Film News

Clueless at 20: An Original Comic Gem That Wasn’t Actually Original

How do you celebrate the 20th anniversary of Clueless? Do you instantly lament, “Has it really been 20 years? I’m getting so old!”? Maybe. I don’t know. That’s your baggage. Do you amuse yourself by taking online quizzes to see if you can tell Ant-Man Paul Rudd apart from 40-Year-Old Virgin Paul Rudd? That man refuses to age! Do you take a deep dive into Vulture’s oral histories about the making of the movie?  Wow, two extras in the party scene are now engaged, and the original plan was to use an Oasis song over Cher and Josh’s final kiss instead of General Public’s “Tenderness”! Do you look up and realize those oral histories are actually excerpts from a brand new 300 page book? Because I just did.

Forbes’ Scott Mendelson took a different approach. He wanted to see what lessons modern Hollywood could learn from the little teen comedy that made $56 million off a $12 million budget in 1995. His conclusion is that though there are still cult classics today it’s harder for them to have as long lasting an impact as something like Clueless. After all, how many of them eventually get their own TV show?  Because Clueless did, and that show ran for 3 seasons. More importantly,  modern Hollywood almost exclusively backs projects which are best categorized as “Based On the Thing We Already Knew About.”  As a result, it’s harder for them to really forge their own legacy, unlike Clueless which was technically not an original movie even though it was sold as one:

Clueless still lingers today because it is an adaptation of a prior source material that didn’t lean on the popularity of said source material for its social/box office impact. It created something original and of reasonably quality and took on a life wholly separate from its literary origins […] Clueless is a beloved movie 20 years later both because it was good and because it stood on its own two fashionable feet and left its own mark on the pop culture landscape.

His argument is predicated upon the assumption that Clueless is considered a classic of its genre. I don’t disagree with him. It seems like ever since John Hughes came along in the 80s every subsequent decade has had its defining handful of teen comedies, be it Clueless and American Pie in the 90s or Mean Girls in the aughts. In recent years, the genre has receded from box office prominence, even when incredibly worthwhile efforts like Perks of Being a Wallflower, The DUFF and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl made their way through theaters. This weekend, Paper Towns, the latest from author John Green is upon us.  It’s all about a kid coming of age while also awakening to the realization that the mysterious girl he’s idealized is just as flawed and human as the rest of us, Green’s attempt to stab the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept right int he heart.  The studio is trying to appeal to the author’s rabid fanbase that so gleefully embraced The Fault in Our Stars last summer.

Clueless is based on a book, too. It’s a very loose modernization of Jane Austen’s Emma, but 1995 was a very different time for movies. When Clueless came out the studio did everything it could to run away from the idea of the movie being based on some stuffy old novel with an established fanbase. Instead, it was a fun teen comedy with that girl from the Aerosmith music videos.

Here’s the original trailer:

At the time, I had never even heard of Emma, which freed me up to embrace Clueless as a charming and highly quotable movie. I fell in love with Alicia Silverstone the same way so many others probably fell in love with Paul Rudd, who was definitely “kind of a Baldwin.”

Clueless was not an original film, but it sold itself as an original work and created original art within the skeleton of its source material. It also did not care if anyone knew what was being adapted, which is the opposite of how it works today. It’s not that there are more remakes being made today than ever before, but rather than the emphasis is different.

For example, will the RoboCop remake ever be anything more than just that RoboCop remake? The same goes for the inevitable Gremlins and Goonies remakes?

Those films may or may not be any good and they may or may not be box office hits. But by virtue of the fact that their key reason for existence is the popularity of their original source material, the chances of them becoming classics or even cult favorites or even a franchise are next-to-nil. But Clueless showed a better way. It was received as an original comic gem, and that it is a big reason as to why it has a legacy twenty-years later.

It’s an interesting angle on the legacy of Clueless I had not previously considered.  Even though it’s an oversimplification, it’s easy to sometimes think that older major movies were more original and modern major movies are all adaptations/sequels/remakes thus guaranteeing at least a minimal return on investment for the financial backers.  However, it’s interesting to ponder how even when an older movie like Clueless was actually adapted from something else that didn’t used to be the selling point and sole defining characteristic.  To use a modern example, though, maybe there’s not much difference between Paper Towns selling itself as coming from the writer of Fault in Our Stars and Clueless running with “From the director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Mendelson further points out that there actually was a straight adaptation of Emma a year after Clueless, 1996’s Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow.  As far as Jane Austin adaptations go, it’s considered a good one.  However, that’s all it is – another Jane Austin movie.  Clueless, on the other hand, has a legacy all its own at this point.

What do you think?  Are you a Clueless fan?  Do you fondly remember crushing on Silverstone or Rudd after seeing the movie?  Have you never really understood all the love for Clueless?  Did you first find it many years after its 1995 release?  Let me know in the comments.

Source: Forbes


  1. As a 90s girl of course I absolutely love Clueless! And I agree with your point in this post. Movies like Clueless, Mean Girls, and even the first Pitch Perfect are considered “cult classics” because they were perceived as super original (even though like you said Clueless technically was an adaptation). But think about it, how many teenagers would have gone to see it if it was advertised as a “Jane Austen” movie instead of a high school flick?
    (And to answer one of your questions, of course I started my still-existing crush on Paul Rudd with this movie!

  2. I agree. Clueless achieved its status as a cult classic–completely separate from the Austen novel–because it used the novel loosely as a springboard for its story and characters, instead of being tied to it. The best parts of the movie–the anthology-worthy dialogue, the insane and brilliant outfits –are all products of the 90s. That it started with Emma is now a merely interesting point of movie trivia.

    It’s cool to think that very basic story lines like this one are universal and therefore intriguing and entertaining in Austen’s time and our time. Great movie and great book.

    Nice post.

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