Monday, February 11, 2013

MOVIE: Clueless -A Breakdown of Faith

Emma, author Jane Austen & Clueless, screenwriter Amy Heckerling
"A Breakdown of Faith" by Nakeesha J. Seneb

My favorite rule about adaptations is that: you owe nothing to the original work. This is the first rule of adaptations as told by Richard Krevolin, author of "How to Adapt Anything Into a Screenplay." In his book, Krevolin presents a case study of the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Its a great case study! Some fans argued that the movie was too faithful; others that it left too much of the original work out. Krevolin does a brilliant job of breaking the book and film down, and I don't want to repeat his arguments here. Instead, I want to focus on one of my favorite adaptations, Clueless based on the book "Emma" by Jane Austen. 

The story of Emma is virtually unrecognizable in this telling. Screenwriter, Amy Heckerling, was nearly faithless in her rendition of this classic, oft told tale.
Jane Austen's story of a privileged 20 year old in Regency England is transplanted into the persona of a 16-year old, teenaged girl in modern day California. Along with the setting and time period, the title character's name is also updated. Cher is na├»ve and caught up in a superficial lifestyle revolving around expensive clothes and the social hierarchy  of her high school. Her father is no longer an aging hypochondriac, but a high-powered, ruthless lawyer. There's no knightly next door neighbor with an eye on our heroine. Instead its an ex-brother-in-law, who's a liberal college freshman with dreams of saving the world. His name's Josh.

Krevolin's next guideline is to "seek out the scenes that can be removed without having a domino effect on the rest of the story." If you've read the book Emma or you've seen the Gwyneth Paltrow redub, you might remember the whole subplot of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. In these versions, while taking a break from setting everyone up, Emma flirts with Frank who leads her on but he's actually madly in love with Jane. 

Was it 20th century brilliance or what that Amy Heckerling made Frank Churchill's character into a gay rendition of James Dean who just wanted to be BFF's with Cher!. Gone was the Jane Fairfax character and love triangle with Mr. Churchill. Cher's attempts at seduction while the meatloaf burns during Spartacus certainly has the opposite of a domino effect on the rest of the story. It ratcheted up the unpredictability of this updated tale of unrequited love.

Krevolin's next rule is that you don't remove the key thing that made the book amazing. In my opinion, its the love mishaps and love connections that happen because of Emma/Cher's busybody-ness that makes the book and all network and theatrical releases a winner. In Austen's book, it begins with the wedding of Emma's governess with a gentleman Emma matched her with. With this one success under her belt, Emma begins an assault on the poor hearts of her village to disastrous and hilarious effect. In California, Cher starts her matchmaking in response to a bad grade. Although her heart wasn't in the right place at the time, the match works out for everyone involved. With this one success under her belt, Cher begins her assault on the new girl, Tai, to disastrous and hilarious effect.

Krevolin's last edict is that no matter how a story is changed during the course of adaptation, the arc of the characters almost always remains the same.

Both Emma and Cher are know-it-alls at the beginning of their stories. Cher thinks can get her way without really trying hard. She believes she can talk her way into or out of anything.

Cher’s proud of her machinations in the love lives' of others. She's irked when her ex-step-brother, Josh, thinks all her work is for selfish ends. In truth, they are. It takes everything blowing up in her face for Cher to realize that Josh was right. Its all gone wrong because its what she wanted and not what everyone else wanted for themselves. Christian doesn't want to be her boyfriend. Tai doesn't want to date anyone Cher sets her up with. Even Josh, who Cher continually pushes away, only wants to be close to her. Once Cher's stripped bare of everything she realizes she's behaved badly and more importantly that she’s in love with Josh. Once Cher starts selflessly working towards everyone's, including her own, hearts' desire, things turn out as they should.

Faith is a tricky subject when it comes to taking someone else's work and making it your own. Following Krevolin's rules of originality, seeking without destroying, keeping the key things, while maintaining the character arc can get you through adapting a work as short as a newspaper headline or as long as a 500-plus page novel.


  1. This is really interesting.
    I've been following many viewers comments on The LIzzie Bennet Diaries - people who are complaining about the faithlessness of the update, however, I think it's brilliant and that the "rules" you mention totally apply. Though, I think in that instance, it remains to be seen if Lydia's character arc will survive as Austen originally wrote it. However, the twists and turns that the update have made are all in line with what I feel is the spirit of Pride & Prejudice. I've added Bridget Jones Diary to my Netflix queue to remind myself of how they did it. Adaptations are so much fun!

  2. That's it exactly, Leslye! It's the spirit of the work that needs to be maintained. And then all bets are off. If someone does a verbatim retelling -that's plagiarism. The only movie I enjoyed that was nearly, totally faithful was Hunger Games. Check out Krevolin's book. Its filled with tons of great examples.