Casting the Perfect Adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma

Casting the Perfect Adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma
Image:Focus Features

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that every piece about Jane Austen must begin this way. It’s also true that nothing soothes quite like watching adaptations of every single one of Jane Austen’s novels and then arguing with your friends about which actor is the best in that particular role. So that’s what we’re going to do. For the next few weeks, we’re social distancing with Emma and Elizabeth, Edward Ferrars and Captain Wentworth. Then we’re going to debate the merits of the leads and choose the ideal cast.

Our opinions, like those of the heroines to be considered, are hastily formed and deeply biased, but sincere in feeling.

First up is Emma. We chose from the following Emma adaptations: 1995’s Clueless, BBC’s 1996 adaptation featuring Kate Beckinsale before she had the Hollywood makeover, 1996’s theatrical release starring Gwenyth Paltrow’s British accent, BBC’s 2009 miniseries, and the recently released Emma. (Yes, there’s a period) starring floral wallpaper and perfectly formed ringlets.

Next week, we’ll be debating Pride and Prejudice and likely sharing some very unpopular opinions about Mr. Darcy.

Mr. Woodhouse

Stassa: My vote is Michael Gambon from the 2009 version.

Emily: I see your point about Gambon, and I love him because his hypochondria is rooted in love. That is so very clear. But Bill Nighy just playing his character from Love Actually as Mr. Woodhouse could have been so good if he’d had the space to incorporate that “I’m a dick because my wife died” more. So I’m voting for the Mr. Woodhouse that could have been, which would have been closer to Dan Heyeda who did that so well in Clueless.

Stassa: Nighy’s comedic timing was perfect, and he’s my second choice.

Emily: Emma’s relationship with her dad is one of my favorites in all of literature.

Kelly: Bill Nighy is really good at that pivot to “brief glimpse of the emotional reality behind this character’s dickishness,” so I’m disappointed they didn’t give him room to run. Michael Gambon really worked for me, but I suspect this partly because I watched it last night and the premise of “toddler child’s mother dies and father’s protective tendencies spin out of control” hit very hard right at this particular moment.

Stassa: Nighy’s Mr. Woodhouse was a victim of the most recent adaptation’s very uneven writing.

Emily: Yes, Michael Gambon wins it for the performance he was allowed to give, would have loved to have seen what Nighy could have done with it, though.


Michael Gambon (2009)

Harriet Smith

Stassa: Emily, I know you have strong feelings about this.

Emily: Well, the thing about Harriet is that she’s not stupid. Like, Emma, has just literally never left her school and is like a newborn baby being asked to use the right fork. So I just loved Brittany Murphy’s infectious optimism, which makes it easy to see why the farmer would be so desperately in love with her and makes it obvious that Elton is a complete dick for failing to notice.

Kelly: I thought the 2009 version played her way too dumb.

Stassa: I’m going to immediately concede Brittany Murphy. But I’ll just say that for classic Emma fans, I’d pick Samantha Morton from the 1996 BBC version who has the perfect big eyes of innocence.

Emily: Mia Goth in this version was a bit closer to my platonic ideal of Harriet Smith because she really does seem like a prize, despite having a mysterious tradesman for a father.

Stassa: Goth played her a bit more mischievously than previous versions, and I think she and the lead, Anna Taylor-Joy, had great chemistry.

Emily: Right, which feeds into why Emma would be like “she can do better” when in other versions she clearly could not.

Stassa: Poor Robert Martin.


Brittney Murphy (Clueless, 1995)

Miss Bates

Emily: Sophie Thompson with the caveat that Miranda Hart could have done every bit as well had she been given the space to do so.

Stassa: This is almost verbatim what I was writing. The most infuriating thing about the 2020 adaptation is that it wasted the wonderful Miranda Hart.

Emily: Someone should be in jail for failing to utilize Miranda Hart as Miss Bates correctly.

Stassa: My hottest take today is that Miranda Hart should be as famous as Olivia Coleman.

Kelly: A correct take.


Sophie Thompson (1996)

Mrs. Weston

Emily: Listen, I’ll be real—Mrs. Weston doesn’t matter. Anyone can do it.

Stassa: For pure aesthetics, Greta Scacchi from the 1996 Paltrow version should be Mrs. Weston. She’s pretty.

Emily: That’s my instinct as well.

Stassa: But this is why I eliminated Mr. Weston from this conversation and casting—who cares?

Emily: Oh I disagree. I find Mr. Weston so sad when he’s done right. He’s spent his whole life pining for his son to visit for 45 minutes

Stassa: He’s basically written out of every adaptation. Mr. Weston and Isabella Woodhouse are, apparently, the most dispensable characters.

Emily: I love the way that guy who abandoned Lady Edith at the altar played him.

Kelly: The guy who’s in the 2009 version is really a Puppy Dog Eyes king, though.

Emily: That’s the guy from Downton Abbey! I think he made that role important.

Kelly: Those sad eyes of his really kill me, they killed me in Downton, too.

Emily: Same, like he has a way of making you understand why a certain type of much younger woman would marry him.


Greta Saccchi (1996)

Mr. Elton

Stassa: My pick is Josh O’Connor from the most recent one. This is largely because I absolutely love him in The Durrells in Corfu and The Crown. I was extremely happy to see him in a movie.

Emily: I really loved Blake Ritson from 2009 because he is simultaneously attractive and repulsive in that role. But I’m fine with Josh O’Connor.

Stassa: Okay, but can we talk about Ritson’s hair in the 2009 adaption. He had real “I’m in a mid-200s hipster band” hair.

Kelly: Oh my God, that’s what it was that was bothering me about that hair.

Emily: Ha! Yes, that was the indicator that he’s the worst. It’s a clue to his true nature.

Kelly: I knew I’d seen it somewhere…

Stassa: It is a real modern signifier. Really yells, “Stay away!” to anyone over the age of 16.

Emily: Alan Cumming also had that hair in 1996.

Stassa: As much as I love Cumming, he was not handsome enough to play Elton.

Emily: No, they should have let him be more charming in order to account for the superficial appeal of Mr. Elton. As Mr. Elton, he’s the perfect Mr. Collins.

Stassa: Since I’ve been yelling about how good The Durrells in Corfu is for a while, I’m going to make an executive decision and award Mr. Elton to Josh O’Connor. I’ll say once again that I love that silly show!


Josh O’Connor (2020)

Mrs. Elton

Stassa: I want Mrs. Elton’s hair in the 2020 version to win. The perfect loopy bow on the top of her head.

Emily: This is one where I’m so torn because Juliet Stevenson is thee Mrs. Elton. But I was so impressed with Tanya Reynolds (2020) for doing something with the character I’d never seen before. Instead of a complete asshole, she made her kind of an ultrarich weirdo.

Stassa: The best thing about the 2020 version is that everyone really leaned into being a bit weird.

Emily: Absolutely. I’ve got to go with Juliet Stevenson for the win on this one, but 2020 Mrs. Elton was perhaps my favorite part of that particular version.


Stassa: Hard to vote against a woman who has mastered that look of disdain.


Juliet Stevenson (1996)

Frank Churchill

Emily: This is the one where we fight. I only accept Ewan McGregor in this role.

Stassa: Then it won’t be much of a fight. I also nominate Ewan.

Emily: Gotta be a hot fop who is good enough at acting to make the viewer not notice that he is the worst person in Regency England with the worst hair until after they’ve fallen in love.

Kelly: Speaking of terrible hair, his is iconic.

Stassa: Honestly, I was baffled by the Frank Churchill in BBC’s 1996 version.

Emily: Never for a minute did I think anyone would want to marry that Frank Churchill unless the alternative was having to be a governess.


Ewan McGregor (1996)

Jane Fairfax

Emily: Doesn’t matter. Anyone who can play the pianoforte.

Stassa: She is the blandest character in the whole book and you know what? Emma is absolutely right about Jane Fairfax. But I’ll nominate Olivia Williams from the 1996 BBC version just because she went on to play Jane Austen in Miss Austen Regrets and I vaguely remember liking her in it.


Olivia Williams (BBC 1996)

Mr. Knightley

Emily: Here’s the thing with casting a Mr. Knightly that we need to acknowledge: That relationship is deeply creepy.

Stassa: Insanely creepy.

Kelly: Yes, we will stipulate that.

Stassa: The most recent version aged Emma up and Mr. Knightley down which was a good call.

Emily: Irl the age difference is nearly the same. She’s 24 and he’s 37. Which is why I have to ask: What are we going for? Hiding it? Or making it kind of apparent but not too gross?

Stassa: At least they eliminated the whole “when I held you in my arms” line… when Knightley talks about holding Emma in his arms when she was a baby. And she responds something like, “Do you like me as much now?”

Emily: Oh yes, that line should be burned. It’s the last line in the 1996 BBC adaptation.

Stassa: It is, and it’s made worse by Mark Strong who played Mr. Knightley far too angry.

Emily: Mark Strong is out. Too yelly.

Kelly: Felt like in the 2009 version, they argued like contemporaries, with him just being a know-it-all, whereas the Paltrow version, it leaned into the scolding. The dynamic is, therefore, grosser, but I will say Jeremy Northam gives good scold.

Stassa: Jeremy Northam is by far the hottest Mr. Knightley.

Emily: Okay, I’m going to vote for 2020’s Johnny Flynn but that is based on my crush on him from Lovesick and is not to be trusted.

Kelly: I think I have to vote for the adjusted age, but I will also let Northam scold me for my bad habits. Call me, Jeremy.

Stassa: Lovesick is great, but I also liked Johnny Flynn a lot because his Knightley wasn’t as possessive as Northam and Strong’s are. And there was something off about Jonny Lee Miller’s Mr. Knightley…

Emily: Too squinty. I don’t know how sunny it was during filming, but someone should have pointed Jonny Lee Miller away from that glare.

Stassa: Miller managed to make him sympathetic but leaves you wondering, “Why does Emma want to have sex with that guy?”

Kelly: Back to square one with never having left Highbury!

Emily: Right, Northam is hot in an “I wanna argue with that Knightley” way. But Flynn loves her so much and not in a creepy way.

Stassa: I’m going to break this tie now and vote for Flynn. So congrats to Johnny Flynn, and everyone watch Lovesick.

Emily: We didn’t make the decision lightly and that’s the important thing.


Johnny Flynn (2020)


Emily: I think we all agree.

Stassa: Romola Garai.

Emily: Romola is the only Emma.

Kelly: Ater watching Romola, I finally found Emma charming, for the first time in my life. I totally understood and sympathized and felt sympathetic anguish every time that baby bird did some hideously naive thing. After, again, a lifetime of being like “Emma, though? Huh.”

Emily: Emma’s a dick but only because she’s never left her house. Watching Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma it’s like, “Okay, there’s no way that person has never been to France.” But I believe Romola’s dearest ambition is to go two miles away to a medium-sized hill.

Stassa: Honestly, if either of you had picked Paltrow, I would have seriously questioned your judgment.


Romola Garai (2009)

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin