It’s a truism that Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s Emma. A rich heroine who has some luck at matchmaking and tries to organize everyone else’s emotional life, until it all comes crashing down and she realizes she has been mis-plotting her own feelings. The similarities are obvious, and it’s fun to briefly consider the kinds of “translation” involved in Frank Churchill’s secret marriage to another woman becoming Travis’ homosexuality, and Mr. Elton’s sense of social entitlement turning into the adolescent sexual entitlement of Elton. But the very ease with which we can make the comparison makes me wonder how useful it is: this doesn’t feel like an adaptation that does much cultural work. A Regency social comedy becomes a high school social comedy, and not very much pressure is exerted in either direction. Before Clueless, who noticed that American high schools were microcosms of their broader society, ruled by intricate and unfair conventions? Just about everyone. Who had observed that Jane Austen’s characters scheme and sulk like bitchy teenagers? Yes, you can put your hands down now.
I’m willing to admit that Clueless had an effect on the direction of the Austencraze which developed from the 1990s onwards, but it didn’t really illuminate either its source material or its destination genre. Similar criticisms were made of the McKellen/ Loncraine Richard III: that it translated Richard exactly into Hitler, and in the process told us nothing about either figure because the images mapped too well onto each other. I think that’s a misreading of that film, but it makes the point that the way the material has to be stretched or rearranged in an adaptation may help us come to new insights about the original. The “work” the adaptation does, or indeed the “work” we perform in reading it, takes place in the gap between our expectations about – for example – early nineteenth century novels and mid-1990s high school movies.
The more intriguing aspect of Clueless, to me, is the way Austen forms part of a larger investigation of engagements with the past and with the way meanings change through time. It’s an examination of the relationship between the authority of the past and the needs of the present. Throughout the film references back to sources of cultural value are mangled and distorted in creative ways, until the plot solves itself when two characters get a quotation right. This moment of emotion recognition takes place not via Austen’s social comedy structure, but through the power of Shakespeare. And not just any Shakespeare: Hamlet itself.
Clueless is a comedy of misrecognition – like Emma it depends upon the main character misrecognising social roles and the parts people play in plots. Though perhaps it’s slightly less successful than the original novel in taking its audience with it. I don’t think there’s quite the same kind of 180 degree swing in which the heroine and the reader realign their fictional world at the same time, and see that all the events they have carefully emplotted are in fact susceptible to a totally different interpretation. But this interest in misrecognition extends to its treatment of the past: it’s a comedy of misquotation and misremembering.
Cher and Dionne are themselves quotations, named after famous pop culture icons, but they recognise their namesakes not as heroic divas but out-dated women who “now do infomercials”. The set-up encourages us to recognise these moments when quotation fails: “Isn’t my house classic? Some of the pillars date back to 1972.” Cher is making an attempt to draw on the cultural authority of the past (just as the faux-Palladian pillars do”, but it founders on misunderstanding which bits of the past can confer value. Of course 1972 is not a meaningful date, and by dating the pillars Cher reveals their belated tackiness whilst she thinks she’s bolstering their architectural claims to authenticity. The problems in Dionne and Murray’s relationship are mocked by Cher’s reference to them having seen “that Ike and Tina Turner movie one too many times”, but the film hints that part of their trouble may indeed stem from them re-enacting their sense of what a dramatic love affair should look like.
So far, so dismissive. We can either read this as postmodern glibness about authenticity being irrelevant, or (possibly affectionate) parody of Valley Girls who are cut off from any authentic experience. But as we go on, it becomes clear that Cher’s citations may have a value which is unrelated to their accuracy. Whilst reflecting on her efforts for her friends she declares that a book in 9th grade said “it is a far far better thing doing stuff for other people”. We recognise the garbled reference to A Tale of Two Cities, but it’s a speech which, if read in the original (or performed) would probably draw more giggles than admiration today. She manages to get the essential sentiment out and apply it, in a way which is arguably less ludicrous than the precise wording of Dickens’ novel.
When Cher uses “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” to matchmake between her teachers, Dionne exclaims.”Phat! Did you write that?” “Naww, it’s like a famous quote.” “From where?” “Cliff’s Notes.” It’s a good joke, and it focuses our attention on the use of Shakespeare here. Just as Cliff’s Notes are designed for their instrumental value, Cher puts Shakespeare’s words to work for her, producing a result which is far better (both for her personal scheme and the emotional life of those around her) than a textual analysis could be. Understanding a text’s origins and identity seems to be becoming less related to its value.
The final (mis)recognition comes when Cher wins her man. She defeats Josh’s college girlfriend who misattributes “to thine own self be true” to Hamlet (and misunderstands that in the context of the play, it is meant ironically). Cher tells her that Hamlet didn’t say that. “Excuse me, but I think I remember Hamlet accurately”. “Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.” Cher’s cultural literacy wins because it is based upon a true “recognition” of people in their personal specificity. Josh’s girlfriend imagines the lines as part of a text, but Cher knows them as the words of Mel Gibson, which has allowed her to attribute them correctly. Her correct quotation – particularly of a line concerning the self and authenticity – causes Josh to begin his recognition of her. The shared knowledge of Shakespeare (are we meant to think Josh knows his girlfriend was misquoting…?) from very different approaches allows the characters a momentary experience of each other’s self – a flash of genuine “recognition”.
Of course, this is far from Cher’s creatively distorted appropriations of Dickens and the sonnet. In order to triumph, she has to make a correct quotation, and move from pop culture adaptation (“I remember Mel Gibson”) to addressing the play on its own terms (“that Polonius guy did”.) She and Josh may have approached Shakespeare from very different directions, but they meet in the verbally specifics of his words. This is not the pre-eighteenth century Shakespeare of wild adaptation and rewriting to suit the “passions” of the works meeting the post-eighteenth century Shakespeare of the magical words as written – it is more Shakespeare of the study meeting Shakespeare of the theatre. On the exact wording there can be no compromise, but Cher’s interest in the way literature has to be enacted is validated.
This is, I think, ultimately a rather conservative journey within an entertainingly irreverent and sceptical film. The arc of distortion and recognition ends up asserting Shakespeare (in his specific words) as the ultimate and transcendent store of value, a timeless “self” who provides a medium for Josh and Cher to meet and recognize each other. But it’s an entertaining arc, and one which illuminates the film’s broader engagements with the idea of the past and cultural authority beyond Austen.