Emma Reshaped to Clueless
By Melissa Bartel, Advanced English
The 1995 hit film Clueless, written and directed by Amy Heckerling, is an example of a popular culture appropriation of Jane Austin’s novel Emma, which modernises significant elements such as wealth, social status and gender roles. The reshaping of these issues into a modern film set in the 1990’s in Beverly Hills provides us with a relatable and enjoyable film. Clueless is a striking model of refurbishment, as it does not attempt to imitate the period or setting of the original text. The modernization is manifested in the process of ‘Los Angelesization’ and ‘teenification,’ with photography substitutes for portraiture, convertibles for carriages, and parties in the Valley for fancy dress balls.
One of the most important themes in Emma and Clueless is social status. In Highbury, the Woodhouses are described as "first in consequence there. All looked up to them." Cher and her father are also among the cultural elite. He is a litigation lawyer, a respected and lucrative occupation in one of the most affluent cities in the world; and according to Cher, he gets paid “five hundred dollars an hour just to fight with people.” Emma’s social status comes from her family, her reputation and her wealth. Heckerling has reshaped social status to be not only defined by things like family background, but also by popularity and ostentatious possessions. This is demonstrated in numerous scenes throughout the movie such as with the shot of Cher’s opulent, ornate bed frame complete with gold spiral posts finished with a pelmet of swags and tails. Back lit mood lighting is cleverly utilised in this scene to display the extravagance of her possessions. In addition, the opening scenes display numerous instances of Cher’s popularity among her peers, through many shots of Cher having a fabulous time, constantly surrounded by large groups of socialites.
In Emma, Emma is portrayed as being extremely conceited, and considers herself ‘above’ other in her society. This is demonstrated when Emma dwells on Mr. Elton’s confession of love; “Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior in talent…but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior.” Heckerling reshapes this concept in Clueless by portraying Cher as considering herself superior to the other in her ‘society’, namely highschoolers. This is shown where her voice over says “I don't know why Dionne is going out with a high school boy. They're like dogs…they're just like these nervous creatures that jump and slobber all over you.” We are then presented with a visual of a boy putting his arm around Cher. This is immediately repelled and Cher shoves him away, saying “Uh! As if!” This creates meaning because teenage girls can relate to the idea of being above certain types of boys. Heckerling uses the boys as an example for the modern teenage audience to relate to, and adds humour to this scene by showing Cher’s intolerance to her own age group.
We again learn of Emma’s social status when she ‘adopts’ Harriet, vowing to advance her social rank in the community through educating her on class stratification. This is shown in “She would improve her…and introduce her into good society... It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking.” Heckerling reshapes this concept via a modern day version of ‘Pygmalion’. Cher vows to transform Tai into a high-class, popular teenage socialite (the modern-day equivalent of Harriet’s transformation) through a makeover and key advice on clothing, exercise and essential reading materials. Heckerling demonstrates this scene when the girls are in gym class. Cher announces to Dion “Dee, my mission is clear. Would you look at that girl? She is so adorably clueless. We have got to adopt her.” Cher’s decision to “adopt” Tai so as to “Use our popularity for good,” further accentuates her social status. Heckerling’s use of...
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