Jane Austen’s story of Emma may have been around for over 200 years, but in the modern age, it’s Amy Heckerling’s Clueless that has nabbed much of its glory away. The ‘90s comedy starring Alicia Silverstone is an iconic remnant of its era that has transcended the source material itself. Between Cher’s yellow plaid getup, to sassy one-liners such as “As If!” to Paul Rudd's breakout role – Clueless is threaded into American pop culture. So when a new film adaptation of the source material comes along, you better believe Clueless is our new reference point.
Autumn de Wilde’s Emma hit theaters in early March just a couple weeks before movie theaters shut down. During its limited run, the 2020 adaptation actually had a record-breaking opening, having a better per-theater average during its week in limited run than any other release that has come out this year had. Yes, that counts Sonic the Hedgehog, Bad Boys For Life and Birds of Prey. Its theatrical release was cut short, but it’s now been made available to rent early.
If you grew up on Clueless like myself, you’re curious just how Emma really lines up with the ‘90s cult hit. After watching this new version of Jane Austen’s Emma you’ll certainly appreciate the flair of the Beverly Hills Valley Girl angle and just how effectively the filmmakers translated the 19th Century novel into a high school rom-com. But in it’s own right, Emma is funny and touching too. So let’s totally pause. Here’s your guide to Emma via a Clueless fan:
Anya Taylor-Joy Is Totally Buggin’ As Cher
Instead of following Alicia Silverstone’s Cher, 2020’s Emma follows Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma Woodhouse who is a well-off 21-year-old living in a massive home with her father (Bill Nighy) in 19th Century England. So yes… she’s just about the same character as Cher, just with about 200 years of time between them. Not unlike Clueless, Taylor-Joy’s Emma struts around in high fashion the entire movie. She switches up her outfit just about every scene, I think. There’s no mini skirts or scrunchies obviously, but Autumn de Wilde creates a dreamy aesthetic in the film that was just enough to convince me that ringlet curls could actually come in style again.
Both of these heroines make it quite clear that they are not interested in being in relationships early on in the film. They both enjoy matchmaking, it blows up in their faces and they learn a valuable lesson about their own ignorance or cluelessness about their way of thinking. It’s amazing to see how relevant Jane Austen’s message has remained. Both of them are young women so fixated on perfection that they miss out on the important things in life.
Paul Rudd Was Mr. Knightley, And Wow Was He Robbed In Clueless
After run-ins with a string of men over the course of the story, Cher ends up finding herself falling in love with her father’s assistant Josh in Clueless and just about the same result occurs in Emma. Except in the context of the ‘90s adaptation, it’s kind of weird that she’s only sixteen and they’re ex-step-siblings. Sure Alicia Silverstone was heading into her ‘20s when she played the teenager, but Paul Rudd was ten years older than her. Funny enough, Emma feels less dated because Anya Taylor-Joy’s character is 21. After seeing a more straight-forward adaptation of the novel, Paul Rudd was robbed of a bigger part in the narrative.
The romance between the two in Emma has a more matureness about it. By the end of the 2020 movie, you’ll be completely on board with Emma deciding to abandon her previous ideals of remaining outside of relationships when the Josh-equivalent, Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley, confesses his love for her. Their brother-sister-type relationship isn’t as prevalent here, because they’re romantic chemistry comes off with a kind of obviousness that they’re at first unaware of but isn’t at all surprising from an audiences’ perspective. Whereas, on a rewatch the Clueless ending feels closer to an unearned twist and naive first love – much because she's in high school.
Sorry Mia Goth, Nothing Will Top Brittany Murphy’s Tai
Nothing can replace Brittany Murphy’s Tai in Clueless. Her role in the movie is so infectious and scene-stealing that it was one thing in particular that I missed in Emma. There’s something about her doe eyes seeming to scream her need for Cher’s friendship that fuels the movie forward. In Emma, Mia Goth’s Harriet Smith is the equivalent. She certainly looks up to Emma for advice on her budding love life and it makes for some entertaining moments. But once you realize she’s supposed to be Tai, you’ll just miss what she brought to her.
Mia Goth’s Harriet goes through a similar story arc as Tai does except there is not an ounce of the makeover cliché that the rom-com genre is known for. She initially falls for Robert Martin, who isn’t as impressive on the social scale in the town. It’s very much like when Tai crushes Breckin Meyer’s skater boy Travis and Cher forces popular guy Elton on her due to her own standards. Speaking of Elton…
Two Eltons, Same Nonsense
With a look at these two side by side, the casting director had to have looked back at Clueless before adding Josh O’Connor to the cast. He’s the spitting image of Jeremy Sisto’s Elton in the ‘90s flick. If you remember, Elton is Mr. Popular and she’s the object of affection Cher tries to set up with her new project Tai. However, her signals are crossed and she finds out that Elton isn’t at all interested in Tai, but into her instead. He is derived by Mr. Elton from the book who is a parson, therefore a prominent figure in the English town.
In Clueless, Cher tries to help Tai with Elton by staging a polaroid between the two of them for him to keep. And in Emma, she commissions a painting of Harriet for him. Both attempts don’t work out as she finds out that Elton's been pining over Cher/Emma the whole time. Elton is kind of just a jerk in both versions – except in Emma there’s some additional juicy storyline to tune into about what he does after being rejected.
Frank Churchill Is Clueless’ Christian But They’re Very Different
Just before Cher/Emma make their realizations about their affections for a partner close to home, both of them entertain another. In Clueless, Cher decides to pursue her classmate Christian and in Emma it’s Callum Turner’s Frank Churchill. In the ‘90s movie, after they go on a few “dates” she finds out that Christian is actually gay and she’s been reading the signals all wrong the whole time. In Emma Woodhouse’s case, she learns that Frank has been secretly engaged to her rival of sorts Jane Fairfax. In both situations, it does feel as if these men are distractions from them realizing who has been in front of them the whole time.
All and all, Emma and Clueless are quite different movies. Their core storylines may find similarities but their tones are really on polar opposites. Clueless is its own kind of masterpiece that cannot be touched because of how iconic it’s become over the years. But, when it comes to the heart of Jane Austen’s intentions Emma is a must watch. Fans of Clueless will appreciate seeing the story play out in another context. It’ll make your heart flutter whereas Clueless plays more for laughs and fun. 2020’s Emma is reminiscent of 2005’s Pride and Prejudice in all the best ways.