CILIP were delighted to have the opportunity to interview the screenwriter for EMMA, Eleanor Catton, here she talks to us about her journey in adapting the well-known and loved book, her relationship with books and reading and passion for libraries.
What was the process for writing the screenplay for Emma? Presumably you had read Emma before embarking on the writing process – but did you revisit it?
I actually hadn’t read the book before I was approached to adapt it! So I went away, read it and re-read it until I’d really internalised the story. I also read some Jane Austen criticism and Regency History, really immersed myself in that world.
The wider reading really helped to focus in my mind what the achievements of the novel were. Emma bends perception in the way it shows us things through the central character’s flawed point of view. It’s a superlative example of the novel form – and it’s so much fun!
It’s such a well-known story – did you want to put some distance between the film adaptation and the book?
No, I don’t think so. As a screenwriter you have to keep in your mind two audience members simultaneously – one who knows the book already and one who doesn’t and has no expectations whatsoever. I was writing for both of those people.
I’m reluctant to say that adaptation has ‘modernised ‘the story, because I don’t think Jane Austen needs modernisation. Her stories are completely immediate. You feel so close to her heroines and so emotionally invested.
The film definitely offers a new take on the well-known novel. What made you decide to explore the humour and social commentary within the film, particularly social class?
One of the big things that we’ve jettisoned from the novel are the riddles that the characters exchange, because we decided to focus on physical humour over wordplay. [Director Autumn de Wilde] is a huge fan of the screwball movies of the 1930s, and we even had a screening of Bringing Up Baby for the cast!
We wanted to make sure the movie stayed faithful to the social satire of the book. I think the presence of the servants in the Woodhouse home is quite significant - it highlights how mad it is that people lived alone in those enormous houses! There are these other people in Emma’s home and there’s an invisible wall there, she can’t communicate with any of them.
The class question also comes up through Emma’s friendship with Harriet, which we were keen to take seriously in our adaptation. She’s Emma’s first real friend – even Mrs Weston was paid to be her teacher. Harriet’s friendship is as important or maybe even more important than the romance in the story – it’s where Emma’s real transformation takes place.
They’re never fully reconciled at the end of the book, are they?
Perhaps not. But in our version, more so than in the book, Emma actually does some form of penance for the wrong she’s done to Harriet and Mr Martin.
And that raises something that I also wanted to explore in Emma’s friendship with Mr Knightley: do we need other people to morally transform and grow up? It’s s a tricky one to handle because he’s so saintly, but I tried to make their arguments even-handed in the film.
It’s an unfashionable idea in 2020, but I think our moral development really does rely on other people, in the end.
Jane Austen described Emma as a character that no-one but herself would much like. How do you feel about the character of Emma and the way she takes control of her own circumstance and of those around her?
The key to any adaptation is that you have to love the source material. And I fell in love with Emma herself, she’s such a brilliant creation.
In a different world, Emma Woodhouse would be the role that every actress aspires to play in her career, like Hamlet. She’s so mistaken, she’s so presumptuous, and it’s endearing! She’s lively, imaginatively open, and there’s an abundance of spirit to her – in the words of the novel, she calls herself an ‘imaginist’.
There’s something about her that really connects to readers, who by their nature are people keen to expand their imaginations. And it’s such a personal connection because she’s so well-written.
Did you feel any pressure to make her more ‘likeable’ for the screen version?
I hate the idea that heroines have to be likeable! There’s an encoded sexism there, the idea that when women make mistakes, that’s the end of the line. When we were developing the film, we talked more about the idea of identifying with her – which is what the book does so brilliantly by taking us into her mind. We can all relate to the idea of a social rivalry like the one Emma has with Jane Fairfax, I think.
Emma is such a contained novel - you never leave Highbury. And the more I read it the more sympathy I have for Emma as someone who’s been subject to intellectual and emotional privation. She’s too clever for her situation – she has skills that in another time would be put to good use, but as it is they’ve been turned into weapons.
It’s a book that people can connect to still, but do you think there people who are put off because it was written 200 years ago? Do you think the film will open up the book to people who would not otherwise discover it, and is that part of the enjoyment in doing a project like this?
I sincerely hope it brings new readers to the novel. I hadn’t read it before, and now I think it’s one of the very best books I’ve ever read.
I don’t know whether or not people are put off reading it, but my main hope for the film is just that people have fun. It’s such a fun book to read, so wicked and intimate. It feels like gaining a friend. I hope the film gives that same impression.
In 2020 CILIP is running a programme of work focused on books and reading as part of our ambition to build a ‘Nation of Readers’. We’d love to know how reading has inspired you and helped you professionally as a screenwriter?
Oh, hugely! My mother was a librarian when I was growing up – she would always come home with new books to read, and I’d spend time at the library with her.
I just love reading! It’s an activity that expands your life – there’s so much possibility for adventure. For me that goes hand-in-hand with writing, they’re two halves of the same experience. I even get excited when I read something that I almost loved, that isn’t quite good enough, because I imagine how I could re-write it! That was a part of my childhood, writing what you might call fanfiction, based on things I’d read .
Part of the skill of being a writer is being able to experience your own work as a reader – most of the job of writing is reading. They’re two versions of the same activity, and they bring a different kind of exhilaration.
For people who’ve seen and loved the film, do you have any recommendations for books they might like to seek out in their local library, in a similar vein to Emma?
Let me think - there’s The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, which is about a social rivalry not unlike the ones we find in Emma. The Group by Mary McCarthy is such a funny, intelligent novel about female friendship. Anything by Elena Ferrante, whose work has a lot of Jane Austen elements.
I read quite a bit of Anne Bronte when I was getting ready to write this screenplay, and she’s such an interesting novelist. Much darker than Emma, but useful in thinking about the struggles of women in that part of history.
And finally there’s the novel Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, if you like the idea of a deliciously loveable heroine who’s also something of a monster…!
Are there any other literary adaptations you’ve particularly enjoyed onscreen?
I’m a 90s child so I love Ten Things I Hate About You, which I think is one of the best Shakespeare adaptations out there. And there’s Clueless, of course, which is a fantastic adaptation of Emma.
I recently watched David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist, which is dated in some respects, but I thought it was excellent. And I loved the new version of Little Women, of course. I saw it with my mum at the cinema and we sat there just crying through the entire thing…! I must have used up about six tissues.
Is there anything you would like to share about your personal experience with libraries?
Because I’ve moved around a lot in recent years I tend to do my writing in bookshops rather than libraries these days – but I really should correct that because libraries are a wonderful thing.
It’s such a completely and utterly radical idea, and so out of kilter with the dominant ideologies of today - that you can go into a library and, at no cost to yourself, enlarge your life.
Visit the EMMA webpage to download Reading Resources and Bookmarks for your library or reading group.
Please note: owing to a technical malfunction, these are paraphrased answers not direct quotes and therefore may differ from what Eleanor said verbatim.
Interview © CILIP, 2020. This interview or extracts from it cannot be used in any other media or format.
Eleanor Catton is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter whose work has been published in more than 30 languages around the world. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal, won numerous awards including the Betty Trask Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, among others. The novel has since been adapted for the screen by writer-director Alison Maclean and stars Alice Englert and Kerry Fox.
Her second novel The Luminaries won the Canadian Governor General's Award for Fiction, the New Zealand Post Award for Fiction, and the 2013 Man Booker Prize, making her (at 28) the youngest-ever recipient of the prize. She has adapted the story for television herself, and the six-part miniseries, produced by Working Title for the BBC, is due out in 2020. It stars Eva Green and Eve Hewson.
Eleanor has a number of feature films in development, and is currently working on her anticipated third novel, Birnam Wood.