emma retelling

Why You Shouldn’t Read Jane Austen Adaptations: Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma

When we love something, we always want more of it, whether it’s good for us or not.  This is as true of ice cream and French fries as it is of great books.  It’s only natural to wish for more time with our favorite characters, but an essential part of what makes us fall in love with a book is the fact that it ends (something it wouldn’t hurt to remind the heads of Hollywood studios).  When there can be no more of something, it makes what already exists more precious and perfect.

With no more of the good stuff to be had, we turn to alternate versions, film adaptations, comic books, TV shows.  Sometimes this leads to brilliant results (Ten Things I Hate About You), and sometimes the results are nearly enough to destroy our love for the original (*cough* Star Wars Episodes I-III). However, where there is a ready fan base there is always money to be made, sanctity of the source material be damned!

When it comes to adaptations of Jane Austen, the is a clear delineation between the great (the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice, Clueless) and the abysmal (that Northanger Abbey that failed to get Austen’s satire, too many others to name).  Unfortunately, Alexander McCall Smith’s modern retelling of Emma falls nearer to the abysmal end of the spectrum. His version of Emma is billed as a modern retelling, part of the Austen Project, which commissioned bestselling authors to update Austen’s six published works.* “Modern retelling” is accurate, in so much as it presents Emma in a modern-day Highbury, though with the plot condensed and nearly all the romance wrung out. It is a dubious thing to tinker with genius.

If, as you read Austen’s Emma, you desperately wished for more of Mr. Woodhouse’s anxious agoraphobia and you pictured Miss Taylor as a pragmatic Scot spouting Latin phrases, then this is the adaptation for you. So much of the book deals with the backstory that makes Mr. Woodhouse a reclusive widower and brings Miss Taylor to Highbury, that you’ll wonder how the romantic intricacies of Austen’s plot will be given due weight (spoiler: they won’t).  If you always thought that Emma should have far more Harriet Smith, far less Mr. Knightley, and some clumsy allusions to lesbianism, then by all means, read on.

While McCall Smith does seem to understand Austen’s more ridiculous characters—he is in love with Mr. Woodhouse, makes Ms. Goddard a marijuana-cake-baking hippie, and translates Mr. Elton’s vulgar wife into a talent-show celebrity—he ignores the characters that are the true crux of Austen’s tale.  Mr. Knightley and his friendship with Emma falls away, there’s no real charm in Frank Churchill, which lessens the sting of his deception, and Jane Fairfax hardly appears at all. Even more strangely, McCall Smith seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of flirting—simply muttering the word “sex” in someone’s ear at a dinner party, as Frank does in one scene, is neither particularly shocking nor charming, though it is inexplicably so to this Emma.

The worst disappointment by far is Emma herself. McCall Smith often reminds us how witty Emma is, without ever giving her anything actually witty to say.  She is on two occasions wildly generous, without ever demonstrating the careful attention to her friends and neighbors as real humans that Austen’s Emma develops.  This modern Emma is flat; she does very little, and seems interested in even less. After meeting Jane Fairfax she wants to get to know the reserved woman better, and at the same time wonders if she should buy a linen blouse and Indian bangles like Jane’s. She lacks the benign spirit of Austen’s Emma, just as she lacks that Emma’s conscience and capacity for reflection. This Emma feels only passing guilt for her highly questionable actions, and consequently is never really moved at all.

What made Clueless an incisive and successful adaptation was the way it transferred the classism of rural England into the social power of popularity in high school.  If oblivious and occasionally entitled, Cher shows a strongly developed sense of empathy and is never intentionally cruel to any of her less-popular classmates.  Her judgment is reserved only for those who reveal themselves to be actually unworthy (“Ugh, you are a snob and a half.”)  One can’t help but feel that Cher would have very little time for McCall Smith’s Emma.  After all, she really is a full-on Monet.