emphasis mine.

Being Miss Bates

Emma’s Miss Bates is an infuriatingly annoying character. I dread every time she enters a scene. Each word of her dialogue dribbles out, cutting a ragged path through several distinct thoughts, none concluded with satisfaction. When reading her dialog, I pause, and my mind wanders. I hesitate to keep going. Even adoring scholars of Emma admit that many, if not most, readers find her “utterly irritating” and “boring”1.

When Emma mocks her on Box Hill, I, and perhaps many readers, took some petty pleasure in striking back. In succumbing to that temptation, when Mr. Knightley admonished Emma for what she said, he admonished me. Jane Austen had implicated the reader in Emma’s cruelty. And while I still found her “ridiculous”, I recognized a line has been crossed.

Emma.’s Miss Bates is a sympathetic and pitiable character. Her presence elicits some sighs and eyerolls, but nothing close to contempt. In the films strongest moments she stands as the centerpiece, including that encounter on Box Hill.

When Emma lashes out, we feel her venom, and immediately recoil due to its inappropriateness. We don’t need Mr. Knightley to tell us that was out of line. And we can see that while she protests, Emma doesn’t either.

What accounts for such different sentiment? Firstly, one has to acknowledge the explicit effort to make her sympathetic by director Autumn de Wilde and writer Eleanor Catton2. But they’re still working from the same raw materials as the other adaptations: the novel itself. So what does that effort look like, and how does it succeed? I think the creators of the 2020 adaptation capitalize on a specific inherent difference between mediums, and use that to teach us how to view Miss Bates.

There are two distinctions between novels and films that I want to focus on. The first is that film (as we typically think of it) is a temporal medium, unlike the written word. The second is that film is a dual sense or dual track medium (audio and visual information) where reading is single track (just the words). Emma (2020) utiilizes these differences to show us how to “read” Miss Bates.

When I pause while reading Miss Bates’s dialogue, the story stops. It’s as if, in that moment, I’m on stage as Miss Bates, and the theater is waiting for me to speak my line. Reading is far more like performing than it is like listening, in that’s it’s an active engagement. I must be Miss Bates for a moment to continue. And it’s this “being” of Miss Bates that causes frustration, because her thoughts are structurally unpleasant to occupy ourselves.

If it were an audiobook, I could simply stop paying attention. The work would continue without me, which is the case for film. When I hit play, there’s nothing ensuring that I’m in the room for Mr. Knightley’s confession. This lack of attention can be directed intentionally for narrative purpose, which Emma (2020) does.

It’s often remarked that silent films weren’t silent. They were accompanied by live musical performance, whose musical cues accentuated the events on screen. Audio information and visual information feed back into one another to produce a unified experience, but they are still distinct tracks processed independently. Sureshkumar Sekar3, of the Royal College of Music details how audiences of film-with-live-orchestra concerts are able to devote more attention to the music when they’ve already seen the film (and are thus focusing less of narrative information). Paying attention to one track need not imply attention to the other.

In one of Miss Bates’s early scenes of unrestrained prattle, Emma Woodhouse wanders about the habberdashery, looking anywhere but as Miss Bates as Miss Bates recounts the details of some letter. It’s shot wide, denying Miss Bates a prominent position in the frame. Objects occasionally obstruct Miss Bates. The habberdashery itself is the most beautiful and stunning set in the whole film, and there’s plenty to look at and admire, just as Emma herself does. We’re being encouraged to follow her lead. To delight in the setting and props, to overhear Miss Bates but not really listen to her. Miss Bates’s dialogue will happen regardless of our attention, and there’s little other auditory information happening in this scene that demands attention. We can just look, and that’ll be fine.

Later, when Emma visit Miss Bates to apologize for the incident on Box Hill, Emma’s attention is given to her fully. And again, we follow her lead. We still admire the tapestries on her walls, but we also look at, and devote attention to, Miss Bates.

Without significantly changing the character itself, but instead visually reframing her, de Wilde and Catton succeed in presenting Miss Bates’s dialogue such that we still, at the end of it, sympathize with her character. Even before we reach Box Hill. In the world of straightforward Jane Austen screen adaptations, this work is special in how much it manages by simply layering a visual language that teaches about these characters on top of Austen’s verbal language. Many adaptations are content to allow Austen to (largely) speak for herself, and Emma (2020) ensures that the audience is also absorbing another set of artists’ work.

1 BBC In Our Time. Emma 32:30, 2015

2 This is discussed some in their commentary track

3 Film-With-Live-Orchestra Concerts: A New Hope