Whenever a book is adapted into a movie, it’s safe to assume there will be some changes made. In the case of Jane Austen’s Emma, there have already been some radical changes from page to screen. But in the 2020 adaptation of the classic novel, there’s one key change that may stand out to longtime fans of the book.
Emma’s director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton knew it was important to make sure that the audience could stay invested in the characters’ stories. After all, the titular character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, spends much of the story meddling in others’ romantic affairs -- especially her friend Harriet’s. And while realizing the consequences of her actions ultimately forces Emma to mature, it can still be difficult to make her sympathetic. According to Autumn de Wilde, in their literary adaptation, they made the heroine work harder than others have to earn her happy ending (via Indiewire):
Emma really kind of gets everything she wants in the end, and we thought a lot about watching the movie after she behaves so badly and has this epiphany and she’s totally different now. We really felt like we would not be able to enjoy it unless we saw Harriet transformed by their rift.
Autumn de Wilde told Indiewire that they felt the solution to making Emma’s epiphany resonate with audiences lay in having her make amends with Harriet before she found her own romantic happiness. That twist gave Harriet the agency to offer forgiveness to Emma and heal the rift between the two on her own terms when she visits the Woodhouse estate:
The first time you see Harriet, she’s scared of the house and everything around her, she’s so intimidated and excited and we felt like it was really important to see her come back with so much confidence, even though her heart was hurting because she loved Emma so much, Eleanor and I felt that we needed Harriet to have her moment to feel like Harriet hadn’t compromised her life and that Emma got everything, but that Harriet really ended up with the person she loved the most, which I do feel like she did.
Harriet’s role in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma is noticeably larger than it has been in previous adaptations -- and that fact drove the filmmakers’ decision to make her such a central part of the film’s resolution:
It was a combination of a lot of discussions, since Harriet had become such a huge character in the film, because she’s not always portrayed as prominently as she is in our movie.