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Emma Goes Hollywood

Between 1970 and 1986, seven feature-length films or television miniseries, all British, were produced based on Jane Austen novels; in the years 1995 and 1996, however, sex additional adaptations appeared, half of them originating in Hollywood. The concerns at the center of Jane Austen s plots sex, romance, and money play a large part in the adaptability of Jane Austen s work into film. The details of developing love and the constraints of limited finances provide difficulties that lend her storylines interest for the 1990 s reader of sufficient maturity. This paper will examine two very different adaptations of Jane Austen s Emma, comparing the satirical dimensions achieved in each in relation to the novel. The first adaptation is Douglas McGrath s 1996 film entitled Emma, with Gwyneth Paltrow playing Emma, and the second is Amy Heckerling s version, Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone as the Austen counterpart to Emma in Cher Horawitz.

On it s most obvious level, Austen s Emma is a witty satire whose chief target is snobbery and a romantic story of matchmaking. It features they usual Austen suspects in this novel it is the vulgar Eltons who are ridiculed for their sense of superiority, while also taking a deeper risk of investing its own heroine with seriously problematic attitudes toward class. One of the most important lessons Emma must learn in the novel is the error of her own false sense of class superiority. Both McGrath and Heckerling s versions take full advantage of Austen s slippery text, reinforcing the ideology of class structure on which modern society relies. McGrath s Emma attacks class notions through humor of a different order from Austen s. His film appears to make light the class notions for these folks, and emphasizes this point with sight gags. When Harriet visits the poor with Emma, the visit degenerates into a comical episode, with Harriet knocking over baskets. Knightley s explanation of wanting to stay here where it s cozy paired with a screen shot of an enormous manor is McGrath s way of seemingly making a joke of hierarchies of Highbury life. Little effort is made to communicate the pressures of rank on an interpersonal level. This lack of explanation of rank makes Emma s errors appear as silliness and foolish snobbery. In contrast, Amy Heckerling s rendition actually achieves a satirical edge that brings it much closer to the spirit of Austen s novel. Heckerling cut free from her source so completely that most people who saw the film did not recognize it as a 1990 s reinvention of Emma. Although the only overt reference to Austen s original is the use of one single character s name, Elton, Clueless takes both the characters and plot almost directly from Austen, while simultaneously transforming Austen s world so thoroughly that it achieves a satire perfectly attuned to modern times. Despite the fact that the name is different, Clueless comes much closer to a straight remake of Austen s Emma than any other versions available.

The general setting of Beverly Hills, as well as the specific setting of a public high school, offers rich opportunities for class based satire. The target of the Beverly Hills setting seems to be conspicuous consumption, in which all the characters seem to live in mansions and own expensive cars, whether they have a driver s license or not. Heckerling s satire is broad to the point of being farcical. Cher, the glamorous fifteen- year-old equivalent of Emma, sees no reason to learn to park a car since everywhere you go has valet. She is motherless due to a tragedy during a routine liposuction. This skewering of the moneyed classes, however good-natured it may be, is characteristic of Austen s ridicule of the pretensions of the Elton s and of Emma s own excesses. Counteracting this broad satire is the admission of the existence of distinct classes in modern American culture. Like other films that address American class issues, most notably those by John Hughes, Clueless uses a high school setting as a disguise. In reality, high school is one of the few places in which Americans have an opportunity to associate closely with people of different classes. In high school, class is disguised as cliques. Cher shows her awareness of the vital importance of this class system in the courtyard scene in which she introduces Tai, a transfer student she has taken under her wing, just as Emma took Harriet, to the school s cliques. The Alanis group, whose lives revolve around the television station, the Persian Mafia, who all drive BMW s, and the popular boys, the only datable group in the school. As almost an afterthought, and only after Tai questions the, Cher points out the Loadies , drug-users and class-cutters that no respectable girl actually dates. Clueless is then, able to provide a corollary to the complex hierarchies of Highbury, with similar prohibitions against crossing class lines to form intimate relationships. However, the assumption that class lines extend to race is effectively abolished, as the cast of Clueless is a mixture of different races. Cher s best friend Dionne is black, and she and Cher are almost interchangeable. Both are extremely popular, live in huge mansions, are terrible drivers, dress quiet fashionably, and as Cher explains, named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials. The economic lines that also divide class is virtually erased. This is most evident in the treatment of Travis and Tai, the film s equivalent to Austen s Harriet Smith and Robert Martin. Tai arrives on the scene displaying signs of lower class, a New York accent, flannel shirts, and a generally unsophisticated persona. Her manner of dress suggest she is not as financially secure as Cher and Dionne, but the use of flannel is sued within the film as a marker to identify her as a natural loadie. Tai is quickly marked as a match for Travis, although Cher disapproves, Travis is the most prominent of the loadies, an their attraction is noticeable not only in their interest for flannel and drugs, but also their love of Marvin the Martian. Despite all the elements to suggest a lower financial status, no hint is ever given as to their actual economic status.

It is under Cher s tutelage that Tai is able to slip through the class barrier, much the way Emma tries to cultivate Harriet. Regardless of this transformation, Tai, , is still unacceptable to Elton, just like Harriet is still considered beneath him by Mr. Elton. When Cher admits her matchmaking efforts to Elton he responds much the same way Austen s Mr. Elton does, revealing his snobbery in his telling comment of Why would I go with Tai? Don t you know who my father is? The longer Elton talks, the more dislikable he becomes to the audience, who have a genuine affection for Harriet, who can be identified with as an every woman type of character. These parallel episodes serve in both the film and novel to show the snobbery of Emma, as well as illuminate Mr. Elton s indelicate class ambitions. This situation is used in both cases to condemn snobbery on anyone s part and to belittle both Mr. Elton and Elton s insistence on dating/marrying into his own class.

Much has been made in this paper about the parallels between Austen s Emma and the film Clueless and the McGrath film version of Emma. More similarities exit between Austen s original and Heckerling s Clueless than McGrath s seemingly purer adaptation. Ultimately, McGrath s film falls short of translating the character of Emma accurately to the big screen. Where Heckerling s version of Emma is vain, popular, and convinced of her self importance, which the movies audience picks up on from the very start of the film, McGrath presents an Emma that has those same qualities, yet is still held to a heightened position by the other characters as well as the audience. Cher, although she possesses all the qualities of Austen s Emma, is likable and eventually realizes the folly of her ways. In contrast, McGrath s version of Emma never fully comes to the understanding that her snobbery makes her less of a person, and at the end of the film, she is still seated atop the pedestal of her own making. Overall Heckerling s rendition of the Austen classic is a purer more accurate Emma, enabling the movie going audience to detect the flaws in the character, while McGrath s film appears to prefer leaving Emma on the pedestal, causing it to fall short of a true translation of Austen s intent.

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