, grappling with gypsies—but these scenes serve to advance the plot, not to clarify Emma’s place within her world; therefore, the finale need not strive for conspicuous social unity. It is the Davies film that has the fuller picture of the society that surrounds the heroine, a picture that emphasizes connections within classes as well as the disjunctions between them.

Both films depict the presence of servants at the various households, but in the McGrath version, they appear quickly, announcing visitors, often in the background and without attracting the viewer’s attention. The Davies production, by contrast, positions servants as the particular objects of our gaze. Davies himself remarked that Austen’s novel is "unusual" for presenting a "working model of a whole society—with some fascinating glimpses of the underclass" ("Austen’s Horrible Heroine"). His filmic version of the novel expands this glimpse. We cannot overlook the servants dressed in magnificent livery, easing the relaxations of the gentry still further by their efforts. This juxtaposition appears in the Box Hill scene, as the servants struggle up the slope carrying the table and elaborate equipment for the al fresco lunch, and in the strawberry-picking scene, when servants provide the ladies cushions on which to kneel so that they need not make contact with garden soil. It is precisely such social divisions that require the finale of the harvest supper at Donwell, where upper class and lower class can enjoy mutual conviviality as they celebrate the "wholeness in the community" (Davies, "Final" 58). That scene is hardly one of egalitarianism, but we do get a sense that one of the improvements that Emma receives is a lessening of her snobbery, though the snobbery is inherent in the social system. Such a conclusion is not unexpected: As Carol Dole has noted, costume dramas produced in the context of modern British socialism often feel the need to comment critically about the class system (60), much in the way that contemporary American films about the past tend to be self-conscious about slavery and racial prejudice. Not surprisingly, then, the British production of Emma pays great attention to the situation of the serving classes in Regency Surrey whereas the American production glosses over their existence.

More subtle than the portrayal of divisions between the classes, however, are the attempts to depict the social structure within the gentry itself. No film of Emma could avoid a plethora of parties and dances, for that is where much of the plot occurs. Indeed both films, like Vermeer’s paintings, display much finery for us to admire. But the Davies Emma seems concerned with also showing us the complex structures that bind families and a community together. The McGrath version seems more concerned with showing us Gwyneth Paltrow—well, Emma herself—for in that film, the important relationships all stem from and to her.

One can see something of this difference from the percentage of the dialogue each character is allotted:

  Davies McGrath
Emma Woodhouse 33% 41%
Mr. Knightley 12% 13%
Frank Churchill 11% 4%
Harriet Smith 10% 12%
Mr. Woodhouse 6% 3%
Mr. Elton 5% 8%
Mrs. Elton 5% 3%
Miss Bates 5% 3%
Mr. Weston 4% 2%
Jane Fairfax 3% 1%
Mrs. Weston 3% 6%
John Knightley 1.7% 0.4%
Isabella Knightley 0.6% 0.3%
Robert Martin 0.4% 0.8%
Mrs. Goddard 0.4% 0.3%
Mr. Perry 0.3%  
Mrs. Cole   0.7%
Mr. Cole   0.5%

First of all, note that Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma has a higher percentage of the lines (41%) than Kate Beckinsale as Emma (33%). More impressionistically, we would say that the camera focuses on Paltrow more in silent moments, too. As Nora Nachumi has indicated, Paltrow, the famous beauty, is more conspicuously posed for the camera than the rival Emma (135-36). For example, when Emma is checking the mail for an invitation from the Coles, McGrath places her on a Grecian sofa flanked by two potted trees and backed by white drapery. It is not just that this Emma has more lines and gets more attention from the camera; the rest of her family have far fewer lines to interrupt the focus upon her. Mr. Woodhouse drops from 6% of the lines in the Davies film to 3% in the McGrath film. Emma’s sister and brother-in-law, John and Isabella Knightley, almost vanish from the film (Kaplan 183). Another way that the McGrath film focuses upon Emma is to reduce the secondary romance, that between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Frank is the most reduced character of all, sliding from 11% of the dialogue in one film to 4% in the other, and Jane Fairfax also diminishes from 3% to 1% of the speeches.

A small and subtle alteration in the plot between the two versions also makes the point about the tighter focus upon Emma’s problems when Paltrow plays her. In the novel, after the unfortunate trip to Box Hill, Emma feels terrible about her treatment of Miss Bates and, therefore, goes to call upon her, her mother, and Jane Fairfax the next day:

"The ladies were all at home." She had never rejoiced at the sound before. . . . There was a bustle on her approach; a good deal of moving and talking. She heard Miss Bates’s voice, something was to be done in a hurry; the maid looked frightened and awkward; hoped she would be pleased to wait a moment, and then ushered her in too soon. The aunt and niece seemed both escaping into the adjoining room. Jane she had a distinct glimpse of, looking extremely ill; and, before the door had shut them out, she heard Miss Bates saying, "Well, my dear, I shall say you are laid down upon the bed, and I am sure you are ill enough." (378)

As for Emma’s reaction to this little scene, "She had a moment’s fear of Miss Bates keeping away from her. But Miss Bates soon came—‘Very happy and obliged’—but Emma’s conscience told her that there was not the same cheerful volubility as before—less ease of look and manner" (378). Austen teases us with our expectation that Miss Bates should be the one avoiding Emma, but in fact, Jane Fairfax is the one avoiding her. The next chapter shows Emma’s repeated and frustrated attentions to Jane, and we eventually understand the reason for the refusal of these assiduities: Jane is upset with Emma for her and Frank Churchill’s having "flirted together excessively" (368) at Box Hill—this flirtation on Frank’s part, unknown to Emma, being the result of a quarrel between the lovers.

This sequence of interactions between Emma, Miss Bates, and Jane Fairfax appears pretty straightforward in the Davies film (if in reduced form), including a striking visual image that corresponds to these lines in the novel:

When Emma afterwards heard that Jane Fairfax had been seen wandering about the meadows, at some distance from Highbury, on the afternoon of the very day on which she had, under the plea of being unequal to any exercise, so peremptorily refused to go out with her in the carriage, she could have no doubt—putting every thing together—that Jane was resolved to receive no kindness from her. (391)

The Davies film places more interest on the problems of Jane for their own sake—perhaps even more than the novel can, restricted as it is (more or less) to Emma’s viewpoint. Certainly the shot of Jane Fairfax walking across the fields weeping while being observed sympathetically by Robert Martin makes us interested in her problems and reminds us of his blighted romance. Both these characters have been hurt, inadvertently, by Emma, and this telefilm is interested in their reactions in the way the McGrath movie is not.

The McGrath film, in contrast, makes Miss Bates the one who is trying to avoid Emma. Emma is pointedly avoided at the Bates home, and we follow her sad and humiliated figure as she walks away. Why the plot change? Because this film is really concerned with Emma’s feelings and not with the effect Emma has on others. The scene at the Bates home becomes a part of Emma’s education in noblesse oblige, a necessary step on her way to becoming a chivalric Mrs. Knightley, not a clue to Jane Fairfax’s situation.

This version, to be fair, does not merely cut other characters to make way for Emma. The roles of Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith persist at the same (or slightly expanded) level of attention and that of Mrs. Weston noticeably increases. These three characters do not diminish because these are the ones in whom Emma confides. This film relies upon scenes of tête-à-têtes to illustrate the character of Paltrow’s Emma, and Mrs. Weston functions as her confidante, drawing her out so that we can see Emma’s thinking processes on display. Of course, Beckinsale as Emma also appears in intimate conversations, particularly with Miss Smith, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Churchill, but Mrs. Weston is seen mostly with her husband within the larger social occasions of parties and has only two private conversations with Emma.

As the novel frequently takes us inside Emma’s head, so must the films at least occasionally accomplish this maneuver, even though the form cannot perform this task so adeptly. The speaking roles are not the only indicator of Gwyneth Paltrow’s dominance of the film: even when we get inside Emma’s mind in both scripts, we sense the greater concern with the solitary reactions of title character in the McGrath version and the more socially enmeshed quality of the Davies version. McGrath accomplishes the trick of admitting us to Emma’s private thoughts by showing her writing in her diary and simultaneously giving us a Paltrow voice-over that explains what the young woman is writing: an entry in which she wonders whether she is in love with Frank Churchill. McGrath even gives the shot a Vermeer quality by shooting her reflected in a mirror. We get to watch Emma watch herself as she dreams. In the Davies version, on the other hand, we get to experience Emma’s fantasies from her point of view: we see through her eyes (and the camera’s lens) as Mr. Elton thanks Emma for uniting him with Harriet, and later we see Frank Churchill’s portrait smiling at us (and Emma). We become, for a moment, Emma watching other characters. For McGrath, the reactions are solely Emma’s: she remains the end point of a chain of occurrences, and the camera focuses on Paltrow. For Davies, the fantasies require the images of other characters on screen, which grants them a certain importance. Even the nightmare inflicted upon Emma—a vision of Mr. Knightley’s marriage to Jane Fairfax—shifts her concern from the personal to the social. "What about little Henry?" she cries aloud in church as she clutches her nephew’s hand, worried about the line of inheritance of Donwell Abbey (presumably this represents a sublimation of her own desires). Her imaginings place Emma in social situations, surrounded by family and friends. Davies’s Emma is not the end-point of this film or the sole focus of the camera even in the sequences that reveal her hidden thoughts. In other words, the events that occur end with their effect upon Emma in the McGrath film, whereas the implications of events in the Davies version reflect through Emma’s mind and back onto society.

One may suspect the different emphases derive from the greater American influence on the Miramax film as opposed to the Meridian/Arts and Entertainment production. The feature film promotes a rising star, Gwyneth Paltrow, whereas the telefilm sits more comfortably within the British tradition of ensemble work. Beyond this, however, the two versions of Emma represent two different and legitimate visions of the novel: one more concerned with what happens in the society, the other more in tune with what happens to the individual. Austen’s novel has the luxury of presenting both visions simultaneously; a film, however, must limit its scope.

To phrase the difference more generically, one might say that the Davies film is a comedy, in the literary sense. It is about the reestablishment of order in society after Emma’s attempts at matchmaking, about building tighter bonds within the community. The McGrath film is more of a romance, in the modern sense: Paltrow gets the dishier-looking Mr. Knightley (played by Jeremy Northam). But let us not underrate romance. Austen’s novel is both comedy and romance, and in so far as it is a romance, Emma must reward its heroine, and it happens to do so by granting her increased understanding as well as the hero. The tighter focus of McGrath’s version allows the audience to focus upon Emma and her personal improvement. Indeed, it is hard not to focus on Gwyneth Paltrow in this film: one is glad to see her inner character become truly worthy of her Vermeer-like exterior. In contrast, the more socially-oriented British production, with the less conventionally beautiful Kate Beckinsale playing Emma, makes the audience concentrate on a wider scene, replacing a portrait of Emma with a Bruegelesque group painting that abounds with good will.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Rev. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69. Emma. Writer Andrew Davies. Director Diarmuid Lawrence. With Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Meridian-ITV/A&E, 1996.
Birtwistle, Sue and Susie Conklin. The Making of "Jane Austen’s Emma." London: Penguin, 1996. Kaplan, Deborah. "Mass-Marketing Jane Austen: Men, Women, and Courtship in Two Recent Versions." In Troost and Greenfield. 177-87.
Davies, Andrew. "Austen’s Horrible Heroine." The Electronic Telegraph 23 November 1996. 26 September 1999 <>. Lawrence, Diarmuid. "The Final Scene: Director’s Approach." In Birtwistle and Conklin. 59-60.
Davies, Andrew. "The Final Scene: Conceiving the Idea." In Birtwistle and Conklin. 57-58. Nachumi, Nora. "‘As If!’: Translating Austen’s Ironic Narrator to Film." In Troost and Greenfield. 130-39.
Dole, Carol M. "Austen, Class, and the American Market." In Troost and Greenfield. 58-78. Scott, Sir Walter. Review of Emma in the Quarterly Review 14 (1815 [1816]): 188-201. Rpt. in Emma. Ed. Stephen M. Parrish. New York: Norton, 1972. 367-69.
Emma. Writer and director Douglas McGrath. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Miramax, 1996. Troost, Linda and Sayre Greenfield, eds. Jane Austen in Hollywood. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998.

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