“We, therefore, bestow no mean compliment upon the author of Emma,when we say that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners, and sentiments, greatly above our own.”- Sir Walter Scott
Emma: one of Jane Austen’s most accomplished novels. Clueless: a cheesy chick flick about the life of a conceited teenage girl. Think they have nothing in common? Think again!
Clueless is an affectionate spoof of Austen’s novel Emma, and, although it alters the story of Emma in order to fit it into the context of modern society, they are profoundly similar. Both Austen and Heckerling, the director of Clueless, satirise popular society of the time; Austen gives us an insight into the naïve lives of upper class women in the nineteenth century and Heckerling pokes fun at the popular high school scene. Even the characters in Clueless reflect the traits of those in Emma. So, before you dub Clueless as an unoriginal teenage parody, we must examine the similarities it holds to one of the best-loved novels of all time.
The characters in Clueless are like those in Emma. For example, in Emma, Frank Churchill’s secrecy is caused by his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax. In Clueless, the Frank Churchill equivalent, Christian, is similarly mysterious, although this is because he is hiding his true sexuality. The most obvious parallel is between the two female protagonists: Emma and Cher. In the opening line of Emma, Austen describes Emma as “clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition”. Here it is obvious that the two females are abundantly related, as Cher is similarly entitled, smart and rich. In Austen’s novel Emma says, “I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly”. This quotation seems apt for both characters, they are sensible women making silly decisions: in one word, they are clueless.
However, the similarities between Emma and Clueless are not only present within the characters and the storyline. In fact, there are many environmental similarities. Emma is set in a small country village, Highbury, in which she is at the very top of the hierarchal system. All the inhabitants constantly visit one another. They gossip about the events that occur in the town, which often includes dances. Moreover, any outing from Hartfield, Emma’s home, is portrayed to be monumental. For example, the outing to Box Hill is discussed considerably before it is confirmed, despite it being only a few miles away. The brilliance of Heckerling’s adaptation is that she parallels a modern high school with a nineteenth century country village. The similarities are remarkable: within the high school there is a hierarchy, Cher being at the top; the pupils are obsessed with gossip about their peers and the parties they have gone to. The characters are in an insular circle, similar to that of Highbury, in which artificial rifts are created. Beverly Hills is Highbury’s equivalent: the narrative is similarly centred around it. For example, the party in “the valley” seems just as exotic as the outing to Box Hill.
Moreover, Clueless contains many of the themes present in Emma. Love is the major theme in both: both protagonists are desperate to find male counterparts for their friends. They both adopt a protégée in order to achieve this; Emma ‘adopts’ Harriet and Cher takes in Tai. They manipulate these girls, but not necessarily in a malicious way. Cher wants Tai to be her good deed and Emma is bored, following the marriage of her friend Mrs Weston. At the beginning of both stories, the protagonists claim that they do not want a partner, or in Cher’s case “searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie”. However, by the end both have found partners. In this way both conform to patriarchal society.
Therefore, although I am not convinced that Sir Walter Scott would be as impressed with Clueless as he was with Emma, Heckerling does succeed in creating “sketches of such spirit” about daily life. So, before you decide to overlook Clueless as the story of a self indulgent teenager, remember that quite often Emma was like totally buggin’ too.