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Emma, Clueless, and the Taking of Likeness

In: English and Literature

Submitted By Ninee
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Clueless, an adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel, Emma, is a 1995 American film by director, Amy Heckerling. The comedy serves as a 20th century update of the original text that shifts into creating a contemporary Emma, one for our own era. Though Clueless seems to set forth on building its reputation on a completely new, distinct ground, it is not an entirely different work of art. Considerable amounts of uniformities between the adaptation and Emma can be pinpointed throughout. As “Clueless is most faithful to Emma in its recreation of the plot involving Mr. Elton, Harriet Smith, and Emma” (Troost, Linda, and Greenfield 124), several parallels between the two distinctive texts, concerning this matter, can be recognized. One outstanding example is the correspondence and connection between the modern photography scene in Clueless and the sketching/painting of Harriet’s portrait in Emma. Hence, along with the novel’s highly persuasive guidance and the two’s so-called loose relation, various similarities as well as differences are inevitably present. Upon an analytical, close reading of the associated scenes, several shared story elements are brought into prospective. Both revolve around a beautiful, young lady who believes it is her duty to act as a matchmaker for her two companions. In both, the protagonist attempts to capture an image of her friend in hope that it would somehow reveal or prove the affection of the other. But aside from that, one will find that the two widely differ. Hence, to be able thoroughly analyze the two pieces of work upon this scene and to further point out its similarities as well as differences, the analytical structure will be narrowed down into six different aspects: characters, setting, narration, plot, style, and theme.
In both Clueless and Emma, the characterizations of the three main characters go together accordingly, exemplifying the resemblance between the parallels. Cher/Emma portrayed as the gorgeous, unaware cupid-wannabe, Tai/Harriet as the clueless seemingly hopeless romantic, new girl, and Elton/Mr. Elton as the handsome guy whose affection for Cher/Emma is misinterpreted. Nonetheless, the weight distributed to each of these characters as well as the less prominent ones can be agreed to differ. The characters in Emma’s passage include Emma, Mr. Elton, Harriet as well as Mrs. Weston, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Wood. Here, Mr. Elton is the defender of Emma’s “masterpiece” while Mr. Weston, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Woodhouse play the role of art critics. However, in Clueless, these commentators along with their criticisms are removed. Heckerling, instead, adds a number of Cher’s popular high school friends to the scene. These friends hardly have any effect towards the scene’s plot and can rather be referred to as props. Though Mr. Elton still remains in Clueless, as Elton, his role and importance is rather diminished. Mr. Elton is presented with unfinished portraits by Emma so “that they might decide together on the best size for Harriet” (Austen 41) but in the 20th century comedy, Elton is not granted such opportunity. He only gets to praise the photo taken and to ask for a copy of it. Mr. Elton’s dialogue with Emma, praising how she has successfully turned Harriet into a more presentable lady, his encouragement which results in Emma deciding to sketch/paint Harriet’s portrait, his defensive act, and how he makes it his responsibility to have the drawing framed are all cut out in Clueless. Hence, Elton is left less influential on the choices made and the outcome of the photograph than does Mr. Elton in relation to the portrait.
The portrait painting, in the novel, takes place in a “room rich in specimens of … landscapes and flowers (Austen 40). The taking of likeness goes on for two days and by the end, when “the next thing wanted was to get the picture framed” (Austen 46); the reader is assured that it occurs sometime on a cold December’s day. Despite the fact that the portrait is painted in winter, “it is supposed to be summer; a warm day in summer” (Austen 45). So, in Clueless, Heckerling brings the scene outdoors to a warm day with strong rays of sun. It is set on an existing local that looks like a schoolyard. The photo shoot first takes place before a small lively, fountain as several of Cher’s popular friends pose professionally. Later, after a few snaps, Cher calls Tai out from the group and isolates her as the sole model where she is positioned to stand in front of a red flowered, bush. All this merely reveals how the setting’s duration has been shortened as well as altered in terms of the weather and surroundings. The novel is written in third person but told from Emma’s point of view. Therefore, readers are eventually deceived as events are interpreted, not as the way they truly are, but as Emma sees them. By reading the passage, one may make a delusive guess about certain feelings that Mr. Elton has for Harriet and/or Emma, but in the film there is not much room for this to happen. Clueless uses film techniques to go beyond the limitations of the heroine’s thoughts. Through visual realization, the viewer is no longer misguided by the protagonist’s perception and confidence. It, however, obviously presents a dramatic irony where there is a disagreement between what is seen and heard. This is clearly evident when Elton’s casual comment on the photo of Tai along with his request for a copy of it triggers Cher’s excitement, assuring her that Elton is madly in love with Tai. At the same time, through a close up shot, the level of admiration on Elton’s face as he looks at Cher reveals his true object of desire. Moreover, how Elton rolled his eyes and uttered quite an unwilling “ok” when Cher previously asked him to put his arm around Tai also illustrates the matter. With the help of the camera acting as the narrator, the viewers are able to see actual events without being blinded by the heroine’s views.
Heckerling’s Clueless involves a plot, which closely follows the text of Jane Austen’s Emma. More of a reoccurrence of the storyline, in this case, is how the taking of likeness is mirrored accordingly. The portrait sketching/painting of Harriet, located precisely in chapter 6 of Austen’s novel, Emma, and the corresponding picture taking scene found in Clueless each revolve around the same action and motive. Both are based on the protagonist’s belief that she is unquestionably in charge and capable of “helping” her two friends successfully become a couple. Concurrently, the two different texts indicate the same hidden purpose behind the protagonist’s urge and assertiveness in the parallel scenes. In Emma, the protagonist claims that the drawing would be “for Harriet’s sake” (Austen 43). Although no verbal expression comes out of Cher’s mouth, her integral level of excitement and reactions express how Cher believes her taking photos of Tai without a doubt is a good deed done for Tai’s benefit. Basically, both Cher and Emma want to create an image of their friend in hope that it would somehow disclose or verify Elton/Mr. Elton’s affection.
The condensation of lengthy dialogues and the substitution of informal English, are not the only changes made upon the adaptation concerning its “style”. Clueless works in turning something literal into a more visual content. Utmost the alteration modernizes the taking of likeness moment, making the scene more suitable for its viewers. For instance, in the novel, “[Emma] had … fixed on the size and sort of portrait. It was to be a whole-length in water-colors …” (Austen 43) but Cher, as the photographer, does not make such selections. Neither does she mention any specifications concerning the photo’s outcome but instead leaves it up to the camera and its technological “coworkers”. The fact that drawing/painting is replaced by taking photographs implicates the historical gap as well as the transformation from “a so-called high-artistic technique and expression (drawing/painting) to a mass-popular activity (photography), that lacks (at least in Cher’s case as photographer) the standards of “great art” (Azerêdo 243). Moreover, how nothing about the photograph’s significance is mentioned in the film also serves to elaborate how less important it is when compared to the portrait drawn by Emma which is destined to be “ a standing memorial of the beauty of one, the skill of the other, and the friendship of both” (Austen 44). All this literally exhibits is how the taking of likeness, in Clueless, is simply made less rare, single, and valuable.
Behind the concern of personal relationships such as the friendly bond between Emma/Cher and Harriet/Tai plus the two’s involvement in a complex love triangle with Mr.Elton/Elton, misconception arises as a theme that is unavoidably gazed upon in both texts. In particular, as Emma paints a portrait of Harriet, Mr. Elton’s enthusiasm and the way “he was ready at the smallest intermission of the pencil, to jump up and see the progress, and be charmed” (Austen 44) encourages Emma to assume that he has feelings for Harriet. In addition, how he ”entreated for the permission of attending and reading to them again” (Austen 44) for the second day as well as the fact that he takes the portrait of Harriet to London to be framed further leads Emma to believe that Mr. Elton unquestionably has eyes for her friend. Correspondingly, the misconception is again portrayed when Cher takes a photo of Tai and Elton asks for a copy of it.
While the two matching scenes both concern themselves with the matter of misconception, another theme which deals with popularity and one’s standing in society appears in Clueless. The part where Tai is left in the background, being foreshadowed by the popular kids during a group photo shoot, serves to say that she basically lacks social power and is an outcast. However, the outcast is then saved when the dominant and potent, Cher, exerts her influence bringing Tai closer into the camera’s focus. How Elton only puts his arms around Tai after being told to do so by Cher also points out the social gap between the two. More importantly it depicts how comfort and closeness between two people of different class divisions are not natural. This further reinstates how the social hierarchy works as well as emphasizes on the film’s superficial world.
Clueless qualifies as a loose adaptation of its source, as it makes several, quite instantly noticeable departures, changing the name of the main character from Emma to Cher as well as relocating the story’s principal setting. Nevertheless, though the film strays of a number of paths, it resembles its ‘origin’ wittingly through the connections and correspondences like the twos’ “taking of likeness” scene. Clueless is basically one of the most original film adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma where Heckerling, while holding on to the source’s plot, successfully transforms Emma from ‘high art’ romantic, British novel into an American-hearted, pop culture motion picture.…...

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