Consuming “Products” of the Aristocracy: Early Modern Fiction and the “Teen Film”

Updated on September 16, 2018
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Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University.

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At the turn of the millennium, the “teen movie” genre that increased in popularity throughout the 1980s and 90s made its way into the realm of classic literature, shaping teen culture with “high school-based” adaptations of canonical texts. Though both direct and updated adaptations from novel to film have always been visible in cinema, the “youth movement” of the late 90’s brought early modern literature into teen pop culture and proved to be highly successful (Davis, 52-53). In “I Was a Teenage Classic,” Hugh H. Davis recalls the sudden boom in teenage-adaptations after the initial release of Clueless (a hit in the summer of 1995), the most commercially successful adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma (1815):

Within roughly 20 months at the turn of the millennium, filmgoers were treated, knowingly or not, to two versions of Pygmalion (1913), with She’s All That (1999) and the gender-reversed Drive Me Crazy (1999), as well as an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons/Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), called Cruel Intentions (1999), a recast Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), titles Whatever It Takes (2000), a gender reverse of As You Like It (1599), named Never Been Kissed (1999), a revisited Taming of the Shrew (1593), called 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), and a basketball-based Othello (1604), entitled simply O (2001) (53).

Davis attributes this sudden out-pouring of high school-based adaptations to filmmakers taking note of Clueless’s success, and Hollywood marketing teens in order to tap into their “disposable incomes” and penchant for movie-going (56). Davis also finds, however, that these films draw students to the original texts and are useful in “piqu[ing] student interest in literary works” (57) since they make the texts more accessible to a teenage audience: “students continue to view these adaptations and admit that their study starts with these versions, for teens initially will watch other teens in the variations on classic texts” (57). Davis implies that these films are attractive to teens in high school that are actually studying the texts being portrayed, primarily because, by situating themselves in high school, they are “translated” into the “language” teens understand.

Davis’s argument that these films are useful as tools in earning money and making literary texts more accessible to a teenage audience is valuable when considering how such adaptations are able to be successful at all. What these adaptations also have in common is that they are all based on novels that predate modernity, and that they are all novels focused on the life and lifestyles of the nobility, aristocracy, and gentry1. Aside from introducing teens to the classics, these films depict teens as the new aristocracy. While this seemingly places teens in a new position of power, it also proves that the fascination with the super-rich that is often explored in early novels has not disappeared but only evolved into a fascination with another unattainable class: the popular high school teenage clique. This fascination is centered on the “products” of the aristocracy that will be the focal point of this paper: “erotic freedoms,” “aesthetic glamor,” and “social domination” (Quint, 120). Making teens the new aristocracy continues the love-hate relationship with the aristocracy displayed in early novels; while we enjoy indulging in the “products” of the aristocracy, authors and filmmakers seek ways to undermine the aristocracy’s power and hold on society. By looking at the film Cruel Intentions (adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and taking into account Clueless (adapted from Jane Austen’s Emma), and the more recent French high school-adaptation La Belle Personne (2008) (adapted from Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves [1678]), I propose that the love-hate relationship for the aristocracy exhibited by early modern European novels is still apparent, and its evolution into modern day American “teen films” suggests that aristocratic “products” will continue to thrive in a consumer-based, capitalist society.

Looking at the three examples of novels chosen for high school-adaptations, La Princesse de Clèves, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Emma have few similarities as novels apart from dealing with characters of high social standing. La Princesse de Clèves and Les Liaisons Dangereuses are both French novels, though a century apart and dealing with French aristocracy very differently. Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Emma are closer in time period, though Emma is an English novel and written post-French Revolution, while Laclos’s novel is written seven years prior and hints at the revolution’s inevitability. All three are written for different audiences with different agendas and criticisms in mind. La Princesse de Clèves is a variation on historical fiction dealing with matters of authenticity among nobility, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an epistolary, “realism” novel commenting on the devious excesses of the aristocracy of the present time, and Emma is a sort of progressive “comedy of manners” in which clearly fictional 18th century-like characters enact either wit or foolishness (subtly commenting on gender roles, marriage, etc.) within the context of proper society. Though there are points in which the themes of each novel intersect and similarities of the aristocratic characters overlap, the differences in plot, tone, and overall effect outweigh the similarities.

Keeping these differences in mind, it is surprising that all three novels proved adaptable into the modern-day high school setting. Perhaps not so surprising considering that when looking at the lifestyle of the aristocracy in these three novels, and examining the traits of the aristocratic characters, one can find many similarities with the stereotypical teenager portrayed in film. Aside from often being a part of wealthy, upper class society, or at least upper-middle class suburbia, stereotypical teenagers from many “teen films” (not just high school-adaptations) lead lives that are fixated on reputation and status. They are young without the distraction of careers, children, or other obligations associated with modern day adulthood. They indulge in fashion and gossip. They enjoy parties and dances – the modern-day equivalents to balls. They are either naïve or experienced know-it-alls, virginal or sex-crazed. They become infatuated easily, fall in love deeply, and die over broken hearts (through suicide or self-sacrifice). Though they may not like each other, they are obligated to see and spend time with one another, and live their lives according to their status in high school (the modern-day equivalent of court). They have little additional responsibilities to distract them from amorous passions or material excesses that tend to preoccupy their time and lives.

Whether this image of teenage life corresponds with reality is up for debate. According to Roz Kaveney, in her book Teen Dreams, this image of social hierarchy and certain sense of liberation are products of the “teen film” genre initiated by the 1980s John Hughes films: “Through films and television, and most especially through the teen genre of the last two decades, many of us are acquainted with an adolescence that had nothing in common with anything we actually experienced […] We find ourselves caught up in nostalgia for things that never happened to us” (1-2). The idea that we, as viewers of “teen movies,” are nostalgic for a lifestyle that we’ve never experienced in reality serves as a link between our nostalgia for the popular high school lifestyle and our nostalgia for the “products” of aristocratic life. The “erotic freedoms,” “aesthetic glamor,” and “social domination” prevalent in the aristocracy of early novels prove to seamlessly transition into a “teen film” culture that is more readily accepting of it than their novel counterparts.

1 For the purposes of this paper, from this point forward I’ll be using “aristocracy” as a blanket term that incorporates the nobility, aristocracy, and gentry of the early Modern period.

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In The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt briefly comments “on how middle-class belief has attributed sexual prowess and sexual license to the aristocracy and gentry” (Quint, 104), a belief that still exists when portraying the high school “aristocracy” in film. The success of the teen drama-comedy Cruel Intentions proves that the “erotic freedoms” and “social domination” displayed by the aristocracy of earlier texts transcend believably into modern-day teenage-hood. As Brigine Humbert writes in her analysis of Cruel Intentions as an adaptation:

Through the various adaptations [of Les Liaisons Dangereuses], the kaleidoscope of love, evil, gullibility and manipulation woven by Laclos has transcended media, time, culture and language, and the moral cynicism and lust for domination displayed by his two main protagonists have lost none of their power of topicality: Kumble [the director of Cruel Intentions] states that he chose to place his characters in a Manhattan prep school because “I hadn’t really seen high school portrayed honestly, which in my recollection was a lot of people doing a lot of mean things” (280).

The idea that the director considers his high school-adaptation to be an accurate representation of modern day high school highlights America’s interpretation of the high school as a space in which “products” of the aristocracy continue to be produced. Whether Cruel Intentions is an honest portrayal of the reality of high school is irrelevant; what is interesting is that we, as viewers, perceive it to be an acceptable interpretation of reality.

Cruel Intentions turns Les Liaisons Dangereuses’s two devious protagonists, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, into Sebastian Valmont and Kathryn Merteuil – two wealthy, manipulative step-siblings from “Manhattan’s upper-crust”1. While their parents are busy touring the world, Kathryn and Sebastian are left trying “to put some spice into their spoiled and boring lives by playing with others’ feelings and reputations” during their summer break (Humbert 281). The two teenagers up the stakes by mixing sexual conquest with revenge: Kathryn’s revenge is on the boyfriend who dumped her for the innocent and naïve Cecile Caldwell, and Sebastian’s on Cecile’s mother who warned his intended conquest against him. Kathryn’s revenge entails challenging Sebastian to “ruin” Cecile by “deflowering her and turning her into a tramp – thus humiliating” Kathryn’s ex, Court Reynolds2. Though Sebastian perceives this challenge as easy, and therefore boring, he eventually obliges when Cecile’s ruin serves his own revenge on her mother. Sebastian, however, has another, more challenging conquest in mind: the new headmaster’s daughter, the virtuous Annette Hargrove, who “just published a virgin’s manifesto in Seventeen” magazine stating how she intends to stay pure until marrying her boyfriend (Humbert 281). Sebastian bets Kathryn that he can seduce Annette before the start of the school year, and Kathryn agrees to the wager3. If Sebastian fails to win the challenge, it will cost him his pristine 1956 Jaguar Roadster; however, if he succeeds he will be allowed to finally consummate his relationship with his step sister Kathryn. This offer is enticing to Sebastian, considering that, according to Kathryn, “I’m the only person you can’t have and it kills you.” In this world of erotic excess, the idea of one person being off limits (either Kathryn or Annette) is a powerful motivator to a well-off, upper-class society with no other real challenges to pursue.

Modern day interpretations aside, Cruel Intentions is fairly faithful to the spirit of Laclos’s novel. Wrought with crude metaphors, double-entendres, and language that consistently alludes to sex, the devious “erotic freedoms” expressed by Laclos’s libertines are “updated while keeping pace with the original: ‘How are things down under?’ Sebastian asks Cecile, whom he just complimented on her Australian shirt, while peeping under her mini-skirt” (Humbert 281). Just as in Laclos’s novel, and other similar early novels that indulge in the “love-hate relationship” with the aristocracy, viewers are presented with “libertine rakes” that act as enemies to “the bond of marriage that is the aim of the comic novel” (Quint 104). Just as the Vicomte attempts to make a mockery of Madame de Tourvel’s convictions and religious devotion, Sebastian attempts to undermine the notion of teenage virtuosity and chastity by seducing Annette. Sebastian, as the “updated” teenage Vicomte, fits into the stereotypical image of the French aristocrat: “The aristocrat carried the aura of sentimental and sensual delicacy that his very leisure and idleness allowed him to refine, although in his flouting of social mores and lawlessness he also bore the potential for sexual brutality and danger” (Quint 110). Sebastian is the new libertine rake, who exhibits sensual delicacy, sexual freedom, and sexual brutality; he’s a danger to virtue and reputation during crucial moments of development in young adolescents.

Sebastian as the new libertine rake, however, both indulges in and undermines the power of the teenage “aristocracy,” holding on to the love-hate relationship established by early novels. As David Quint writes, in his article “Noble Passions,” “the investment of the novel and its culture in the dissolute nobleman as an object of erotic fascination as well as repulsion […] may paradoxically have shored up, as much as it undermined, the prestige and sway of the aristocracy” (106). This paradoxical relationship with the aristocracy is apparent in both Laclos’s novel and Kumble’s film, but the different endings of the two texts suggest that our feelings towards the aristocracy have changed, in that we (and by “we,” I mean American culture) are becoming more fascinated than repulsed, and more admiring than condemning.

Though, as Quint points out, the fascination and repulsion for the aristocracy in texts always has the potential to “shore up” the prestige of the aristocracy, Laclos takes more initiative than Kumble in punishing those who participate in aristocratic excesses and claims for social power. By the end of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, after indulging in the scandalous and wicked behavior of the Vicomte and the Marquise, readers encounter a series of negative and tragic endings for the two protagonists and their pawn-like victims. It is as if Laclos wanted to ensure that aristocratic excesses and “products” could never be redeemed or rewarded. The character Cécile, in the novel, miscarries Valmont’s child, and though in love with her music instructor the Chevalier de Danceny, she returns to the convent from whence she came in the beginning of the story. Madame de Tourvel (who inspires Annette’s character in the film) retreats to the convent also, where she dies of a broken heart, shame, and regret after Valmont abandons her. Valmont is killed in a duel with Danceny, but without any of the redeeming aspects that existed in the film. Merteuil receives a particularly harsh fate, especially for an aristocrat. In “Letter 175: Madame de Volanges to Madame de Rosemonde,” we learn of Merteuil’s physical disfigurement and banishment from high society’s inner circles:

Madame de Merteuil’s destiny seems at last, my dear and worthy friend, to have been fulfilled. It is such that her worst enemies are divided between the indignation she merits and the pity she inspires. I was quite right to say that it would perhaps be fortunate for her if she died of the smallpox. She has recovered, it is true, but horribly disfigured; more than anything by the loss of an eye […] The Marquise de __, […] said yesterday in speaking of her ‘that the disease has turned her inside out, and that her soul is now visible on her face’. Unfortunately everyone thought the observation very just (391-392).

After recovering from small pox, Merteuil is rumored to leave secretly in the night for Holland, friendless and bankrupt.

1 This quote is from an anonymous contributor on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

2 IMDb

3 IMDb

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The high school-adaptation of this ending is vastly different, in that only Sebastian and Kathryn are punished, and that Sebastian is redeemed through his love for Annette. Valmont’s “redemption through his love for the virtuous Tourvel” is only a possible interpretation in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but becomes an essential element to the film. In Humbert’s analysis, she suggests that:

American audiences’ tastes, and therefore modern Hollywood movies, are still influenced by the “Hollywood formula” established in the thirties in accordance with the Production Code […], a formula requiring a dramatic conflict “always structured around two opposing poles definitively representing good and evil, with a readily identifiable hero and villain,” as well as “romance and true love” and a “Happy Ending, in which evil was destroyed and good rewarded” […] The hero did not have to be morally perfect, but the audience had to have “no doubt as to [his] ultimate allegiance to the side of good” (282).

Sebastian turns into a likeable character through his budding relationship with Annette, and his villainy is ultimately shifted to “the side of good.” He “weeps openly while breaking up with Annette,” which he only does to save her reputation rather than his own, and then tries to win her back almost immediately. Though he is still killed by the end of the story, “on the verge of dying, not only does he admit his feelings directly to his beloved, but he also dies trying to save her life” (Humbert 282) as he pushes her out of the way of the car before it hits him. This Valmont is not even directly responsible for “Merteuil’s public exposure,” as he is in the novel, and in direct contrast, audiences are left pitying this fully atoned character by the end of the film.

This major difference inspired by Hollywood harkens back to the treatment of the aristocracy that Quint recognizes in novels such as Don Quixote: “The modern novel thus begins with a concerted attack on noble power and privilege, which Don Quixote equates with sexual exploitation and cruelty. In the Don Fernando story Cervantes recounts a tale that the novel will tell over and over again: the proud, sexually predatory aristocrat reformed by the love of a good, socially inferior woman” (107). The problem with this treatment is that, while “good,” Annette is not socially inferior to Sebastian. Though she is the “new girl” and therefore perhaps outside of high school’s social circles, she is still an “aristocrat.” Therefore the film version promotes virtue and atonement within the aristocracy itself, which undercuts the novel’s suggestion that someone as virtuous as Madame de Tourvel could not survive within morally-corrupt aristocratic society. Other differences include: Annette survives and oddly inherits Sebastian’s jaguar, continuing to indulge in the spectacle of “aesthetic glamor;” we are left to assume that Cecile and her Danceny-counterpart are together and happy, and suffer no consequences from the manipulations of Valmont and Merteuil; and though Kathryn’s reputation as “the Marsha-f***ing-Brady of the Upper East Side” is thoroughly destroyed, audiences are not left with any real sense of the consequences of her actions other than a hint at possible expulsion (though that may be enough in a world centered on high school “inner circles” and status).

Undermining of aristocratic power in the film, therefore, does not reside in the punishments of the characters, but rather in the fact that these plotlines are taking place in high school. The idea that these characters are teenagers implies that one day they will graduate, grow up, and take on the “grown-up” responsibilities that will essentially eliminate this lifestyle of indulgence in aristocratic “products.” As a result, the undermining aspect is also the source of nostalgia; our longing for the care-free days of high school is inextricably linked to our longing for the aristocratic lifestyle.

The idea that high school characters will one day outgrow the aristocratic lifestyle is not only true for Cruel Intentions, but other high school-adaptions as well, such as Clueless. The “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma Woodhouse whose only “real evils” consist of “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (Austen, 1) transitions surprisingly well into the Beverly Hills high school student Cher preoccupied with fashion and teenage social-life. Cher, like Emma, exhibits cleverness, wit, and intelligence throughout the film. When arguing with serious college-student, Heather, Cher reveals that her immersion in popular culture and society contributes to her intellectual charm:

Heather: “It’s just like Hamlet said: ‘To thine ownself be true.’

Cher: “Uh, Hamlet didn’t say that.”

Heather (looking smugly at her boyfriend): “I think I remember Hamlet accurately.”

Cher: “Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.”

Though this exchange, among others, proves that Cher is not just another shopping addicted bimbo, the pop-culture and “aesthetic glamor” that the film indulges in with clothes, makeup, and material excesses of a wealthy lifestyle suggests a sophomoric quality often equated with teenagers. Even the title suggests that the film is portraying “clueless” teenagers that, while “aristocratic,” have no sense of reality.

Like with Cruel Intentions, however, Clueless tends to flaunt aristocratic “products” without condemning them. On the surface Emma doesn’t come across as an overly critical depiction of the English gentry, but the text carries within it certain ironies and subtle critiques that are somewhat lost in the high school-adaptation. For example, Cher finally getting-together with her ex-step-brother Josh (the counterpart to Mr. Knightley) at the end of the film, which stays true to the storyline, but it excludes the ambiguity about “happiness” that is present in the ending of the novel. Clueless instead comes across as adhering to the Hollywood formula, and Austen’s subtle criticisms evolve into a celebration of teen “aristocratic” life.

“Teen films” such as Clueless and Cruel Intentions are selling aristocratic “products” to American audiences, allowing a middle-class, capitalist society to consume and indulge in the fantasy of excess without punishing or criticizing that behavior, but positing it as something that will eventually be outgrown. As Quint puts it when talking about the aristocracy in novels: “Bourgeois society, perhaps any society, appears to need an elite to feed its fantasies of consumption – including those of erotic consumption – and the novel trades in these same fantasies” (119). The idea that perhaps any society might “need an elite to feed its fantasies” may explain the moderate success of the French high school-adaptation Le Belle Personne which turns the French nobility into high school students and teachers that certainly indulge the aristocratic “products” – particularly “erotic freedoms.” Though not as popular as American high school-adaptations, it may prove that the trend is spreading, and that these “products” are still thriving in capitalist cultures. What we now need to consider is whether watching these films is a harmless activity in a fantasy of aristocratic consumption, or if experiencing a modified text with the criticisms of aristocracy removed will revert our society into praising aristocratic “products” –“erotic freedoms,” “aesthetic glamor,” and “social domination” – as concepts of value.

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Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Project Gutenberg. 25 May 2008. Web.

Clueless. Dir. Amy Heckerling. Perf. Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, and Brittany Murphy. Paramount Pictures, 1995. Netflix.

Cruel Intentions. Dir. Roger Kumble. Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon. Columbia, 1999. DVD.

Davis, Hugh H. "I Was a Teenage Classic: Literary Adaptation in Turn-of-the-Millennium Teen Films." The Journal of American Culture 29.1 (Mar 2006): 52-60. ProQuest. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Humbert, Brigine E. "Cruel Intentions: Adaptation, Teenage Movie, or Remake?" Literature/Film Quarterly 30.4 (2002): 279-86. ProQuest Central. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Kaveney, Roz. "Teen Dreams: The Critic at the Prom." Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from Heathers to Veronica Mars. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006. 1-10. Print.

La Belle Personne. Dir. Christophe Honoré. Perf. Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux, and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. 2008. Netflix.

Laclos, Choderlos De. Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Trans. P.W.K. Stone. New York: Penguin, 1987. Print.

Lafayette, Madame de. The Princesse de Clèves. Trans. Robin Buss. New York: Penguin, 1962. Print.

Quint, David. "Noble Passions: Aristocracy and the Novel." Comparative Literature 62.2 (2010): 103-21. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

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    © 2018 Veronica McDonald

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