The 21st century adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, by Alexander McCall Smith, may have all the key components of a good love story, but somehow still managed to avoid having any heart.
As part of the Austen Project, where all six of Austen’s iconic works of fiction are re-written by popular present-day authors, Emma has been re-worked by McCall Smith, an author who is well-known for somehow being both male yet able to write highly-likeable chick lit. Who knew such a thing existed?
While this adaptation has all the main characters and storylines of Emma, it was also set in the 21st century – so there was little talk of estates and marrying for money. Hang on, that’s a lie, since apparently even in the 21st century, it’s OK to write a story about a woman who is keen to set her friends up with very wealthy men, regardless of their actual personality. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem with McCall Smith’s Emma, and perhaps the whole idea of the Austen Project altogether.
But first, the good. McCall Smith (though not always to my taste) has deftly recreated a character that is not easy to like. In Austen’s original, Emma frequently comes across as snobbish, meddlesome and immature – three traits that McCall Smith translated easily: from Emma’s aspirations of becoming an interior decorator (without ever actually being stressed about money), to her buying Harriet clothing only to regret it later on, to setting her friends up with men who are not only incompatible, but are just overall a giant bore.
However, McCall Smith has somehow, in the same way Austen successfully achieved, created Emma in a way that makes you love her nevertheless. Yes, she is meddlesome and immature and if I met her I’d probably want to whack her over the head with a stick…but all the same, I still wanted Mr Knightley to confess his feelings for her and I, alongside Emma, felt wronged and ashamed when he was disappointed in her.
However, as well as McCall Smith may have re-imagined the characters, the truth of the matter is, they have nothing on Austen’s works. While in theory the idea of recreating iconic characters in a modern setting in a good idea, the reality is that often it doesn’t translate well, particularly when the author has to stick so close to the original storyline.
150 years ago it made sense that Austen’s books were all about prestige, estate ownership, manners and trying to find a man who made enough money to support a woman – it made sense because that is how things occurred during her time (not to mention that Austen, a highly intelligent woman, was often poking fun at these ridiculous customs). However, put those storylines into the 21st century and it just makes the characters look money-obsessed and tacky, and the plot unevolved and lacking. Basically, all the wonderful things that make an Austen book an Austen book have been left out of the adaptations, simply because they are no longer relevant. While Emma is a wonderful love story, it is also so much more in the original – yet in this adaptation we’re simply left with a silly, self-absorbed girl.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think adaptations, particularly adaptations of Austen’s works, can be done splendidly. Almost twenty years on, Clueless is still a cult classic – and it is unashamedly based on Austen’s Emma. Bridget Jones’s Diary, perhaps the most famous reworking of an Austen classic, is another example, and one that arguably set off the ‘Austenmania’ that is still occurring today. Yet the reason these two adaptations were so successful was that they used the characters and the concepts of the novels, but then changed the story line to fit the agenda of their time. Unfortunately, this doesn’t occur with any of the Austen Project books so far, and while Emma was enjoyable enough, I still spent the entire novel thinking ‘CLUELESS IS BETTER’.
Overall, Emma is a relatively harmless, enjoyable read. Alexander McCall Smith is an author who knows how to make things easy and enjoyable for his reader. However, for fans of the Jane Austen’s original, I think you’ll be disappointed. Not only does it not even compare to the original, but it doesn’t even really compare to adaptations of recent years.
Have you read Emma or any of the novels in the Austen Project? Where do you stand on adaptations? Let me know!