Recently, I made the delightful discovery that the 90s classic Clueless is on Netfliix. I hadn’t watched the film in years, and certainly not since I became a JAFF author, though it had been a favorite of mine in high school (I coveted Cher’s wardrobe). What a great opportunity, I thought, to see how I’d respond to the film now that I was so steeped in everything JAFF.
(Actually, when I first saw it in the theater in high school, I did not know that it was based on Emma. I didn’t even know Jane Austen yet, as Pride & Prejudice had yet to be assigned to us for summer reading, sparking a lifelong obsession.)
I am happy to report that the film holds up very well indeed, though not perhaps as well as Paul Rudd’s ageless face has. Man looks like he hasn’t aged a day. The script is sharp and sweet, the performances are hilarious, the costumes are outrageous, and the music is adorable.
Now, as a certified Jane Austen obsessive, I’m able to more clearly pinpoint how particular scenes and relationships translate from the book to the adaptation. As a JAFF author myself, I’m always questioning what are the unchangeable elements of these characters and stories. What must i keep to maintain that quintessential Austen-ness? What can I change without losing what’s important to those of us who come here for JAFF?
Writer and director Amy Heckerling must have been asking herself that question regularly. Mr. Knightley, brother-in-law and neighbor, becomes Josh, Cher’s aggravating ex-stepbrother. (“You divorce wives, not children,” says Cher’s blustery litigator father.) The mysteriously absent and then even more mysteriously unavailable Frank Churchhill becomes Christian, who starts at school halfway through the year due to his parents custody dispute (very true to the book and Mr. Weston’s long disagreement with his sister-in-law!) and is similarly mysteriously unreceptive to Cher’s overtures of romance. But it’s not a secret engagement that makes Christian willing to flirt with Cher but no more. Rather, a more 90’s appropriate closeted sexuality.
I admit I was puzzled at first by whether Cher’s matchmaking efforts with her teachers were best described as a corollary for the Westons (after all, her homeroom teacher is the one who technically “introduces” her to Christian, and Mrs. Weston, as a former governess, is a “teacher” of Cher’s.) Or, alternately, is it her best friend Dionne, who serves as a confidante to Cher, much as Mrs. Weston does to Emma, and is partnered with Murray, who, like Mr. Weston, is the one to break the news to Cher/Emma about Christian’s secret? Both depictions seem to fit well. It was suggested to me that Dionne and Murray are supposed to be Isabella and Robert Knightley but I’m not sure how that fits, other than they are another couple within Cher’s orbit. More likely, these characters are split, and all four fill the plot roles that the Westons once occupied.
Elton is Mr. Elton of course, and the supremely annoying Mrs. Elton’s role has been dramatically reduced to be Cher’s redheaded frenemey Amber. This leaves plenty of room for an expansion of the Robert Martin corollary, who is changed from a sweet but decidedly middle class farmer into a sweet but unpopular stoner and skater boy Travis, played by a delightfully zany young Breckin Meyer. The script gives Cher and Travis a chance to be real friends, which makes a lot of sense, given that 90s LA isn’t quite as strict a social caste system as the Regency countryside. I was always left uncomfortable by the admission at the end of Emma that, well, Mrs. Knightley probably wasn’t socializing with Mrs. Martin much anymore. The end of Clueless, set at a wedding, shows Cher, Josh, Travis, and Harriet-Smith corollary Tai, all dressed up and seated at the same table.
I was so pleased to see how much of the original story writer and director Amy Heckerling managed to squeeze in, from Cher’s photo of Tai being hung in Elton’s locker, to the manipulations Elton performs to get Cher alone in his carriage (um, car). The Weston’s ball is changed to a college party (featuring a live performance by the Mighty Might Bosstones!), but Josh still “saves” Tai by dancing with her when she’s standing on the sidelines. Christian also saves Tai at the mall from some rowdy boys (who are, arguably, doing something much more dangerous than the original novel’s tramp pickpockets). And the scene in which tai engages Cher in the ritualistic burning of her Elton mementos is practically lifted straight from Austen’s pages (well, except for the immortal Heckerling line of “you’re a virgin who can’t drive,” which, Harriet Smith would never!)
It is clear that Amy Heckerling is definitely one of us.
If you haven’t seen Clueless, or haven’t seen it in years, do yourself a favor this weekend and stream it this weekend. It’s the perfect escape.