Adapting Austen: Why I love Emma Approved
After countless film and television adaptations, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there couldn’t possibly be any fuel left in the fire, but there seems to be no end to the enduring popularity of Jane Austen.
Austen has recently joined the digital age through several successful web series by Pemberley Digital. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries launched in 2012 and 100 episodes later, the series had amassed a huge following and even won a Creative Arts Emmy.
Emma is the latest novel to receive the Pemberley Digital treatment. But how do you satisfy notoriously fussy Janeites who don’t like to see a word out of place? Can you translate the characters and their world into a modern context without losing the spirit of the original story? And how do you make your protagonist appealing enough to watch week after week when even Austen herself said: "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."
It’s a very tough task, but here are five reasons why you should watch Emma Approved:
Brilliant modernisation of the setting and characters
Emma is a lifestyle coach. Of course she is. Getting paid to tell people how to live their lives is the perfect occupation for her. She works alongside Alex Knightley who provides the sensible (and gloriously snarky) side to her business. Harriet is her bumbling assistant crashing into a doomed romance with slimy Senator James Elton. The whole series is Emma’s way of documenting her greatness for when she receives a lifetime achievement award. For me, none of the transitions are jarring and they allow fans to see a whole new side to these beloved characters.
The video format can take a little while to adjust to, but the performances are good enough to help you overcome any quibbles. Joanna Sotomura’s Emma is perhaps initially less likeable than any other Emma I’ve seen, but that makes her more interesting to watch, particularly when you can see just how much she cares about her work and the people around her in her moments of vulnerability. Brent Bailey’s Alex Knightley is the reassuring presence he is in the book but still unafraid to call Emma out on her ill judgement. The actors have great chemistry and even in the short video format, you still get a real sense of their history.
The Digestible format
The videos are released every Monday and Thursday, making it easy to fit it into your week. The format also harks back to serialisation of novels and allows key moments in the plot time to breathe.
Anticipation of the plot
Even if you know the plot inside out, it’s still interesting to anticipate how they will modernise it. What’s even more interesting is seeing the reaction of others. I think a big sign of a successful adaptation is whether those who haven’t read the original story are still able to guess the plot correctly and that’s certainly happening with Emma Approved.
The use of transmedia
Emma runs a lifestyle blog, shares pictures of her outfits on Facebook and jokes with Knightley over Twitter. Rather than cloying, the transmedia aspect of the production actually enhances the enjoyment, expanding the universe of the story and encouraging active debate and participation amongst the fans.
I could write a whole other post about why Austen is still relevant now, but what these recent adaptations have shown is that underneaththe archaic turns of phrase there are instantly recognisable, engaging and memorable characters. Ultimately, we all still worry about how we fit in society, even if we don’t face the same consequences. A lack of detailed physical descriptions has also allowed each generation to interpret the characters in their own way. Structurally, Austen’s prose is also very episodic, which lends itself well to the short, multi-episode format of a web series.
Emma Approved will also potentially take people right back to the source material. However, I’d also argue that it doesn’t really matter. Shocking, I know, but Emma Approved isn’t Emma in its purest form, so I think it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy the series on its own. The crucial thing is that people are engaging with an exciting new form of storytelling, and those who aren’t keen can revisit and cherish the original novel all over again.
Emma Approved is currently on hiatus until the 3rd of February. You can catch up with the series so far here.