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‘Clueless’ Is Still the Best Jane Austen Adaptation

Twenty-five years later, the classic Amy Heckerling teen rom-com is also the cleverest remake in a very crowded field

Adam Villacin

It’s a universally acknowledged truth that any girl who watched Amy Heckerling’s Clueless during the 1990s must be in want of a fashion closet. The film’s opening computerized closet sequence is seared into the millennial collective memory—a representation of what the future could look like (leopard print, plaid, apps that tell you which of your outfits scream “MISMATCH!”). Many aspects of Clueless, but particularly its clothes, can be described only as iconic. Can you look at a spaghetti tank dress over a white T-shirt without thinking of Cher’s P.E. uniform?

Released in July 1995, Clueless earned more than $10 million in its first week—a definitive hit, especially for its genre. Heckerling’s high school rom-com, starring a young Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz, grossed more than $56 million worldwide. The film was so popular it even spurred a TV spinoff that ran for three seasons, spanning 62 episodes and two different television networks. Clueless turns 25 years old this month; if Clueless were a character in its own universe, it would be home from college and ready to hook up with its stepsister. But its monumental influence has only grown, from its helpful driving tips (don’t take the freeway!) to its now-shared vernacular (“As if”).

Heckerling’s film classic, however, pays tribute to an even older literary classic. It updates Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma for 1990s Beverly Hills. What works so well about the adaptation is just how well it, like, totally works. Watching Clueless, one might not even catch its Emma references—nor is catching those references actually necessary to appreciate Heckerling’s masterpiece, which in 2020 inspires nostalgia for the American 1990s as much as Great Books of Yore. Instead of Austen’s letters and notes, Heckerling’s film uses cell phones and payphones to generate narrative tension. The crucial scene in the novel, when Emma paints Harriet’s portrait to entice Mr. Elton’s fancy, becomes Cher taking a photograph of Tai (Brittany Murphy) for Elton (Jeremy Sisto) to hang in his locker. The film even adapts Austen’s period fashion in a specifically ’90s way, with Cher frequently wearing empire waist/babydoll dresses (one so iconic that it gets copied in the film by Amber). Clueless is one of the best films of 1995 not despite, but because it manages—and I quote Cher quoting that Polonius guy in Hamlet—“to thine own self be true.” It remains the smartest Hollywood adaptation of serious British literature because it leans into its subversive portrayal of “dumb girls” and “girly things.” It is the best Jane Austen film adaptation not despite, but because it learns to leave Austen behind.

To call Clueless the best Austen film adaptation is no small praise. Since the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film starring Laurence Olivier as Darcy (who else), there was a steady rise of Austen adaptations that peaked around the time of Clueless. 1995 alone was a kind of annus mirabilis for Austen films—giving us not only Clueless, but also Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, the first Persuasion film, and of course the iconic BBC Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. The next year saw not one but two Emma adaptations: the British ITV version featuring a young Kate Beckinsale and what is, I think, legally known as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma. Patricia Rozema’s somewhat controversial rendering of Mansfield Park came out in 1999, rounding out the century, perhaps appropriately.

While there have continued to be Austen adaptations, the 21st-century iterations feel more like hangovers from the 1990s—remakes of the remakes. Modern twists like Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) clearly take their lead from Heckerling, while also citing the romantic powers of Colin Firth and Hugh Grant in their ’90s Austen films. Joe Wright’s atmospheric 2005 Pride & Prejudice featuring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen was well-received, but only in comparative contrast to Simon Langton’s version a decade ago. (Some friends of mine claim Wright’s to be the better version, and they are wrong.) There have been a few decent Austen films this century—such as Jon Jones’s underrated Northanger Abbey (2007) with Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan and Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan in Love & Friendship (2016), which stars a more mature Beckinsale—but these adaptations are notable in drawing on Austen’s most self-ironizing narratives. As University of British Columbia assistant professor Lise Gaston (who’s teaching an Austen on film course this fall) pointed out to me, “Love & Friendship is so interesting because it’s a pretty straight adaptation of a parody.” Autumn de Wilde’s most recent adaptation of Emma draws tonal cues from The Favourite, though it fails to commit to the perverse sadism of Yorgos Lanthimos’s period drama.

Austen’s second life in American popular culture feels both inevitable and unexpected, given the likability of Emma’s main character. Austen is, for one, an undeniable cultural giant—queen of the British literary tradition, and perhaps queen of all that a great, and I mean truly great, English novel can do. The efficiency and wit of Austen’s literary voice helped invent and perfect a kind of close third-person narration that Clueless streamlines in Silverstone’s perfectly pitched voiceover. The brilliance of Heckerling’s adaptation is its flair for analogy: not just between Emma and Clueless, but between Cher’s contained universe and everything else. Cher’s inability to read the world beyond her narrow set of cultural references reflects the narcissism of the book’s main character. As Austen’s novel famously begins: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” By Austen’s own admission, Emma would be “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” And she wasn’t totally off. Sir Walter Scott, who adored Pride and Prejudice, thought Emma didn’t have much of a plot. Austen personally sent a copy of the book to Maria Edgeworth, who couldn’t get past the first volume. But in Clueless, Cher’s narcissism actually becomes a way to read her more sympathetically.

When Cher mispronounces “Haitians” in debate class or donates skis to charity, the film isn’t villainizing or even making fun of her so much as contextualizing her limited, if also well-meaning, point of view. Austen’s hot, rich heroine who had “very little to distress or vex her” might have appeared boring to Scott, but the whole point of Emma is that Emma keeps missing the point. She’s not so much perverse, as de Wilde’s more recent film suggests, as she is limited in perspective. As suggested by its title, Clueless leans into what makes Emma endearing to Austen.

More than any other Emma adaptation, Clueless nails the central appeal of Austen’s difficult character by embracing her devastatingly narrow point of view. And that’s part of the pleasure of Heckerling’s adaptation, too: It represents a heroine who seems like she was basically born yesterday. In the 1990s, Cher Horowitz was the only modern-day Austen heroine who was, well, actually modern. Recall Cher’s voiceover while walking up to her house for the first time: “Isn’t my house classic? The columns date all the way back to 1972.” And her next line after entering the front parlor, which displays a massive portrait of her mother in 1970s dress: “Wasn’t my mom a total Betty? She died when I was young—a freak accident during a routine liposuction.”

Clueless is littered with contemporary cultural references, and it unabashedly inhabits the specific cultural milieu of wealthy, if also tacky, 1990s LA. In doing so, it remains surprisingly true to Austen’s novels themselves, which focus largely on England’s high-bourgeois society, and especially Emma, which features Austen’s richest heroine by far. As critics from postcolonial scholar Edward Said to Marxist critic Raymond Williams have noted, world history in Jane Austen’s novels largely take place offstage. Austen’s fiction doesn’t document Britain’s colonial expansion per se, though it does express the material consequences of its imperial takeover: Think of the snuff box in Emma, the Indian shawls from Mansfield Park, or anytime someone describes property (acres, estates, parks) or imported goods (muslin, mahogany). Austen excels at depicting a certain milieu of monied elites, yet “money of other kinds, from the trading houses, from the colonial plantations, has no visual equivalent,” writes Williams. As a friend who saw Clueless in theaters explains, the cultural references in Clueless actually mirror Austen’s largely abstracted representation of wealth. For instance: We learn in the first scene that Cher’s father is a litigator who makes $500 an hour. This is important. It is also important that we never learn what exactly Cher’s father does as a litigator.

Cher’s cataloging and aestheticizing impulse, in loving shopping, fashion, makeup, and boys, is parodically ’90s, a send-up of her own time period just as Austen teased out Emma’s elitism during hers. Many of Cher’s references—Christian Slater, Luke Perry, and Pauly Shore movies—are woefully specific to that decade. The scene when Cher and Christian dance to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones feels doubly funny now in a kind of “Remember the Mighty Mighty Bosstones?” way. The frequent references to Mel Gibson in a film from 1995, the year before Braveheart won Best Picture, have an aura of almost inevitability in retrospect.

But just as Cher feels like a distinct voice of a bygone generation, Clueless is also littered with cultural references to a more distant past. Heckerling’s truly inspired naming of Travis Birkenstock as the film’s modern-day Robert Martin links its contemporary sandal-wearing skateboarding stoner to the novel’s literal farmer. (The fact that Travis is always being shunned to his “grassy knoll” on campus is one of my favorite jokes in the film.) The entire character of Christian Stovitz (the contemporary avatar for Emma’s Frank Churchill) is a throwback to an American Jazz Age that Cher’s father remembers (“You think the death of Sammy Davis left an opening in the Rat Pack?”) but Cher definitely does not (“Billie Holiday?” “I love him.”). Even cultural references that aren’t from the ’90s feel uniquely ’90s. Cher’s explanation about how she and best friend Dionne are “both named after famous singers of the past who now do infomercials” actually gets funnier with time when you think about it as a specifically ’90s joke. Today, Clueless reads like a period piece from literally another century.

Other Austen adaptations such as Mansfield Park attempt to update Austen’s novels by giving their heroines protofeminist or abolitionist opinions in bonnets, but Clueless, with its modern trappings, feels remarkably true to the spirit of Emma because of its fundamental conservatism. Austen’s novels aren’t radical in any sense; the very bones of her marriage plots are about maintaining a kind of liberal equilibrium amid middle to upper-middle-class society. I mean, Emma really does marry her brother-in-law in Austen’s novel—a perfect romantic ending that also manages to keep it in the family. Heckerling plays on this in a remarkably self-critical way, with Cher’s parody of Emma’s cluelessness reflecting the broader cluelessness of the American ’90s. Her famous Haitians speech ends with the reminder that “it does not say ‘RSVP’ on the Statue of Liberty”—a fantasy about the first free country in the world. The multiracial casting choices, exemplified by characters such as Cher’s best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), Dionne’s boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison), and Summer (Nicole Bilderback), are a product of the ’90s, but also reveal the limits of racial representation when it comes to both Austen and Hollywood. For Dionne and Summer, class ultimately trumps race as the determining factor of character—a reminder of how Austen’s descriptions of clothing, land, and houses work to inform readers of characters’ economic and thus social status. Heckerling emphasizes Cher’s combined racial and class privilege in what might be the film’s most daring adaptation of Austen’s gross carriage scene: when she’s held at gunpoint outside a Circus Liquor in North Hollywood after being ditched by Elton. The fact that the film continues to milk this scene for jokes (“This is an Alaïa!”) makes clear the bubble of white safety in which Cher—and indeed the entire film—operates.

Just as Clueless remains more faithful to the social structures organizing Austen’s novels, it also works harder than most other adaptations to expand the film’s representation about its narrow social milieu. Tai, for instance, is the film’s example of peak diversity: “You guys got coke here?” to which Cher responds, “Yeah, this is America.” Emma’s narcissism is the central crux of, well, Emma. And it’s a narcissism that even the OG Emma finds increasingly hard to maintain. Austen’s novel contains a pivotal scene in which Emma is humbled after Mr. Knightley chides her for insulting Miss Bates (“How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!”), but Clueless has no version of Miss Bates. Instead, Clueless’s equivalent scene that prompts Cher’s moral epiphany is actually when she insults her maid (“Lucy, you know I don’t speak Mexican!”) only to be chided by the film’s Mr. Knightley, Josh (Paul Rudd), who explains that “Lucy’s from El Salvador”:

Cher: So?

Josh: So, it’s an entirely different country.

Cher: What does that matter?

Josh: You get mad if anyone thinks you live below Sunset.

Against the backdrop of the rest of the world, the smallness of Cher’s perspective is skewered with surprising precision. What follows is Cher’s failed driving test and then dejected Rodeo Drive walk (“I wonder if they have that in my size?”) as she ponders why Josh’s criticism about Lucy affects her this much. The answer here, as in Jane Austen, is of course love.

Later on, a newly smitten Cher watches a CNN broadcast about war-torn Bosnia with Josh, though not without a little bit of confusion. “I thought they declared peace in the Middle East,” Cher muses, to which Josh responds with a smile. Clueless, like Josh, brings a degree of satirical warmth to Austen’s heroine that is fundamentally generous. It’s why it’s important that Cher is associated with burgeoning young love—that she’s “a virgin who can’t drive.” Because being “stupid” for Austen and for Heckerling doesn’t necessarily mean being bad. This is partly what de Wilde’s more recent adaptation gets wrong: Emma isn’t so perversely naughty as she is, um, clueless.

Austen adaptations have certainly not waned since Clueless, and much of the best followers are a direct result of Heckerling’s influence. For if Austen was previously seen as a buttoned-up, bonneted throwback to another era with limited stakes, then Heckerling’s update made her relevant to a new generation of Americans struggling to transcend their own social bubbles. That Heckerling managed to do this through an easy 90-minute high school rom-com is all the more dazzling. In fact, Heckerling’s and Austen’s influence might ultimately be better felt today not in costume drama adaptations, but in the contemporary romantic comedy, which continues to draw on self-ironizing wit (girly shit can be smart—and it can in fact surprise you with just how smart because you assume they’re dumb). Since Clueless, though, most Austen adaptations have failed to capture the effervescent energy of Heckerling’s teen rom-com, which came out at the end of the American Century—both literally and spiritually. Less than a decade after the movie’s premiere, Cher witnessed the dot-com bubble. Before she turned 30, she was faced with the 2008 economic recession. And, in 2020, she might even be reminded—not without a little bit of melancholy—about how Jane Austen once wrote a great work of fiction named Clueless under quarantine.

Jane Hu is a writer and PhD candidate living in Oakland.