How can films be used to popularise classics for teen audiences, with specific reference to: William Shakespeare (1597) and Baz Luhrmann’s (1996) Romeo and Juliet, and Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) with Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995)

Anila Arshad-Mehmood

This essay explores the way that film adaptations are used to engage a contemporary teenage audience with the texts from which they originate.


   Amy Heckerling’s Clueless and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet feature prominently on best teen adaptation lists across the Internet.[1] Yet their sources, Jane Austin’s Emma (1816) and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), are unlikely to feature on any teenage fiction lists. What separates the original classics from these adaptations is the way the adaptations have been re-worked to create a new option for teenagers to access these classics. The content is everything teen viewers desire; Romeo and Juliet[2] includes references to drugs, teen suicide, romantic and familial love and betrayal, sex and alcohol; all issues teen audiences are interested in discussing, with universal themes they can relate to. Clueless similarly has reference to love, homosexuality, relationships, fitting in, drugs, alcohol, sex, and both feature lack of parent responsibility and intervention, often a recurring theme in young adult literature and films. Therefore these texts are perfect for adapting for audiences previously underrated and disengaged with the classic content, such as a teen audience.

   Critic Sung-eun Cho remarks that ‘[i]f a story is defined only by the literary telling of it, film begins in a disadvantaged position.’[3] This is what Luhrmann and Heckerling were arguing with these adaptations; they are retelling these stories in a new form and should be judged in a different way. This process of adaptation has lead to popularisation of these classic tales for this unique audience. Robert Stam argues that ‘literary text is not a closed, but open structure […] to be reworked by a boundless context.[4]  Cho argues ‘film represents the filmmaker’s subjective understanding of the literary source’,[5] which allows Heckerling and Luhrmann’s teenage inspirations and visions for these classics to be welcomed by many in the film world, even as some in the literary world criticise. The Cambridge Companion for Literature on Film argues,


Modern-set versions of Emma […Clueless…] suggest that the directors had more on their minds than careful adaptation of Jane Austen and Shakespeare: their interest seemed to lie primarily in how far works of earlier centuries might be made to seem relevant to later generations in settings and times far removed from those in which they had their origins.[6]


   While William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was not originally aimed for a teen audience, Luhrmann’s adaptation clearly is. Yet both retain the target of reaching across classes and social backgrounds with relatable and recognisable characters. The same is true of Jane Austin’s Emma, despite its original audience of primarily female readers. This contrasts with Clueless, which brings the same classic story to modern teenage audiences, male and female alike. The emergence of films aimed at teenagers began in the late 1950s and 1960s,[7] as they had a disposable income. Julie Everton explains that ‘[…] Teen flick genre […emerged in the…] 1950s as result of the fragmentation of mass cinema audiences into age specific consumer groups.’[8]  In order for these films to be successful as adaptations audiences had to be able to relate to classics in new ways. Sandi Chaitram argues that ‘Luhrmann's flamboyant direction pumps new life into a well-known, much-adapted tale. […] Shakespeare became fashionable and cool once again’,[9]which is arguably Luhrmann and Heckerling’s intentions in these adaptations.

   The use of up-to-date, well-known soundtracks helped this process, drawing in a new audience with the new image these classics were given. This was how directors and producers attracted a younger audience.  They also chose to use ‘young hot actors’[10] who the audiences could relate to, not older actors who previously alienated them. These actors had history in television also aimed at teenage audiences, and brought this audience to the big screen. Claire Danes was known for My So-Called Life, 1994-1995, before her role as Juliet in 1996[11]. Similarly Leonardo DiCaprio was known for Growing Pains[12] in 1992, and Alicia Silverstone was known for appearances in several TV series, including The Wonder Years.[13] Their previous roles as well-known teen idols and relatable characters were brought to these adaptations. Unknown actors, such as Justin Walker, who plays Christian, used these adaptations as their big breaks. Directors shaped them into the new characters and did not draw on the historical roles as could be said of previous adaptations. The huge success of these adaptations was not planned and catapulted these actors into household fame.

   These adaptations also used a variety of new media forms to interest an up-to-date modern teenage audience.  Romeo and Juliet[14] used sound, visuals, newspapers, text, images, montages and TV in the prologue to introduce the tone of the film. Clueless also uses a similar technique in its opening sequence.  Cher, the protagonist played by Alicia Sliverstone, even suggests that the montage appears like an advert, and there is constant reference in the film to other forms of popular culture. Heckerling and Luhrmann both used ideas that these films were up-to-date, though the plots are adapted from the original Shakespeare and Austen texts. This attracted younger audiences who saw their styles and tastes reflected in characters’, and therefore cared more for the story, and were drawn to watch them.

   This also contrasts ideas of high and low culture associated with the original texts and these adaptations. Adaptations in general were seen as low culture, yet Shakespeare and Austin have always been seen as high. They contradict in these adaptations, with the source material bringing its high culture reverence, contrasting the low culture association with adaptations and cinema. Heckerling and Lurhmann challenge this; using popular culture and a mix of high and low culture forms. There is also reference in the films to other forms of high culture, such as Cher correcting Heather quoting Shakespeare, ‘“I remember Mel Gibson accurately.”’[15] This opens discussions of how new forms of adaptations, such as Clueless and Romeo and Juliet[16], allow for classics to be engaged with by new audiences, and allow younger viewers to be directed to texts from adaptations. This reference to other forms of high and low culture and the original texts is continued throughout the films, such as The Globe Club pool hall that Romeo visits, and the love letter to Miss Geist, Twink Caplan, a Shakespearean sonnet, yet said to be from Cliffs notes.

   This also creates intertextuality in the adaptations, not only between their original sources but also other high and low culture. Cher references an adaptation of Hamlet, whilst other references in Clueless mention different genres of music, such as Billie Holliday. This is also true of Romeo and Juliet,[17] which references other Shakespearean texts, such as Hamlet in the initial presentation of Juliet, linking to Ophelia, and the use of ‘Rosencrantzy’s burgers.’ This intertextuality creates well-rounded adaptations and educates the intended teen audience, arguably more than they were engaged with literature discussions. Romeo and Juliet[18] also uses popular well-known adverts, subverting them, introducing further ideas of popular culture in the modern adaptation. An example is Coca-Cola, whose colours and style, teamed with Shakespeare inspired text creates ‘Wherefore L’Amour’,[19] a trademark of Luhrmann’s red curtain trilogy. This is often pictured with Romeo in the foreground, subtly suggesting the central theme while also referencing popular culture a teenage audience would be aware of, yet also sources of the adaptation.

   The use of location in both adaptations is also an important link to the original texts; Emma’s original setting in an English village translates well in the use of Beverly Hills, which is a closed off community also. This provides a link to the popular TV show Beverly Hills 90210[20] (later simply 902010),[21] demonstrating a style of living that the teen audience would be familiar with and expect to see in Clueless. Lesley Stern argues that ‘Los Angeles [is] a village […] peopled moreover by teenagers who think that Beverly Hills is the centre of the world.’[22] This is what Austen represented in Emma. Relationships between characters in Austen’s original village, Highbury in Surrey, and Beverly Hills in Los Angeles in Heckerling’s film overlap and show how Cher/Emma interacts with characters from other settings differently. An example is the Valley party, where Cher is continually dismissive and patronising to Travis. This is mirrored in Emma’s interactions with Mr Martin; by seeing the characters as lower in status the reaction to them is different to characters associated with their own setting, such as Christian/Frank Churchill of the same circle. In her essay Jane Austen on Screen Kathryn Sutherland argues, 

Other hybrid films, […Clueless…] are not adaptations so much as transcultural commentary and critical levers upon the novels they daringly transpose. Any interpretative act involves choice of features to emphasize and in so doing becomes an opinionated statement […][23]


     Looking at the opening of both adaptations, the intentions of both directors can be seen. Clueless’s opening demonstrates Heckeling’s use of other popular culture to signify this as a contemporary film for teen audiences. The opening of Romeo and Juliet[24], the sonnet prologue of Shakespeare’s play, is emphasised with key words and phrases highliged and repeated with images supporting dialogue. The use of a newsreader on television introduces the MTV-style film, yet the language, Shakespeare’s original script adapted, shows how the classic fuels the modern interpretation. Phrases such as ‘new mutiny’[25] and ‘ancient grudge’[26] are also shown in other forms of media, such as newspapers, allowing Luhrmann to demonstrate a drawing on low culture in his adaptation of this high culture project.

   This prologue also introduces the setting with wide, establishing shots of the city, the location, the fictional Verona Beach, emphasised with the bold white text on a black background ‘In Fair Verona.’[27] The religious imagery of the film is also heightened in this presentation of the prologue; the statue of Christ is central to the action. The events of the film shown are also paced by the elevating epic soundtrack, which supports the dialogue. This creates a sense of dramatic irony for audiences and allows those who may not know the story not to feel alienated by the language and feel they too can grasp exactly what the events unfolding will be. This is also helped by soap-like introductions of the supporting characters, as you would expect in a play script.  However, the protagonists are not included, creating a sense of interest and mystery around them. Luhrmann modernises this, also creating fictional first names for the well-known Lord and Lady Montague and Capulet, presenting Ted and Caroline Montague, with Gloria and Fulgencio Capulet. This allows a teen audience to know characters without feeling lost in the text. This would be an issue a teen audience may face in their studying, as the script is for performance.

     Luhrmann performs the play in a new medium, allowing for archetypal characters, such as Tybalt and Benvolio, to show their character and situation easily. This is done through text on screen, ‘Benvolio MONTAGUE Romeo’s cousin’,[28] and also through how they are presented in the opening of this film. The two sides are shown directly after the prologue, the Montague and Capulet boys respectively.

   The Montagues are shown as rowdy and colourful in their Hawaiian shirts and open top yellow jeep. The Capulet boys, in contrast, are shown as more sinister, in black with religious images surrounding them. Benvolio, who aims to keep the peace, not start another brawl, leads the Montagues; Tybalt, a far more intimidating character, leads the Capulets. Initially the audience only sees Tybalt’s feet, later a big close up (BCU) of the top half of his face before moving down to his feet again, this emphasises the sinister feel the audience has towards him. It shows he is a powerful character in this situation; viewers are under his feet ready to be crushed. The BCU of his feet, then face, creates this feeling of power and is supported by shots of his and Benvolio’s eyes, quickly cutting away, building up the tension. The soundtrack also emphasises uses of other popular culture and intertextuality, with a western theme playing, building up the tension before the fight breaks out.

   This chaos of action and colour contrasts with the introduction of Romeo, which is with a more muted soundtrack and colour palette. Radiohead, another contemporary popular use of soundtrack, plays as we see Romeo, a solitary figure on the Sycamore Grove beach, in a very long shot (VLS). He is pictured in a simple, plain suit; Romeo and Juliet are always pictured in simple colours, white, blue, silver and black, allowing them to contrast to the other archetypal characters. It allows them to be seen as real and relatable, the developed characters in the film. Romeo is also seen writing while his voice over is a soliloquy, showing him as a lone, solitary, artistic type, a tortured soul; which is a typical teen movie character that would draw in intended audiences, and is not in the original Shakespearean script. The soliloquy is an example of Luhrmann adapting and modernising the classic play for a more identifiable teenage film, and is also an example of Romeo’s dynamic nature, as his later soliloquies, in exile, are of a better quality showing his development within the Shakespearean language, and as a character.

   Romeo is pictured on a forgotten and damaged stage at his introduction. This highlights and references the original play and also allows Luhrmann to allude to the world he set the play in, with characters acting one way when their reality differs. It is Romeo and Juliet who are the truthful characters, and their true emotions are celebrated because of this; a fact that a teenage audience would appreciate. The setting of Sycamore Grove also shows how the characters have yet to grow up; they play at war without thinking of consequences, whilst adults are either disinterested children themselves or advise but cannot help, such as Friar Lawrence.

   The broken funfair Romeo and Benvolio speak together in is a symbol of the youthful state they are trapped in, and it is solely Romeo and Juliet who break out of this state. They are singled out from the rest of the characters, their representations linked with the sun, moon and other natural images. Both are seen through and around water throughout the film, prompting their changing characters states. They both see each other through water when they first meet, showing how they clearly see true selves, not a reflection they present; significantly Romeo has removed his mask. This natural imagery is associated with Romeo and Juliet throughout the film; showing they are natural characters, whereas the rest of the characters are archetypes, camp ideas of characters.  They are associated with muted colours and soundtrack and their costumes reflect this. They are the only dynamic characters in the film and these effects draw attention to them and their changes. They are also the sole characters to be shown in full body shots, showing how they are the only whole characters.

   Alternatively, the opening of Clueless presents Cher in the popular crowd, contrasting the presentation of Romeo and Juliet as alternative, neglected artistic heroes. They are the common teen heroes, yet Cher is typical to her settings.  Heckerling uses key teen tropes, such as featuring of the classroom, and typical character, such as the in-crowd boys described as ‘“the only acceptable ones [to date].”’[29] This crowd includes Elton, a modern representation of Austen’s Mr Elton. The use of a new character, Tai, allows Cher to describe her world without the sole use of the voice over that is introduced in the opening sequence of Clueless.

   The opening of Clueless uses a first person voice over from Cher herself. This creates a sense of intimacy with the audience, contrasting with the original subjective third person viewpoint in Austin’s Emma. It creates a bond between Cher and the viewers and invests them in her journey. It is also ironic, as the audience can see a sense of dramatic irony building throughout the film and therefore feel a sense of superiority over Cher, such as realising Christian’s homosexuality and lack of interest in Cher; and Tai’s infatuation with Josh, and therefore not being as ‘clueless’ as she is. They care for her and enjoy the emotional journey they go on with her as a dynamic character. She undergoes a change over the course of the film; a teen audience would enjoy sharing this journey by viewing it; they would not enjoy a static protagonist who did not develop over the course of the film.

   The opening sequence of Clueless features a modern soundtrack and fast-paced montage images with references to popular culture, similar to Romeo and Juliet,[30] allowing another MTV-style inspired opening for the teen audiences Heckerling, like Luhrmann, hoped to capture the interest of. 

    Josh’s introduction in the opening of Clueless makes the audience aware of his significance to the development of Cher as a dynamic character. The opening also features Mel Horowitz, played by Dan Hedaya, who consistently shows less than minimal interest in his daughter, and shows the general feeling towards parents, from a teen audience, when he describes his own parents as ‘“brain-dead lowlifes.”[31]  The parenting role is then put onto Cher, who is constantly fussing; a contrast to Emma, where Mr. Woodhouse is constantly fussing, yet the independent nature of a daughter who has little role at home is shared between Austen and Heckerling’s heroines.

   The use of comedy in these adaptations also helped draw in new teen audiences and popularise the classics, with the aid and development of the ‘romantic comedy’ genre. Many new Austen adaptations were billed, after Clueless, as ‘Rom-Coms’ when, as Austen was writing, a romantic comedy had never been heard of. The use of comedy in these films creates a sense of satire. It supports the narrative by mocking the archetypes its characters portray. This creates a new style of film adaptation, allowing characters and actors a sense of comedic timing, which in turn allows the original to develop further and draw new audiences. This is rather than solely relying on the old audiences that would be brought in knowing the original classics.

    The opening of Clueless uses an electronic wardrobe loudly displaying the words ‘mismatch’, foreshadowing Cher’s clueless nature in matchmaking and allowing a sense of comedic dramatic irony for the audience. This is also true of her debate, the subject being Haitians, which she refers to as HaTians. Her gum, which she removes as she starts debating, matches her outfit, showing the apparent superficiality of her character as the film begins, setting up her later development as a dynamic character that the teen audience would appreciate. This is also true of her language.  While sticking to a teen audience, and therefore use of contemporary slang, Alicia Silverstone's tone and style of presentation creates a sense of comedy as she delivers her catch phrase ‘“As if!.”’

   The fashion and costumes used by Heckerling also represent a teen audience; highlighted by the focus on the boys baggy, low riding trousers and caps. This is made more prominent through this teen film as the audience shares the first person viewpoint of the protagonist, who has a passion for fashion. This also makes this film an accurate historical document of the time it was filmed, as the language and fashion represent the teen audience Heckerling was marketing to. This goes above the use of contemporary universal issues that creates an interest for a teenage audience that Romeo and Juliet[32] shares, yet also creates an interest on a basic level; we like those who are like us.

   Overall, these classics serve to become popularised for a teen audience through their new style adaptations. The use of soundtrack, fashion and young actors by Heckerling and Luhrmann allows for teen audiences to relate without feeling a sense of patronisation and pandering. This therefore draws in a teen audience and creates a new branch for the popular play and novel to allow access to, a new way for a new audience to experience the timeless classics, in timeless adaptations. 



3615 words



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‘Clueless’, Rotten Tomatoes, <> (accessed 09 January 2013)

Cho Sung-eun, Intertextuality and translation in film adaptation  (Journal of British and American Studies no. 12, 2005)

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[1] Various, ‘Best Teen Adaptations’, The Film Pilgrim,  <> (accessed 08 January 2013).

[2] Romeo and Juliet, dir. Baz Luhrmann (20th Century Fox Home Ent., 1996).

[3] Sung-eun Cho, Intertextuality and translation in film adaptation  (Journal of British and American Studies no. 12, 2005)


[5] Ibid

[7] Hugh H. Davis, ‘I was a Teenage Classic’, The Journal of American Culture, 29: 1 (2006) p. 55.

[8] Julie Everton, ‘Adaptation: Adapting Austen for the Screen’ (Powerpoint, Film Adaptation of Literature, 15. 10. 12), Slide 27.

[9] Sandi Chaitram, ‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet’, BBC Movies, <> (accessed 08 January 2013).


[10] Davis, ‘I was a Teenage Classic’, p. 54.

[11]International Movie Database, ‘My So-Called Life’, International Movie Database <> (accessed 09 January 2013).

[12] International Movie Database, ‘Luke Brower’, International Movie Database <> (accessed 08 January 2012).

[13] International Movie Database, ‘Alicia Silverstone’, International Movie Database  <> (accessed 08 Jaunrary 2013).

[14] Luhrmann 1996

[15] International Movie Database, ‘Memorable quotes for Clueless’, International Movie Database  < > (accessed 09 January 2013).

[16] Luhrmann 1996

[17] Luhrmann 1996

[18] Ibid.

[19] Thomas Leitch, Film Adaptation and its Discontents (Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 2007), p. 124.

[20] International Movie Database, ‘Beverly Hills 90210’, International Movie Database  < > (accessed 09 January 2013).

[21] International Movie Database, ‘90210’, International Movie Database  < > (accessed 09 January 2013).

[22] Lesley Stern, ‘Emma in Los Angeles: remaking the book and the city’, (Handout, Film Adaptations of Literature, 15.10.12)

[24] Luhrmann  1996

[25] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, (London: Penguin Group, 1994) p. 31.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Luhrmann 1996

[29] Heckerling 1995

[30] Luhrmann 1996

[31] International Movie Database, ‘Memorable quotes for Clueless’, International Movie Database  < > (accessed 09 January 2013).

[32]Luhrmann 1996



Anila Arshad-Mehmood


brightONLINE student literary journal

14 Aug 2013