In comparing the two texts, you have become aware of how the contexts of the texts have shaped their form and meaning. More interestingly, a comparison of the values associated with each text is made. To what extent has this point of view been your experience?
The process of transformation re-expresses a story told for one audience’s time and context using methods appropriate to another time and context. Thus, in the transformation of Jane Austen’s classic novel of manners, Emma, told for a readership of complacent 19th-century gentry, into Heckerling’s post-modern teen-pic Clueless, told for a cinema audience of average teens, Austen’s original directives mutate as the contexts shift, and additional impulses emerge. Through director Amy Heckerling’s manipulation of cinematic techniques, the setting and timeframe have been changed, as well as the social milieu. However, similarities still exist alongside the cultural and historical discrepancies.
Both Austen and Heckerling write with an immense sense of fun about the social circle they moved in and understood, both composers adopting the same fondly indulgent but mildly critical attitude towards the characters and societies they depict. The shift in the composer’s context, however, reveals a change not only in time and setting but also in the society and the values the composer depicts.
The transformation of Emma’s 19th-century rural English village into the heart of 20th-century America’s consumerist culture shows the extent of Heckerling’s modification of cultural and historical contexts in the transformation process. Both texts, however, depict an enclosed microcosm of society. The narrowness of the social circle makes correct behaviour imperative.
In Emma’s world, Highbury is a rigidly structured society in which manners are of the utmost importance, and knowledge of family and background is vital. In this 19th-century world, values are based on wealth, property, birth, and marriage. Highbury is a small village where everyone knows each other by name, and the strict social hierarchy is evident – a living situation not unlike that experienced by Austen herself, albeit far removed from those experienced by contemporary readers.
Using descriptive authorial commentary, Austen carefully establishes her setting and characters – a task achieved by Heckerling in seconds. However, where Austen emphasizes issues on the strictures and conventions of 19th-century England, Clueless invokes a contemporary culture defined by materialism and consumerism.
With the obvious advantage of a visual medium, in the opening shots of Clueless, the viewer is absorbed into a whirlwind of movement, garishly bright colours, and music. A montage of laughing, flirting, happy ‘Kids in America,’ and images of the heroine, Cher, laden with shopping bags visually establishes the social milieu that is to be explored in the film.
Through the use of fast motion camera shots, Heckerling’s setting is established in seconds. While Emma, in gentle comfort, goes on picnics to eat strawberries and holds card parties for old ladies, and is required to consider the comfort and enjoyment of others rather than her own, Cher in lollipop colors parties with friends her own age and is selfish in her pleasures. Her reactions are reinforced by an energetic and wittily relevant soundtrack, e.g., ‘Kids in America’ in the opening sequence as they introduce Cher and her friends, and “I wanna be a supermodel” as Cher and Dionne ‘make-over’ Tai. In Cher’s world, Beverly Hills, USA, in the mid-1990s, values revolve around the materialistic trappings of money, including fast cars, luxurious homes, beauty, and image – and status is equated with assets.
As Cher picks out her uniform for the day from her computerized wardrobe, the responder is informed via voice-over – a technique used extensively by Heckerling to show Cher’s delusional views and naivety – that “I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl”. Cher’s vast wardrobe and her obsession with fashion and shopping reinforce the superficiality of her social context. Language is also used to show the change in contexts. While Austen’s characters speak formally and politely, “But do not imagine that I wish to influence you”, Cher and co. speak in an exaggerated form of contemporary slang, “Whatever! Di, I’m outtie…”.
Both Emma and Cher subscribe to their social norms, and both are elitists in their own social circles. Both hold themselves in high esteem and look down on those who do not meet the correct criteria. But while Emma is more concerned with social rank, Cher is concerned with fashion and materialism – another indicator of the difference in contexts. Just as Emma is extremely class-conscious and does not want to be classed with the likes of the “Mrs. Elton’s, Mr’s Perry’s…”, within the social confines of her Beverly Hills high school, so too is Cher, rejecting Tai’s crush Travis because he is a ‘loadie’ who wears baggy pants. Cher then informs Tai that the only ‘acceptable ones’ (like Elton) are the popular and rich boys.
The importance of status and image is also shown by Heckerling in Dionne’s reaction to Cher’s suggestion that they talk to Tai, the daggy new girl; “our stock will plummet”. The similarities between the two texts highlight that while contexts and values may be modified, social hierarchies still exist as the basis for classifying people. Contexts may change, but the universal aspects of humanity do not.
The most important ideas and concerns in Austen’s Emma center on Emma’s moral development. This transformation of the heroine with the “disposition to think a little too well of herself” is preserved in Clueless – the protagonist paying for her delusive self-confidence by way of painful humiliation. However, contrary to Emma’s “Box Hill” incident, where she is deeply shaken by Mr Knightley’s “How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates?” and dedicates herself to improving her attitude, Cher’s slow and painful transformation in the 20th century seems somewhat shallow in contrast. Even amidst her final self-examination, she becomes distracted by a dress in a shop window: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size?” Thus, much of the humor in the film derives from Cher’s total lack of perception and her ignorance of anything other than fashion.
Similarly, in Emma, Austen satirizes and exploits to the full the misunderstandings and foibles of her characters, especially those of Emma, in order to show her delusional views. An example of this is the way in which Emma misconstrues Mr. Elton’s gallantry: “I am very much astonished, Mr. Elton – this to me! You forget yourself – you take me for my friend!” Hence, capturing the contradiction between reality and Emma’s self-deceptive views.
The new cultural values and attitudes of a 20th century world have also shaped each text’s individual meaning, Heckerling updating the outdated values and attitudes of Austen’s time to suit her modern audience through the inclusion of contemporary issues such as sexuality, multiculturalism, and virginity.
While in Emma, marriage is emphasized as a means for providing economic security and status for women, in Heckerling’s text, it becomes even less of an important issue as it is instead replaced by modern society’s preoccupation with sex. Just as Emma defies the social norms of her time by remaining unmarried, Cher shows defiance against today’s sex-obsessed society by remaining a virgin. Similarly, the inclusion of “disco-dancing, Barbara Streisand singing” Christian’s homosexuality, and the portrayal of Cher’s best friend as an African-American woman highlight Heckerling’s modification of society’s values and attitudes to today’s more accepting views towards sexuality and multiculturalism.
As the medium changes from novel to film, the techniques employed by the composer in order to tell their story must also change. Both Austen and Heckerling present most events from the protagonist’s perspective, placing the responder in a position to empathize with the heroine. Where Austen achieves this through the use of third-person omniscient intrusion, the shift in authorial point of view avoids sentimentality and allows for both humor and irony. Heckerling, meanwhile, relies upon techniques such as Cher’s use of the handheld camera to allow the audience to see events through Cher’s eyes.
While Austen uses irony to satirize Emma mostly through her speeches, in Clueless Heckerling exaggerates the experiences of her characters, pressing reality into the realm of fantasy. For example, the fountain lighting up in the background when Cher discovers she is in love and the framed shot placing Cher and Josh’s first kiss against the heart shape of the staircase.
Camera angles are also used to poke fun at Cher. For instance, in the scene when Cher is robbed, Heckerling uses a high-angle shot of Cher and creates a dark and nasty atmosphere to show Cher’s hopelessness. Cher seems more startled by the loss of her mobile than having a gun pointed in her face, emphasizing her foolishness and naivety. Through these techniques, Heckerling exemplifies the ridiculousness of Cher’s world.