1.6.2020

‘Emma’ and a defense for big-screen adaptations of classical literature.

With every remake or conversion from one medium to another, there ought to be debates about how accurately or faithfully the story is captured by the writer or talent, or whether the film is better than the book, and more. It may be true that with Emma, the creators exercised a bit of creative license to interpret the Jane Austin classic, but I find the nitpicking to be largely trivial and that Emma was ultimately a success.

For those unfamiliar with Emma, it is a period film set in England of the 1800s, where a young woman named Emma plays matchmaking and organizes the lives of her friends around her. The film takes on a similarly witty, humorous, and lighthearted approach as the book, exploring themes of love and social class.

The impressive thing about Emma is that even those unfamiliar or even uninterested in Jane Austen or the classics can also find enjoyment in this piece. From a cinema perspective, the film was incredibly well-shot, and the visuals were indisputably stunning. The color palette is rich yet well-coordinated and soothing to the eye. The mise-en-scene is phenomenal as the set design reconstructs everything from the time period with immense detail, without cutting corners, allowing the cinematographer to use wide-angle lenses. These shots sprinkled throughout the film were more than enough to showcase the amount of effort that went into visualizing Emma for the big screen. And most of all, the costumes department has really exceeded my expectations as I lost count of how many outfit changes Emma made throughout the film, yet every one of them was as interesting as the last. And as all this is as important to the film as it should be, the film really excels in translating Austen’s wit and humor onto the big screen. I must turn to its story and make a case for why Emma was a successful adaptation.

A collage of my favorite wide shots from Emma.

Film is an interesting medium, because if you stop and ponder the actual meaning of the word, you may find that film itself is a combination of both audio and visual communication. The visual component is largely non-verbal, unless under some obscure exceptions which I’m sure exists. The audio component can be further broken down into the dialogue, which is spoken or verbal communication. Then, the music, the silences, or the pauses, by intentional design, are yet again non-verbal. I make this point to illustrate the fact that while from a spectator’s perspective, the consumption of a film may closely resemble the fantasies one constructs in their mind while reading a book, the two are difficult to compare — it would be “comparing apples to oranges,” as the cliche goes. But it’s not necessarily impossible.

Here, I would encourage you to think about the inner-workings of comedy and what makes it inherently funny, especially in the written form. Then, compare that to things you find funny around you, perhaps when you have friendly banter with family or friends. You may find that producing something humorous on paper is incredibly limiting — not only can you not see what is happening, but as the letters on a page are the only form of communication between a writer and a reader, the “joke” must be explicitly written down in order for it to be conveyed, and that is why writing is incredibly difficult, and striking a balance between “show” and “tell” becomes crucial in storytelling. But because of this limitation, it also means that simply reading a written segment aloud may not actually do the writing justice — even the most enthusiastic and engaging audiobooks or read-a-loud sessions would fail to capture humorous moments at times. So how do we reconcile with that? I argue that the answer is rather simple — adapt to your medium. Use the unique advantages of the medium fully to your advantage.

If you pay attention to Emma and every segment that leads up to a “funny moment,” you may realize that there is a sophisticated setup that may only be possible in film or theater productions. I refer to the small moments which feature an “unspoken” component, or the use of casual sarcasm (as opposed to “satire” in more formal writing), through which speech depicts the opposite of what is shown to be true. Or the use of repetition to ridicule something, such as Emma’s father falling asleep all the time. How this repetition defers from writing, you may ask, is the fact that film repeats images while writing mostly repeats syntax. Or, you can see the images as the content and the syntax as the form or structure of which it is contained. This expands the possibility of how humor and wit can be told on-screen through non-verbal means.

What I try to argue here is the fact that yes, Emma may have its imperfections for the die-hard fans who would have seen the film to realize a fantasy in their minds which perhaps disappointed. But, the filmmakers made Emma their own piece of art. And as both a standalone production and an adaptation of a literary classic, I think that Emma did exceptionally well in producing an entertaining end product in line with its values.

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