Hailee Steinfeld Makes Emily Dickinson a ‘Clueless’ Teen Comedy
Hailee Steinfeld plays Emily Dickinson on the Apple TV+ original series Dickinson. The title character was not a famous poet until after her death so the series speculates on what inspired her poems and how she lived her life. This is not some stodgy biographical period piece though. It takes considerable artistic license and is all the better for it.
Hailee Steinfeld plays Emily Dickinson as a modern teen
Dickinson reinvents the family as anachronistically modern. Their parents (Jane Krakowski and Toby Huss) have traditional 19th century values, although they express them with more modern language. They want to marry Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) off but keep Austin (Adrian Enscoe) and his wife nearby while letting Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) remain home as a maid.
The kids speak like 2019 teens using words and phrases like “cool,” “such bullsh*t,” “what’s up,” “hell yeah,” and “yo.” The soundtrack is full of modern music, and their dance moves reflect the 20th century, if not 21st. Naturally, the Dickinson kids rebel against their parents’ wishes, as all kids must in every generation. In this case, they fight the sexist norms to empower Emily to educate herself. One episode’s shenanigans involve dressing as boys so the girls can attend a science lecture.
Using poetic verses could expose a new audience to her work
Each episode of Dickinson is centered around a verse of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. They start with some of the best known ones like “because I could not stop for death.” It didn’t take long for the show to pull out some text beyond what I remembered from barely paying attention in high school English class.
Each poem ties in with the episode’s theme. Seeing poems brought to life with comedy and drama, and sometimes surreal fantasies, imbues the text with new possible meanings. If it makes viewers go to the library (or let’s be honest, google Emily Dickinson), that’s a bonus win.
‘Dickinson’ is a universal teen comedy
Any young viewer could relate to Dickinson as easily as they could Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You, which were in turn based on Jane Austen and William Shakespeare respectively. Dickinson is a little more closely tied to the source material, but it presents Emily’s life as the universal generational struggle
Even in eras when parents no longer arranged their children’s courtships, parents put pressure on their daughters to date and marry. Dickinson presents both sides. There’s Emily wanting to be independent and reject her suitor George (Samuel Farnsworth) but then there’s Austin’s fiance Sue (Ella Hunt) who needs a new family because 19th century disease claimed all of hers.
Mr. Dickinson is a tad more aggressive in holding back his daughter’s education than I’d hope modern fathers are, but it’s not unheard of. If it wasn’t education, it was only quite recently that men didn’t think women should have jobs. The specifics of the 19th century are less important than the universal theme that each generation has to fight for its own accomplishments.
And Dickinson is funny. The modern language allows whip-smart banter to be relatable, while still true to the essence of what Emily Dickinson battled. The cast is endearing and the half hour episodes keep them fast paced.