Emma and Clueless

In comparing the two texts you have become aware of how the contexts of the
texts have chaped their form and meaning, OR, more interestingly, is a
comparison of the values associated with each text. To what extent has this
point of view been your experience?
The process of transformation re-expresses a story told for one
audience’s time and context, using methods appropriate to another time and
context. Thus in the transformation of Jane Austen’s classic novel of
manners Emma, told for a readership of complacent 19th century gentry, into
Heckerling’s post-modern teen-pic Clueless, told for a cinema audience of
average teens, Austen’s original directives mutate as the context’s shift
and additional impulses emerge. Through director Amy Heckerling’s
manipulation of cinematic techniques, the setting and timeframe have been
changed as well as the social milieu, however, similarities still exist
alongside the cultural and historical discrepancies.

Both Austen and Heckerling write with an immense sense of fun about
the social circle they moved in and understood, both composers adopting the
same fondly indulgent but mildly critical attitude towards the characters
and societies they depict. The shift in the composer’s context however,
reveals a change not only in time and setting but also in the society, and
the values the composer depicts.

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The transformation of Emma’s 19th century rural English village, into the
heart of 20th century America’s consumerist culture, shows the extent of
Heckerling’s modification of cultural and historical contexts in the
transformation process. Both texts however, depict an enclosed microcosm of
society, the narrowness of the social circle making correct behaviour
imperative. In Emma’s world, Highbury is a rigidly structured society in
which manner’s are of the upmost importance, and knowledge of family and
background is vital. In this 19th century world, values are based on
welath, property, birth and marriage. Highbury is a small village where
everyone knows eachother by name and the strict social hierarchy is evident-
a living situation not unlike that experienced by Austen herself, albeit
far removed from those experienced by comtemporary readers. Using
descriptive authorial commentary, AUsten carefull establishes her setting
and characters- a task achieved by Heckerling in seconds. However, where
Austen emphasises issues on the strictures and conventions of 19th century
England, Clueless invokes a contemporary culture defined by materialism and

With the obvious advantage of a visual medium, in the opening shots
of Clueless the viewer is absorbed into a whirlwind of movement, garishly
bright colours, and music as a montage of laughing, flriting, happy, ‘Kids
in America’, and images of the heroine, Cher, laden with shopping bags
visually establish the social milieu that is to be explored in the film.

Through the use of fast motion camera shots, Heckerlings setting is
extablished in seconds. While Emma, in gentile comfort, goes on picnics to
eat strawberries and holds card parties for old ladies, and is required to
consider the comfort and enjoyment of others rather than her own; Cher in
lollypop colours, parties with friends her own age, and is selfish in her
pleasures. Her reactions reinforced by an energetic and wittily relevan
soundtrack e.g ‘Kids in America’ in the opening sequence as they introduce
Cher and her friends, and “I wanna be a supermodel’ as Cher and Dionne
‘make-over’ Tai. In Cher’s world, Beverly Hills, USA, in the mid 1990’s,
values revolve around the materialistic trappings of money, including fast
cars, luxurious homes, beauty and image- and status is equated with assets.

As Cher picks out her uniform for the day from her computerised wardrobe,
the responder is informed via voice over- a technique used extensively by
Heckerling to show Cher’s dillusional views and naivety- that, ‘I actually
have a way normal life for a teenage girl’. Cher’s vast wardrobe and her
obsession with fashion and shopping reinforcing the superficialty of her
social context. Language is also used to show the change in contexts. While
Austen’s characters speak formally and politley; ‘But do not imagine that I
wish to influence you,’ Cher and co. speak in an exaggerated form of
contemporary slang; ‘Whatever! Di, I’m outtie…’.

Both Emma and Cher subscribe to their social norms, and both are
elitists in their own social circles. Both hold themselves in high esteem
and look down on those who do not meet the correct criteria. But whilst
Emma is more concerned with social rank, Cher is concerned with fashion and
materialism- another indicator of the difference in contexts. Just as Emma
is extremely class conscious, and does not want to be classed with the
likes of the ‘Mrs Elton’s, Mr’s Perry’s…’, within the social confines of
her Beverly Hills highschool, so too is Cher, rejecting Tai’s crush Travis
because he is a ‘loadie’ who wears baggy pants. Cher then informing Tai
that the only ‘acceptable ones’ (like Elton) are the popular and rich boys.

The importance of status and image is also shown by Heckerling in Dionne’s
reaction to Cher’s suggestion that they talk to Tai, the daggy new girl;
‘our stock will plummet’. The similarities between the two texts highlights
that while contexts and values may be modified, social hierarchies still
exist as the basis for classifying people.Contexts may change, but the
universal aspects of humanity do not.

The most important ideas and concerns in Austen’s Emma centre on
Emma’s moral development. This transformation of the heroine with the
‘disposition to think a little to well of herself’ is preserved in
Clueless- the protangonists paying for their delusive self-confidence by
way of painful humiliation. However, contrary to Emma’s ‘Box Hill’
incident, where she is deeply shaken by Mr Knightley’s. ‘ How could you be
so unfeeling to Miss Bates?’, and dedicates herself to better her attitude,
Cher’s slow and painful transormation in the 20th century seems somewhat
shallow in contrast. Even amidst her final self-examination, she becomes
distracted by a dress in a shop sindow, ‘ Ooh, I wonder if they have that
in my size?’. Thus much of the humor in the film derives from Cher’s total
lack of perception and her ignorance of anything other than fashion.

Similarly, in Emma, Austen satirises and exploits to the full the
misunderstanding and foibles of her characters, especially those of Emma in
order to show her delusional views. An example of this is the way in which
Emma misconstrues Mr Elton’s gallantry,’ I am very much astonished, Mr
Elton- this to me! You forget yourself- you take me for my friend!’ Hence
capturing the contradiction between reality and Emma’s self-deceptive

The new cultural values and attitudes of a 20th century world have
also shaped each text’s individual meaning, Heckerling updating the
outdated values and attitudes of Austen’s time to suit her modern audience
through the inclusion of contemporary issues such as sexuality, multi-
culturalism and virginity. While in Emma’ marriage is emphasised as a means
for providing econmic security and status for women, in Heckerling’s text
it becomes even less of an important issue as it is instead replaced by
modern society’s pre-occupation with sex- Just as Emma defies the social
norms of her time by remaining un-married, Cher shows defiance against
today’s sex obsessed society by remaining a virgin. Similarly, the
inclusion of ‘disco-dancing, Barbara Streisand singing’ Christian’s
homosexuality, and the portayal of Cher’s best friend as an African-
American woman highlight’s Heckerling’s modification of society’s values
and attitudes to today’s more accepting views towards sexuality and

As the medium changes from novel to film, the techniques employed by
the composer in order to tell their story must also change. Both Austen and
Heckerling present most events from the protagonist’s perspective, placing
the responder in a position to empathise with the heroine. Where Austen
achieves this through the use of third person omniscent intrusion [ example
]. The shift in authorial point of view avoids sentimentality and allows
for both humor and irony. Heckerling meanwhile, relies upon techniques such
as Cher’s use of the hand-held camera to allow the audience to see events
through Cher’s eyes.

While Austen uses irony to satirise Emma mostly through her speeches,
in Clueless Heckerling exaggerates the experiences of her characters,
pressing reality into the relam of fantasy e.g the fountain lighting up in
the background when Cher discovers she is in love, and the framed shot
placing Cher and Josh’s first kiss against the heart shape of the
staircase. Camera angles are also used to poke fun at Cher e.g in the scene
when Cher is robbed, Heckerling uses a high angle shot of Cher and creates
a dark and nasty atmosphere in order to shoe Cher’s hoplessness. Cher seems
more startled by the loss of her mobile than having a gun pointed in her
face, emphasising her foolishness and naivety. Through these techniques,
Heckerling exemplifies the ridiculousness of Cher’s world.