When we first encounter the respective heroines and their situations in Austen??™s
Emma and Heckerling??™s Clueless, we are struck by an odd commonality, in spite of
the chasm of time and tradition which stands between them. This shared quality is
self-centredness; specifically, each protagonists??™ tendency to place herself and her
inner circle at the proverbial centre of the universe. But these two young women are
represented in utterly disparate contexts, reflecting the quantum leap that societal
norms, values and mores took between Regency England and 1990s USA. And the
creative opportunities open to Heckerling in film (as apposed to novel) as she draws
her complex contemporary incarnation of Emma are so manifold that this was her
genre of choice. Three key advantages of this form clearly evident in Clueless are: a
colourful and clearly drawn diegesis, first person narration by the heroine and an aural
bombardment of character voices.
Students of Emma often lament the seemly laborious passages of exposition which
acquaint us with the characters, landscapes and domiciles of Highbury. Irrespective
of the validity of this protest, Heckerling has made a conscious move to avoid
such narrative exhaustiveness in her rendering of Emma and the youth-dominated
Beverly Hills precinct. She does this by employing techniques at the beginning of
the film including establishing shots oozing opulence and privilege and a thematic
montage set to the revamped 1980s anthem ???Kids in America???. The latter is featured
as both an orientation and an opening credits sequence. The song title itself neatly
and comprehensively conveys the spine of Clueless, and in conjunction with the
introductory shots of Cher Horowitz having a fantastically carefree time with her
friends, the strong yet feminine lead vocals and the full lighting (rendering the shots
distinctly ???happy??™, as mandated by the inscrutable Heckerling), serves to set the
tone of the film and concurrently prepare the narrative soil for its complication. It
goes without saying that this approach to establishing the diegesis is infinitely more
economical than Austen??™s endless musings on interiors and side-dishes, but whether
it is more satisfying or stimulating ??“ even on the level of visual imagery ??“ is another
question entirely. Further to this, there is the matter of the omniscient versus the
personal. These two approaches have been employed by Austen and Heckerling
respectively in their storytelling, but it must be noted that Heckerling invites Cher to
soliloquise cyclically and selectively, maintaining a narrative distance like Austen??™s
for much of the film by the way the way of the camera: cinema??™s omniscient narrator.
Still, the moments in which Cher speaks candidly to the viewer are noteworthy points
of difference and serve to deepen the dramatic irony already deluging the hair-flicking
heroine. She betrays, for instance, a mercenary and superior attitude concerning
her family??™s position and wealth, but later finds Elton??™s similar prejudices utterly
repugnant. But eventually, in a highly improbable departure from her unapologetically
spoilt introductions, she comments on her own ???cluelessness??™ during the denouement,
and all is well.
All of this seems very heavy-handed next to Austen??™s more detached, refined and
narrative and the nuances of her characterisation (see Mrs Weston, for instance),
but it is still distinctly advantageous as an approach to rebirthing Emma, as it is that
very heavy-handedness that underlines every move and every utterance of the brash
adolescent gaggle of the Clueless elite. Similarly appropriate then, is Heckerling??™s
crafting of character exchanges. Austen has a proclivity for layering irony, barbs,
insight, innuendo and wit inside highly formal dialogue (see Mr. Knightly and
Mrs Weston??™s smiling joust in Chapter V of Part !, for instance), and Heckerling
has metamorphosed this into something almost unrecognisable in Clueless. Still,
the elements of heckerling??™s partly gleaned, partly invented lexicon (from ???Audi??™

to ???Whatever??™) are so effective in conveying the foibles and machinations of the
characters, and more importantly, in capturing the spirit of the 90s USA teen
generation, that these words have taken on a life of their own and, in some cases,
have even been absorbed into the modern colloquial repertoire of Western society.
While this astonishing outcome may seem to skyrocket Heckerling??™s film past
Austen??™s work into cultural posterity, the opposite is in fact true. This speaks of the
timelessness, authenticity and authority of Austen??™s character creations; Emma chief
among them.

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