Review: ‘Emma’ adaptation delivers quick wit, dark humor to the small screen

The 2020 adaption of Jane Austen's classic novel "Emma" was released early online through streaming services in light of the COVID-19 and stay-at-home mandates. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

By Andie Chilson | Reporter

The new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel, “Emma” brought quick wit and flawless acting chops to the small screen earlier this month. Compared to the 1996 film, the latest adaptation delivers something more suited for modern audiences.

“Emma” was among a few films that were released early for at-home streaming this month in the wake of COVID-19 and stay-at-home mandates. Other films released early included “The Invisible Man” and “Birds of Prey.”

The 1996 and 2020 versions of “Emma” can be streamed via iTunes, Amazon, YouTube or Google Play.

The latest adaptation of the story was surprisingly fresh considering how many times the classic novel has been adapted. The 1996 film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow was a classic adaptation of the original story featuring old English language and all of the dramatics that are characteristic of Austenian work.

The 2020 version of “Emma” also stayed true to the language and mannerisms of Austen’s original story, but it had more of an edge than its 1996 predecessor. The latest adaptation of the film utilized quick wit and dark, biting humor to make what might otherwise be an antiquated storyline feel fresh and exciting.

The 1996 film is a pure adaptation of Austen’s original work, and, for that reason, felt a bit dated and inaccessible for modern audiences – even in 1996. The blatant sexism and strict gender roles that were typical of the early 19th century when “Emma” was originally published were difficult to watch for two straight hours in the 1996 film.

The most recent adaptation, however, approaches the archaic gender roles of Austen’s original work through a satirical lens. Using smart and sarcastic humor, the film pokes fun at some of the antiquated practices such as not dating below your class and valuing women solely for their ability to procure a husband.

Although the latest film uses the satire and dark humor that modern audiences love, it still manages to maintain the integrity of the original story. The plot strictly adheres to Austen’s 1815 novel and features all of romantic missteps and twisted love triangles that make the original story so brilliant. The 2020 version delivers these classic troupes in a lighthearted, mocking way compared to the more serious 1996 adaptation.

The new film also features stunning costume and set design that make the film easy to watch. It uses a consistent color palate of pastel pinks and blues from start to finish that make it feel like the audience is watching a perfectly curated Instagram feed in movie form.

The cinematography in the new movie also utilizes quick, close up shots which add to the humor of the plot and make for a fast-paced, engaging film. There are moments when the camera zooms into an actor’s face as they deliver a biting one-liner that make for laugh-out-loud comedic moments.

If you’re looking for a more purist take on Austen’s classic novel, the 1996 version of “Emma” is for you; but if you’re in the market for dark humor and a fast-paced story, the latest adaptation of this classic tale is the way to go.