Feb 24 2011 5:00pm

The Best Emma: Jane Austen Would, Like, Totally Approve

Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in Clueless

Jane Austen: She was still looking at him with the most speaking amazement.

Cher Horowitz: I was just totally clueless.

* * *

Yes, since you ask, Jane Austen is my favorite author. And, yes, I have spent the last 14 years of my life hanging out online with other Jane Austen obsessives, talking about—well—Jane Austen: her novels, the adaptations of her novels, other people's sequels to her novels, her life. It never gets old.

This week, Emma is my favorite novel. It's not always Emma.  I tend to cycle through her six completed full-length novels, but Emma lands on top of the list more frequently than, say, Sense & Sensibility.

Like any good Jane Austen obsessive, I've seen all the adaptations I could get my hands on (repeatedly). We obsessives crave more Jane Austen.  Unfortunately, we'll never get any more novels, but we'll settle for new interpretations, particularly if said interpretations involve people like Colin Firth and Jeremy Northam in buckskin breeches and cravats. The years 1995 and 1996 were golden for those of us with the Austen craving. BBC and A&E gave us the delicious six-episode adaptation of Pride & Prejudice with the aforementioned Colin Firth. We had Emma Thompson's extraordinary adaptation of Sense & Sensibility with—ahem—Alan Rickman. We had a feature film of Persuasion with Ciaran Hinds as the stalwart Captain Wentworth. We had Douglas McGrath's vision of Emma with Jeremy Northam as everyone's beta hero, Mr. Knightley, and we had the ITV adaptation of Emma with the slightly angry, but no less attractive, Mark Strong.  Nothing to complain about here. Lots of Jane Austen movies. Lots of yummy men in knee breeches. Lots to talk about.

But, somehow, the two Emma adaptations just didn't do it for me, yummy men notwithstanding. Oh, they were fun to watch and they touched on the essence of Jane Austen's wonderful characters, but they weren't quite right. 

And then I saw CluelessClueless, you ask? The valley-girl movie with Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz? To which I answer, “Yes, Clueless. The best adaptation of Emma yet made.”

For those of you who haven't been reading Emma repeatedly for 20 or 25 years, I'll just remind you that she's the character Jane Austen called “A heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” She's bossy, interfering, and perfectly convinced of her own superior knowledge of what other people should do. In a well-meaning way, of course.

The two adaptations of Emma released at the same time as Clueless tried for that endearing self-absorption that I always found in the character of Emma, but both fell short, in my opinion. I'm afraid that Gwyneth Paltrow was simply vapidly self-assured and Kate Beckinsale angrily assertive (actually a good match for Mark Strong's angry Mr. Knightley—one hates to imagine the breakfast table in that household).

Alicia Silverstone's Cher, however, has a happy belief in her own knowledge and abilities and is, appropriately, clueless about the effect her machinations have on the people around her. This, in my opinion, is Emma at her best. She is, in fact, Jane Austen's Emma in Beverly Hills: “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.” Even though her meddling aggravates you, she's hard not to love.

Clueless is not only an adaptation of Emma, but an homage to Jane Austen.  The movie captures both the hubris and the humor of the heroine and her story. I laugh at Cher and, eventually, root for her. Thank you, Amy Heckerling.  This is the spirit of Jane Austen's novel.

Myretta Robens,

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
Myretta, can I just say--and reveal myself as an idiot--that I had no idea Clueless was an Emma adaptation when i saw it? I just liked it.

That said, Emma is my least favorite Austen, as you might know by now.
Keira Gillett
2. Keira
I love Clueless. One of my favorite movies to watch. I also like the
newest version, from 2009. That one has so many gorgeous sets and
costumes. Fun!

I'm still waiting for a Sense and Sensibility to really grab me. I liked Emma Thompson's version and the BBC 2008 version, but I'm waiting to LOVE LOVE LOVE one.
Laura K. Curtis
3. LauraKCurtis
I love, love, love Clueless. It's right up there with 10 Things I Hate About You for modern adaptions of classics. Definitely the best Emma.
Charli Mac
4. CharliMac
Oh... I so loooove 10 things I hate about you. One of my fave modern adaptations.
Olivia Waite
5. O.Waite
@Laura: Allison Janney in 10 Things is who I want to be when I grow up. :)

Clueless is just about the only version of Emma I've even liked -- that was my least favorite Austen novel, and the only one I've read only once.

Come to think of it, it might be time to fix that.

And Mr. Waite is a sailor (hobby, not pro) and loves period pieces and Ciaran Hinds, so I sat him down with Persuasion one evening. And there's that scene early on, where Anne is just meeting the Admiral and his wife for the first time, and she reveals that her brother has gotten married, and it's the non-Ciaran Hinds brother, but we don't know that right away—and my husband sits straight up on the couch and yells, "No!" at the screen. And then looks at me with horror and says, "He can't be married!"

And if we hadn't already been engaged, I would have proposed right then and there.
romance reader
6. bookstorecat
O.Waite wrote:
"And then looks at me with horror and says, "He can't be married!"

I am laughing and I'm not sure it will stop anytime soon. Thanks for that.

In the meantime--what about the recent Pride&Prejudice w/ Keira Knightly, anyone? Love it or hate it? (me: Love it.) Or Pride&Prejudice&Zombies (I read it.) Or the Pride&Prejudice (2003) directed by Andrew Black and set in Utah (Pride&Prejudice...&Mormons---yes, I've seen it 5 times, so what?).

Hey, can you guess what my favorite Jane Austen novel might be?
7. EvangelineHolland
Clueless was my life in the mid-90s! I remember going to school and finding most of my female classmates wearing knee-highs and plaid skirts and colorful blazers like Cher, Dionne, and Tai--and the lexicon has definitely influenced pop culture.
Heather Waters
8. HeatherWaters
I have to admit Clueless is not my favorite adaptation. Personally, I loved loved loved the 2009 Emma miniseries with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller.
Janet Webb
9. JanetW
Strange that I have liked all the Pride and Prejudice films and mini-series. Same with Persuasion. But none of the Emmas (especially not the Paltrow version). The movie "Clueless", for me, captures the sweetness and cluelessness of Emma in a way no other does. Loved it!
Myretta Robens
10. Myretta
@JanetW. I think Emma is a hard heroine to get right on film. She's either too full of herself or too pushy. Although, @redline_, I do think that the most recent adaptation came closer than those before.

Now let us imagine how hard it is to portray Fanny Price.
Louise Partain
11. Louise321
Oh my goodness! I am so like buggin out cause I was over 40 when I first saw it and I love Clueless! It is one of my keeper DVDs that I actually watch along with Tombstone and Persuasion over and over. Alicia is perfect as the oblivious heroine.
Olivia Waite
12. O.Waite
@Myretta: I may be one of the only people out there who loves the adaptation of Mansfield Park from 1999. Even though they make Fanny Price into, um, the total opposite of Fanny Price (she's snarky and rebellious and cries in the rain!), it's a really well-done film. And also stars Johnny Lee Miller. And Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey.

In other news -- who's excited for the new Jane Eyre coming out? This gal, that's who.
Myretta Robens
13. Myretta
@O.Waite: I agree that the 1999 Mansfield Park adaptation was a good movie. Unfortunately, I thought it was so little like MP as to almost not be an adaptation.
Olivia Waite
14. O.Waite
It's almost an adaptation of Jane Austen's juvenilia -- all those history of England passages were taken from her youthful works. :)
romance reader
15. bookstorecat
I enjoyed the 1999 Mansfield Park adaptation. I often don't care if a movie exactly follows a book in every detail--if the movie itself is good (The Painted Veil, for example). That said, I think the only Jane Eyre worth watching (having seen them all, believe me) is the BBC mini-series with Timothy Dalton, where, because of the extended format, they actually had the running time to follow the book pretty much word-for-word, scene-by-scene---and thus, to actually get the thing done right. I have very low expectations for any regular movie-length adaptation for Jane.

But, I will probably see it in-theater anyway. I'm a hopeless optimist as well as an incurable romantic.
Pamela Webb-Elliott
16. Spaz
YES YES YES! I could not agree with you more. Alicia Silverstone's Cher IS Emma! The BEST interpretation out there Clueless camptures her completely!
17. Musa
//stalking archives here don't mind me

Have you seen the webseries Emma Approved? It's another Emma adaptation I really liked.
Heather Waters
18. HeatherWaters
@Musa -- Welcome! Thanks for the comment. :) We did a post on Emma Approved early on ( but didn't cover it as regularly as we covered The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, though I've seen some gifs of the ending and really want to get caught up! I think these webseries are a stroke of genius and hope they continue to get made.
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