Ranking the Emmas
With Autumn de Wilde’s luscious new adaption of Emma now in theaters—and expanding throughout March—I sat down to watch as many film and television adaptations of Emma as I could cram into a weekend in order to rank the Emmas. I discovered that there is no such thing as a bad adaptation of Emma, they are all good, and also, it is impossible to pick just one as “the best” (though the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow Emma will always be my favorite), so instead I ranked the elements that make Emma so enduringly appealing. Who’s the best Knightley? The best-dressed Emma? Which Knightley had the best dance rescue? What posh country house made the best Hartfield? Here is my official ranking of the best Emmas, which is all of them, and the particularly good bits that make Emma a perennial adaptation favorite.
Brattiest Emma: Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma., 2020)
Emma is usually played as a spoiled but well-meaning young lady whose machinations get a little out of hand, but she means well, so it’s okay. What Emma. presupposes is that Emma Woodhouse is a Grade-A brat, an actual mean girl who very nearly ruins her happiness and the happiness of everyone around her. Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is deliciously bratty, which makes her eventual humbling all the more meaningful. ATJ is truly the Regina George of Emmas.
Sexiest Knightley: Johnny Flynn (Emma., 2020)
Since Mr. Knightley is supposed to be the fuddy-duddy pseudo-older brother of Emma, he is never really played for sex appeal the way, say, Mr. Darcy is, but Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley is unapologetically sexy. He’s still significantly older than Emma, and plenty disapproving, but Flynn swaggers through Highbury with a decidedly rakish air. And when he is overcome by his feelings for Emma, it is a genuinely passionate moment that not only gives Emma. increased sex appeal, but cuts through the mannered veneer of Regency society to reveal the very human heart underneath.
Most “Harriet” Harriet: Toni Collette (Emma, 1996)
Harriet Smith, is sweet and simple, the kind of person who prompts you to constantly repeat her name for lack of any other way to get through to her. Harriet is a nice enough girl, kind but dim, and enough of a blank slate for Emma to play dress-up and try to make Harriet over in her own image. There are many good Harriets, but wherever Toni Collette appears, she must be number one, therefore, the most “Harriet” Harriet is Toni Collette.
Best Emma saying “Harriet”: Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma, 1996)
Emma spends a lot of time trying to redirect Harriet’s attention, and there is no Emma better at saying “Harriet” than Gwyneth Paltrow. When she says “Harriet” it’s a whole sentence, encompassing everything from chastising behavior to pleas for more effort in improving herself. She even utters “Harriet” so frankly it’s an entire read on Harriet’s immaturity and flighty attention span. No one says “Harriet” better than Goop.
Best-Dressed Emma: Cher (Clueless)
This isn’t even close. Sure, the costumes in Autumn de Wilde’s movie are outrageously beautiful, but Cher Horowitz is an enduring fashion icon. Literally everything she wears in Clueless is iconic, from the yellow tartan miniskirt to the cropped red sweater vest to the tee-under-cami gym clothes (we were ALL trying that in the eighth grade). Cher also had a COMPUTERIZED CLOSET which even this life-long tomboy anti-clotheshorse found completely amazing in 1995. This is an Alaïa!
Best Knightley Dance Rescue: Josh (Clueless)
It’s a pivotal moment in every telling of Emma, when Mr. Knightley gallantly swoops in and offers to dance with Harriet Smith after Mr. Elton snubs her at the ball. It’s the moment when Emma first recognizes Mr. Knightley’s gallantry, and when Harriet forms her ill-fated crush. Clueless wins by default, though, because its Knightley dance rescue features the charmingly dorky dancing of Paul Rudd and Brittany Murphy, two nerds really going to town. This scene also features the Mighty Might Bosstones, because every teen movie in the 1990s had a random ska band.
Worst Knightley Dressing-Down: Jonny Lee Miller (Emma, 2009 miniseries)
Another crucial moment in Emma is when Mr. Knightley dresses down Emma for her cruel, thoughtless treatment of poor Miss Bates. It’s Emma’s lowest point in the story, and the impetus for her to change for the better, so Mr. Knightley really has to bring his lecture home, and no one does it better than Jonny Lee Miller in the 2009 BBC miniseries version of Emma. He strikes the perfect “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” tone, with a bonus side of visible heartbreak right at the end. You can see the exact moment he just runs out of steam and can’t even look at Emma anymore.
Most Insufferable Mrs. Elton: Juliet Stevenson (Emma, 1996)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Mrs. Elton is THE WORST, and there is no Mrs. Elton worse than that played by Juliet Stevenson. The moment she shows up you want to push her into a fountain. She’s supercilious, vain, self-aggrandizing, and she utters every sentence in the most intolerably smug voice. Juliet Stevenson’s Mrs. E straight up SUCKS.
Silliest Vicar Mr. Elton: Josh O’ Connor (Emma., 2020)
Silly vicars are a staple of Jane Austen, but because Mr. Elton is also a thwarted love interest, he’s something of a cad. Most takes on Mr. Elton play him for the cad, but Josh O’Connor nails the silly vicar, too. His combination of self-important silliness and caddish behavior makes Mr. Elton especially repugnant and deserving of his deeply wretched wife.
Best Hartfield: Firle Place (Emma., 2020)
Every version of Emma is a walk through some of the most exquisite country houses in the UK, but Emma. really takes the cake. Firle Place stands in for Hartfield, and because it is still privately owned (it is the home of Lord and Lady Gage), the production designers had free reign to reinvent the house to meet Autumn de Wilde’s colorful vision. The mint drawing room is original to the house, but everything else is a customization for the film, something that could only be done in a private estate with no National Trust steward breathing down your neck. Click here to see more of Firle Place and how it was made over into Hartfield.
Most Charming Mr. Churchill: Ewan McGregor (Emma, 1996)
Ah, Frank Churchill, the most charming of Austen’s scoundrels. The thing about Frank Churchill is that he is awful to everyone, including his long-suffering father and equally long-suffering fiancé, and yet everyone forgives him. Frank Churchill is a total cad and an absolute charm bomb, and no one captures that dichotomy better than Ewan McGregor.
Most Accomplished Jane Fairfax: All of Them
Every Jane Fairfax is very elegant.
Best Emma-Knightley Kiss: Cher and Josh (Clueless)
Everything about this scene is iconic, right up to and including how uncomfortable the blocking looks. I mean, it looks great in the scene, but I bet Paul Rudd and Alicia Silverstone got sick of sitting like that. Still, the things we do for an all-time great movie kiss! Also, Cher’s lavender jeans really made me want Alicia Silverstone to play Jessica Wakefield in a Sweet Valley High movie.
Best Overall Knightley: Jeremy Northam (Emma, 1996)
Mr. Knightley is an under-appreciated Austen hero, but really he’s just Mr. Darcy with better socialization. Jeremy Northam gets just the right balance of handsome but not too dashing and encouraging but not overly romantic which makes Mr. Knightley Austen’s most practical, reliable lover.
Best Overall Emma: Kate Beckinsale (Emma, 1996 BBC)
I surprised myself here, because I thought for sure I would go for Goop, because I was OBSESSED with Gwyneth Paltrow circa 1996. But the BBC Emma that came out that same year is really very good, and it mostly rests on Kate Beckinsale’s flawless performance. She nails the combination of spoiled brat and lonely young woman that makes up Emma, without ever tipping into full-on mean girl territory. (To see Beckinsale go full Austen mean girl check out Love & Friendship.) Beckinsale’s Emma is vivacious and flirty, silly and wise, and just a little bit catty. In other words, she is everything Emma Woodhouse is supposed to be.