Comparing the Casts of Emma From All the Takes on Jane Austen's Classic Novel

From one of Gwyneth Paltrow's first major roles to the 2020 Emma.-with-a-period, the classic novel has been adapted for the screen at least five times

By Natalie Finn Feb 21, 2020 11:00 AMTags
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For a story that's more than 200 years old, Emma has remained remarkably on point as the centuries have gone by.

The Jane Austen tale, first published in 1816, is the fourth of the author's six completed novels, and the last of the four published in her lifetime—and the fourth screen adaptation to date, not including outside-the-box takes on the story sporting different names, is in theaters today.

Emma., starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the endlessly fetching and frustrating titular heroine, is not only the first one to add its own full-stop punctuation, but also the first of the four to be directed by a woman, Autumn de Wilde, a veteran music video director who's making her feature-length debut.

"So many stories have come out of Emma," de Wilde told Town & Country recently. "Agatha Christie based her style of writing on Emma. All the clues are there while you're reading. You just don't realize you've been given them until a secret is revealed."

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The secret is right there in the title of Amy Heckerling's modern-day classic Clueless, which when it came out in 1995 may have been a lot of kids' first exposure to the Austen canon.

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And it just so happened, two faithful adaptations of Emma soon followed, the 1996 big-screen version starring a pre-Oscar Gwyneth Paltrow and an ITV film starring Kate Beckinsale that premiered in the U.S. in 1997.

Stop us if it sounds like Alicia Silverstone's Cher, but in the original version, Emma Woodhouse is a rich, beautiful, confident, and alternately shrewd and oblivious young lady, primarily brought up by her long-widowed father, who takes an impressionable girl of modest means under her wing and insists on matching her up with the wrong man—all the while blind to the obvious romantic prospect who's been right in front of her all along, as well as to the consequences of her own meddlesome behavior.

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Cher may put a premium on finding a desirable boyfriend, but there's no question who's running the show. 

In Austen's time, Emma may have had all the charm and drawing-room standing in the world, but being a woman meant she had to maneuver amid an appalling inequity between the sexes, a glaring class divide (that she happened to be on the enviable side of) and social politics that leave every character a prime target for a dressing-down from someone else in the story—or from the omniscient narrator herself. 

"Like the novel, de Wilde's film is nothing less than the education of Miss Emma Woodhouse, whose rebukes are carried out with the formality of an execution," Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote in his review of the new Emma. The New York Times called it a fairly on-the-nose adaptation, modernized aesthetically by vibrant pops of color and a naked Mr. Knightley, here played by Johnny Flynn.

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As most reviews point out, you can't do a whole lot with the story and still have it be the story, so either you're along for the ride or you're not. So how have these various takes on Emma distinguished themselves over the past 25 years, after watching Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility get all the cinematic glory? Here's how the casts have stacked up: 

Emma Woodhouse

Jane Austen herself wrote that she had created "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." That's being a little hard on the well-meaning but frequently myopic Emma, who's just trying to curate the little world around her as she sees fit.

Gwyneth Paltrow, in what was then her biggest role to date, commanded the screen with her swan-like beauty and determined English accent in the 1996 Miramax production—which, in its earliest inception was also going to be a contemporary take, set in New York, but they reverted to the 1800s because Clueless was already in the works. "She doesn't soften the unpleasant things in Emma's character, nor does she inflate her good qualities," director Douglas McGrath told the Los Angeles Times. "She has everything a young woman that age has, all the petulance, the vanity, the self-confidence that can only come from youth and ignorance. The tenderness, the repentance, the honest desire to help someone even though in her case it always seems to turn into harm. Because she doesn't always try to make herself look good, that makes her all the more endearing." (The convincing accent also helped her score her Oscar-winning role in Shakespeare in Love.)

Kate Beckinsale did the honors in the 1996 ITV version, which came to American TVs in February 1997. The New York Times called her Emma "plainer looking than Ms. Paltrow's, and altogether more believable and funnier."

The need for the 2009 BBC miniseries starring Romola Garai (AtonementThe Hour) was questioned, though The Guardian acknowledged that it was quite good, regardless. Garai's "eyes alone deserve a BAFTA— they're practically popping out of her head for the whole episode; has she popped a pill?" critic Sam Wollaston wrote.

In 2020, Anya Taylor-Joy (born in Miami to a Scottish-Argentine father and English mother of South African and Spanish descent, and most notably of The Witch and Glass) plays Emma "with glamorous poise and a light sheen of frost," Variety's Andrew Barker observed.

LA Times critic Justin Chang said on NPR's Fresh Air that Taylor-Joy "plays her as a somewhat chillier, more aloof heroine than, say, Gwyneth Paltrow did in 1996. But if anything, that only makes it all the more moving to see Emma's porcelain-like facade crack as she realizes that her instincts as a judge of character were not as shrewd as she thought."

"There would be no Fleabag without Emma!" author Eleanor Catton, who wrote the screenplay, told the New York Times. "It's a story about someone realizing how self-centered they are."

Which, basically, is a story for the ages. (And, the scores for Fleabag and Emma. share a composer—Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe's sister.

Jane Fairfax

She carries herself fabulously, prompting Emma to envy her and therefore feel as if Jane had wronged her in some way. But Jane—for all her poise, beauty and excellent education financed by a fatherly benefactor—is technically a penniless orphan and has basically no choice but to become a governess, one of the few respectable occupations open to a women who needs to make her own money. 

And so Emma's magnanimity kicks in: "When [Emma] took in [Jane's] history, indeed, her situation, as well as her beauty; when she considered what all this elegance was destined to, what she was going to sink from, how she was going to live, it seemed impossible to feel anything but compassion and respect." 

Olivia Williams (Ms. Cross in Rushmore, in her first significant role) plays Jane in the ITV version; Polly Walker holds her own opposite Gwyneth; Northern Irish actress Laura Pyper was in the 2009 miniseries; and Scottish actress Amber Anderson pique's Emma's ire for no good reason in 2020.

Harriet Smith

The "natural daughter of someone" who boards at a nearby school and whom Emma obsessively tries to pair off with Mr. Elton always has to line up as a naive, enthusiastic and attractive yet awkward (but not debilitatingly so) supporting player to the main character.

Samantha Morton found herself under Kate's misguided tutelage on ITV. Emma. screenwriter Eleanor Catton took issue with the "misogynistic" treatment of Toni Collette's Harriet in the Gwyneth version. The Australian actress, fresh off her breakout role in Muriel's Wedding, gained weight to play Harriet, who's described in the book as "short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features and a look of great sweetness." (Collette is 5'8," an inch shorter than Paltrow.)

Louise Dylan "does full comic justice to Harriet's preposterous infatuations" in what can be a "thankless role," according to the New York Times take on the BBC miniseries. And Mia GothHigh Life and Suspiria star and the ex-Mrs. Shia LaBeouf, is Harriet to Anya's Emma in the new version. 

Mr. Elton

Philip Elton, the local vicar, is after Emma, who's trying to marry him off to Harriet, who in reality fancies Robert Martin—a successful farmer but not a suitable match for Harriet in Emma's eyes. Mr. Elton quickly marries himself off to Augusta, another young lady of means, after Emma rebuffs him.

That's Dominic Rowan as the opportunistic clergyman in the ITV film, while Alan Cumming steals all of his scenes as usual in the big-screen version. Handsome Blake Ritson charms his way to Augusta's £10,000 a year in the 2009 miniseries, and Josh O'Connor (most recently seen as Prince Charles in The Crown) portrays Mr. Elton—in Variety's words—"as a bit of a bumbling incel, when he might more accurately be thought of as a fuccboi."

A modern take, indeed.

Mr. Knightley

And then, always there, apprising Emma of her missteps while pining away for her at the same time, is her friend and neighbor Mr. George Knightley. Ten years older than Emma (finally, films with license to do what they were going to do anyway), Mr. Knightley has known her all her life and feels uniquely qualified to judge accordingly. (For instance, he concluded that Emma never liked Jane Fairfax because she wished she was more like her.) 

Chemistry between those two is the crux of Emma onscreen, and it hasn't always panned out.

Mark Strong is Knightley to Beckinsale's Emma and if that surprises you, it's because he was then and remains an odd casting choice.

Jeremy Northam was having a real moment when he was cast opposite Paltrow, having just charmed and then terrorized Sandra Bullock in The Net, and the Los Angeles Times called him "the film's secret weapon, as essential a factor in its charms as Paltrow, bringing a level of spirited intelligence to the proceedings and making Knightley the most nuanced character in the drama."

Jonny Lee Miller "looks lovely with his sideburns and his high trouses," The Guardian observed dismissively in 2009.

Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in Emma. have, per Variety, "decently charming chemistry together, with the former allowing her icy reserve to melt in slow stages, and the latter (who may strike some Austen formalists as an odd choice for the role) using his rougher, more modern characteristics to give Knightley's moments of rigor—'badly done, Emma'— a bit of bite."

Flynn's biggest roles so far include playing a young Einstein in the National Geographic Channel series Genius and the honorable, patient-to-a-fault William Dobbin in the ITV miniseries version of William Thackeray's Vanity Fair. His charisma will really be put to the test, however, in the role of Dickie Greenleaf, the man whom Tom Ripley wants to be with but will settle for being in Ripley, a Showtime series take on Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. And to bring this whole Emma-begot-Fleabag thing full circle, Hot Priest Andrew Scott plays Ripley.


"I think Jane Austen describes her as a character she had written that she didn't think was very likeable, which I ended up disagreeing on," Beckinsale, who took on another Austen role in 2016's Love and Friendship, based on the epistolary novel Lady Susan that was published posthumously in 1871, told the San Antonio Current. "But she has a soul that can be annoying or meddling. I liked all that about Emma very much. Lady Susan is a sort of turbo version of that, I think."

Toni Collette told the San Francisco Examiner back in 1996, "Even though the women in her books spend a lot of time looking for husbands, [Austen] was clearly making fun of that. She never married, herself. And I don't believe in marriage. I think that people are constantly growing, and there's no way you can grow in the same direction."

Collette, 23 at the time, married husband Dave Galafassi in 2003. They have two children together.

Which basically proves Emma's point, that people are prone to thinking one way until life opens their eyes to something else.

"I think the movie has much to say to [young audiences]," Collette also said. "About peer pressure, and trusting yourself. Harriet spends all her time trying to please and be like Emma. And eventually she goes full circle, to listen to her own heart again."

Emma. is in theaters Friday, Feb. 21.