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."
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.
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.
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.
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:
"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.