Screening Jane Austen:
Austen, adaptation,
and life at a distance

by Jamison Kantor

Before the 2020 global pandemic consigned Americans to their homes, the last thing I did in public was go to the movies. The film I chose was Autumn De Wilde’s Emma. (2020), a relatively faithful—if conspicuously stylized—adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, which Janeites regularly hail as her masterpiece. On a weekday of my first ever faculty research leave and, after finishing a draft of a book introduction the day before, I was “rewarding” myself as academics often do with a leisure activity related to my field. During that afternoon showing in late winter, the theater seats were already socially distanced before this idea became a directive in everyday life. We in the audience put away our phones (no doubt some were trying to keep on top of the developing public health situation) and attended to the larger screen in front of us. Quiet and separated by several rows each, we were ready to view an adaptation of a novel concerned almost entirely with social relationships or perhaps even with the sociological, how people in proximity to one another behave, form institutions, and carry on historical memory and traumas.

Sociologists who witnessed us afternoon filmgoers participating in English Regency society through the flickering screen might have called the experience “parasocial.” By that I mean an experience in which you establish a (typically) one-sided, non-reciprocal relationship with a figure or group represented in media.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The parasocial situation is an inorganic one, as viewers must select and curate their interactions with representations. Part of its appeal is the temporary suspension of the presence of the screen through which the interaction occurs, the momentary dissolving of mediating technology, a disintegration that allows the affective currents between viewer and virtual society to flow freely. Just before Emma. started, we were tethered to the small screens on our phones, operating them, I suspect, with some measure of intention; we were flipping between weather apps, news updates, and text messages. The big screen made things different. For a couple of hours at least, it suspended our reciprocal relation with these devices and absorbed us into Austen’s fictional village of Highbury and the lives of its inhabitants.

... The effect of the window gazing is not just metacritical—as characters remind viewers that they are watching a movie—but also parasocial, recalling our own experiences with screen-based media and its role as a necessary infrastructure in public life.

Yet, in anticipation of the parasocial moment, one that would temporarily melt away the walls of the theater, as soon as the film began I became aware of how many screens, media devices, and socializing technologies were implied within De Wilde’s adaptation. Austen’s “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, Emma, as De Wilde interprets her, regularly gazes into mirrors—less a sign perhaps of narcissism than Emma’s overconfidence in her own perception, and she gazes out of windows where natural light illuminates her face like the perfect Instagram filter.[2]

De Wilde regularly places her figures in front of windows as well as behind them. A backlighting technique replicates the effect of the computer monitor or television screen, all while maintaining the authenticity of a period piece that is lit naturally. In one shot, De Wilde evokes the grand screen of the cinema, placing Emma in front of a massive painting.

In fact, social media seems to be one of the clearest design influences on the film. The result is that in a film/novel all about rumor, misapprehension, and little acts of provincial espionage, such references to the social media screen could be an example of what John L. Sullivan calls the “lateral surveillance” of Internet sociality, where friends and acquaintances look “out” to monitor one another, even as they fail to monitor “up,” checking the corporate power of the platform.[3]

A first-time director, De Wilde already had a long career as an indie rock pop photographer, staging musicians and L.A. luminaries in eccentric “curated candids,” the very kind of image that proliferates across Twitter and Instagram. The actor Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Emma with a doe-eyed insouciance, remarked that in our own age Emma "would make a perfect social media influencer.”[4] Because she is, in Taylor-Joy’s words, a “dictator of taste,” Emma also defines the images of others, something literalized in the film’s treatment of a famous sequence in which Emma poses and draws a (comically average) portrait of her naïve friend Harriet Smith.[5] And, in a moment only referenced briefly by Austen in the original text, De Wilde devotes a scene to the portrait’s ridiculous frame, one chosen by the smarmy Mr. Elton to flatter Emma. For a novel so concerned with people living in close vicinity to one another—and with their face-to-face interactions, however misinterpreted—De Wilde’s Emma is filled with objects that virtualize the subject and mediate it away from direct contact: still images, reflective screens of light, and the limiting borders of a frame.

I have thought about this adaptation regularly as a kind of harbinger for the screened, hypermediated socialization that has come to characterize the last few months. Many of our lives, professional and personal, now take place through a display of some kind, whether it’s the smartphone, computer monitor, or home theater. Given the fact that I regularly feature Austen in my courses—and since, along with many other things, Emma is itself about tutelage and guidance, of both the good and bad varieties—I have also considered De Wilde’s adaptation as a premonition of how we spend our time teaching now. True, there are no references to Zoom or collaborative “team” apps among the village gentry of the English Regency. But Austen’s novels feature countless scenes in which characters relate to and obsess over the mediations of others, their handwriting, portrait, or a circulating rumor. (And the rumor is one of the barest, oldest forms of media, in so far as the rumor-spreader acts as the medias, the mere middle layer of a communication.) The media object pervades Austen, as do scenes of subjects interpreting mere representations of others, trying to form social bonds at a distance. We might recognize all this evidence, but what might be pedagogical tactics that vivify it for students? How to show them that the novels are just as much about mediated interactions—relationships established across space through nineteenth-century aesthetic technologies—as they are about direct, human-to-human contact? How do we screen Jane Austen? 

One obvious answer would be “have students watch the adaptations.” As De Wilde’s stylish film suggests, Austen films can be very self-referential about the media in which they’re conveyed. For example, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), the exuberant SoCal adaptation of Emma, is filled with references to film and television. At one point, Cher Horowitz—who embodies Emma as a 90s valley girl—attempts to seduce her classmate Christian by sharing a movie with him.[6] (Christian brings over Spartacus [1960] and Some Like it Hot [1959], because he “ha[s] a thing for Tony Curtis,” an indication of his sexuality that Cher fails to notice.) Other adaptations highlight media objects that were more familiar to Austen herself, such as the print novel.The BBC’s 2007 version of Northanger Abbey features a pivotal scene in which two principle characters bond over their appreciation of Walter Scott and the scandalous Lord Byron.[7] This moment gestures to one of the moral lessons in Austen’s original, the tenuousness of associations established through fiction and mutual fantasies.

But while these examples may highlight for students Austen’s relation to the media form—images, books, theatrical performance—they do not always convey that one-sided parasocial experience. Rather, they tend to show social bonds formed through media consumption, with the object acting as a conduit for socialization, not with media consumption, attachments to a thing that stand-in for another subject entirely.[8] Put in the idiom of media studies, these examples from Austen may transmit a kind of parasociality more akin to broad fandom or fan-culture than, in the words of one scholar, the “presumed intimacy” that can arise between a person and the representation of another, distant subject, so-called “empty apparitions.”[9] This is not always a bad thing. Students who are newer to Austen’s prose may need help recognizing how the novelist conveys the subtle drama of human relations in mere small talk or everyday encounters, in situations where closeness and familiarity and not distance are sources of tension and intrigue.

Two examples of Austenian social bonding through media. First, Cher attempts to seduce Christian via a movie in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), the savvy, 90s SoCal adaptation of Emma. Next, Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe bond over illicit literature in the BBC’s Northanger Abbey (2007). The novelist’s occasional example of queer sexuality—the eros between two women or, presumably, a straight woman and gay man—are given a distinct parasocial form in these media moments.

In the past, one of my Austen classroom activities highlighted the awkwardness of mass group socialization (prohibition #1 in a pandemic) under a strict regime of manners and etiquette. We’ll start by reading through a scene that takes place in a Regency ballroom or other large gathering space. While students point out the small details that advance the narrative or deepen a character, they tend to overlook the small, customary gestures and the routines of deference or authority. On first read-through, they find this conduct to be completely natural, just part of the fabric of the world displayed in the text. Then, I ask students to stand up and perform the scene. We’ll assign parts for dialogue, distribute props (the empire waist gown; the cards for the whist table), and I’ll read the narrator’s part as stage directions.

One of the foremost illustrators of Austen’s works was C.E. Brock, who provided hand-colored line drawings for all of her novels. Featured here are two representations derived from Pride and Prejudice, which is filled with scenes of group social interaction and inter-class mingling, especially early in the novel.

Grouped together in various cliques, obliged to shift their affect when encountering denizens of different economic classes, students begin to realize that Austen’s prose conveys a much different message about manners: how awkward and prohibiting they are. The idea, say, that women are obliged to play pianoforte in public upon request can thus strike them as simultaneously normal and, given the subtle revelations delivered by Austen’s prose when it is performed with other people, totally odd. With more advanced students, I’ll finish the activity by bringing up the late-eighteenth-century “war of ideas,” as literary critic Marilyn Butler puts it, in which Austen was forming her literary mind.[10] For the novelist, manners are second nature, exchanges that according to Edmund Burke, bind society together. At the same time, Austen also interprets manners as strange impositions upon personal liberty, a critique that she may have derived from Mary Wollstonecraft. 

This performance activity may be one way to “screen” Austen, to use a media form (in this case, impromptu theater) as a conduit for broader insight about the world represented in a novel. Moreover, as it recreates interactions in the quiet drawing room, raucous ball, or town garment shop, the activity may also double as a miniaturized experience of the formation of a public-sphere. And the idea of the public sphere, with its classic expression in late eighteenth-century forums and circulating material, has been critical to studies of the formation of literary publics, as well as the development of the media concept of the mass audience, whether it is considered the dangerous “crowd” or the rational “people.”[11]

But such a lesson plan is unavailable right now. And because it does not speak to the isolation and virtual environments with which students are living, even if it could be done online, this activity seems unsuited to the moment. Given the prohibition on physicalizing a group or crowd—that social formation integral to the concept of media audience and enlightenment modernity—we seem better suited currently to emphasize the novel’s scenes of solitary aesthetic consumption or analysis, moments when characters find themselves alone and compelled by art or letters, especially if those objects signify another person.[12] Despite our impression that Austen’s fiction is relentlessly crowded—known for the packed carriage ride or the awkward holiday party with super-extended family—examples of this quiet, “distanced” contemplation abound in her fiction.

One of the most prominent instances of a lone media encounter occurs in Pride and Prejudice (1813), when the heroine Elizabeth Bennet visits Pemberley, the familial manor of Mr. Darcy, with whom, at this point in the novel, Elizabeth has an ambivalent relationship at best. Elizabeth is touring the grounds in Darcy’s absence and comes across his portrait in a picture gallery (162). Like our desire to seek out friendly or appealing media forms, Elizabeth browses the hall with some intention, “in quest of the only face whose features would be known to her,” and yet, when she encounter’s Darcy’s portrait, it takes command, “fix[ing] his eyes upon herself” (162). The image prompts Elizabeth to spend “several minutes…in earnest contemplation” leading her to “a more gentle sensation towards the original, than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance” (162). Here, Darcy’s portrait reverses the circuit of intention, “arrest[ing]” Elizabeth who originally chose to stop and look.

It is notable that Austen’s language about the power of art seems to dovetail with Kant’s contemporaneous remarks on aesthetic things that convey “purposiveness without purpose.”[13] But the scene also gestures to the experience of media parasociality, inasmuch as the material quality of the portrait fades when Elizabeth gazes at it, leaving behind “a gentle sensation,” or lingering affect that produces a social cohesion with Darcy’s invisible presence (162). (Admittedly, Elizabeth has been primed to view the portrait favorably by Darcy’s housekeeper, who calls him “the best landlord, and the best master” [161]).

The Pemberley gallery scene is also a critical part of the narrative. Occurring almost exactly at the halfway point of the novel, it is one of the pivotal moments where Elizabeth starts to reassess her feelings for Darcy and, by extension,to reimagine the patrician ideology for which he stands. Liberal-minded and irreverent, Elizabeth may be one of nineteenth-century literature’s paragons of women’s liberation, but in this moment she seems to internalize the tenets of a conservative worldview. In that perspective, surface appearance is an indication of moral goodness, the sensations a barometer for virtue, and noblesse oblige a community’s organizing principle. Here, Elizabeth’s virtual encounter with Darcy leads to her broadening ideological horizons she had hitherto never attempted, or even resisted.