‘Clueless’ (1995) vs. ‘Emma.’ (2020): Which is Better?

by Adina Bernstein

The opening paragraph of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma is as follows:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty one years in the world with little to distress or vex her.”

Emma Woodhouse is the quintessential rom-com character. The queen bee of her world, she thinks that when it comes to love and romance, she knows everything that she needs to know. She has no idea how wrong she is. For over 200 years, audiences and readers have laughed, cried and groaned at the romantic misadventures of Miss Woodhouse. Which perfectly explains why her story is perfect for the silver screen.

Over the years, there have been several on-screen adaptations of the book. Clueless (1995) was Emma set in a California high school in the 1990s. The most recent remake, Emma. was released into theaters at the end of February. The question is, which is better?

Emma Woodhouse

1995: Alicia Silverstone (rebooted as Cher Horowitz)

Long before I knew that Clueless was a remake of Emma, I fell in love with the character of Cher Horowitz. Like her Regency-era predecessor, Cher’s intentions are not purposely malicious. In her mind, she is doing what she thinks is doing a mitzvah (a good deed). Though she is slightly ditzy at times and not always thinking things through, she has a big heart and just wants everyone to be happy.

2020: Anya Taylor-Joy

Taylor-Joy was the perfect actress to play Emma. Her Emma is everything that the audience (especially the die-hard Jane Austen fans, of which I am one) expect her to be. She has good intentions, but she is also slightly snobby and misinformed about what she expects from the romances of her friends and neighbors. But that is the joy of Emma and watching Taylor-Joy in the role was nothing short of perfection.

The winner is Emma.


1995: Written and directed by Amy Heckerling

I’ve stopped counting the number of times that I’ve seen Clueless over the years. Heckerling’s script captured the teenage zeitgeist of the mid-1990s like few films have, then or now. It is both timeless and captures a moment in time that feels unique to what it was to be a teenager back then. The movie is completely quotable, iconic and I’ve loved it for twenty-five years.

2020: Written by Eleanor Catton and directed by Autumn de Wilde

Jane Austen is one of those writers who is both easy and difficult to copy. On the surface, her narratives and characters seem to be predictable. But upon diving beneath the surface, Austen reveals herself to be a writer who is often imitated but never duplicated. Catton stays true to the Austen canon, reminding audiences why we love this novel. As is de Wilde, who was able to channel the rom-com energy in Emma. Her vision is both true to the novel and modern, which is not always easy to achieve.

The winner is: Clueless.

Mr. Knightley

1995: Paul Rudd (Rebooted as Josh, Cher’s former stepbrother)

In the romantic comedy genre, friction between the potential lovers is the best way to hook an audience. Rudd’s Josh is the realist who wants to shake Cher out of the “pie in the sky” dream world that she lives in. Like his on the page counterpart, Josh is a genuinely nice guy. In the world of romantic comedies, a male lead who is a genuinely nice guy is sometimes hard to come by. And by the way, Paul Rudd is 51 and does not look a day over 25.

2020: Johnny Flynn (Mr. Knightley)

A confirmed bachelor in his late 30’s, he and Emma are old friends, in addition to being family. His younger brother is married to her elder sister. Having known Emma since she was born, Knightley has a perspective on Emma that no one else within that world does. His criticisms of her faults are not meant to be mean, they are meant to correct her perception of the world. But he also recognizes that Emma is a good person, despite being slightly delusional.

The winner is Emma.

Mr. Woodhouse

1995: Dan Hedaya (Rebooted as Mel Horowitz)

Instead of a widower hypochondriac, Cher’s widowed father is a lawyer with a thick old school New York accent and a parent’s concern for his child. He just wants to her do well in school, pass her drivers test and live a good life. But, in the tradition of most parents within the world of Jane Austen novels, Mel is not exactly Father Knows Best.

2020: Bill Nighy

Emma’s widower father is, for lack of a better word, a hypochondriac. Marrying later in life and losing his wife when his daughters were very young, Mr. Woodhouse’s reactions are both emotionally predictable and hilarious. His concern about his health gets to the point in which one would easily get frustrated. But in the comic hands of Bill Nighy, Mr. Woodhouse is a character who elevates the humor. We also understand Emma better knowing that some of what she does is motivated by the love of her father.


Focus Features

The winner is Emma.

To be completely honest, it’s pretty much a toss-up between both films. Clueless is and will always be one of my favorite movies. But the new adaption of Emma. is fantastic, and the winner!

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