(Video + Essay) Jane Austen: Why the Book Is (Always) Better Than the Movie

This week’s video essay takes up Jane Austen’s most stylistically mature novel, Emma, and takes the opportunity to A) gush about Austen’s genius as a writer of sensitive, socially conscious fiction, and B) analyze the novel for what philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin calls heteroglossia, a quality of language which is multi-voiced and dialogic. While we’re at it, I set the novel against Douglas McGrath’s 1996 film adaptation of it in order to say something about why movie adaptations of novels always seem to be lacking in some way.


Here’s the video. Find an adaptation of the full essay below.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

This is the first line of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, published in 1815. Now compare that to how the 1996 film adaptation by Douglas McGrath begins.

Narrator: In a time when one’s town was one’s world, and the actions of a dance excited greater interest than the movements of armies, there lived a young woman who knew how this world should be run.

Emma: The most beautiful thing in the world is a match well-made, and a happy marriage to you both.

Mrs. Weston: Oh, thank you, Emma.

What’s the difference between these two openings for what are ostensibly the same story?

Well, there’s quite a few differences, actually, but one difference in particular is indicative, at least in this case (and I think in other cases as well), of what makes movie adaptations always LACKING compared to the books they’re based on.

I think that thing is HETEROGLOSSIA.

Or, to be more specific and even less helpful, it’s the word “seemed.”

Let’s look at that opening again:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Okay, now that you’re thinking of that, let’s shift gears a moment and gush a little about Jane Austen.


Four of Austen’s novels were published in her lifetime: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and her longest and most stylistically mature work, Emma.

Austen’s novels take women of England’s turn-of-the-nineteenth-century landed gentry as their subject, particularly interpreting and exploring the single woman’s experience of class precarity as a gendered object of marriage.

I put it that way because I think to call these novels “love stories” is an oversimplification. These are not “romance novels”; Virginia Woolf wrote that Austen had a slew of literary devices for evading scenes of passion: “She describes a beautiful night without once mentioning the moon.”

No, Austen is a brilliant writer of sensitive, nuanced fiction that both satirizes and cares about the characters of her country middle-and-upper-class social lifeworld.

Her young women protagonists negotiate identity, power and meaning within social structures that prove at turns hierarchical, fluid and fragile.

Over against the Cartesian, individualist, duty-bound men who fool themselves that they can understand the world in abstract terms, Austen’s protagonists and other women characters more accurately understand identity and human action as by nature social, embodied, constituted and negotiated within networks of DISCOURSE.

Since I’m gushing, may as well let Virginia Woolf gush a bit too:  

Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial. Always the stress is laid upon character. … The turns and twists of the dialogue keep us on the tenterhooks of suspense. Our attention is half upon the present moment, half upon the future.
(“Jane Austen,”
The Common Reader, First Series, 1925)

Austen’s novels produce tension and suspense, but importantly, that suspense is SOCIALLY GENERATED. As Tom Hoburg points out in his essay “The Multiplex Heroine,” “Austen’s novels can be distinguished by the absence of violence”; but while Hoburg sorta dismisses the narrative suspense because all the protagonists ultimately get married in the end, I think there’s more to the story.

Despite my disagreeing with Hoburg’s suspicion of suspense, he does provide a good synopsis of the story for our purposes:

Much of the activity in Emma centers on matchmaking and, as a corollary, on preserving the social pecking order in the bucolic, deceptively idyllic community around the village of Highbury. As the largest frog in a very small pond, Emma has no special rivals, equals, or mentors apart from the local squire and landowner George Knightley. …[H]er former governess…has recently married (in a manner Emma thinks she pretty well orchestrated) and left for a new home. So Emma is free to meddle virtually without restraint in the lives of those around her.
(Tom Hoburg, “The Multiplex Heroine: Screen Adaptations of Emma,” 1999)

Emma takes on Harriet Smith, a young, sorta clueless woman of unknown parentage, to try to match up with Mr. Elton against Harriet’s own feelings for a more lowly gent, Mr. Martin, whom Emma deems unacceptably low in social status; except it turns out Mr. Elton actually wants to marry Emma, and then Harriet gets super disappointed, so that all fails pretty spectacularly.

All this sorta makes up the first third of the book and sets up tensions that will play out throughout the latter half of the novel.


Those tensions aren’t just in the plot or the characters. In fact, the entire linguistic fabric of the novel is in tension: but it’s a productive tension that Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes about in his essay “Discourse in the Novel” (1935).

Heteroglossia, meaning literally “different tongues,” describes the linguistic situation of the novel, which features a variety of voices not only in dialogue talking with each other, but also in linguistic and ideological dialogue.

On a basic level, the novel represents a combination of STYLES: a novel can include different national languages, you got different levels and styles of narration and points of view, you got variations on letters and diaries and philosophical or scientific statements, ethnographic descriptions and other extra-artistic speech and then you got all the individualized speech of the different characters who don’t all agree with each other and whose ideological differences play off each other. 

In other words, Bakhtin says,

The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.
The Dialogic Imagination, 1935)

But on a deeper level, novelistic meaning is linguistic, and linguistic meaning is by nature DIALOGIC.

Just like I talked about in the Arrival video, language is defined through DIFFERENCE. Bakhtin says that

The linguistic significance of a given utterance is understood against the background of language, while its actual meaning is understood against the background of other concrete utterances on the same theme, a background made up of contradictory opinions, points of view and value judgments–that is, precisely that background that, as we see, complicates the path of any word toward its object.

So in the novel, Bakhtin sees not just a representation of fictional characters and actions, but a representation of social language itself, charged as it is with a dense background of connotations and competing intentions from multitudes of voices past and present.

What’s special about the novel, he writes, is that it doesn’t try to “strip away the intentions of others from the heteroglot language” of its pages.


Let’s look at how this works in Jane Austen’s novels. Austen was a master of different kinds of NARRATION which render the text fluid in a way that embraces the many linguistic and social voices at work in the story.

In her paper “Fused Voices,” Rachel Provenzano Oberman heteroglossia makes it easy to misconstrue a character’s subjective thoughts as a narrator’s objective statement, or vice-versa.

Remember the opening line? It hinges on the seemingly inconsequential word “seemed,” which constitutes a moment of indecision, of undecidability, undermining the reader’s confidence in knowing which social voice is being heard here, and what it might be getting at.

Casey Finch and Peter Bowen argue in their paper “‘The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury,’” that “seemed” indicates how the narrative voice in the novel is equivalent to the communal voice of gossip, a register which is marked by a fundamental uncertainty about the source of the gossiper’s information. If the narrator were speaking from a definite authority, it would just say what Emma WAS, not how Emma SEEMED.

But Oberman argues that this is precisely where the narrative voice

separates itself from the gossipy voice of the community. The phrase “seemed to” alerts the reader that the narrative voice is reporting not her own impressions but how Emma appears to the community, and the careful reader infers that the community –(which is represented in the novel by multiple, overlapping and contested voices and linguistic assumptions)–overrates the untried, indulged Emma.
(“Fused Voices: Narrated Monologue in Jane Austen’s Emma,” 2009)

Oberman sums this up by adding that the narrative voice “is continually at odds with the communal voice of gossip, undermining rather than naturalizing it.”

We could look at another example, Oberman says, in the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Is this the voice of the narrator or the voice of the community? Oberman says that both may occupy the same grammatical space, but they are not interchangeable.

The next line reads:

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Austen’s narrator is not simply reproducing and enforcing social codes, but actually “TALKING BACK to the communal voice in order to assert power over it” (Oberman).

So we can see that multiple layers and vectors of language overlap in conflict and harmony within the novel. But even the voice of the narrator is heteroglot. We can see this in the use of FREE INDIRECT DISCOURSE, a style Austen pioneered in English literature.

Free indirect discourse is a form of speech that’s sorta in between reported speech:

Emma said good morning when she arrived.

and direct quotation:

“Good morning,” said Emma.

Here’s an example from the book, where Mr. Elton, whom Emma’s been trying to get hitched to Harriet Smith, sits down with Emma at a dinner party and starts talking about Harriet’s being sick. Notice how the writing shifts fluidly between subject positions, from Emma’s consciousness to Mr. Elton’s speech and back:

He professed himself extremely anxious about [Emma’s] fair friend—her fair, lovely, amiable friend. “Did she know? Had she heard anything about her…? He felt much anxiety—he must confess that the nature of her complaint alarmed him considerably.” And in this style he talked on for some time very properly…

But at last there seemed a perverse turn; it seemed all at once as if he were more afraid of its being a bad sore throat on her account than on Harriet’s—more anxious that she should escape the infection, than that there should be no infection in the complaint. He began with great earnestness to entreat her to refrain from visiting the sick chamber again, for the present, to entreat her to promise him not to venture into such hazard… She was vexed. It did appear—there was no concealing it—exactly like the pretence of being in love with her instead of Harriet; an inconstancy, if real, the most contemptible and abominable. And she had difficulty in behaving with temper. He turned to Mrs. Weston to implore her assistance: “Would not she give him her support? Would not she add her persuasions to his, to induce Miss Woodhouse not to go to Mrs. Goddards, till it were certain that Miss Smith’s disorder had no infection…?”

“So scrupulous for others,” he continued, “and yet so careless for herself!”

D.A. Miller points out that free indirect speech is a discourse that doesn’t so much weaken or discard the opposition between character and narration, but rather gives a virtuoso performance of this opposition “at ostentatiously close quarters,” a performance, “against all odds, of the narration’s persistence in detachment from character, no matter how intimate the one becomes with the other” (Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style, 2003).

On the other hand, Finch and Bowen suggest that the free indirect style and gossip

function as forms par excellence of surveillance, and both serve ultimately to locate the subject—characterological or political–within a seemingly benign but ultimately coercive narrative or social matrix.
(“‘The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury’: Gossip and the Free Indirect Style in Emma,” 1990)

“It is no coincidence,” they say, that Austen, as “the first great novelist of gossip should also be the first great technician of the free indirect style.”

So on the one hand, free indirect discourse is a performance of the narrator TALKING BACK at the communal voice and undermining it; and on the other hand, it is the very mechanism by which the communal voice reproduces social codes and surveils its members.

I’m not here to come down on either side on this particular point, though I think that’s a debate to be had; but it’s a perfect illustration of how discourses within the novel, particularly in Austen’s novels, represent the contested field of heteroglossic language.

Now compare the party scene we just read with Emma and Mr. Elton with its adaptation in McGrath’s film:

Mr. Elton: I hope I’m not intruding.

Mr. Knightley: No.

Mr. Elton: But I cannot stop thinking of Ms. Smith’s condition.

Emma: She will be happy to know of your concern.

Mr. Elton: How could I not be concerned? The whole situation is most alarming. There is nothing worse than a sore throat. Its effects are exceedingly bleak. And that is why I must in the presence of your friend ask you to stop visiting her.

Emma: What?!

Mr. Elton: You’re putting yourself at risk, and we cannot allow that, can we Knightley? I mean, is this fair? Have I not some right to complain?

Despite swapping Mrs. Weston with Mr. Knightley, the film also does something that I think most movie adaptations do: it reduces the number of polyphonic discourses at play. Spoken dialogue becomes the primary, even the ONLY discourse at play, and here, it is only Mr. Elton’s voice that is heard. All nuance, all contestation, all ambiguity is gone.

If Bakhtin envisions discourses in the novel as rays moving through an atmosphere of meanings that diffuse and refract them, a movie adaptation quite literally drops a LENS in front of the reader, focusing discourse and in so doing, subordinating language before the GAZE of the reader.


Austen only completed six novels, but there have been literally dozens of movie or TV adaptations of just a portion of them.

Why do we want movie adaptations of books? And why must we always concede that, somehow, the book was better than the movie? An answer to both questions, I think, is heteroglossia.

We want movie adaptations because novels embrace the play of language. Whereas the polyvocality of the linguistic novel exposes the ambiguity endemic to the dialogic character of multilayered social discourses, film adaptations filter and focus, collapsing discourse to one point of view: YOURS.

This isn’t to say that film can’t be heteroglot; it certainly can, but I think that’s why the best films are probably NOT going to be adaptations of novels.

We want movie adaptations because we don’t want ambiguity. Novels take work. Novels challenge us. Movies provide closure. Movies fool us into thinking language doesn’t exist, that all we have to do is watch.



Jane Austen, Emma (1815)

Douglas McGrath, Emma (1996), Miramax

Virginia Woolf, “Jane Austen,” The Common Reader, First Series (1925)

Tom Hoburg, “The Multiplex Heroine: Screen Adaptations of Emma,” Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film (1999), ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack, Bowling Green State University Popular Press

Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination (1935)

Rachel Provenzano Oberman, “Fused Voices: Narrated Monologue in Jane Austen’s Emma,” 2009, Nineteenth-Century Literature

Casey Finch and Peter Bowen, “‘The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury’: Gossip and the Free Indirect Style in Emma,” 1990, Representations

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

D.A. Miller, Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style (2003), Princeton University Press

Rebecca Richardson, “Dramatizing Intimacy: Confessions and Free Indirect Discourse in Sense and Sensibility,” 2014, John Hopkins University Press


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