25 years ago, Clueless took Jane Austen and made it even better

25 years ago, Clueless took Jane Austen and made it even better

They say the original is the best, and most of the time that’s true. No remake has ever touched Hitchcock’s Psycho, Arrested Development never should have got a fourth series, and despite being one of the most covered songs in history, The Beatles’ Yesterday reigns supreme. 

But every once in a while, we get the remakes of A Star Is Born and Ocean’s Eleven, the US Office, and Sinead O’Connor singing Nothing Compares 2 U, and they shatter the rule.

There’s no greater example of the remake improving on the original than the 1995 classic Clueless.

Yes, I am saying it is better than Jane Austen’s Emma and no, I will not reconsider this stance.

Today marks 25 years since the ultimate teen movie was released and influenced countless teenage romcoms to come, as well as style and slang in real life – you have Cher Horowitz to thank any time you say ‘as if’ or wear a yellow check skirt. And unlike many movies of the 90s, it still holds up, even getting better, like a fine wine or a white collarless shirt from Fred Segal.

Whenever I’m feeling down, I whack on Clueless and let myself bathe in the witty dialogue, the ridiculous fashion and the utterly charming performances from Alicia Silverstone and the late Brittany Murphy.

When I first saw Clueless, I was around 13 years old in the early noughties, and I lapped it all up. But being 13, I had no clue that Clueless wasn’t an original, let alone based on a book from 1815.

It’s baffling to me that the nail-on-the-head take on 90s Valley Girl realness was inspired by the women of 19th century Georgian-Regency, but when I finally read Jane Austen’s classic, it all made sense.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore Emma. The tale of spoiled, privileged matchmaker Emma Woodhouse and her attempts to take credit for other people’s partnerships is whimsical and charming, and is my most-thumbed of all Austen’s novels.

And obviously, this was the inspiration for so many brilliant books, TV shows and movies. But Clueless – like Amy Winehouse singing Valerie, or Whitney Houston doing I Will Always Love You – took the storyline and made it its own.

It was not just a rip-off of the story, it was a retelling of the source material that built a whole world upon it.

Director Amy Heckerling didn’t even know she was making Clueless an adaptation at the start. After being told that her TV pilot would work better as a movie, she sought inspiration from Emma, and realised that her rich, meddling protagonist Cher was just a twist on Emma Woodhouse, the ‘handsome, clever, and rich’ heiress who ‘had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’.

Thus led to Clueless’ plot – Cher (Silverstone), a rich beautiful teenager in Los Angeles, realises that if she can set up two of her teachers, her grades might improve.

After that success, she decides to make over the new girl at school, Tai (Murphy), before trying to set her up with the school heartthrob, Elton. Cher herself is interested in the dashing new guy at school, Christian, while on the sidelines is her once-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), who winds her up no end – but could end up being the one she falls for. 

In the 1815 novel, Emma attempts to match her new friend Harriet Smith up with the local vicar, Mr Elton, while her sister’s brother-in-law Mr Knightley mocks her matchmaking. Emma takes an interest in the dashing Frank Churchill, but will she end up in love with Mr Knightley?

Clueless lifted many of the details from Emma. Elton and Mr Elton are essentially the same man 200 years apart, and instead of overstepping the mark in a carriage, he does it in a car. Instead of Mr Knightley asking Harriet to dance at a ball, Josh asks Tai to dance at a Mighty Mighty Bosstones concert. Tai burns her Rolling With The Homies tape, just like Harriet torches a piece of pencil Mr Elton discarded.

Other bits are tweaked – instead of Emma discovering that Frank is engaged to Jane, we have Cher discovering that Christian is gay, while the characters of Dionne, Amber and Murray aren’t based on any 1815 prototypes.

But unlike many adaptations, you don’t need to know about the source material to enjoy Clueless. I enjoyed it before I’d read Emma, and I enjoyed it after I read Emma.

While knowing the references gave me a deeper appreciation for the film, Clueless stands alone as a masterpiece without screaming ‘I’m based on a masterpiece!’ 

Another one of my favourite films of all time is 10 Things I Hate About You, which did the same thing in that it took a classic (in this case, William Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew) as a loose outline and made magic of its own.

Anyone familiar with the play would have got the nods to Katherina (Kat), Bianca and Verona (Heath Ledger’s character bearing the surname), but people who hadn’t read it could just soak it up for what it was – a brilliant and funny teen movie. 

Emma has got many a traditional adaptation too. A year after Clueless’s release, Gwyneth Paltrow played Ms Woodhouse on the big screen, while Kate Beckinsale took the role in the ITV TV film. And this year, Anya Taylor-Joy played the unlikeable heroine in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, which gave the tale a Wes Anderson-esque twist to charming effect.

I loved the 2020 version – but as I watched Taylor-Joy’s enchanting take with a smile, I couldn’t help but think ‘I really want to watch Clueless’.

Because that’s what adaptations should do.

Contrary to what Hollywood believes, remakes and adaptations should not be made if they’re not going to improve on the story, or at least bring something fresh to the table. It can respect its inspiration without sticking to it like glue (see also, the Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss take on Sherlock).

As great as Gwyneth, Kate and Anna were at playing Emma, I don’t watch the exact same thing that was perfected 205 years ago; I want something to reinvent the story or exceed it. And Clueless did just that.

Nobody ever thinks of Clueless as a remake or an adaptation, because really, it’s not. It’s a standalone triumph that defined a generation and remains in the hearts of teens 25 years on.

And just remember, Cher had a computer programme that dressed her in the morning. Emma Woodhouse could never.

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