Film Adaptations of Emma between Agency and Submission

By Thornell, Kristel | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2010 | Go to article overview

Film Adaptations of Emma between Agency and Submission


Thornell, Kristel, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay interrogates two film adaptations of Jane Austen's Emma, Amy Heckerling's Clueless and Douglas McGrath's Emma, reading the portrayals of "femininity" as complex and unstable: simultaneously conservative and progressive.

This essay examines representations of the "feminine" as they come together in the protagonists of two large-screen adaptations of Jane Austen's Emma: the 1996 Miramax Emma, directed by Douglas McGrath, and Paramount's Clueless, directed by Amy Heckerling and released in 1995. Resonances and divergences between the films and the novel will be investigated in an attempt to chart the anxiety that can haunt filmic constructions of "femininity." As adaptations, Emma and Clueless have been described as Hollywood-style and Imitation, respectively, the latter term designating a film that "uses a novel's plot and character but updates the setting to focus on a modern-day highly structured society" (Troost, "Nineteenth-century" 76). The historical literary film adaptation, whether it preserves the "historical" setting or replaces this with the "present day," is inevitably in dialogue with the time of its making. Through processes of appropriation and invention, it manifests complexities and uncertainties that resonate both with the literary text from which it draws inspiration and with the society that produces it. Some critics have observed that the spate of film and television adaptations of Austen's novels released in the 1980s and 1990s promoted the writer's status in popular culture as a conservative icon (North), often containing the texts' potential subversiveness, and representing a "cultural antifeminist articulation of nostalgia for an unchallenged patriarchal order" (Sonnet 59). Instead of viewing these films as a neutralization of the novel's subversive potential, as liberal-feminist "rewritings," or as deadlocks between contrary tendencies, it seems fruitful to consider them as an overlaying of discourses of submission and agency.

Thomas Leitch, among others, has discussed the tenacity of fidelity as a criterion for the analysis of adaptations. Much of the critical response to Emma and Clueless appears to have adopted this criterion, appraising the films in terms of their fidelity to a spirit, essence, or intention attributed to the original; an essentialist rhetoric of authenticity and inauthenticity, depth and surface, has been invoked to justify a perceived hierarchy in which novel outranks film. Several subtler readings, however, have avoided value judgments of this kind and insisted on a dialogic relationship between literary text and film. The present study, unconcerned with aesthetic evaluation, adopts an approach in line with Deborah Cartmell's postmodern rejection of attempts to determine the degree of "faithfulness" of a given film to a set of meanings seen as belonging to the original literary text, in favour of a reading of adaptations "for their generation of a plurality of meanings" (28). Gender will be defined as Teresa de Lauretis elaborates it in Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. For de Lauretis, gender can neither be "assumed to derive unproblematically from sexual difference," nor be reduced to a mere "effect of language," to the "pure imaginary." She proposes an understanding of gender "as representation and as self-representation, [...] the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, and of institutionalised discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life" (2). Such a definition brings feminists to a paradox, to the "discrepancy [...] between Woman as representation, as the object and the very condition of representation, and, on the other hand, women as historical beings, subjects of 'real relations,' [...] women are both inside and outside gender, at once within and without representation" (10). The fact that gender cannot be equated with biology, or with the essential categories of man and woman--that it is a construction, the product of systems of representation--sits alongside women's undeniable status as historical subjects. …

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