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Jane Austen’s many novels contain a complexity of thought and a depth of character that distinguish them from other stories; Emma is no exception to this general rule. In fact, Emma’s most winning trait may well be the well roundedness of its characters. Every character displays unique behaviors that reflect the realistic mix of good and bad habits that most individuals have. In fascinating contradiction to this is the one-dimensional character development occurring in Clueless, a 1995 movie adaptation of Emma. Clueless’s simplistic approach to plot and characterization both enhances and detracts from the original story of Emma. Regardless, Clueless’s concept of the personalities of Emma is effective in that it expands the whole range of possible interpretations of the novel.
Foremost in any discussion of Emma is Austen’s interestingly multi-dimensional portrayal of her protagonist, Emma. While Austen claimed to be writing of a character whom “no one” but herself would “much like”, Emma nonetheless seems winsome and good. The very first sentence of the novel describes her as “handsome, clever, and rich” and displaying some of the “best blessings of existence” (Austen 37). She has the “sense” and “energy” and “spirits” that others lack, and the care that she takes of her father is admirable (Austen 49). While Emma also seems very class-conscious and a little naive, Austen clearly establishes Emma as a character with only the best intentions. Austen does not hesitate to point out the faults of Emma; she does, however, avoid dwelling on them. For example, when Mr. Elton his love for Emma, she is “insulted” by the “arrogance” of this social “inferior”; she goes on to complain about the presumptuousness of someone of such lowly ties (Austen 154). This, along with Emma’s various other hierarchal remarks, illuminates Emma’s aristocratic, shallow side. At the same time, though, Emma’s good qualities constantly shine through. She admits that the “worst” error in the Elton incident was her own and regrets “making light” of something as serious as love, showing true remorse and realization of the wrongs of her matchmaking role (Austen 155). This pattern repeats throughout the novel; Emma seems blind to her faults but makes amends as soon as she recognizes them. Because of her good situation and good fortune, Emma is forced to acknowledge her faults only when she herself chooses to. The fact that Emma willingly, sincerely, and voluntarily tries to improve herself speaks greatly for character.
Clueless presents an image of Emma that more heavily emphasizes the negative parts of her personality. Cher, a Beverly Hills version of Emma, seems exaggeratedly shallow and superficial, and almost everything she does is motivated by self-interest. She sets up Mr. Hall and Ms. Geist partly for entertainment but mainly so that Mr. Hall will raise her grades, showing her selfish nature. Her condescension becomes clear when she declares, “Ooh, project!” upon seeing Harriet; her desire to use her popularity for a “good cause” stresses her arrogance. As she walks through her high school campus identifying the different social groups, the reader sees the same social awareness that Emma stressed. Perhaps the most startling moment of the movie, though, is when Cher tells Lucy that she doesn’t “speak Mexican”. Although Cher apologizes to Lucy, she does not grasp why this would be offensive or why she should go out of her way to care about someone else’s feelings. This seems like the greatest departure from the actual text of Emma; Emma may be interpreted as self-important from the book, but she seemed far more attentive to the feelings of others, too. As for the rest of Cher’s image, this take on Emma’s character can easily be supported from the writings in Emma. Jane Austen chose to emphasize the good qualities of Emma rather than the bad, but the bad qualities that Clueless chose to exploit are undoubtedly a part of Emma. This is where the brilliance of Clueless reveals itself; Clueless manages to change a likeable character to a hideous one by simply underscoring parts of Emma that Austen brushed past.
Jane Austen approaches Mr. Knightley, the other most interesting and important character in Emma, with the same kind of nonjudgmental tone as she did Emma. While he seems a very principled, kind man, Austen does not either fawn over Knightley or mention many of his bad characteristics. Knightley has “nothing of ceremony” (Austen 84) about him, instead being a man who values “sense” and “sincerity” (Austen 91). He is the “only one” to find fault with Emma; while this reveals how critical Knightley is, it also shows his honesty. Beyond this, one of the most attractive features of Knightley is his kindness. He is “gratified” when Emma finally attempts to overcome her jealousy for Jane Fairfax (Austen 185). He even sends over all of his apples to Jane, leaving for himself “not one” (Austen 246). In most ways Mr. Knightley seems a smart, kind person, but Austen never displays much enthusiasm for him, instead directing her attention towards Emma. Austen stresses neither Knightley’s faults nor his skills.
Josh, Clueless’s representation of Mr. Knightley, plays a much larger role in Clueless than Knightley does in Emma. His character, like that of Cher’s, is much more black-and-white in the movie than in the novel. How much harder could Clueless’s producers have tried to make Josh the perfect person? In one scene he wears an Amnesty International shirt while talking of a tree-planting meeting. Every time he appears he is doing something studious or productive; when he isn’t helping Emma’s father with legal documents, he is reading Nietzsche by the pool or watching national news broadcasts. While Emma focused little on Mr. Knightley, Clueless shamelessly beat the idea of a perfect Josh into the ground. Josh and Cher play perfect opposites in Clueless.
Clueless’s one-dimensionality of characterization is pivotal to its ability to enhance understanding of the original work, Emma. While lacking the sophistication of the original work, the breaking down of Emma and Mr. Knightley into more general categories makes the novel much more manageable. Clueless may be oversimplified, but this exaggeration makes a reader of Emma question different interpretations of character and question the seeming simplicity of right versus wrong. As Emma is a novel of characters, not plot, Clueless’s focus on the characteristics of different people is very helpful.
Clearly, Clueless’s unique interpretation of characters from Jane Austen’s Emma interestingly contrasts the original story. While some threads of the story were altered, Clueless managed to stay true to the idea of Emma and still provide completely new, fresh insight into the characters of the story. Of course, in both Clueless and Emma Emma/Cher later have epiphanies about themselves and alter their characters, but more important than comparing every aspect of the movie and the novel is to acknowledge the basic differences of the two. Clueless tries to simplify issues of good and bad and exaggerate characteristics of each; Emma acknowledges the complexity of human nature.
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