From the 1990s to the present day, one trend occurs more often than any other in teen films – adaptations of classic literature. It may seem unwise to take inspiration from media that young people aren’t always interested in (how many of us grew to hate certain novels or plays due to over-analysing it in English class for months on end?). However, with strong characters and compelling story arcs, they became the most celebrated tales of all time, and a favourite framework for creating films about teenage life. From Shakespeare (10 Things I Hate About You) to the Scarlet Letter (Easy A), from plays (She’s The Man) to Pygmalion (She’s All That), these structures can often fly under the radar and create well-made films that stand as their own tales.
Few, if any, of these teen films, have found a place in as many hearts of fans young and old as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, based on Jane Austen’s Emma. This begs the question, why this one? The film sparked a trend of these adaptations that has gone on for two decades, but finding anything close to matching Heckerling’s use of characterisation and conversion is rare. Just as Austen’s book has in the field of literature, Heckerling’s Clueless has cemented itself as a classic in its own right.
The key aspect to this success, that lends its hand to the other triumphs of the film, is the character of Cher Horowitz herself. Cher, above all else, is cool. Even now, Cher’s outfits, an essential part of their character, are still flying off the shelves in fashion outlets, and this wouldn’t happen unless the audience engaged with her in such a strong way. Cher is a wealthy, spoiled 15 year old from Beverly Hills, maintaining her status as the most popular girl at school by focusing only on the superficial, such as image and reputation, as opposed to anything deeper, like personal relationships. On paper, this does not seem like a character audiences would relate to, let alone like.
However, the way Amy Heckerling presents Cher, both in her own direction and use of Austen’s Emma, allows audiences to root for, or even relate to, Cher, without being a wealthy socialite like she is. Cher does enough good deeds in the film, such as setting up two of her teachers to date, giving her teachers a happy, healthy relationship, as well as giving her class better grades. While popular girls are often stereotyped to be mean-spirited, Cher is, despite everything, a nice person. When she discovers her crush, Christian, is gay, she is not upset or angry, and remains friends with him, a rarity for the time. Additionally, her idea to take new girl to the school, Tai, under her wing and give her a makeover is not malicious, but with good intent to make her popular at the school. Cher may be kind, but she is certainly not a pushover. As someone who never dated in high school, I always appreciated the way Cher was presented as fulfilled without a boyfriend, and was picky about who she pursued romantically. Or as Cher explained “I’m not a prude, I’m just highly selective”. Cher doesn’t lower her expectations for rude, horny high school boys, and proudly stands up to them, as demonstrated by the iconic “as if!” scene. Peppering in a great since of humour in Cher’s dialogue allows audiences to find a kinship with the character, and Heckerling’s use of character is proactive for even the un-coolest of viewers.
Amy Heckerling’s lifts from Emma, and how she transforms them into a teen adaptation, help highlight the strength of Clueless’ characterisation. Emma’s central protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, shares obvious similarities to Cher, such as acting as provincialists in high-society settings, and resisting the pressure of romantic relationships. Heckerling’s portrayal of Californian “valley girl” culture, rather than Jane Austen’s setting of the upper-classes in the English countryside in the 19th century, allows the film to be modern, but not dated. Further use of Austen’s literary framework includes Cher’s reluctance to have a high school boyfriend, rather than old English pressure for marriage at that age (or as Cher jokes, “I’m only 16! This is California, not Kentucky!”). By using Austen’s principle ideas of the protagonist, one that is immersed – yet at odds – with the expectations upper-class society, allows Heckerling to create the much-loved character that is Cher Horowitz. With such a strong idea for a character in place, this allows Clueless to set Cher on an engaging cinematic journey.
What accelerates Cher’s character arc and creates her personal growth is her attempt to set up Tai with fellow popular kid Elton, an attempt that fails miserably. Cher has been portrayed from the beginning as “the negotiator”, taking notes from her litigator father to negotiate better grades, and negotiating her way as the queen bee of the school, with flashy designer clothes and fast cars she’s not even legally allowed to drive yet. In the middle of the arc, Cher finds true love cannot be negotiated. Christian, who she crushed on, was gay, something she did not realise. Elton, a rich, popular classmate that Cher thought she could trust, is revealed to have lied about liking Tai, who he views as socially beneath him, in order to get close to Cher. Ultimately Cher learns through Tai, a person she tries to mould into her social class, that appearances can be deceiving. What she perceived to be “better”, reared its ugly head and revealed itself to be harmful, shown most clearly through Elton’s manipulation. Cher’s attempt to steer Tai away from Travis, the skater/stoner that immediately clicks with her, because he lacks the social status that she aspires for Tai, proves disastrous.
When Christian rescues Tai from some thugs threatening to push her over the railings at the mall, the story becomes exaggerated to an attempted murder at gunpoint when Tai recalls it at school the next day, with everyone in school at her beck and call. Cher realises she’s turned Tai into a monster, and her new superficial nature, exaggerating her story for the sake of reputation, is repulsive, especially when she dismisses kind-hearted Travis while telling the story. As shown by Elton, good clothes, good cars and good reputation does not add up into a good person. This prompted Cher to tell him something that also applies to Tai-post makeover: “you’re a snob and a half!”. Her desperate final attempts to negotiate her way out of this, such as leading Tai away with Josh, prove ineffective, and lead Tai to reveal a startling thing to Cher, as well as the most iconic line of the film: “you’re a virgin who can’t drive”.
Just as the title tells us, Cher is clueless about her abilities as a negotiator, her social status and the world in general. Here, Amy Heckerling has used the character of Tai and Cher’s projected ambitions for her as the foil of the film that prompts her to change and develop. At this point of the film, Cher has just failed her driving test. While this is commonplace in real life, Heckerling’s use of Cher and her driving as a metaphor for the way she passes through life, carelessly knocking things over, but failing to grow into an experienced, fully licensed driver highlights Cher’s ignorance over her current state. Here, Heckerling takes the traditional “turning point” of a classic novel and used it to prompt Cher, and us as the audience, to reflect over Cher’s previous behaviour in the film and think about what she needs in order to change for the better. Here, Heckerling takes a final component of Emma, the romantic angle of the novel. The startling awakening from Tai (known as Harriet in Austen’s novel) prompts another revelation – that she is in love:
“A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched — she admitted — she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”
In Clueless, Mr. Knightley is none other than Cher’s ex-step brother Josh (played by the indubitable Paul Rudd). While having a central romance to the story is a staple of the teen movie genre, Heckerling’s use of Emma’s romantic angle to motivate and evolve both Josh and Cher is exceptional. At the beginning of the film, Josh and Cher are at total odds with one another, finding each other’s personalities grating and are unable to find a middle ground. Cher is materialistic and obsessed with status and appearance, something that she sees as essential to her survival in high school. Josh, a freshman at university, has become wise to the shallow nature of high school life, and has devoted himself to a more intellectual lifestyle, and taking part in various good causes. With differing ideologies, this causes them to butt heads. To Josh, Cher is shallow, uncaring, and lacking intelligence. To Cher, Josh is pretentious, lazy, and a snob.
However, throughout the course of the film they find each other to be supportive and motivational, and manage to fill in gaps the other one needs. Cher learns from Josh the power of helping people in a manner divorced from appearances. As Cher learns from Josh rescuing her from a horrific drive home with Elton, and Josh’s attempts to derail Cher’s disastrous makeover of Tai, appearances can be truly deceiving, and charitability is a better indicator of character. Once Cher realises her love for Josh, she adopts his humanitarianism, and helps run a relief effort for charity. While this could be a simple attempt to win Josh over, Cher’s actions out of Josh’s sight, such as encouraging fellow students to join her relief effort, even showing kindness towards Travis (who she viewed with contempt before) in doing so. She also revokes her previous disdain to Travis by redirecting Tai towards him. Travis himself has been working on his own flaws, to which an impressed Tai remarks “I didn’t know he was so motivated”. In turn, Josh realises that Cher has always been kind natured, even if her kindness is rooted in something superficial. Cher’s caring for her widowed father throughout the film, such as making sure he eats well, works well and calls his parents, is validated by Cher joining Josh in helping her father’s lawsuit case. Josh realises Cher’s good nature is only misdirected, and argues with a litigator for berating Cher’s mistakes and suggesting she should “go to the mall” instead.
Amy Heckerling’s use of Emma’s romantic arc allows Cher to become a more loving and appreciative person through her love for Josh, and creates a satisfying ending for the film, using the formula that made Jane Austen’s works some of the greatest novels of all time. Through her development, Cher learns to love people the way they are rather than needing to give them a makeover, and rejects judging on appearances for what’s underneath high school status. However, unlike many films of the genre, Cher does not change herself simply for the love of a boy. Through her endeavour of negotiating Tai’s, Cher aspires for girls as a whole to act in a less superficial way, and be more honest and loving. By the end of the film, Cher still loves fashion, her friends, and all things feminine. In a rather feminist stance by Heckerling, Josh realises he loves how much Cher cares about all these things, rather than encouraging her to adopt a more masculine behaviour. While this is, to an extent, still caring about appearance, Cher is doing so in a much healthier way. Furthermore, Heckerling adapts Austen’s ridicule of women being forced into subordination in the home and family life without choice. She modernises this by ridiculing standards for women about appearance, without criticising women who choose to do out of love for it rather than out of social cues. In many teen movies (Grease and She’s All That are good examples), young girls are moulded into a way that appeals more to their male counterparts. Heckerling’s clever adaptation of Austen’s feminist prose provides a healthier alternative for viewers, and allows Clueless to age well in the same way viewers will grow and learn from their own mistakes.
By Bethany Gemmell
Bethany Gemmell is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time. You can follow her on twitter @chandIermonica.