Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Make Me Over: Emma's Social Rules of Engagement Revisited and Revised in Amy Heckerling's Clueless

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Make Me Over: Emma's Social Rules of Engagement Revisited and Revised in Amy Heckerling's Clueless

Article excerpt

Although the term was coined decades after her death, Jane Austen is nothing if not a celebrity. Her novels, which sharply and cleverly depict British society in the beginning of the nineteenth century, continue to resonate with audiences around the world and remain as fresh, relevant, and insightful as they were when they were written. Austen's unique ability to examine and scrutinize human thoughts, feelings, and interactions has made her a Hollywood favorite, and numerous film and television adaptations have been based on her novels. In addition, recent years have seen an ever-growing trend of productions that reference and interact with Austen's texts and characters.

It seems that the major challenge facing filmmakers adapting Austen to the screen is the demand to bring her universal topics into a relevant, modern, and also commercially appealing context. Jocelyn Harris argues that a successful cinematic version of a novel cannot be a translation, but must be an imitation that "copies the essence of the text but at a distance" (44). Harris claims that it is the difference, rather than the sameness, between the source and the "remake" that needs to be highlighted.

During the 1990s, Austen became something of a Hollywood "It Girl" with numerous high-profile film adaptations of her novels. However, while most of these pictures were what one may call "Costume Films," there was only one adaptation that dared to venture out of the norm and bring Austen into the late twentieth century -- in the most literal sense imaginable. Screenwriter and director Amy Heckerling recognized that modern film audiences, especially in America, included many young people who were not familiar with Austen. She therefore decided to "repackage" the author's ironic tone, social critique, and overall message, and the result was the 1995 film Clueless in which Heckerling accommodated Jane Austen to a young clientele and brought the author's world into the realm of "teenage soaps and school melodramas" (Harris 51).

Clueless is an adaptation of Austen's 1815 novel Emma, and though the similarities between the original text and the picture may not be obvious at first glance, the plot follows along the same lines while both protagonists are endowed with very similar characteristics. Louise Flavin notes that we come to love Cher (Alicia Silverstone) for the same reasons we come to love Emma -- their eventual recognition of their own heart, of the pain their interference can cause, and of their responsibility to those less fortunate. This transformation, she writes, makes us all like them in spite of their faults (146). Indeed, Emma's "power of having rather too much of her own way, and [her] disposition to think a little to well of herself," (Emma 5) are qualities clearly manifested in Cher's personality as well. They are both motherless, wealthy young women who live with their overprotective fathers and charm their way through life, loved and admired by everyone around them. Both heroines have only one person in their lives who criticizes them for their meddling, matchmaking, and constant attempts at "improving" others: Mr. Knightley and Josh (Paul Rudd) are both pseudo-brothers for Emma and Cher respectively, and serve as the only moral compass in these young women's lives. Eventually, they also become their love interests.

Bringing Emma into a high school environment was a perfect choice since so many of the social networking, romantic plotting, and class distinctions that one finds in Highbury, are also the driving forces behind the micro-society that inhabits practically every high school -- particularly Bronson Alcott High. It seems that one of the only truly inventive ways with which to draw young people's attention to Austen and her social observations is not to create yet another period drama and cast popular actors to star in it, but to transform the social pressures, expectations, and challenges Emma Woodhouse endured in her time into a relatable, familiar plot about a girl who can easily be someone we all go to school with. …

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