I personally think that of all the Emma's out there (excepting Clueless), the 1996 Douglass McGrath version (with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam) is the best, because, besides keeping a lot of the language, I think it takes a big risk and makes the Knightley-Emma relationship much more playful, much less severe than the most common interpretation of the book, in an effort to make the whole thing feel a bit more like Pride and Prejudice (the black sheep in the Austen canon, not the typical Austen novel we think it is), tends to make it. You know the interpretation I mean: the one where Emma is put in her place for being wrong all the time, which is best represented by the Andrew Davies' version (but with a sort of irony). It makes you think that what people really don't want to see is a powerful opinion or judgment expressed confidently by a woman. The easy way to change this would be to simply show how Knightly, if you look closely, gets things wrong just as often: he is wrong about Frank, about Harriet, and even in certain respects about Elton.
But McGrath goes further, perhaps on the hunch that what people really might not want to see here (though it is no less involved in sexism) is any judgment at all without prejudice. He thus doesn't change the rightness or wrongness of Knightley or Emma, but changes the dynamic of the relationship everywhere to involve the correction, rather than the admonishment, of statements that are neither right nor wrong but simply correct or incorrect. And while this makes the movie lighter (tamer, some who hate the big Hollywood versions of Austen might say), I find this is actually how Emma's and Knightley's judgments are in the book: indeed, Knightley doesn't even say that Emma is wrong on Box Hill, really, but only that "I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance." All the emphasis is upon the latter half of the sentence, on the remonstrance he is performing, since what he is doing in making it is really making it a bit easier to swallow:
"Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible."
In short, "I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance," is actually just correct statement about what is happening. "Wrong" only really means wrong in a heavy or strong sense--the sense in which something wrong is inherently wrong, almost wicked or evil--only insofar as there is a remonstrance occurring, and, crucially, we aren't even sure it is occuring with all the sweet-coating that going on. But this is because what is much worse than acting wrong is what Knightley goes beyond remonstrance to actually yell about: that "It was badly done, indeed!":
"Oh!" cried Emma, "I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her."
"They are blended," said he, "I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!—You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now."
What went on in the whole insult to Miss Bates ("it") was a poor performance of the act of judgment, failing to factor in everything that would make it correct and, moreover, proceed exemplarily (as "many... would be entirely be guided by your treatment of her"): "wrong" is said in the way we say something malfunctioning feels wrong, is out of place or broken down--that is, only when "right" means merely okay, functioning, normal. "Wrong" isn't the opposite of "right" here, but the opposite of "true" ("I will tell you truths while I can"), and however unpleasant the truth is to hear, hearing it is not the same as being shamed. And it is actually more unpleasant than not being in the right, as it holds close to the contours of the incorrect action itself, and demands its readjustment or realignment. We can easily excuse someone for their prejudice, since it is either excusable or not: what becomes painful there is not the process of excuse but everything in one's attachments and situation that prevents it. But what Emma is about is the difficulties that arise when when we are in a way only accountable for our actions, the things that foster prejudices but which can always be done differently, done better than badly.
Interestingly, Sandy Welch's new version takes the first approach I already outlined, and makes Knightley wrong from the get-go--about his brother and Isabella, no less. And though it's about as rough as the approach to the language, it's a start, and puts it close to McGrath's version in my mind. But what really makes it a rewarding experience is this sort of solid work of interpretation is combined with an effort to include everything in the book. I wonder indeed if it is the closest thing to a full Austen novel that we have, besides of course Andrew Davies' massive, amazing P&P. All the characters are there! How refreshing! Even, indeed, Mr. John Knightley, who never causes so many problems in the movies as he does in the book!
Most importantly, because the new Emma can include so much, it can stress one of the most fundamental--but often missed--aspects of the novel. This is the fact that all the characters (excepting Knightley and Elton) have to deal with a huge blow to their family--a blow that has the effect of radically isolating them, almost orphaning them. Not literally, of course, but Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith are moved into different families, and a strange, almost foundling-like plot lurking behind each of these creatures. It is this that the first reviewers perhaps noticed first, when they called the book "plotless": what we are given in all three (and only Emma herself really has the smarts to see it) is the promise of a plot that never delivers. No other version really sketches this out, while the new adaptation puts it first. No where else do we have such pressure put on this part of the book, though this version seems to use it to show why exactly Emma is so entitled, rather than why she is so powerful or commanding (thus the motif of sunlight hits this home a little too much).
There is much more to say (and I will say it), but the whole thing is just overflowing with so many elements of the novel that are never usually picked up, together making Emma even after it's many adaptations more like Sense and Sensibility before the latter was filmed: that is, something whose fuller dimensions are never really grasped by many people. But this isn't for the same reasons: the irony of Sense and Sensibility is much more present, and so it is tough to convey without a narrator or really selective direction (as in Ang Lee's masterful work), while the world of Emma is just so full--and so full because it seems plotless--that it just can't all make it up there on the screen. The effort of adaptation involves giving Emma what seems like the plot it needs (and the closer to P&P--as always--the better), and so there's no time for other characters. Here, things are different, and though they threaten to actually make these half-plots into stories at the same time as pushing the