Clueless was part of an era where high school movies were all the rage, with movies like Can’t Hardly Wait and Ten Things I Hate About You following in its footsteps. Amy Heckerling’s Clueless is adapted from Jane Austen’s Emma, where a 19th century English setting is transposed onto a Californian backdrop, proving that a good narrative works wherever you apply it. She adapts it so well that even Jane Austen purists can’t find fault with it, viewing it as a very competent adaptation.
Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is the titular Emma, and Heckerling captures quite accurately how the characterisation of Emma would look in an American teenage girl. From the get-go, we note how ostentatious and over-the-top Cher’s wardrobe is, her clothing, home and possessions conveying to us her social status. Austen’s very first sentence in her novel lists the same characteristics of Emma, that she is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.”
Cher is sometimes ignorant, much like Emma was, about the ways of the world, due to her sheltered and privileged upbringing. We often see displays of this during Cher’s debate class, where issues are discussed in the most surface and myopic of ways. She is popular, but not in the mean girl league like Regina George, and we must note this distinction. Both Cher and Emma steer situations down a path that they desire, but this is done with pure intentions, and not meant with any sort of malice.
Cher takes new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy) under her wing, changing her look and appearance so that she can fit in better with the popular crowd, similar to Emma’s guidance of Harriet. Much like how Harriet was persuaded by Emma to turn down Robert Martin, Cher does the same here, steering Tai away from Travis (Breckin Meyer) and towards Elton (Jeremy Sisto). In Emma, this decision had bigger implications, seeing as how a young woman without fortune or status would already have limited options; it is a lucky thing that Robert Martin could be persuaded a second time to ask for Harriet’s hand in marriage after being rejected the first time.
In the world of Clueless, the stakes aren’t as dire, with Tai getting over her disappointment with Elton by setting her sights on Josh (Paul Rudd), before settling her affection on Travis in the end. Josh is the Mr Knightley character in this world, and Heckerling gets rid of the weird age gap that existed between Knightley and Emma, with Josh in college and Cher in high school instead. This is definitely an improvement, since none of us have been able to get over Knightley being sixteen years older than Emma.
In Emma, Knightley stays in close proximity to Emma and her father, and Emma’s sister and Knightley’s brother are married to each other, which explains why they initially appear to be brother and sister. It is the bickering of siblings that becomes something more, and thus, Heckerling’s choice to make Josh and Cher former step-siblings is an apt one.
In Austen’s novel, Emma hears about Frank Churchill so often that she fancies what a good match they might be (she has quite the proclivity for match-making). But when he appears, though they engage in harmless flirtation, there is something about him that Emma questions, and she feels he is not as wonderful as he is made out to be.
On a superficial level, he has everything going for him. He’s handsome, seemingly compassionate, witty, a perfect gentleman – in other words, too good to be true. Heckerling’s decision to make his Clueless counterpart gay is an inspired choice, and evokes the same sentiments. Christian (Justin Walker) is everything Cher could want in a high school boyfriend, but the problem is, he doesn’t want her back. When Emma discovers Frank’s involvement with Jane Fairfax, she feels a sense of relief, much like the relief Cher feels here when she learns of Christian’s sexuality.
Emma’s rude remark to Mrs Bates is the pivotal moment of the novel. Emma, who has always been vain and a little too self-consumed, suddenly realises the impact of her words, but cannot rescind them for the damage is already done. It is after this that we see her begin to self-reflect a little more, especially since Knightley, whose favour and good opinion she has always sought, was very disappointed with the way she had behaved. There is no Mrs Bates’ equivalent in Clueless, which is understandable since the movie’s tone never gets too sombre. Instead, Josh’s comments to Cher about her self-absorbed behaviour does bother her, and as a result, she volunteers herself for a donation drive, where her natural leadership instincts allow her to shine as well as do something for other people besides herself.
Amongst all of Jane Austen’s heroines, Emma undergoes the biggest individual transformation, and is considered to be the most flawed protagonist. After all, before Austen began her novel, she mentioned how Emma will be “a heroine whom no one but [her]self will much like.” Lizzy is very much the same before and after, just not as prejudiced, Fanny is pretty much her usual boring self from start to finish, Marianne discovers that is more to love than strong passions…you get the picture.
In the novel, Emma is twenty one, while Cher is sixteen. Still, both are incredibly young women, with much to learn about themselves and the world they live in. For both Emma and Cher, because of the vanity inherent in their world-view, they need individuals like Knightley and Josh, men who are not afraid to tell it like it is, men defined by their honesty, to help them see past their limited perspectives. What I love about Austen is that she shows us the power of a good partnership, and how each individual benefits from the people they end up with.
In the end, Cher is a lot less clueless, just the way it should be.
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