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HIGHBURY TO HOLLYWOOD

Jane Austen is one of the most celebrated female authors in English literature, and one of
the few female canonical authors. Emma, published in 1816, is one of her most famous
works. It has been adapted into many different forms, such as TV series and video diaries.
The one I will be looking at is the cult favourite film Clueless. Released in 1995, the film
features Alicia Silverstone as Cher, the adaptation of Emmas character. It is well disguised
as an Austen adaptation, if you hadnt previously read the book you wouldnt know or
even if you had, with all the names being different and the film being so light hearted, you
might not link it to the classic novel. However, if comparing the two texts we can see how
the plots of the two texts match up and how Clueless has adapted Emma into a modern and
accessible film.

A CHANGE OF SCENERY
Right from the beginning of Clueless we can see the differences and similarities between
Cher Horowitz and Emma Woodhouse. While the two share the same personality traits
described in the opening line as the novel their ages have changed, Austen writes Emma as
coming up to her twenty first birthday, whereas Clueless sees Cher to be approaching her
sweet sixteen. This may be due to how, as time has gone on, romantic pursuits begin at a
much younger age, and as this is the main theme is made more sense to keep Cher as a
younger character. One hugely different narrative feature that cant be missed between
these two texts is the setting. Emma is set in early 19th century Highbury, England. Setting
the novel in a small, rural town gives an intimate feeling, where all the characters are linked
and know each other. Clueless, on the other hand, is set in late 20th century Beverley Hills,
which is the exact opposite of Highbury in location. Highbury is an isolated, countryside area
with a self-contained community, whereas Beverley Hills is a social hub where everything is
accessible and busy all the time, particularly in the year Clueless was set in.

NARRATIVE
Emma
Woodhouse,
handsome, clever, and rich,
with a comfortable home and
happy disposition, seemed to
unite some of the best
blessings of existence; and had
lived nearly twenty-one years
in the world with very little to
distress or vex her Emma
(1994, p.1)

Austen writes Emma in an anonymous third person narrative. This gives a satirical view of her
world to the audience, which works better as later generations are reading the novel. The
narrator also uses free indirect speech, this works well as it allows the reader to be taken in
and out of Emmas thoughts as the narrator wants, so we can interpret Emmas and other
characters - thoughts without Austen having to put it all in the dialogue. It allows the readers
to be given the context to set the scene but also to get the thoughts of characters and creates
a deeper running story. The opening of the novel tells us Emma is handsome, clever and rich
(1994, p.1) which immediately gives the reader the impression that Emma has an easy life.
Clueless, as a visual adaptation, has to
show us this. The opening montage of the
film involves Cher with lots of shopping
bags, driving her Jeep, sunbathing by a
pool. We hear Chers voice: But
seriously, I actually have a way normal life
for a teenage girl. I mean, I get up, I brush
my teeth and I pick out my school clothes
as she flicks through her computerised
wardrobe to choose what she should
wear today this has been done for a
humorous effect as Cher clearly lives a very upper class life that isnt particularly relatable for
the audience. Similarly, the narrator Austen has created informs us of Emmas mothers
passing, whereas in Clueless, the same non-diegetic narrator (Chers character, over the top
of the film as opposed to her character speaking) informs us her mother died during a fluke
accident during a routine liposuction, here the film is again poking fun at the characters
upper class lifestyle.

CHARACTER COMPARISONS
Emma lives a very privileged life, raised by her adoring father where she appears to be loved
by all Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma
Woodhouse (1994, p.5) - and has a hobby of, to put it bluntly, manipulating the people
around her, specifically trying to match make her peers into relationships. These
characteristics are mirrored in Cher, she talks her way to better grades, manipulates her
teachers into dating and makes the new girl, Tai, her project Tai is the equivalent of
Harriet Smith She would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from
her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions
and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly
becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers (1994, p.17). I find this quote
alone speaks volumes about Emma as a character, the obvious comparison of improving
Harriet in the book and making Tai her project in the film is really clever as well as it
displaying just how full of herself Emma really is giving Tai a makeover to fit in at her new
school isnt quite so bad, but in the novel to actually decide she is going to form Harriets

opinions for her is really highlighting Emmas manipulative ways not to mention how she
describes it as a very kind undertaking, as though Harriet should be filled with gratitude
that Emma should give her the time of day and change every aspect that makes her who she
is. I honestly laughed out loud reading that part of the book, I feel this is where the third
person narrator works so well, with just the slight hint that if it were a real person telling
you about

She was a very pretty girl,


and her beauty happened to
be of a sort which Emma
particularly admired. She was
short, plump, and fair, with a
fine bloom, blue eyes, light
hair, regular features, and a
look of great sweetness
Emma (1994, p.16)

Emma there would be raised eyebrows and eye rolls, as it is clear that the omniscient
narrator does not necessarily agree with Emmas actions all the time. There are many more
of the characters in Emma and Clueless which are parallel, the storylines for the characters
stay the same but are represented differently to suit an audience nearly 200 years later
after the novel was written. The beginning of Emma tells us of her matchmaking of Miss
Taylor and Mr. Weston. The governess, Miss Taylor, is married off and leaves Emma and Mr.
Woodhouse. Emmas pairing the two up, while only discussed in the novel, is shown in the
film in the form of Mr. Hall, Chers debate teacher and Ms. Geist, the school guidance
counsellor, whose wedding we see at the end of the film. The main difference I would point
out is that Emma seemingly pairs Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston up with no ulterior motive
she is even losing out as she is sad to see her dear friend move out of the house they share.
Opposing this is Cher, who is matchmaking her debate teacher in the hopes his happiness
would boost her grade ironically, debate class is the only grade she cant raise using
debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly and even more unoriginally, Clueless answer to Mr. Elton, is
Elton. As Cher desperately tries to match him up with Tai, nobody seems to notice that his
interest is in Cher. In Emma, Mr. Elton treasures a picture Emma paints of Harriet, this is
mirrored in Elton keeping a photo Cher took of Tai in his locker a bit weirder, yes, but
maybe painting a picture of her friend would be even more alien to the technology loving
audience watching Clueless. Azerdo also writes of this in his work, From Emma To Clueless:
Ironic Representations of Jane Austen, also making a similar point But in Clueless, when
Elton says he has kept Tais picture because it was taken by Cher, the viewer might suspect a
parodic commentary on the misunderstandings in Austens novel (which somehow begin
with Emmas painting of Harriet). The film at this moment actually illustrates the historical
and cultural gap between Emma and Clueless , whose title already alludes to a superficial
world, where surfaces and style take precedence over content. The passage from Austens
novel is turned into a joke in Heckerlings film; after all, in an ordinary context (as the one in

the film) a picture is much more important for what it contains (mainly when the theme is
people/women) than by the fact of who has taken it (a fact that is made more evident when
the viewer knows that Cher does not have any special ability for photography) (2006,
p.243) However, as the plot moves along, it becomes clearer that Eltons affections for Cher
seem to be more based on social status than her as a person. This is clear when Elton is
taking Cher home from a party and tries to kiss her, at which point she tells him she has
been trying to set him up with Tai. Elton is confused.

Tai?! Why would I go with Tai?...


Dont you even know who my
father is? Cher, listen to me, me
and Tai we dont make any
sense. Right? But me and you, I
mean, that makes sense (2:30
3:00)

This is strongly implying that Elton is interested in Cher because her father makes a lot of
money and is of the same social ranking as his father, making it acceptable for him to date
her. Tais other love interest is skater, Travis Birkenstock. His appearance and social status
makes him an outcast, much like farmer Robert Martin, who Emma steers Harriet Smith
away from, deeming him not good enough, and unacceptable to date despite him being
the one man who actually seems to love her and has a good heart. This is another way that
Emma and Cher mirror one another as characters, they hold social status in a partner higher
than they should while this was the norm when Emma was written, it isnt as prominent at
the time Clueless came out this may be another reason the age of the characters were
brought down, there is very much a hierarchy of who is friends in high school, similar to the
structure of the upper and lower class integrating. The character with the main personality
difference in storyline is Frank Churchill, or Christian Stovitz. Emmas love interest in Frank
does not work out because of a secret he is already engaged. While not quite the same
with Christian being gay, they are both keeping secrets that stop them being Emma/Chers
true love interest its also an appropriate adaptation as with the Clueless characters still
being in school, it makes far more sense that Christian be gay than engaged. Not to mention
that being gay would have been unheard of and unspeakable in 1816, so it is also a more
modern adaptation, and probably relatable to an audience where homosexuality is
becoming accepted and as a coming of age film, the target audience may be thankful for this
representation in mainstream media.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, Clueless as an adaptation is only proof of how Emma is a timeless classic. It


translates well centuries later, and continues to be an entertaining text. Clueless keeps most
of the characters with the exception of Frank Churchills fiance, Jane Fairfax. It also
generally keeps the same storylines with the characters keeping incredibly similar
relationships (the main exception would be Josh having once been Chers stepbrother
whereas Mr. Knightley is more of a brother figure) to each other as the book. It keeps to
the plot of the novel during the majority, while also cleverly disguising itself as a chick
flick/coming of age movie, unlike so many TV series adaptations which are kept in the same
era, and are more of a filmed version of the book than an adaptation. Clueless is a
masterpiece, illustrating how relatable the classic novel is in modern day and keeping it in its
lighthearted, society mocking tone. The film keeps Austens wit and genius alive.

References:
Austen, J (1994). Emma. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited.
Azerdo, G. (2006). From Emma to Clueless: Ironic Representations of Jane Austen. 243
Clueless, 1995, directed by Amy Heckerling, Paramount Pictures, [video: DVD]