How 'Emma' and 'The Personal History of David Copperfield' Reinvented Classics for a Modern Age

7:48 PM 1/11/2021

by Tyler Coates

The creatives behind the films reveal their approach to bringing literary canons to contemporary audiences: "It's not a translation of something else. This is my movie. It's a whole new thing."

Reinvented Classics for a Modern Age HE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD and EMMA
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Liam Daniel / Focus Features
  • 'The Personal History of David Copperfield'

    For fans of director Armando Iannucci, best known for political satires like The Death of Stalin and Veep, the words of Charles Dickens might have seemed like an unexpected source for his comedy. "We do have this image of [Dickens] as being this long-winded Victorian novelist who writes about murder and crime and fog and mud," Iannucci tells THR. "But he was really funny. He wasn't afraid to be commercial and entertaining as a storyteller. But he also used that platform to talk about uncomfortable issues: child labor, homelessness, bad education. He looked at society from top to bottom, and that always appealed to me — that kind of satirical ambition."

    For Searchlight's The Personal History of David Copperfield, Iannucci and his co-writer, Simon Blackwell, embraced the novel's more experimental elements — its unreliable narrator, for example, who often glamorizes elements from his childhood that, upon reflection, are hardly luxurious. Iannucci also homed in on the titular character's sense of his identity, a self-examination to which Iannucci admits he relates. "I'm an Italian born in Scotland, a Scot working in England and a Brit who spent a lot of time working in the United States," he says with a laugh. "[David is always asking,] 'Do I belong? Or am I an observer outside?' There's something about David that speaks to what we now call 'impostor syndrome.' " For a story about a young man who sets out to improve his station within the class system of 19th century England, Iannucci compares David's sense of being to the immigrant experience today.

    Iannucci's version of Dickens' world is starkly different from most film adaptations of the author's work. The film's diverse cast, Iannucci admits, was inspired by whom he envisioned in the lead role. "I could only think of Dev Patel to play David Copperfield," he says. "He seemed like the perfect embodiment of how I saw David as sort of inquisitive, charismatic but genial, optimistic but vulnerable." Patel's casting naturally opened up more opportunities to fill in the ensemble. "Why shouldn't I cast from 100 percent of the acting talent available to me?" Iannucci adds. "Why should we close off certain roles?" (Look to the wild success of a television offering, Shonda Rhimes' Bridgerton, on the commercial value of diversifying Regency London.)

  • 'Emma'

    Also bringing a fresh vibrancy to the period costume drama is Focus Features' Emma, the feature directorial debut from Autumn de Wilde. Anya Taylor-Joy leads the ensemble as Jane Austen's beloved heroine, who despite herself cannot seem to keep from meddling in the lives of her friends and family. Both de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton readily admit that this oft-told tale (which starred Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1996 film of the same name) came with a lot of pressure because of its arguably most popular adaptation: Amy Heckerling's Clueless.

    "It's a perfect movie," says Catton, who revisited all the film adaptations of Austen's novel before beginning the script. "The reason why it's so good," adds de Wilde, "is because Heckerling knew the book inside and out, but also because Jane Austen understood that iconic human characteristics do not change. She [wrote] characters that you can assign to people in any time period."

    While the new Emma returns to her original Regency-era setting, Catton and de Wilde brought their contemporary spin to the text. "Emma is not an everywoman," says Catton, pointing to the character's class status and wealth. Like Dickens, Austen was a social satirist — she once described Emma as a protagonist only she could love — and it was vital for the character's privilege to be front and center. "What I really admired about Autumn is [how she depicted] the absurdity of excess, which I think is quite an astute class commentary," Catton says.

    That excess is depicted onscreen with a vibrant color palette. "There's a misunderstanding that people of this era lived in rooms with faded wallpaper or dressed in faded clothes," de Wilde says. Leaning into Emma's privilege meant that de Wilde could break free from the subdued look associated with costume dramas set in the period. "Color was how people showed off that they were rich," she adds.

    Emma and Copperfield both incorporate their original authors' wicked senses of humor, but neither film attempts to modernize Dickens' or Austen's language. In fact, de Wilde says Catton's understanding of Austen's words impressed the whole cast. "We used to joke that we wanted her to start a Jane Austen translator app," she says, noting that the screenwriter could quickly change an actor's three-word improvised line into a playful Austen-esque phrase to maintain authenticity.

    Iannucci, on the other hand, gave his cast more freedom. "I said at the start, 'Imagine no one's ever made a period drama before. There are no rules, there are no conventions,' " he says. "It's not a translation of something else. This is my movie. It's a whole new thing."

  • Writers: A Way With Their Own Words

    Chad Beguelin & Bob Martin
    The Prom
    Two years after its premiere on Broadway in 2018, book writer Beguelin and lyricist Martin (who, along with composer Matthew Sklar, earned Tony nominations) adapted their crowd-pleasing musical comedy about self-obsessed theater actors who mentor a teenage lesbian.

    Patrick deWitt
    French Exit
    Starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a sharp-tongued, suddenly penniless Manhattan socialite who flees to Paris with her aimless son (Lucas Hedges) and cat (possessed by the spirit of her late husband, and voiced by Tracy Letts), this surreal dark comedy is based on the 2018 novel of the same name by screenwriter and award-winning novelist deWitt.

    Kemp Powers
    One Night in Miami
    Oscar winner Regina King makes her feature directorial debut with this fictionalized account of a 1963 meeting of Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. Powers expanded his stage play of the same name beyond its single-room setting to include two of Clay’s boxing matches and three musical performances from Cooke.

    Florian Zeller
    The Father
    Zeller directs this adaptation of his 2012 play, Le Père, which follows an aging man (Anthony Hopkins) and his daughter (Olivia Colman) as they manage the man’s struggle with dementia and memory loss. Zeller co-wrote the script with Oscar winner Christopher Hampton, who originally translated the French text into English. — T.C.