Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 12 2020 01:00PM

Twenty-five years ago this summer, we Janeites flocked to movie theaters to see a brand-new modernization of Emma, set among affluent Beverly Hills high school students.


Since then, the costumes, music, and slang of the immortal Clueless have become indelible pop-culture touchstones, and just about everyone who loves Cher Horowitz has bought the DVD or, at the very least, subscribed to a streaming service that makes the movie available for right-this-minute viewing.


Nevertheless, there’s something special about the communal experience of seeing a movie, up there on the big screen, amid a crowd of strangers. Or so, apparently, thinks Paramount Pictures, which has teamed up with Fathom Entertainment to celebrate Clueless’ quarter-century with a three-day theatrical release.


More than seven hundred cinemas across the country will show Clueless at four screenings over three days – May 3, 4, and 6 – along with a short feature about the witty, unforgettable teen jargon that writer-director Amy Heckerling created for her characters. (Find a location near you here.)


I’m willing to bet that at least a few of these screenings will turn into Rocky Horror-style cosplay events featuring a whole lot of yellow plaid skirts and knee socks. (Not that this would be a problem! As if!)


Meanwhile, Autumn de Wilde’s lovely new adaptation of Emma – you know, the original novel? – is doing pretty well for an indie costume drama (nearly $21 million in international ticket sales, and counting). If the movie continues to succeed, that opens the delightful possibility of a true Janeite wallow: an Emma double feature, with stops at Hartfield in the afternoon and Bronson Alcott High School in the evening. Like, totally!


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 14 2019 02:00PM

Why do people keep trying to mess with Clueless?


Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie, which updated the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills, is about as perfect a Jane Austen adaptation as there is – witty, clever, and true to the spirit of the original.


The most appropriate response to perfection ought to be . . . admiration. Respect. Keeping your hands off.


But first came talk of a Clueless remake. (The horror!) Then came the Heckerling-created off-Broadway Clueless jukebox musical. (The meh.) And now – well, last month -- comes word of a proposed Clueless TV show currently sparking interest in Hollywood.


The idea, apparently, is not to remake the 1996-99 TV show, itself based on the movie, so much as to reboot it. The central character would no longer be the Emma-like Cher but instead her friend Dionne, whose closest equivalent in Austen’s novel (although not that close, really) is Mrs. Weston. Cher disappears mysteriously; Dionne must investigate! Cher was high school queen bee; can Dionne take her place? Instead of 1815 England, we’d get 2020 Los Angeles. In place of matchmaking and moral growth, we’d get sleuthing and social climbing.


Although I’m at least three times older than the target teen demographic, I could imagine finding this sort of thing entertaining, if it weren’t for one thing: They plan on calling it Clueless. Because I don’t want anyone messing with perfection.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 7 2019 02:00PM

Over the weekend, I went to see Clueless: The Musical. It made me miss Clueless: The Movie. Which was probably not the intended effect.


The original, immortal Clueless – the 1995 Amy Heckerling movie that updated the story of Emma to high school in Beverly Hills – is witty, charming, energetic and sweet. The new Off-Broadway show is . . . energetic.


We get duplicates of the characters, costumes and much of the plot of the original, along with ‘90s-vintage pop songs featuring new lyrics by Heckerling, but the result feels strained, as if everyone is trying a bit too hard. The light touch that makes the movie such a pleasure is entirely absent. Remarkably, it turns out that it’s possible to watch (a version of) Clueless without laughing.


The hard-working performers aren’t to blame, though we saw the show sans its semi-big star, Disney Channel actress Dove Cameron, who has been getting lots of social-media hate for missing performances over health concerns. Those on stage were certainly . . . energetic, but they mostly seemed to be imitating their cinematic predecessors, rather than making the roles their own.


Would a fan better versed than I in ‘90s pop have recognized more of the songs and thereby enjoyed their transformation more? Maybe. Instead, I found myself wishing that Heckerling had just hired a decent composer and created some catchy original music, instead of rehashing the sometimes mediocre hits of decades past.


The whole experience left me even more skeptical than I already was about the Clueless movie remake that’s supposedly on Hollywood’s agenda. Tempted to mess with perfection? Yeah – no. Just don’t.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 1 2018 01:00PM

Sometimes it feels as if only die-hard Janeites are still thinking about Jane Austen. And other times – like these past few weeks -- you’d think the whole world was composed of die-hard Janeites, given the sudden flurry of news about impending or recently released Austen-themed work.


Herewith a roundup:


1. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy is set to star in a new adaptation of Emma, with a screenplay by New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton, the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize. There’s no shortage of Emmas – think Romola Garai in 2009, Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996, and Doran Godwin in 1972, not to mention Alicia Silverstone in 1995’s Clueless – but Janeites still disagree about whether the definitive adaptation has yet been made. I’d say there’s room for another version.


2. But is there room for another Clueless? Apparently, we’re going to find out: the writers of recent female-themed hits Girls Trip and GLOW plan to remake Amy Heckerling’s deathless film, which updated Emma to high school in Beverly Hills. I’m not sure why Clueless is suddenly hot again – a musical version opens Off Broadway next month – but personally I’m quite happy with the original, thank you very much.


3. Meanwhile, over in the world of books, an Italian artist named Manuela Santoni recently published Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper, a graphic novel for young adults based on Austen’s life. Judging from the online descriptions, the book sounds as if it owes more to the biopic Becoming Jane, with its highly speculative Tom-Lefroy-love-of-her-life-and-inspiration-for-Mr.-Darcy plotline, than to more sober biographical reflections. But the pictures look nice. . .


4. And speaking of highly speculative biography: In 2020, the British writer Gill Hornby will publish Miss Austen, a novel about Cassandra Austen and her relationship with her famous sister. The book by Hornby -- whose works of fiction and non-fiction include The Story of Jane Austen: The Girl with the Golden Pen, a 2005 Austen bio for kids -- will focus on Cassandra’s late-life decision to burn many of her sister’s letters, thus breaking the hearts of Janeites and biographers everywhere. I’m crossing my fingers that this won’t be yet another tale of Austen’s allegedly star-crossed love life, but – well, let’s just say I’m reserving judgment.


By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2018 01:00PM

Recently – OK, it was two weeks ago – I found occasion to mention an old journalists’ joke: that three examples of a phenomenon constitute a trend. At the time, I was remarking upon the proliferation of second-order Jane Austen adaptations – adaptations of previous adaptations.*


Today I feel justified in identifying yet another Austen-adaptation trend: the proliferation of jukebox/karaoke shows based on Austen stories. I’m talking about the kind of show that inserts famous pop songs into a newly developed storyline, giving audiences the comfort of the familiar along with the thrill of the new. Think Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, or (on the silver screen) Moulin Rouge.


Lately, Jane Austen has been getting the same treatment. The requisite three examples are as follows:


* In 2015, the lyricist and playwright Eric Price created Emma! A Pop Musical, which updates Austen’s story to high school, Clueless-style, and uses famous pop songs by female performers as a score. I’ve never seen it, but apparently it’s beloved by school drama departments.


* Earlier this summer, a Glasgow theater company produced Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), an all-female, slapstick version of the novel featuring interpolations like Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" (sung to Mr. Darcy, of course). Reviews were generally positive, if not rapturous.


* Speaking of Clueless, this fall an off-Broadway company will produce a musical version of the much-loved 1995 movie. The show featues classic ‘90s pop songs with parodic lyrics by Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed the original. **


Personally, I think the surface of this trend has barely been scratched.


Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” begs to be included in a Sense and Sensibility jukebox show – sung by Willoughby in the second act, as he writes his fateful brush-off letter, and then tragically reprised by Marianne and Elinor during the climactic illness scene. (Earlier, Elinor will have promised to keep silent about Lucy Steele’s secret engagement by vowing “My Lips Are Sealed” and nursed her broken heart to a rousing chorus of "I Will Survive.")


It goes on and on: “My Boyfriend’s Back” is obviously Anne Elliot’s big Act One number. . . . Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland bop around Bath to the accompaniment of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. . . . Maria Rushworth succumbs to the seductive Henry Crawford while singing “Like a Virgin’. . . the possibilities are endless. Paging Baz Luhrmann!



* And I forgot one – the upcoming TV show based on Curtis Sittenfeld’s P&P update Eligible. So, really, that trend is practically a tsunami.


** Devoted blog readers may recall that I already employed the Clueless musical as one of the confirmatory three points in my recent blog about the second-order-Austen-adaptation trend. Some may feel I am cheating by using it as one of the confirmatory three points in a blog about a different Austen trend. What can I say? Trend reporting is an unscrupulous business.


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