Clueless: Adapting Jane Austen for a new audience.


Adaptations are a beautiful thing – they bring new audiences to old content, sometimes even without their knowledge. Ask anyone growing up in the 90s and they’ll tell you about Clueless, the 1995 teen comedy which chronicles the life and times of protagonist Cher Horowitz. But what if I told you that Cher is simply Jane Austen’s famously naive heroine Emma Woodhouse (circa 1815) with a credit card? Allow me to demonstrate…

In Jane Austen’s Emma , The focus is on the determination of the protagonist to prove herself to the ‘older, wiser, more knowledgeable’ Mr Knightley. This is driven by Emma’s development of the societally challenged, Harriet Smith

In Heckerling’s Clueless, the Focus shifts slightly to the nature of Cher’s relationship with her peers and eventually herself. This charts her personal growth and journey to self-discovery.

In Emma, the story is told by Jane Austen, in a third person style, this allows the author to satirise the society she is commenting on as well as the supporting characters and especially the heroine herself.

In Clueless, the story is told from a first person perspective through voice-over and self-reflective monologues – the same satire is present, but explored in a visual way – by using exaggerated costuming and outrageously ‘perfect’ stereotypes juxtaposed by a contrasting voice over – for example, we see Cher and her friends frolicking in bikinis while her voiceover says ‘my life is way normal’

Included in both versions is the importance of appearance. In Emma this is characterised by manners, respect, gentility, propriety and elegance. While in Clueless, this is characterised by image, materialism, fashion, possessions and popularity

Left out of the adaptation is the novels focus on an intractable social hierarchy. In Clueless, Tai is able to stand up to Cher in an attempt to take over the ‘queen bee’ position in their social structure. She does this in a way that Harriet in Emma would never have been likely to display.

The more obvious omission is that of an entire character, Jane Fairfax – in Emma this character is a romantic rival, who, as it turns out, has already won the affections of the charming Frank Churchill – who has been naive Emma’s main romantic focus for the bulk of the novel – although focus is probably a generous term – she spends the majority of her time trying to fix up Harriet and Mr Elton.

In Clueless, Jane doesn’t exist – but it is the very obviously flamboyantly homosexual Christian who becomes the object of naïve Cher’s affections. Jane Fairfax does not figure at all.

So there you have it – does it make you look at the entire film differently? For me, I can’t see or read one without thinking of the other now. Forever inextricably linked, I wonder what Jane Austen would think….


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