Thrice Told Tales #3: Emma


Clueless (1995)
Emma (1996)
Aisha (2010)

About a third of the way through our first viewing of Clueless (which was in a theater), my wife whispered to me (and yes, I know we shouldn’t be talking in the theater, we’ve been working on this), “They’re doing Emma, they’re doing Jane Austen’s Emma.”

We had gone to see a silly teen comedy. Of course, this was 1996, which was still the Golden Era of Teen Comedy. Though we didn’t know it, the era was coming to an end (just as the Super Hero Era is fizzling out.) The teen comedies of John Hughes (beginning with 16 Candles in 1984 and ending with Some Kind of Wonderful in 1987) were over. One could argue the first Teen Comedy of the era was Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. That film was written and directed by Amy Heckerling, who didn’t make another teen comedy until… 1996’s Clueless.

We very much enjoyed the film, and afterward, Mindy went through how all of the characters had counterparts in the Austen novel. Cher (Alisha Silverstone) was, of course, Emma. And Josh (Paul Rudd) was Mr. Knightley. And, in one of the more clever transpositions, the character secretly engaged in the novel was gay in this film (a more modern – and much more believable in a high school setting – way to make the character unobtainable). I hadn’t read the novel at the time, but I took her word for it that they had done a good job adapting the novel.

I later saw Heckerling confirm my wife’s speculations. She had been approached by a studio to do a teen comedy series to capture the success of Fast Times. The most popular character in that film had been Sean Penn’s Spicolli. Heckerling didn’t believe he had been popular because he was a surfer or a stoner but because he was so very positive. So she wanted to make a very positive character the center of the project.

She thought back to reading Jane Austen’s Emma in college. “I started to think, ‘What’s the larger context for that kind of a ‘nothing can go wrong’ ‘always looks through rose-colored glasses’ kind of girl? So I tried to take all the things that were in this sort of pretty 1800s world and see what would that be like if it was in Beverly Hills.”

The studio didn’t want anything centered on a girl, so they turned it down. Six months later, producer Scott Rudin got a hold of the script and wanted to make it into a film.

The amazing thing is that Clueless was the first theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. There had been BBC adaptations, sure, and several theatrical adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but not this story. And it was very good.

Heckerling made a number of clever decisions in the making of the film. If she’d tried to capture the current teen fashions and language, it would have been quickly out of fashion. She let designer Mona May go wild in designing Cher’s wardrobe and those fashions became a thing in the real world. Phrases first brought to the screen in the film like “Audi” (“I’m out of here”), “She’s so Monet” (looks good from a distance, but not so great up close), and “As if” entered the popular culture.

Another interesting choice is setting the film in Beverly Hills, but not making economic class the basis of distinctions as it is in the book. Cher considers Travis (Breckin Meyer) unworthy of Tai (Brittany Murphy); not because he is poor, but because he’s a stoner.

The film captured the spirit of Austen’s novel, with a character that is both good-hearted and self-centered, someone who learns that there is a danger in meddling in the lives of others. One thing that the film keeps from the novel would be rather problematic if it was made today. Just as Mr. Knightley was quite a bit older than Emma, Josh is in law school, and Cher is a sixteen-year-old. I’m glad the film was made when it was.

And it was such a success that Hollywood decided to finally bring the original story to the screen the very next year (1996), casting Gweneth Paltrow as Emma. Sadly, at least for me, it doesn’t work as well.

Sure, the film is very true to the novel in terms of the details of character and plot. Much more true to these details than Clueless, of course.

The costumes and settings of the film are historically accurate, if not striking. The script and acting are all adequate. But the film lacks the wit and joy of the novel (that I would eventually read). There is one scene I did find moving.

Emma mocks a neighbor, Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson), suggesting she would have trouble limiting herself to saying “three dull things.”

Mr. Knightley reprimands her for her thoughtlessness, “Badly done, Emma. Humbling her, laughing at her…  It is not pleasant for me to say these things, but I must tell you these things while I can, proving myself to be a friend.”

Our current culture is full of people trying to improve their “lessers.” Mr. Knightley rightly chides such arrogance. 

But overall, the film doesn’t work for me and it all comes down to one piece of casting. Though very beautiful, Paltrow in this film doesn’t have the charm and warmth to allow us to forgive her for her many missteps. 

When in 2010, Rajshree Ojha decided to bring this tale to the screen with an Indian spin, she didn’t go directly to the novel but adapted Heckerling’s Clueless in her film, Aisha. 

When I began to watch this film on Amazon Prime, I thought I’d gotten a dubbed version. The opening song seemed to be in English (at least, I was catching many English words), but I was hearing a lot of Hindi as well. Turns out that as an educated and hip young woman, Aisha (i.e., Cher and Emma, played by Sonam Kapoor), uses a lot of English as comfortably as Cher uses slang. Still, I had to track down the English subtitles to continue watching the film.

The film follows the basic plot of the other two stories. Aisha is a rich and pampered girl, raised by a single father, who has one successful go at matchmaking and then tries to improve the lives of all around with her meddling, usually leading to disaster. In the end, she finds true love has been near her all along.

It’s an Indian film, and there are plenty of gratuitous musical numbers and some unexpected white-water rafting. Ultimately the story works on the charm of Sonam Kapoor, just as Silverstone (of the Aerosmith videos) ultimately won the audience to her side. 

The story of Emma has lasted a couple of centuries now, and I’m sure others will find new ways to tell it.

(This is the third in a series about stories adapted at least three times into film. The first was about Yojimbo, and the second was about The Maltese Falcon.)

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There are 4 comments.

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  1. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim

    Great read. Thank you for sharing. 

    • #1
  2. Pagodan Member

    Clueless is one of my go to rewatchables. First saw it in theaters when I was 16-17 years old. Definitely holds up, and never comes across as dated ( although it does have a fun re-live the 90’s feel vibe.) Great movie, great post. 

    • #2
  3. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine

    Did we leave out the other Emmas, like the one where she has brown hair?

    • #3
  4. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Did we leave out the other Emmas, like the one where she has brown hair?

    There are a number of TV adaptations of Emma that I ignored. There was a 2020 theatrical release of Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy that had a very short theatrical run as it was cut short by COVID. I need to get around to seeing that one, because I’ve really enjoyed Taylor-Joy when I’ve seen her (The Witch, The Last Night in Soho, The Menu.)

    • #4
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