When we first encounter the respective heroines and their situations in Austen??™sEmma and Heckerling??™s Clueless, we are struck by an odd commonality, in spite ofthe chasm of time and tradition which stands between them. This shared quality isself-centredness; specifically, each protagonists??™ tendency to place herself and herinner circle at the proverbial centre of the universe. But these two young women arerepresented in utterly disparate contexts, reflecting the quantum leap that societalnorms, values and mores took between Regency England and 1990s USA. And thecreative opportunities open to Heckerling in film (as apposed to novel) as she drawsher complex contemporary incarnation of Emma are so manifold that this was hergenre of choice. Three key advantages of this form clearly evident in Clueless are: acolourful and clearly drawn diegesis, first person narration by the heroine and an auralbombardment of character voices.Students of Emma often lament the seemly laborious passages of exposition whichacquaint us with the characters, landscapes and domiciles of Highbury.
Irrespectiveof the validity of this protest, Heckerling has made a conscious move to avoidsuch narrative exhaustiveness in her rendering of Emma and the youth-dominatedBeverly Hills precinct. She does this by employing techniques at the beginning ofthe film including establishing shots oozing opulence and privilege and a thematicmontage set to the revamped 1980s anthem ???Kids in America???. The latter is featuredas both an orientation and an opening credits sequence. The song title itself neatlyand comprehensively conveys the spine of Clueless, and in conjunction with theintroductory shots of Cher Horowitz having a fantastically carefree time with herfriends, the strong yet feminine lead vocals and the full lighting (rendering the shotsdistinctly ???happy??™, as mandated by the inscrutable Heckerling), serves to set thetone of the film and concurrently prepare the narrative soil for its complication. Itgoes without saying that this approach to establishing the diegesis is infinitely moreeconomical than Austen??™s endless musings on interiors and side-dishes, but whetherit is more satisfying or stimulating ??“ even on the level of visual imagery ??“ is anotherquestion entirely. Further to this, there is the matter of the omniscient versus thepersonal.
These two approaches have been employed by Austen and Heckerlingrespectively in their storytelling, but it must be noted that Heckerling invites Cher tosoliloquise cyclically and selectively, maintaining a narrative distance like Austen??™sfor 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 pointsof difference and serve to deepen the dramatic irony already deluging the hair-flickingheroine. She betrays, for instance, a mercenary and superior attitude concerningher family??™s position and wealth, but later finds Elton??™s similar prejudices utterlyrepugnant. But eventually, in a highly improbable departure from her unapologeticallyspoilt 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 andnarrative 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 thatvery heavy-handedness that underlines every move and every utterance of the brashadolescent gaggle of the Clueless elite. Similarly appropriate then, is Heckerling??™scrafting of character exchanges. Austen has a proclivity for layering irony, barbs,insight, innuendo and wit inside highly formal dialogue (see Mr. Knightly andMrs Weston??™s smiling joust in Chapter V of Part !, for instance), and Heckerlinghas 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 thecharacters, and more importantly, in capturing the spirit of the 90s USA teengeneration, 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 pastAusten??™s work into cultural posterity, the opposite is in fact true. This speaks of thetimelessness, authenticity and authority of Austen??™s character creations; Emma chiefamong them.