Clueless (1995)

I watched Clueless to be able to compare it with Jane Austen’s Emma, on which it was based. I’d never seen it and had no 90s nostalgia for it at all. It was a decent retelling for its length, but I wasn’t amazed.

Details comparing the Austen novel with the movie follow below, with SPOILERS.

Characters in Clueless and Emma

Novel Movie
Emma Cher
[does not exist]
[does not exist]
Dionne (Cher’s best friend)
Murray (Dionne’s boyfriend)
Mr. Woodhouse Cher’s father (a lawyer)
Mr. Knightley Josh (Cher’s ex-stepbrother, a college student studying law)
Mr. Weston Mr. Hall (a teacher)
Miss Taylor / Mrs. Weston Ms. Geist (a teacher)
Harriet Tai (new girl, from New York)
Robert Martin Travis (a skateboarder)
Mr. Elton Elton
Mrs. Elton Amber
Frank Churchill Christian

Plot in Clueless and Emma

The movie starts chronologically earlier than the novel does. Cher reaches the end of a school term and discovers that her grades aren’t as high as she’d like. However, she always finds a way to get what she wants, and in this case she raises her grades by manipulating two lonely teachers to fall in love with each other. In the book, Emma has less motivation to play matchmaker, though she still takes great satisfaction in pairing off Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. When the book begins, the two have already married.

Cher’s saving grace, like Emma’s, is that she takes care of her father. He’s not a hypochondriac, though, he’s an expensive lawyer. He’s as proud of her for getting her grades artificially raised as he would have been if she’d earned them in the normal way.

Josh, the responsible man of the world, is staying at Cher’s house and working with her father to learn more about law. Mr. Knightley, in contrast, is better at managing business affairs than Mr. Woodhouse. Josh’s criticism of Cher is far more overt than Mr. Knightley’s is of Emma, but that’s partly because the story has been brought forward in time and partly because the medium is film, which must convey almost everything through dialog rather than narration.

Dionne and her boyfriend have no equivalent in the novel. Certainly Dionne doesn’t correspond to Jane Fairfax, and Jane is the only character who’s a socially equal contemporary of Emma’s in the novel. I think the movie just needed Cher to have at least one friend or she wouldn’t be a plausible popular high school girl. Furthermore, Dionne acts as a foil to Cher; she is rich and superficial but more perceptive and emotionally stable.

When Tai shows up at school, she’s pegged as an outcast, but Cher decides to take her on as a “project” and give her a makeover. Tai immediately starts to make friends with a skateboarder named Travis, but Cher discourages her, saying he’s a druggie and a loser and that his reputation will rub off on Tai. The difference between the novel and the movie is that Travis does have a flaw, (he has to give up drugs before he’s worthy of Tai), whereas Robert Martin was already suitable for Harriet from the start, and had already met Harriet before Emma adopted her.

Cher encourages Tai to aim for a relationship with a guy named Elton. Cher thinks Elton likes Tai after she learns he has a picture Cher took of Tai in his locker, but of course, he kept the photo because Cher took it and he likes Cher. This is very much like the sequence in the novel in which Emma draws Harriet and Mr. Elton admires the drawing.

There’s a party where Elton assists Tai after she gets knocked on the head, and they dance together. Later, Tai decides to destroy the towel that Elton used when she hit her head, and a tape of the song they danced to. This is like Harriet’s surrender of the souvenirs she collected of Mr. Elton (a bit of plaster and a pencil stub).

After the party, Elton insists on taking Cher home himself, sending Tai with Dionne. In the car, Elton confesses his feelings for Cher. When she rejects him, he abandons her at a gas station in a rough part of town. Cher then gets robbed at gunpoint and calls Josh to come and get her. Elton’s confession is similar to Mr. Elton’s, but the robbery and Cher’s rescue from the gas station doesn’t correspond to anything in the novel.

Christian arrives in town and Cher sets her sights on him. They go together to a dance, where Cher happily notices that Christian, a sharp dresser, isn’t paying any attention to other girls. Tai has no one to dance with, and feels left out, especially now that Elton is dating Amber. Josh, who showed up at the dance to keep an eye on Christian and Cher, steps in to dance with Tai, much as Mr. Knightley stands up with Harriet after she’s been snubbed by Mr. Elton.

Christian isn’t much like Frank Churchill. His secret is much less elaborate because there’s no Jane Fairfax. He’s gay, but Cher doesn’t realize it, even when she tries to seduce him one night when her father is out of the house. Cher’s friends tell her after the fact.

Tai develops very differently from Harriet, and her relationship with Cher is not quite like Harriet’s with Emma. The relationship between Tai and Cher changes dramatically after an incident at the mall in which Tai is traumatized by some gypsies bullies and Christian, the friendly gay guy, saves her. The incident doesn’t make Cher think Tai and Christian will be a couple; it makes Tai more popular than Cher. Tai, now the center of attention, recovers from her feelings for Elton and decides she likes Josh. Unlike Emma, Cher can’t hide her dismay. Tai is hurt, and in turn hurts Cher. Game over for this friendship?

What makes the fight with Tai worse is that Cher, who casually insulted her Hispanic maid (thus offending Josh as well), has just flunked her driver’s test. She feels awful (literally clueless) about everything in the whole world. She realizes she likes Josh, but doesn’t feel worthy.

The maid isn’t much like Miss Bates; the driver’s test isn’t at all like Box Hill. Cher’s self-knowledge comes more suddenly, which works well for the movie, which wraps up pretty quickly after Cher hits her low point.

Cher decides to give herself a “makeover of the soul” and becomes more mindful of her family, friends, community, and global affairs. After that, everything starts to go better for her… Except that her “help” with her father’s legal case has somehow messed up some important papers. When Cher’s father’s partner blames her for an expensive delay, Josh comes to her defense, and she realizes he likes her back.

Everyone goes to the wedding of Ms. Geist and Mr. Hall; Cher wrestles the bouquet away from the other girls. The end!