Updating Emma: Clueless

Term Paper, 2007

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Updating Highbury
What's happening here?

3. A Twin Peaks-experience

4. Playing hide and seek, or: who is who?

5. In power? - Cher's loss of control

6. As if!!! Issues of class and social status
6.1 Dressed for success – on Alaias and backwards-caps
6.2 Well, so, whatever – talking like grown-ups

7. What's so funny? – Narrating a comedy

8. Don't you know who my parents are? – Parentage in Clueless

9. And in conclusion


1. Introduction

„Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existance; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.“ (Austen, p.5)

„Cher: 'Okay, so you're probably going, "Is this like a Noxema-commercial or what?" But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.'“ (Clueless)

Some things don't ever seem to change: whether it is England in 1816 or Holly­wood in 1995, the stories of Emma Woodhouse and Cher Horowitz have a lot in common. Of course, the first one was written as a novel by Jane Austen and the other one is a movie directed by Amy Heckerling, one takes place in Highbury around the landed gentry of 19th century England and the other one is set in 1990's Beverly Hills, but when you take a closer look, the similarities are stunning. Even though it never was officially credited, it is clear that „Clueless“ is a contemporary adaption, or as Lesley Stern chose to call it, an update, of Austen's „Emma“. In the same time, it is the first one released during the 1990's, being followed by no less than ten different adaptations of Austen's work, amongst them Ang Lee's „Sense and Sensibility“ (1995 as well), the BBC-miniseries of „Pride and Prejudice“ (1995), two other versions of „Emma“ (both 1996) and the latest Hollywoos-success with Keira Knightly, „Pride and Prejudice“ (2005). This „Austen-movie-trend“ does not seem to stop – the Internet Movie Database names two tv-productions already completed for 2007 and another three (one Bollywood- and two tvproductions) being in production. But what is it that makes Austen's six novels, and especially three of them, so popular as draft for screenplays, for visual adaptations? On the following pages, I will take a closer look at the the update of „Emma“, Amy Heckerling's „Clueless“.

It is not the easiest thing to compare a book with a film, two totally different media. The question the fidelity of the adaptation towards the original always plays a role. But is it the most important one? What is it, actually, that makes someone recogni­ze the original in the adaptation – especially, if the original is not credited? So, what I will try to do, is approach the film through different questions with the book in mind, rather than list differences and similarities of story and plot. A lot more interesting to me is a question that Phillips and Heal posed on different cinematic adaptations of „Emma“: „In what way do elements of any particular adaptation cause us to re-engage in a dialogue with the novel?“ (Phillips/Heal p.2). This inclu­des questions concerning references and quotations, as well as characters and setting. Not only the question of who-is-who, but most important: how are their va­lues, their connections between each other transported from the book to the screen? What happens to them when you update them to teenagers in the 1990s?

2. Updating Highbury

As a teen-comedy, a subgenre under the genre teenage-movie (or „teen-flic“), „Clueless“ stands in the tradition of films such as „The Breakfast-Club“ (John Hughes, 1985) or „Pretty in Pink“ (Howard Deutch, 1986). A year after „Clueless“, with „Romeo and Juliet“ (1996, Baz Luhrman) another piece of classic english lite­rature was turned into a teenage-movie, thus together starting a trend for moderni­zing classic plays and novels which still goes on today, as shows the 2003 MTV-version of Emily Brontë's „Wuthering Heights“. Another quite large influence on the movie seems to have had the – at the time – popular tv-series „Beverly Hills 90210“, circling around the everyday life of rich teenagers in Los Angeles.

So, you could say that it is the mask of a teen-movie which disguises „Emma“ from the viewer on first sight. But what does this mask, this genre, imply? Apart from the characters we meet, it is mainly the setting, i.e. the when and where. Plot and story as well seem to differ completely from the original, but I will come to that later. And maybe, above all, a natural tendency towards exaggeration should not be forgot.

First, the genre is, usually, set contemporary, at around the same time the movie is shot, meaning that for „Clueless“, the story takes place around the middle of the 1990s. Another important feature of teenage-movies is the school, mostly, appro­priate to the characters' age, highschool. Their homes and other places where teenager hang out, for example shopping malls or parks, play an important role as well.

Main character Cher lives together with her father in a huge, white house in a rich area in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills. It has a big tree and greek-style columns at the front, which we learn from Cher, „date all the way back to 1972“ (which, by the way, is the year of the release of the BBC „Emma“-mini-series (cf. Phillips/Heal p3)). Both house and garden are taken care of by a maid and a gardener, and apart from going to school, parties or shopping, Cher does not really leave it very often, making her neighbourhood the centre of her world – something she shares with Emma, who herself never leaves her home apart from visits to Highbury or Donwell Abbey. This becomes especially apparent when the whole group of friends is on their way to a party and get lost on the map: „all i see is Bel Air“. Even though Los Angeles takes up a much larger area than Highbury must have, their relative size seems still quite the same, considering both means of transport and the rather small circles of L.A. in which Cher and her friends and family move. When her father calls Cher at the party in Sun Valley, he tells her that „everything in L.A. takes twenty minutes“ and that he wants her home in that time. Twenty minutes might be the probable time it might have taken Emma to walk the halv mile from Randalls back to Hartfield. So, even though life in 20th century metropo­lis L.A. may not seem to have a lot in common with the 18th century english com­munity of Highbury, there are still parallels to be found which may indicate similari­ties in lifestyle and setting.

What's happening here? – A Twin Peaks-experience

„I had this character in my head, the girl [...]. But I needed a strong plot and I had read Emma in college. I read it again and said, [...] this is just the perfect structure for what this girl should go through. [...] It was all there in Jane Austen.“ (Hecker­ling, p.2).

Phillips and Heal suggest in their essay the term „alphabet puzzle approach“ (Phil­lips/Heal p.3) for the result of Heckerling's work with „Emma“, a term to which I agree very much. „Events in the story are divided up and rearranged in a kind of image anagram for the Emma -familiar viewer to solve“ (Phillips/Heal p.3), or, to use Cher's own words: we have a Twin Peaks-experience[1]. To find familiar scenes and events, it is necessary to depart with the familiar straight storyline and search a bit deeper under the surface of Story and Plot.

A wedding takes place, not in the beginning, but at the end of the movie. It is the result of Cher's matchmaking, not her own one (after all, as she says, she is only 16 and they live in California, not Kentucky). The party at Randalls takes place as a party in Sun Valley, and the ball at the Crown as a party organized by Josh's old friends. Tai, the Harriet-character, goes through a dreadfull experience, not with gypsies, but still with two weird guys at the mall.


[1] Referring to David Lynch's tv-series „Twin Peaks“ (1990), in which a murder is solved bit by bit and unrecognizable events take place.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Updating Emma: Clueless
University of Lüneburg  (Angewandte Kulturwissenschaften)
Jane Austen Goes To Hollywood
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
376 KB
Updating, Emma, Clueless
Quote paper
Lena Ostermann (Author), 2007, Updating Emma: Clueless, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/87530


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