Movie Adaptations Aren’t Clueless (alisa)

It has become a very prominent trend to make films out of existing texts. Thanks to this trend we have a multitude of Shakespearian-styled films like 10 Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew), O (based on Othello), She’s The Man (based on The Twelfth Night) and even the dreaded Twilight (which loosely interprets Romeo and Juliet). Additionally, classic literary pieces like The Scarlet Letter and Pride and Prejudice are respectively interpreted in recent films like Easy A and Bridget Jones’s Diary. The fact that so many of the stories we believe to be “new” have in fact derived from already existing stories truly demonstrates Barthes’ assertion that “the Text is experienced only in an activity of production. It follows that the Text cannot stop [on a library shelf]; its constitutive movement is that of cutting across [several works].” (157)

One of my favorite examples of how the text is able to continue its movement through society and culture is the movie Clueless, which is a loose take on Jane Austen’s book, Emma. Although I was never a huge fan of the book, when I learned that Clueless was based on Emma, I was fascinated with finding examples of as many direct homages to the original text version of in the movie adaptation as I could. This fascination demonstrates Bakhtin’s comments on how “there is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to dialogic context…even past meanings can never be stable – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue.” (Speech Genres, 170)

Going further with Bakhtin’s theories, the viewers of this movie who had previous knowledge of the book’s adaptation, as well as viewers who were unaware of this association could probably view the film with a similar feeling of predictability. In this sense, viewers would expect a certain outcome due to previous exposure to words and communication exchanges. As Bakhtin mentions, “a ‘word’ is …always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in a chain of ongoing cultural and political moments.”

There have been two other film versions of Emma that preceeded Clueless, both of these versions were said to be more direct versions of the book since the plot was set in the same time frame and had the same characters and scenes. Some people would say these versions were more “accurate” interpretations of Emma than Clueless, bringing up the issue of the ‘degrees of intertextuality’ as mentioned by Daniel Chandler. Chandler concludes that intertextuality is not a contract between the author and those who move the text beyond the scope of the original text, but instead the degrees of intertextual relevance should be more based on reflexive properties that allow viewers to relate the new work to the old. When put this way, Clueless could be just as much of an accurate intertextual example as the films that directly interpreted Emma, showing just how far intertextuality can stretch in our culture.


Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” (1971; trans. 1977; excerpt from Image, Music, Text).

Mikhail Bakhtin: Key Theory from his major writings (On Dialogism, Heteroglossia, Polyphony).

Daniel Chandler, “Intertextuality.”