Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma

Categories: Emma Jane Austen

First and foremost, it is important to define what ‘succession’ is when adapting literary work. Cambridge’s definition of said noun is ‘a number of similar events or people that happen, exist, etc. after each other’. This definition accurately describes how both Emma and Clueless have similar events and characters who are even counterparts of each other. I will analyse both protagonists, then I will discuss how they use lower-class characters for charity but ultimately their own gain. After, I will discuss conventions of a romance such as the love epiphany.

Finally, I will evaluate the overall similarities between Clueless and Emma. The former is an adaption to Emma, set in colourful Beverly Hills, it focuses on Cher Horowitz (the parallel of the protagonist, Emma). She is spoiled, shallow and enjoys stereotypical girly activities such as shopping and parties. However, she is a well-meaning girl who has her heart in the right place. During the film, she tries to improve the lives of people around her.

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On the other hand, the latter mentioned focuses on titular protagonist, Emma. Austen takes a slightly different approach. Instead of a poor ingénue who faces off with a conceited rich girl. Emma, herself, is the rich girl who means well. However, she ends up causing problems for the people around her. Similar to Cher, she is spoiled. Although the starkest difference between Clueless and Emma is the time period. Emma, which was written in 1816. Roughly 180 years later we can still recognise, analyse and identify the same issues.

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It simply goes to show that regardless of time, radical societal changes since the 19th century, society has not changed that much at all. Through the themes that are interspersed in Emma and Clueless such as love, friendships, money and social class, they bare similarities overall.

From the onset, both protagonists, Cher and Emma are beautiful girls. This is quite a generic standard in all mediums for young women. In this case, being a 90s-chick flick and a 19th-century novel. Heckling succeeds as the aforementioned girls play ‘matchmaker’ even though they both have good intentions.At their core, they both share three similar attributes. From the opening page of Emma, she is described as ‘handsome, clever and rich’ (p.5). Similarly, Cher Horowitz is just that. Conventionally attractive. She has a sharp mind too, she comes up with schemes and manipulating people to achieve her desired outcomes. She is also a skilled debater and is sharp enough to point out and exploit loopholes. Lastly, upon the opening of Clueless, displays Cher enjoying typical ‘rich kid’ pursuits, shopping, driving a nice car, pool parties.

Cher’s car was bought by her father, she boasts it contains a ‘four-wheel drive, dual side airbags and a monster sound system’. With this said she doesn’t even have a licence. This reveals that Cher is quite reckless. Despite all the wealth she has she is not great at taking care of these prized possessions. She even hits a potted plant seconds after stating her jeeps features.On top of all of this, she has a machine on her computer which picks out her school clothes. The song Fashion by David Bowie underscores this to amplify the excess of the stylish clothes she owns. As well as living in a mansion with a maid.When Cher meets Tai for the first time, she is enthralled with the idea of how she can make Tai appealing and popular, she sees the potential Tai has and wants to pursue it. Cher smiles while saying that Tai is ‘adorably clueless’ followed by wanting to ‘adopt’ her into her clique.

Similarly, in Emma, volume 1 chapter 3, she too is excited with the potential Harriet possesses. In this chapter Mr Woodhouse, who enjoys evening parties that Emma usually arranges. Among this party, she invites Miss Goddard, a schoolmistress. Alongside her is Harriet Smith. Emma takes an instant liking to her due to her beauty, warm demeanour and how Harriet admires Cher. ‘She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of sweetness; and before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance’ (p.18). Through this Cher decides to take Harriet under her wing as a friend as an act of her charitable goodwill but also as her own vanity. Through this, she is also introducing Harriet to high society and is keen to help improve her manners and image.

Just as the upper-class Emma is in control of who gets invited into the estate, she also has the jurisdiction to adopt friendships of those of the lower class. Her decision to befriend Harriet is swayed by both goodwill and vanity. She does want to help Harriet. But Emma also wants to be perceived as a lady who is willing to help a person of the lower class, which in turn makes her look good. The description of Harriet and the appearance of Tai do bear some similarities. Both are ‘short, plump and fair’ and they both are amenable to the ways Emma and Cher want to ‘change’ them.In Emma and Clueless, both protagonists have a love epiphany. The genre of both stories is romance; therefore, it follows the common convention of a love revelation epiphany. In Emma, she comes to the realisation that she has been in love with Mr Knightley the whole time, who has been a family friend who she has been close to her whole life.

She is aware that he also considers her a close friend too. But she thinks he might have his eyes on someone else. Similarly, in Clueless, Cher unveils ‘Oh my God, I love Josh!’ These key epiphany’s cause both protagonists to pursuit to become better people.Another similarity between Clueless and Emma is the lack of an antagonist. In Clueless, there is no clear villain. It could be argued Amber is an antagonist, a spiteful and malicious redhead who clashes with Cher frequently. Nonetheless, she doesn’t outrightly try to sabotage Cher. Nevertheless, the main conflict in this chick flick comes from Cher herself. Her well-meaning but poor decisions. Similarly, in Austen’s Emma.

The closest enemy in the novel is Emma herself. However, due to her well-meaning nature, she does not qualify as an antagonist. But like Cher, she means well but doesn’t realise how much she has messed up the lives she was trying to improve till near the end of the story. Upon looking for source material on how much this question holds up, I located an article on Bustle magazine written by Loretta Donelan, titled ‘Clueless’ Vs. ‘Emma’: Matching Up the Plot Points. It further reinforces similarities between Cher and Emma, Harriet and even Elton and Mr. Elton (who share the same name). Although Clueless and Emma are similar one of the obvious differences is the time period.

To further my knowledge on this adaption I read journal article ‘Adapting Jane Austen: The Surprising Fidelity of Clueless’ by William Galperin, in this he states: This brings me, then, to Clueless, which keeps faith with Austen’s novel by not following “The procedure of the novelist step-by-step so that the chains of circumstance are exactly the same (Mitry 4) but by effectively exchanging the novel’s nominal “story” for one lodged in the “widening sum” of details, mot which involve change in some form. Overall, there are many similarities which argue that Amy Heckerling’s Clueless succeeds as an adaption of Emma.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. (2024, Feb 02). Retrieved from

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