Social Class in “Emma” and “Clueless”

Emma is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels. Despite its rather large cast of unlikable characters, the novel is delightfully clever and funny.  I enjoy watching as Emma Woodhouse grows up from a shallow and spoiled girl into a woman whom not only her friends and neighbors admire, but the reader as well. Her character growth is exciting to watch, and the reader cheers her on as she slowly grows and changes into a better person.

Although Emma Woodhouse is not entirely likable, she always tells herself that she is doing what is best for those around her. She involves herself in matchmaking for her friends and neighbors in Highbury. While the novel is, technically, about Emma, it is moreso about the society in which Emma and her neighbors live and the various codified interactions they have with those of different social classes. Emma is a novel about social structure and class, and the conflicts that arise when living in a society as stratefied as Regency-era England. 

Emma (2020) is the most recent adaptation of the classic novel. However, it struggles to compete with Clueless (1995), an adaptation of the novel set in the modern world and focused on the love-lives of privileged teenagers in Los Angeles, California. Although Anya-Taylor Joy is a good actress and does an admirable job in portraying Emma Woodhouse, Emma does not have a likable protagonist. This is, perhaps, the way in which the film stays closest to the source material. For most of the 2020 movie, Emma is an unlikable character, much as she is at the beginning of Austen’s novel.

I can’t lie. Emma is an aesthetically pleasing movie. Director Autumn de Wilde is most known for her photography, and her eye for a pleasing picture makes itself known in the film. The colors, sets, and cinematography are beautiful. The eye-catching costumes contrast beautifully with the neutral and more sedate backgrounds. 

But the theme of the movie feels all wrong. Admittedly, I couldn’t get myself to finish the movie. Although it felt like a waste of the $3.99 I paid to rent the movie, I had to turn off the movie three-quarters of the way in. I thought the movie was terrible. While the plot points were true to those in the novel, it all felt like it lacked Austen’s wit and humor. Sure, there were funny moments, and I appreciated how the score made several scenes ironic and laughable. 

But it lacked the distinct charm and relatability which makes both the novel and Clueless such classics. The characters are written and portrayed in such a way that it is difficult for the modern audience to relate to them, but at the same time, they’re not so antique-feeling that one can see them as charming vestiges of a long-gone era. 

Emma is a difficult story to elegantly and successfully adapt for a modern audience. At its core, Austen’s Emma is about social class. Miss Harriet Smith is potentially of high enough social status to marry the vicar, Mr. Eliot, but certainly not of the right social status to marry Mr. Knightley. Emma Woodhouse is of too high status to ever consider marrying Mr. Eliot, but of the right status to consider either Mr. Knightley or Mr. Churchill. And this list of overlapping social statuses goes on and on and dictates most–if not all–of the novel. 

An adaptation must handle these class issues in a way that makes sense to its audience. Emma features potential couples who are not only ill-suited because of their incompatible personalities and temperament, but also because of their vastly different social standing. 1995’s Clueless handles this issue by setting the scene in a system of semi-rigid social classes with which we are all familiar: Hollywood-imagined high school, riddled with stereotypical divisions of social standing. 

The newest adaptation of Emma does not handle this issue as elegantly. The social classes are unclear, although they are alluded to and somewhat illustrated by showing the differences in clothing, manners, and homes. Mr. Knightley does allude to Harriet Smith’s social standing when he tells Emma why the girl is foolish for turning down her first proposal. Still, he never exactly explains why, or that Mr. Elton is somewhere on the social totem pole below land-owning members of society like Mr. Knightey but above tenant farmers like the Martins. 

Emma is lacking a quality that I cannot explain in words. Unlike Pride and Prejudice (2005) or even Mansfield Park (1999), Emma does not make itself easily relatable to its audience. The struggles Emma and the other characters face do not become the struggles of the audience. Throughout the movie, I was struggling to make myself care about the plot and about each of the characters, and I’ve read Emma multiple times because I love it. 

Emma is, in my opinion, a much more difficult story to adapt to the screen than any of Austen’s other novels. Emma is not about Emma, but about class issues, social structure. It is a study of the interactions between individuals from various social classes and the rigid rules of society that constrain all interactions. Those are very difficult things to convey on-screen in a way that stays true to the plot while also keeping the audience’s attention. 

Clueless is able to do this so much more easily than Emma because of its modern setting. We are all familiar with the social structure and rules of hierarchy in Cher Horowitz’s life. Rather than being confused or annoyed at the ways societal expectations nudge characters in particular directions, we understand without the film having to deviate into a long-winded explanation. Emma lacks this ease, and honestly, it makes the film difficult to watch. 

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