90s Teen Hit ‘Clueless’ was Inspired by a Jane Austen Novel

Steve Palace
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Clueless made an unexpectedly big splash in the movie world back in 1995. Not only did it reap box office rewards, but it also became a defining teen comedy. Lines of dialogue are quoted even today and it turned lead Alicia Silverstone into a major star.

However, some who watch and enjoy the film may be surprised at its origins. Because the inspiration for writer/director Amy Heckerling came from nearly 200 years previously. The story and characters were an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Emma.

A 2015 article for Bustle.com said Clueless reinvented Emma in “much in the same way that Bridget Jones’ Diary updated Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.”

Alicia Silverstone holding shopping bags in a scene from the film ‘Clueless’, 1995. Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

Though the translation from a sleepy English village of the 19th century to the sunshine and egos of Nineties Beverly Hills is reportedly a loose one, there are direct connections between the modern movie and its historic counterpart.

Silverstone played Cher Horowitz, a seemingly shallow and popular high school student, obsessed with fashion and setting up her friends. For readers of Emma, the comparisons are obvious.

Title page from 1909 edition of ‘Emma’

In describing both characters, Bustle wrote about how each young woman is “well regarded by her family and her community, with manipulation as her major weakness… She lives in wealth with her indulgent father after her mother dies.”

Yet there is a family tragedy beneath the attractive surface. The blog Jane Austen’s World observed, “Like Emma, Cher is motherless. Whereas Emma’s mama died a natural death, Cher’s mom died from the complications of liposuction on a plastic surgeon’s table. Both Cher and Emma are rich, bored, and meddlesome.”

Portrait of Jane Austen, c. 1810

This meddlesome quality formed the narrative backbone of Clueless. Just as Emma interfered in the life of Harriet Smith, so Cher decided to give the image and love life of social misfit Tai (played by the late Brittany Murphy) a serious makeover.

Bustle.com wrote, “Harriet is an outsider because she is lower class, while Tai is the new kid in school. While both defer to the judgment of their mentors, they ultimately know what’s best for themselves.”

1898 illustration of Mr. Knightley and Emma Woodhouse, Volume III chapter XIII

There’s a strong similarity between the characters of Mr. Knightley and Cher’s best friend Josh (future Ant-Man Paul Rudd). They eventually capture the heroine’s heart, though before this they had a relationship that was more like brother and sister.

In some ways, the two stories are very different. Jane Austen’s World remarked, “Who can forget Cher’s mugging, where she resists lying down on the ground in her designer outfit, even with a gun to her head?”

Justin Walker and Alicia Silverstone in a scene from the film ‘Clueless’, 1995. Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

One of the biggest shifts involved the character of Frank Churchill. In 2017 The Telegraph referred to Emma’s potential love interest as “the Ryan Gosling of Highbury”, though as it transpired the tag is ill-deserved. Churchill was secretly engaged, and cheating on his beloved Jane Fairfax.

It’s safe to say the 1995 version took some liberties. As written on Jane Austen’s World blog, Churchill was transformed into “Christian, a disco-dancing, Oscar-Wilde-reading, Streisand-ticket-holding-friend-of-Dorothy cake boy”. Cher’s interest was always doomed to failure.

In 1816 the editors of The New Monthly Magazine noted Emma’s publication, but chose not to review it.

Modern audiences got to judge the contrast for themselves when Douglas McGrath’s period adaptation of Emma was released a year on from Clueless.

Another box office success, it starred Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role. Toni Collette played Harriet, Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley and Ewan McGregor took the role of Churchill.

Gwyneth Paltrow. Photo by Andrea Raffin CC BY SA 3.0

It was released at a time when Clueless was still fresh in popular culture. Cher’s catchphrase “As if!” — which Heckerling used after researching the lifestyles of Beverly Hills teens — made a particular impression, and the film went on to become a TV series, a book range and, inevitably, a musical.

Read another story from us: Robert Zemeckis to Remake ‘The Witches’ – Angelica Huston not Impressed

Paramount is currently developing a remake. Another movie take on Austen’s Emma is reportedly arriving in 2020.