How Emma Exists Alongside Clueless, According To The Director

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma dancing with Mr Knightley

Twenty-five years ago, writer/director Amy Heckerling adapted the work of Jane Austen unlike any filmmaker before her. In the making of Clueless, Heckerling made the first ever feature film version of the novel “Emma,” transplanting the story from 19th century England to a Beverly Hills high school – and it wound up being an all-around hit. It’s now considered by many, particularly of the millennial generation, to be a modern classic… which creates an interesting pop culture atmosphere for director Autumn de Wilde’s new cinematic take on the material.

To think of them in conflict, however, is a mistake, as Emma is a separate take on the Jane Austen book simply by being a more direct adaptation. Furthermore, as I learned during an interview with Autumn de Wilde last month during the movie’s Los Angeles press day, the filmmaker behind it only has the utmost respect and adoration for Clueless, and loves that the two films coexist.

Bringing up Clueless earned a bright response from the filmmaker, who was quick to adulate the film and the filmmaker behind its creation. Diving in, she noted what made the 1995 movie such a strong take on the original novel, and why it clicked so well with audiences. Said de Wilde,

Well, first of all, Amy Heckerling is a genius, but you know why it's so amazing? It's because that one knows that book back to front. She is literally like a Jane Austen expert. Because she understands the story of Emma so completely, she was able to take the human relationship truths in that story and translate it to high school. Now, you know, in America we have a lot of problems, and we don't have the class system as defined as it is in England. But if you were going to make a parallel, I think high school feels a lot like what you're judged for.

Just like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz, the new Emma finds its titular character (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) living a charmed life and making herself happy through successful matchmaking. And just as Cher did with Brittany Murphy’s Tai, this hobby leads her to take the lower class Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) under her wing, as she thinks she can help raise her status with a successful pairing. Unfortunately, mixed signals wind up ruining the day, leaving Emma the unfortunate task of trying to pick up the pieces.

Discussing her film alongside Amy Heckerling’s, Autumn de Wilde noted that what she feels works about both takes on the Jane Austen book is an understanding of the influence of the hierarchies on the story, and the comment that the author was making about them:

In the class system in England, you are judged by your accent and from your inherited position in society… And that's why that that was the target of my satire, and I think that that was the target of Jane Austen's satire. I see it pretty clearly in the book. And so that was important to me.

Autumn de Wilde continued expressing true admiration for how Amy Heckerling was able to translate the material and find such a perfect parallel contemporary environment for the plot in Clueless. Also being the director of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Heckerling clearly had an understanding of that world, and how she paired it with Jane Austen’s “Emma” is simply wonderful. Said de Wilde,

But high school feels very familiar, I think. There's the cheerleaders and the mathletes and the nerds and the jocks and the, and the stoners and whatever it is there are these separate sections, and at that age and in that contained environment you often feel like there's no way out. And I think the more powerful people can seem this mistaken God-like power over someone else's destiny at that school – either to punish or to help create a bigger, better them, instead of realizing that they're just fine where they are and that they have real friends. So I think that's why it worked so well besides, you know, her amazing painterly touch.

The added fun is that audiences already seem to be making the connection between the two films. Apparently the Emma director has already been approached about the relation between her movie and Clueless, and it was a link she was ecstatic to see made:

It was really satisfying, actually – a couple of teenagers that came to like, one of our screenings were like, 'Is this Clueless?' And I was, 'Yes! Yes!’

Emma is now playing in theaters everywhere, and to see what else is coming up in 2020, be sure to check out our Release Calendar.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.