When the movie is derived from a literary classic—are you an “All-In”, or a “Well, Maybe”, viewer?

People create books, or movies, to be read, or viewed, by others. For sure, a handful write for their own pleasure, keeping their literary output out of sight in a drawer. But they are a rare breed. For the rest, the reader is an essential element in the author’s creative activity. This is even more so with respect to the making of a movie; no film maker dedicates his work to the office drawer. In a word, those who read books or view movies are the raison d’etre for their creation.

It is surprising, therefore, that more attention is not given to the role of the user in the creative process. [There are exceptions: Merpel recalls arguments made on IPKat about Glenn Gould and users rights, here and here].

In any event, when it comes to the movie version of a literary classic, the relationship between the user/viewer and the contents of the film is especially nuanced. Consider the February 2020 roll-out of the movie “Emma.” based on Jane Austen’s classic 1815 novel of nearly the same name (yes, the period is part of the movie name, but does not appear in the name of the original novel).

First, the copyright basics. The movie is a film adaption of Austen’s novel. Were Austen’s copyright still in effect, the movie would, as a legal matter, be a derivative (or adaptive) work and, as such, permission would have been required to transform the story into cinematic form. Of course, there is no such legal constraint with respect to “Emma”. In such circumstances, the question of how closely to align the book with the movie and its ultimate viewers arises not because of any legal considerations, but because of artistic and commercial ones.

The challenge in making a screen adaption of a Jane Austen novel is that the potential viewers need to be broken down into several classes, each of which will have a different expectation for the movie. At one end, there are the Jane Austen afficionados, who have read the entire corpus of her published novels (or, even if not all of them, have an affinity for “Emma”). Members of this class are well aware of the respective plots and characters of Austen’s books. Some may even be a member of a Jane Austen society, devoted to promoting her literary legacy. Let’s call this the “All-In” class.

For them, the opening sentence of the book is heavenly—"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." And it only gets better from there.

At the other end, there are viewers who may only a passing familiarity, or none at all, with Austen’s novels, but who are aware of her general literary reputation and, as well, like watching “Victorian”- era movies (strictly speaking, Austen writes about the Regency era, which immediately preceded the Victorian era). We will call them the “Well, Maybe” class.

The upshot: one class is steeped in the literary contents upon which the film is based, while the other, not so much, if it all. What is a film director to do (in this case, Autumn de Wilde) in trying to adapt the book into a movie that will meet the expectations of each of these disparate groups?

For the “All-In” class, their cinematic expectations are framed wholly by reference to the underlying novel. They may be more forgiving about cinematic shortcomings of the movie, provided that the film is a reasonable adaption that brings the story to audio-visual life. Intimately familiar with the plot and characters, they will ask questions such as: does the film stay close enough to the literary text; where does it deviate; when it deviates, does it add to or detract from the movie; and does the film portray Emma (and other main characters) in a plausible way?

The more enthusiastic may also consider the 2020 film adaption in light of previous productions, such as the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow, in particular comparing Paltrow’s performance with that of the 2020 Emma, played by Anya Taylor-Joy (and perhaps even comparing both actresses with the literary “Emma”). Even if so, for the “All-In” group, the movie, as a derivative work, remains tethered to the literary work.

How different it is with the “Well, Maybe” class. For them, the movie is a free-standing creative product, ballasted by Jane Austen’s reputation and an attraction of cinematic time pieces set in the era of the book. They are undoubtedly aware that movie versions of great books usually fall short, but they still are interested in viewing the movie.

“Well, Maybe” types are unconcerned whether the movie tracks, or deviates from, the underling novel. The more industrious might, prior to viewing, do a quick search on the internet to learn about the basics of the plot and character. At the end of the day, however, “Well, Maybe” viewers will evaluate the movie like any other film, without reference to the underlying book. They will give the movie a thumbs-up, or thumbs-down, based solely on the movie’s merits. For members of this class of viewer, there is nothing consciously derivative about the contents of the movie.

And then there is Ms. Kat. She is a member of “Well, Maybe”, without any familiarity with “Emma”, but one who enjoys a good 19th century English time piece movie. In viewing “Emma” jointly, she was eager to have Mr. Kat, a member of “All-In”, provide commentary and explanation during the viewing so as to enable her to better “understand” both plot and characters. For her, the movie is not quite viewed as a conscious derivative work, but neither is it totally detached from its literary provenance.

So, we have “All-In” and “Well, Maybe”, with viewers such as Mrs. Kat somewhere in between. Each class will have a distinct user experience in viewing the same movie, largely mediated by the relationship of the viewer to the underlying novel.

The ultimate lesson is this: Not only does the relationship between a derivative work and its underlying work, as an act of creation, continue to vex the copyright system, but uncertainty also radiates out to those who use (e.g., view) such derivative works.

By Neil Wilkof

When the movie is derived from a literary classic—are you an “All-In”, or a “Well, Maybe”, viewer? When the movie is derived from a literary classic—are you an “All-In”, or a “Well, Maybe”, viewer? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, July 02, 2021 Rating: 5


  1. Where do Mr. & Mrs. Kat stand on the 1995 film "Clueless", which some pundits have argued is the best Emma adaptation of them all?

  2. As a member of the All-In" class, it was not my cup of "Emma tea". But as a form of movie take-off, I thought it was quite clever.


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