Let me begin by admitting that Emma is not my favorite Austen book. I think it makes me laugh just as much as Pride and Prejudice, if not more. And Mr. Knightley is my third-favorite Austen hero, after Persuasion's Captain Wentworth and P&P's Mr. Darcy. But I don't like Emma Woodhouse very well. And since I have to want to be friends with most of a the characters in a book (or movie, or TV show), this is the main reason I don't like Emma all that well.
Why don't I like Emma Woodhouse? Partly because she is vain and arrogant, as she herself admits toward the end: "With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny."
But I think mostly I can't like her very well because she is so meddlesome. If only Emma had left well enough alone, Harriet would have married Robert Martin when he proposed by letter. And then, of course, the rest of the book wouldn't exist, but still. She's also quite bossy, and I dislike bossy people. Probably because I'm kind of bossy myself, or I can be, but it's something I try to overcome in myself, so I guess I expect other people to struggle against their own bossiness too. Mr. Knightley, for example, is also bossy, but he becomes less so by the end of the book.
And yet, the 1996 film version of Emma is my favorite of all Austen movies. Why? Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still meddlesome and bossy. Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam) is still gentlemanly and thoughtful. Harriet (Toni Collette) is still naive and sweet. Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) is still officious and grating. And Frank Churchill (Ewan MacGregor) is still duplicitous and teasing.
But each one of those characters are somehow a bit more likable in the movie than in the book. Emma has an uncertainty about her that keeps her for being quite so demanding. Harriet has a look of intelligence that balances out her docile obedience to everything Emma says. Mr. Elton... okay, he's not more likeable, he's still an ingratiating fortune-hunter. Neither is Mr. Knightley, but only because he can't possibly be more likable, hee. But Frank Churchill comes off as mischievous more than simply cheerful and heedless, which makes me like him better (despite Ewan MacGregor's terrible wig. I swear it is actually pink cotton candy!) I think the only character I like better in the book than the movie is Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson), who is more intelligent and less pathetic in the book.
So anyway, I like Emma better than Mansfield Park, but mostly because of Mr. Knightley and the movie version.
If you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Miss Emma Woodhouse plays matchmaker for her friend Harriet Smith, with disastrous results.
(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Sep. 4, 2012.)