Of the many gifts the 90s bestowed upon us, one of the greatest was a little movie named Clueless. Clueless, of course, was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s modernized, Beverly Hills set version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Emma has been turned into two films, spawned a modernized Bollywood version, been adapted for television eight times, and has been the subject of two web series. For now, though, we’re gonna stick to the two film versions of Emma while we do a deep dive into how they line up.
Emma Woodhouse is Cher Horowitz
Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow/Anya Taylor-Joy) is described as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition… and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) is a Beverly Hills high school student who could (outside of the age) be described in much the same way. Both Emma and Cher have lost their mother and live at home with their father. Both can’t resist meddling in the lives of their friends and enjoy some not so subtle matchmaking.
George Knightley is Josh Lucas
George Knightley (Jeremy Northam/Johnny Flynn), the family friend and eventual love interest of Emma’s, is a direct parallel to Josh Lucas (Paul Rudd), Cher’s former stepbrother. George and Josh have no problem calling out Emma and Cher, respectively, for their more troubling attempts to matchmake and otherwise interfere in the lives of their friends.
Harriet Smith is Tai Frasier
Emma takes friend Harriet Smith (Toni Collette/Mia Goth) under her wing. Harriet is interested in local farmer Robert Martin, but Emma encourages her to form an attachment with vicar Philip Elton instead. Cher takes new student Tai Frasier (Brittany Murphy) as her next project. She discourages Tai’s interest in skateboarder Travis Birkenstock and encourages a relationship with popular student Elton Tiscia.
Remember that scene where Josh dances with Tai at the college party after he sees her standing alone? It’s based on Knightley asking Harriet Smith to dance after Mr. Elton refuses to do so.
Philip Elton is Elton Tiscia
Elton is the worst. In every movie. Whether it’s as vicar Philip Elton (Alan Cumming/Josh O’Connor) or student Elton Tisica (Jeremy Sisto), this is the character that is probably the most consistent from version to version. Elton offers to frame Emma’s painting of Harriet in Emma and hangs the photo of Tai that Cher took in his locker in Clueless. Elton makes an unwanted advance on the way home from a party in every version. He also dismisses Harriet/Tai as beneath him in each movie.
Frank Churchill is Christian Stovitz
Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor/Callum Turner) enters the story as a possible romantic interest for Emma. It turns out that he has a secret-a hidden engagement with Jane Fairfax, instead. Christian Stovitz (Justin Walker) enters the story as a possible romantic interest for Cher. It turns out he also had a secret-he’s gay.
Remember when Christian rescued Tai from the boys dangling her over the balcony at the mall? It’s a play on the scene in Emma when Frank rescues Harriet from a group of travelers.
Augusta Elton is Amber Mariens
After rejecting Harriet and being rejected by Emma, Mr. Elton returns to town with a new wife. Augusta Elton (Juliet Stevenson/Tanya Reynolds) is vulgar and pretentious and not particularly well-liked. Amber Mariens (Elisa Donovan) is a stereotypical mean girl and dates Elton after he’s rejected by Cher. Both Agusta and Amber have a fondness for over the top outfits.
What about all of those other characters?
Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (Denys Hawthorne/Bill Nighy) was a bit of a hypochondriac. Cher’s father Mel (Dan Hedaya) had a heart problem, and Cher is constantly reminding him to take better care of himself.
A minor character who serves more as a plot device, Robert Martin (Edward Woodall/Connor Swindells), Harriet’s eventual husband, is the basis for Travis Birkenstock (Breckin Meyer), Tai’s eventual boyfriend.
Emma’s governess, Anne Weston (Greta Scacchi/Gemma Whelan), marries early in the story. It’s likely that she and Mr. Weston (James Cosmo/Rupert Graves) are the basis for Cher’s best friend Dionne Davenport (Stacey Dash) and her boyfriend Murray Duvall (Donald Faison). There is not a lot of overlap in their storylines, however.
Finally, let’s talk about Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson/Miranda Hart), the friendly and impoverished spinster in Emma. While there’s not any overlap in their stories, I’m convinced she’s the inspiration for Toby Geist (Twink Caplan), a teacher in Clueless. They both have such bubbly, optimistic and slightly oblivious personalities that it can’t be a coincidence.
Where can you watch Emma and Clueless?
If you’re ready to do a deep dive on both subjects yourself, you can stream them all!
And if you really want to fall down that rabbit hole? Here are a few more options:
And yes, I’ve seen them all.