Movie Discussion of “Clueless,” the Modern Version of Jane Austen’s “Emma”

Movie Discussion – Clueless

In 1996, Douglas McGrath’s Emma, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow hit the big screen. That same year, Diarmuid Lawrence and Andrew Davies’s small scree version starred Kate Beckinsale. Both offered cinematic reconstructions of the Regency era. Both were faithful adaptations of the time.

In contrast, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless brings the classic tale of a misguided matchmaker into the modern realm. Hecklerling relies heavily on the formula “screwball comedies” of prior decades to tell the tale. What is more ironic is the fact that Clueless, the current day offering, highlights the role of women in society as having less options than does the more traditional films. In Heckerling’s adaptation, women lack empowerment. However, if I asked opinions, most people today would say that “empowerment” was a very modern trait.

So, how does this film match up with the original story line? The comparisons and contrasts are many, indeed, but here are a few of the more obvious.
** To create Emma’s point of view, which readers recognize from the novel, Heckerling used Cher’s first person voice over. This allows the viewer to experience Cher’s perception of the events and contrast those perceptions with the actual details.

** Both the novel and the film stress paternal wealth. The heroine’s “identity” is tied closely to this wealth. This transfer of the traditional image of a woman being tended to by her father’s fortune takes on a non-traditional slant in Clueless. What are Cher’s options in a modern world? Hecklerling ignores those possibilities and keeps Cher tied to her father’s identity.
** Mr. Woodhouse’s health remains an issue in both. The man is preoccupied with his digestive system.
** Class differences in the original story line become issues of racial and sexual tolerance in Clueless. “Harriet Smith” is portrayed as a transfer student whose experiences with drugs and relationships is more intensive than other students at the school. “Frank Churchill’s” character is a homosexual.
** Cher, like Austen’s Emma, misconstrues Christian’s (Frank Churchill’s) intentions. In Clueless, Cher sends herself flowers to make Christian jealous. She is creating an image to attract the boy, but she ignores the images which scream of Christian’s sexual orientation.
** Matchmaking is the central theme of both the novel and the film. In Clueless, Cher’s efforts are centered on Miss Geist, the spinster teacher, and Tai, the transfer student.
** Emma and Cher both serve as the mistress of their fathers’ houses. Cher, like Emma, is accustomed to having her own way. Mr. Woodhouse finds Emma’s manipulations endearing.
** Knightley’s family connection is amplified in Clueless because “Josh” is Cher’s step brother. In the Regency period, in laws would take the familiar titles of “brother” or “sister.” It is important that Emma stresses to Knightley and that Cher reassures Josh that they are NOT brother and sister. In both story lines, romantic feelings requires that the participants ignore family ties.
** Clueless does not end with Josh declaring himself for Cher, but Cher does catch the bouquet at Miss Geist’s wedding, insinuating her eventual marriage.
** Elton requests a copy of Tai’s photo. He also attempts to kiss Cher when he drives her home from a party. This plot device closely follows the original story line.

What other comparisons/contrasts might we make? Add your comments below. (For an interesting read on the subject, take a look at “Popular Culture and the Comedy of Manners: Clueless and Fashion Clues” by Maureen Turim.)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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