Page to Screen: Clueless (1995)

based on 
Emma by Jane Austen


As the cycle of nostalgia turns to gaze fondly at the nineties, I find myself in the unique position of actually having lived through the decade we’re remembering with determinedly rose-tinted glasses. True, I was a small, furious child being raised by a French Anglophile who actually forbade me from watching The Busy World of Richard Scarry at the time, but even some of the culture managed to trickle down to me, mainly through Sailor Moon, Pokémon, and Saved by the Bell repeats. (My mother swears to this day the show gave my brother a warped concept of high school. Personally, I think it just gave both her children a style icon in Zack Morris.)

But I was aware that there was a whole conversation that I was not privy to. There was a girl in my second elementary school who was obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio, to the point of showing off her Titanic t-shirt during recess. In the high noon sun of Georgia, she was resplendent on the asphalt of the playground in her ragged elephant flares. She possessed knowledge that I, who could name all of the Egyptian gods and cheat her way through entire campaigns of Warcraft II, did not. This was unacceptable.

Negotiations to view the film began soon after with the teenage girl who lived next door, who possessed two important things: the ability to find me amusing enough to hang out (without ratting on my brother, my tried and true technique for getting older girls to pay attention to me)  and both VHS tapes of the film. But I didn’t get far. Just as Rose stepped out of the carriage, Madame McBride soon summoned her girl child home, sixth sense undoubtedly stirred. Digimon soon distracted me, and I rode a wave of Japanese media into the new millennium.

So, while I look back at the nineties fondly, I actually have a very limited grasp on America’s monoculture during that time. Case in point: I began writhing at the sheer ninetiesness of the very first frame of Clueless—good Lord, is that bright, unnatural palette and font seared into my brain from just having eyes at the time. But Clueless is an urtext. It’s difficult for younger audiences to understand just how much influence it had, from bringing back Valley Girl Speak from the dead to starting new fashion trends to heralding a new age of teen films. It isn’t a capsule of the nineties; it’s a generating force of the decade. No wonder it’s had such a hold on the imagination of American women and such a warm place in their hearts.

Well, that and the fact that “You’re a virgin who can’t even drive” is perhaps the greatest insult ever written.

And on top of all of that, it’s an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, undoubtedly contributing to the rash of teen Shakespeare films that peppered the nineties. Supposedly, when director and writer Amy Heckerling was hired to write a teen film, she immediately thought of what she had been reading as a teenager. It’s a genius move, because it both reflects teenagers finding themselves in literature that wasn’t exactly meant for them (I should really get a remix culture flag drawn up one of these days so I can wave it at times like this) and manages to make an otherwise straight-forward romantic comedy about personal improvement.

Relocated to Beverly Hills in the early nineties, the main players map quite neatly onto their Clueless counterparts. Our Emma is Cher Horowitz, a spoiled silly rich girl whose ability to talk or manipulate people into doing whatever she wants has let her coast through life with her best friend Dionne. Our Harriet Smith is the hapless Tai, a goofy stoner that Cher is determined to make over into someone who will succeed socially, nudging her towards more and more acceptable crushes until she realizes she’s created a snob of a monster. (Class is brought up once, when Tai is rejected by Elton. Shame, it would have been interested to delve.) And Cher’s stepbrother Josh is George Knightley, right under Cher’s nose until she realizes that she’s in love with him.

(I will admit to being a little creeped out that he’s her stepbrother. I mean, there were so many other options! The boy next door! Her father’s protégé! Her father’s intern! Especially since it’s hinted that Mr. Horowitz is trying to fix them up. You can do better, the nineties.)

But as much time as the film focuses on pairing off characters, Cher’s distracted internal monologue finds her ultimately trying to find something meaningful to do. Not, of course, that the relationships she forges aren’t. I was petrified that Christian, the Frank Churchill counterpart who is unavailable because he’s gay, was going to be played for laughs, but Cher revisits their friendship later because Christian’s interest in art and design inspires her to be a better person. Everybody Cher knows has something, but she focuses on others. (Josh accuses her of trying to mother everyone she knows, because she herself is motherless.) Sure, Cher nabs Paul Rudd at the end of the movie, but she’s also put herself on the path to finding something that fulfills her without using other people as projects.

No wonder it’s so timeless, despite how screamingly dated it is. Plus, it’s sweetly funny; the characters aren’t exactly geniuses, but the film never mocks them for it. (In fact, when Josh’s girlfriend laughs at Cher for correcting her about a Hamlet quote, Cher calmly rubs the then-recent Mel Gibson adaptation in her face.) Instead, it focuses on their unique logic, like Cher realizing she does want a partner after almost dying on the freeway or Tai latching onto Coolio’s “Rolling with My Homies” as the song of her non-existent relationship with Elton. It’s loud, it’s bright, and its voice is so strong that it bent the mid-nineties to its aesthetic will. Nicely done, Ms. Heckerling.

Bottom line: Clueless is a smart, funny riff on Emma that makes a romantic comedy actually about personal development, on top of being an ur-text of the nineties. Nicely done, even if I could really do without Cher and Josh being legally related.

I watched this film on Netflix.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Clueless (1995)

  1. I adore Clueless. I was a teenager in the 90s too and it’s one of the teen movies from that period which I have the fondest memories of. And you’re right – it’s totally dated, yet completely timeless at the same time.

  2. Aw, the stepbrother thing is okay! That’s okay! They weren’t step-siblings as CHILDREN, right? They weren’t Westermarck-effected with each other! So it’s okay. Totally acceptable and adorable because no Westermarck effect and Paul Rudd is the cutest around.

    I’m giggling about your struggles to see Titanic. I begged and begged my mother to let me see it when I was twelve, and she said no no no, you can see it when you’re thirteen; and I said, when I’m thirteen I won’t care anymore. Which turned out to be perfectly true.

    • I intellectually know that, but it still… ugh. Plus: cute law intern would mean Paul Rudd in suits! But the nineties were full of gross, shapeless suits… I am so very torn.

      Ha! Have you seen it since? Do you care for it at all? (I actually really love it.)

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