Why Clueless Is Clueless About Jane Austen’s Emma

A while back I watched a YouTube video called Is It OK to Like Pride and Prejudice 2005? in which the YouTuber earnestly lamented the snobbery of some Jane Austen fans who disparage other fans for liking certain adaptations. It was a good video and there were many comments agreeing with the sentiment, including one who cited fans who sneered at screenwriter/director Amy Heckerling’s 1995 comedy, Clueless, which transplants Jane Austen’s Emma to a (then) modern high school in Beverly Hills. So, I feel a bit bad for writing a blog post condemning the movie. But I don’t feel very bad, because my experience is that it’s usually given more credit than it deserves rather than less.

Not only is it well liked by casual moviegoers, but a large number of Jane Austen fans, and scholarly ones too, regard it as the best adaptation of Emma. In an essay in Jane Austen Goes Hollywood, Nora Nachumi praises Clueless for being “the only one of the non-BBC films to recognize and replicate the most profound of Emma‘s ironies.” Richard Jenkyns in his book, A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen, writes that Clueless is the movie which understands the book, in particular its heroine, the best. [1]Of course, since they’re comparing the movie to adaptations they dislike, rather than their ideal nonexistent adaptation, this is damning with faint praise to an extent. But their tones of … Continue reading This is incomprehensible to me. It’s not that I have an objection to the idea of reimagining Emma as a contemporary high school-themed comedy. I think it’s a potentially great idea. My longtime readers may remember that my favorite adaptation of Little Women was just such a modern updating. [2]Of course, that movie only changed the time period, not the country in which the story takes place… And it’s not like this is the worst movie ever. There are enough funny lines that I can understand people enjoying it if I concentrate hard enough. It follows Emma‘s plot closely enough to be interesting. I appreciate that just like Jane Austen turned the romance novel conventions of her day on their head in the book by having the protagonist be an arrogant wealthy woman with no need to marry up rather than a poor governess, Hecklerling turned high school comedy conventions on their head by having the protagonist be a popular, good looking, rich girl rather than an (allegedly) unattractive, frumpy, bookworm. And the movie certainly conveys its source’s message that it’s not enough for rich people to go through the motions of using their wealth and influence to help people; they also have to do so intelligently and with an eye for what the recipients of their charity really need, not just what makes them look good or feel good about themselves. But from where I stand, Clueless is the adaptation that least understands what made the heroine and the story of Emma work dramatically. I even have a problem with the title! Clueless would be a better epithet for Harriet Smith or Mrs. Elton. Emma Woodhouse’s flaw is not much that she doesn’t have a clue but that she ignores any clues she comes across that don’t fit with her plans for the world.

The first sentence of Emma describes the (anti)heroine as clever as well as rich and handsome. One of her harshest critics (in-universe) describes her as the cleverest person in her family, though that’s admittedly more of an aspersion on them than a compliment to her. For all the terrible, selfish mistakes she makes, they’re the mistakes only a smart person could make. Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), the protagonist of Clueless, on the other hand, is portrayed as self-absorbed idiot from the opening moments of the movie. Listening to her and her friends obsess about celebrities, clothing and makeup, with their constant “as ifs” and “not evens” is enough to drive me up the wall. Part of this may just be because I find Alicia’s Silverstone’s voice and mannerisms annoying. She can be tolerable in some roles though. She’s like nails on a chalkboard when delivering (deliberately) inane lines these though.

“What that man needs is a major boinkfest. Unfortunately, there was a total babe drought at our school”

“Let’s blow off seventh and eighth, go to the mall, have a calorie fest and see the new Christian Slater.”

“I am totally bugging. I feel like such a bonehead.”

Argh! Can you imagine a whole movie where most of the main characters talk like that? Apparently, Clueless fans are capable of not only imagining it but enjoying it.

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I can hear a lot of people getting upset already and protesting that being interested in stereotypically girly things, like shoes and shopping, doesn’t make girls dumb. But here’s the thing. The movie itself feels like it wants us to view Cher and her entourage as ditzes for loving those things. How else do you explain the comedic bit where Cher says she needs to find a sanctuary to regain strength and we then cut to her at a mall? (The only time I can remember Emma Woodhouse shopping in her book portrays her as being less interested in the merchandise within the shop than about speculating about the people walking by the shop.) The film pulsates with contempt for teenage girls with cash to burn, whom I assume to be a sizable portion of its target audience, quite different from Austen’s sharp but subtle satire of the idle rich in Emma, which begins by making Emma appear admirable, even enviable, before revealing the negative effect her life of ease has had on her character. In Clueless, even the backstory of how Cher’s mother died has an “oh, these stupid rich people” feel to it. (She perished in a botched plastic surgery operation.)

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Emma Woodhouse may be an infamously easy protagonist to dislike. [3]Legend has it that Jane Austen described her as “a heroine whom no one but me will much like.” I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’d love for it to be true as it sounds … Continue reading But the opening chapter of her book establishes that she and her father take an interest in the lives of the servants whose welfare depends on them. (They arranged a good job for their coachman’s daughter, and a later chapter depicts Emma visiting an old servant of hers when she has some free time on her hands.) We’re later told that she also helps out the poor in her neighborhood and that she “entered into their troubles with ready sympathy and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good will.” Cher, meanwhile, mentions that she gives her old clothes to her middle-aged maid, Lucy (Aida Linares) and in her debate class, compares the plight of Haitian refugees to unexpected guests at one of her parties. (To the movie’s credit, that last speech is one of its comedic highlights.)

Cher charms most of her teachers into giving her better grades, which corresponds nicely to Emma’s being a bad student as a child and her beloved governess, Miss Taylor, being too lax of a disciplinarian. (Though it should be noted that Emma is described as always planning to do a lot of reading without ever following through on it. Cher doesn’t even do that.) But the way she gets around her debate teacher, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn-probably the movie’s biggest asset), is an insult to Emma. When Miss Taylor leaves the Woodhouses to get married at the beginning of the book, Emma is sad to lose one of her few close friends but is happy for her and hides her regret as well as she can. This is contrasted to her needy father, who transparently projects his misfortune in losing Miss Taylor onto the woman herself and shows that as selfish and controlling a friend as she later acts, Emma is capable of selflessness. [4]Richard Jenkyns commends Clueless for being the only adaptation to understand that Emma’s father is a villain. I see no evidence for this at all. If anything, the character ends up playing a … Continue reading Even the weirdly dark and unpleasant 1996 made-for-TV Emma movie (not to be confused with cinematic one from the same year) got this right. But Cher sets Mr. Hall up with another teacher, Miss Geist (Twink Caplan), solely to get herself a better grade.

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To be fair, afterwards she becomes more genuinely altruistic, taking an awkward transfer student from Jersey named Tai (Brittany Murphy) under her wing, though, as her older stepbrother, Josh (Paul Rudd), points out, this is largely so she can have someone follow her around and worship her. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the movie by the way. That accurately summarizes Emma’s relationship in the book with Harriet Smith, the parlor boarder at a common school. And the subplot of Cher aggressively steering Tai away from the lowly stoner/skateboarder (Breckin Meyer), who is actually nice to her and shares her interests, towards Elton (Jeremy Sisto), a popular guy, who couldn’t care less about her, is very close to what happens in the book and therefore the part of the movie that works the best comedically and dramatically.

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But let’s get back to that older stepbrother Josh character. As those familiar with Emma will have guessed he corresponds to Mr. Knightley, Emma’s sister’s husband’s brother, her eventual love interest (Emma’s, I mean, not the sister’s) and one of the few people in her life who finds fault with her. She seems to find this a nice change of pace and enjoys verbally sparring with him. This is an indicator that for all her pride and vanity, she doesn’t demand mindless support from everyone. It’s one of the things that keeps her from being too unlikeable.[5]It also should be noted that for all that Mr. Knightley is ultimately proved to be in the right in all their arguments, Emma gets in a few good points too. Her assertion that they shouldn’t … Continue reading So why does Cher complain about her dad inviting Josh over to their house in the very first scene? When he arrives the two of them rag on each other with no affection or appreciation. Even when they start to warm up to each other halfway through the movie, Ruud and Silverstone have no chemistry. Why did this movie feel the need to keep the pseudo incestuous element of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s romance and the age gap between them, but left out what made their relationship appealing?

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Clueless includes as many story beats from Emma as it can, sometimes even minor ones like the Harriet character burning silly mementoes of her former crush once she’s over him or the Emma character disapproving of the Mr. Knightley equivalent not dancing at parties. But it often doesn’t seem to understand the function that they had in the original. It includes a Frank Churchill character in Christian (Justin Walker), a new student to whom Cher is attracted, and who has a secret that makes him unavailable. (In Emma, Frank is secretly engaged to a poor governess of whom his guardian would disapprove. In Clueless, Christian is gay.) But he never leads her on or to the extent that he does, this isn’t portrayed as reflecting negatively on him. There’s no Jane Fairfax character whom he hurts by flirting with Cher, making an already low stakes story even sleepier. Nor does she hurt anybody by flirting with him. Her failure to pick up on his lack of real interest in her doesn’t indicate any moral failing on her part. It’s just another example of her being, well, clueless.

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The movie includes a scene of Christian rescuing Tai, presumably since its Austenian equivalent was the closest thing in Emma to an action scene.[6]It was actually only described after it happened in the book, making it something the reader heard about rather than experienced. But it weirdly places it after Cher has learned Christian’s secret, so she never imagines him and Tai as a couple, arguably rendering the whole character pointless and his subplot padding. The scene isn’t even that great as a random bit of action.

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It also includes Tai deciding late in the story that Josh is the boy for her, leading to Cher realizing her own feelings for him. But then it has her transferring her affections back to her stoner/skateboarder suitor, of whom Cher initially disapproved, before Josh confesses his love for Cher. Thus there is no reason for her to be worried that he’s actually going to confess his attraction to Tai, and an already predictable romantic finale has even less suspense.

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There’s an underdeveloped Mrs. Elton character in Amber (Elisa Donovan), a classmate who serves as a negative foil for Cher. It’s never clear why we’re supposed to consider her worse than Cher since they’re written in exactly the same way, as obnoxious stereotypical valley girls. (I guess Cher is just a better obnoxious stereotypical valley girl.)

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Speaking of things being underdeveloped, the scene where the Emma character is rude to someone lower on the social ladder than her, and Mr. Knightley upbraids her for it is included, but it goes by so quickly, I wonder why they bothered. And for once, I’m going to criticize this adaptation for not having its protagonist be bad enough. While what Cher says to the aforementioned Lucy is certainly tactless and ignorant,[7]“I don’t speak Mexican!” Lucy is from El Salvador. it’s honestly not worse than I’d expect from her, and it happens when she’s under stress. She doesn’t publicly insult her as Emma does the (genteelly) poor spinster, Miss Bates, in the book, so naturally Josh doesn’t give her a big speech as Mr. Knightley does. But that big speech was arguably the heart of the book.

“Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.”

What kind of adaptation replaces that with “you’re such a brat?”

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The title of this post is perhaps a bit harsh. Clueless does have a few clues. There are a few elements of nuance to the characters. For example, Cher has only watched Hamlet because it starred Mel Gibson, but she apparently paid enough attention to know which character said what line. And an original plot point, where she demonstrates her newfound maturity by helping out with a charity event, is wellconceived. If you want a contemporary American update of Emma, I highly recommend the webseries, Emma Approved, which does well everything that Clueless does badly. I admit I haven’t watched the short-lived revival that went beyond the book’s story, suspecting it would go downhill once it no longer had Austen’s original blueprint to follow. But the first couple of seasons that, more or less, stick to the original plot are great, and, I might add, have the female lead love fashion without having her come across as vapid or shallow for it.

Bibliography

Is It Okay to Like Pride and Prejudice 2005? *Thoughts on Classic Books Community* – YouTube

Jane Austen in Hollywood : Troost, Linda, 1957- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

A fine brush on ivory : an appreciation of Jane Austen : Jenkyns, Richard : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Emma, by Jane Austen

Emma Approved – YouTube

References

References
1 Of course, since they’re comparing the movie to adaptations they dislike, rather than their ideal nonexistent adaptation, this is damning with faint praise to an extent. But their tones of appreciation for Clueless do come across as sincere and enthusiastic.
2 Of course, that movie only changed the time period, not the country in which the story takes place…
3 Legend has it that Jane Austen described her as “a heroine whom no one but me will much like.” I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’d love for it to be true as it sounds like something Jane Austen would say. It is recorded that she wrote, “pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked” and that she described Anne Elliot, the heroine of her last completed novel, as “almost too good for me.”
4 Richard Jenkyns commends Clueless for being the only adaptation to understand that Emma’s father is a villain. I see no evidence for this at all. If anything, the character ends up playing a more positive role in the heroine’s development than in any other version.
5 It also should be noted that for all that Mr. Knightley is ultimately proved to be in the right in all their arguments, Emma gets in a few good points too. Her assertion that they shouldn’t judge Frank Churchill for not standing up to his tyrannical aunt since they don’t know all the details is reasonable enough, though she doesn’t entirely believe it herself. Her argument that Harriet will never lack for suitors, despite her lowly origins and lack of sense, since all men want in a woman is someone good looking and amiable is at least enjoyably naughty. Disarmingly, when Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, he reveals that he sees her accepting a lecturing old fuddy duddy like him as a heroic sacrifice. And on one point anyway, Mr. Knightley is the one who comes around to her point of view. Early in the book, he’s dismissive of Harriet, but by the end, he appreciates her virtues. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to agree with him though, as Emma herself goes from being charmed by Harriet to regretting their whole relationship. Jane Austen’s own attitude toward Harriet Smith seems to have been a strange blend of affection and disdain.
6 It was actually only described after it happened in the book, making it something the reader heard about rather than experienced.
7 “I don’t speak Mexican!” Lucy is from El Salvador.
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