When Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Emma came out in 2020, several of my friends noted to me, “This is the same plot as Clueless!”
I’ve earned a reputation among my friend group as the resident Jane Austen fan, and most of my attempts to persuade them classics are cool got dismissed. We were in college. Who had time to read classics for fun? I did. Or at least, I made time for it. (I was lots of fun at parties, thank you very much.)
So when my friends told me that Emma and Clueless had the same plot, it took everything in me not to tell them that if they had read Jane Austen, like I recommended, they would’ve picked up on it from the start.
Emma, Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, follows a young, privileged woman who, despite her own disinterest in romance, enjoys setting up her friends and peers with one another. She ends up entangled in several romantic attachments of her own, to varying degrees of success, heartbreak, and life lessons.
Clueless, a staple of sleepovers and middle school birthday parties since its premiere in 1995, also follows a young, privileged woman who, despite her own disinterest in romance, enjoys setting up her friends and peers with one another. And she ends up entangled in several romantic attachments, to varying degrees of success, heartbreak, and life lessons.
Using classics as inspiration for modern adaptations was not a new or revolutionary idea when writer-director Amy Heckerling used Jane Austen as the basis for her teenage comedy about rich teenagers in Beverly Hills: Stephen Sondheim had adapted Romeo and Juliet as West Side Story, and Shakespeare himself had written Romeo and Juliet based on preexisting material. But at the time of Clueless’s release, it benefited from being on the precipice of a Jane Austen renaissance: the film came out in the spring of 1995, and the following four years would see five major Jane Austen adaptations, as well as the publication of Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, which not only paralleled the plot of Pride and Prejudice but also used the surname Darcy for its romantic hero.
Adapting a novel about rural England in the Regency era requires its modifications when shifting the action to a high school in 1990s Los Angeles. They changed elements of Emma to smooth out the logistics of Clueless: instead of Emma’s governess being paired off with a wealthy businessman, Cher sets up her debate teacher with a sweet, if dorky, member of the faculty at her high school. Emma falls for someone out to be a player and engaged to someone else—and Cher has a crush on a new student… who’s gay.
The basics of the plot are there: Emma and Mr. Knightley have banter that lays the foundation for an eventual romance; Cher’s arguments with her former stepbrother Josh have an undercurrent of attraction to them (despite their individual protestations). Emma disapproves of her friend Harriet’s attraction to a farmer; her friend Tai’s crush on a sweet stoner distresses Cher. Emma has a portrait of Harriet made to attract a suitor, and Cher stages a photo shoot of Tai to give the photos to a boy. Even more glaringly, specific details from Clueless come directly from Emma: both Cher and Emma are the object of desire to a character called Elton (Elton, an arrogant classmate / Mr. Elton, an ambitious vicar). There’s enough there to delight newcomers to Emma and thrill Austenites watching Clueless.
The redressing of classic stories for modern audiences speaks to the idea that stories can be universal regardless of setting—it’s the basics that matter. It’s seeing Cher and Emma learn to grapple with the consequences of matchmaking people like they are their own personal Barbie and Ken dolls. It’s the thrill of the young lovers finally realizing they have loved one another all their lives. Classics become re-popularized, both in new adaptations and retellings, because there’s a universality to them. If Regency England is an unrelatable setting, maybe a modern high school is more palatable. Classic stories reappear in the culture because there’s a relatability there—regardless of where it’s set or what the specifics of the story are, the basic elements of Emma translate well to Clueless: embarrassment, delight, first love, true love. It’s enough to make me wonder what the next revolutionary transformation of a Jane Austen story will be.