Do you love films based on Jane Austen’s work or life, well, then you’ll love our theme this month. Grab your popcorn and a soda! It’s time for Movies in May!
Let’s go back more than 20 years (has it really been that long?) and take a look at the film, Clueless.
As we look at movies this month that are based on Jane Austen’s novels, I thought I would look at Clueless, which was released in July, 1995 and based on Jane Austen’s Emma. Last year there were many posts and articles about the film as it celebrated its 20th anniversary. It was written by Amy Heckerling, who decided to base it on the book Emma when she was asked to write a story for teenagers. She took some basic plot elements and characters from Austen’s novel and tweaked them so they would fit into a contemporary story.
I chose this film for several reasons. The first is that it is, of course, a modern film based on Emma. Another reason is that it takes place where I grew up, in the Los Angeles area (as opposed to England, where Emma takes place). No, I did not grow up in Beverly Hills, where Cher Horowitz (the Emma character) lives – as if! – but in the San Fernando Valley, where she and her friends do attend a party. (And yes, that means I am a Valley girl!). Another reason is that Paul Rudd, who plays Josh, the Mr. Knightly character, wears a KU hat in the film. And my son attended KU (Kansas University), as did he. And finally, I recently watched it again with a young gal who loves it, loves Jane Austen, and it was fun to see it through her eyes and her enthusiasm.
There are several similarities and differences in the Austen novel and this movie. I am calling them the ‘M’s of Emma in Clueless.’
Money: Emma Woodhouse lives with her father at Hartfield, “a comfortable home” in Highbury, where they are first in consequence. According to Jane Austen, Emma has “very little to distress or vex her.” She is wealthy and never has to worry about money. Cher lives with her father, a litigation attorney, in a large home in Beverly Hills. That location is enough to indicate her wealth, but we also see it in her substantial wardrobe when she is trying to decide what to wear. *Click here to see her clothes spinning by in her rotating closet.)
Matchmaking: Emma thinks she is quite adept at matchmaking after having had a little success at it. Her long-time governess and now friend ends up marrying an older widower. Emma (“had always wished and promoted the match”). In Clueless, Cher conspires and is successful in bringing together two teachers at her high school. These matchmaking successes and self-assuredness make Emma and Cher think they know who (and what) is best for their friends, and do not ever think they are wrong.
Makeovers: Emma takes the young Harriet Smith under her wing. Miss Smith was a parlour-boarder at the nearby Miss Goddard’s school, where she had been a student. Her family background was unknown. She was the “natural daughter of somebody.” In Clueless Emma befriends a new girl to the school, Tai Frazier, and tries to improve her with fashion, hair, and makeup so she will attract a worthy young man instead of the skateboarder Tai prefers.
Mystery: (perhaps a better word would be Secrets, but Mystery serves my purpose better) In Emma we do not find out until the end that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax had been secretly engaged. He was a young man whose company Emma greatly enjoyed and with whom she often flirted. In Clueless, it is Christian, a new boy to the school who has some secrets Cher is not aware of when she decides he might the one for her, not realizing he is gay.
Manipulation: Emma always has a ready answer to defend her actions or to persuade someone to see things her way. She is usually successful, except with Mr. Knightly. She talks Harriet out of accepting Mr. Martin’s offer of marriage, and then tries to convince Mr. Knightly she was right in doing so. Cher can talk or argue her way into or out of just about everything (including getting her grades changed). She does fail, however, when it comes to taking her driving test. Both Mr. Knightly and Josh are the only ones who offer any sort of verbal rebuke to these two ladies with the hope they will become a little less self-absorbed and more understanding. Of course, both young ladies take issue with the men when they do.
Misjudgment and Mistakes: While both Emma and Cher have minor success in matchmaking, they make some rather poor judgments in character in their other attempts to bring people together. Emma thinks Harriet can and should set her sights on someone of upper class. In fact, she believes Robert Martin to be beneath her, not recognizing the fact that Harriet is far beneath him. Cher thinks she can turn Tai into someone just like her, despite the fact that she is of lower status. Their misjudgment extends to themselves, as well, as neither Emma nor Cher realizes until the end how wrong they have been about others, and even who that perfect man for them is, and who they have really loved all along.
Maturity (as in Immaturity): Because Cher is still in high school, she is young and immature. She is spoiled and had no mother to guide her. Her father is rarely home and does not take the time to correct her. But Austen’s Emma, who was a few years older in the story, also needed to grow up in many areas. She also had no mother, Mr. Woodhouse was a doting father, and her governess/friend Miss Taylor pretty much let Emma do as she pleased. Emma and Cher are both sincere in their desire to help others, although they don’t always realize that what they want for the person is not necessarily what the person wants or what is best for them. Both ladies have a generous heart, but need some gentle prodding in the right direction to direct them.
Modifications: There are differences between the novel and the movie besides the Regency and modern settings. The relationship between Cher and Josh is slightly different in Clueless, but it serves the purpose well. His mother had been married to Cher’s dad, and although now divorced, he prefers to spend time with her family instead of with his mother and her current husband. Mr. Knightly, of course, was the brother of the gentleman who married Emma’s sister, as well as a good friend of the family and lived nearby. Not all of the characters in Emma are in Clueless, and vice versa. A major exclusion is the Jane Fairfax character. And a few characters in Clueless can be looked at as a combination of several characters in Emma.
My Musings about the Movie: So, what do I think of the movie? It is always fun to watch a movie based on one of Jane Austen’s novels and catch those similarities between the two. I think every time I have seen this film, I notice even more. It is a fun movie that I think transferred over well to a modern story, although I would probably enjoy it a little more if I were younger. As in any modern interpretation of Jane Austen’s novels, liberties are taken to make it correspond to our way of living now. Things were quite different when I went to high school compared to Cher’s high school as it was depicted 20 years ago. (I won’t tell you how long ago I went to high school!) But with all Austen-related films, I feel if it draws someone to seek out Jane’s original novel, I heartily approve.
Cher is a fun character who has to come to some realizations about herself and others, and it is fun watching her stumble her way through life because for the most part she is just a little… clueless.
What did you think of Clueless? Do you have another ‘M’ word that describes any similarities (or differences)?