Clueless – Modernization Of Jane Austen’S Emma
“It is believed that every original idea has already been conceived hundreds of times over. The challenge of creativity is to transform a familiar concept into something that is unique to one’s personal understanding. Pop-culture is full of claimed ideas, transformed into something entirely new. Classic literature is a well of untapped potential that pop-culture exploits, allowing creators to take tried-and-true concepts and turn them into something relatable in the present day.
Jane Austen is the author of many such classics, one of the most famous being Emma, a story of misguided matchmaking and youthful arrogance. Though adapted several times in period style, director Amy Heckerling has taken Austen’s classic novel and transplanted it into cusp of twenty-first century, modernizing it for a new audience.
In modernizing Emma, Heckerling completely subverted the traditional methods of classical revisions. Movie adaptations of Emma are typically historical pieces set in the early nineteenth century that attempt to encapsulate the atmosphere of the period. They are meticulous in their recreation of the dress, speech patterns, and social norms of the original novel. Clueless deviates drastically from this formula, relocating the setting almost two hundred years forward in time to California in the mid-nineties. Swapping the village of Highbury for Bronson Alcott High School, the story becomes relatable for western audiences. Modern high schools greatly resemble English upper class society in the early nineteenth century, serving as a familiar background for battles of social status and inane gossip. Both Highbury and Bronson Alcott High School display rigid social hierarchies in their own self-contained spheres, which have a pronounced impact on the character’s lives.
The titular personality in Jane Austen’s novel, Emma Woodhouse, is reimagined in Clueless as Cher Horowitz, a soon-to-be sixteen-year old living in Beverly Hills. Both Emma and Cher are portrayed as extremely wealthy, manipulative, and vain. As Austen first characterized, their fathers overindulge them, and without a maternal figure to temper them, both women reign supreme over their personal social circles. They are spoiled by a lavish lifestyle- a cell phone, high-tech wardrobe, and new Jeep for Cher, and handmade gowns, fine carriages, and picnics for Emma. Though modern interpretations of wealth and power look different than they did hundreds of years ago, the concepts are the same, used by both Clueless and Emma to accentuate the protagonists’ lack of restraint. While human personality has remained constant, social norms have evolved drastically.
In modernizing Clueless, Heckerling addressed the notable change in societal standards towards a progressive mindset. Heckerling makes her first change to Emma with the addition of Dione, Cher’s best friend, who has no exact equivalent in the original novel. Dionne is a wealthy young African–American, as is her boyfriend Murray. Heckerling uses these characters to showcase modern diversity while adding entertaining elements to the movie, particularly Dionne and Murray’s tumultuous teenage romance. Additionally, Heckerling utilizes Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and those of Persian ethnicity in contrast to the Caucasian-centric society of nineteenth century England, reflecting the American melting pot. In a continued push for diversity, we are introduced to Christian, a new student Cher fancies herself in love with.
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