A (Light) Defense of Netflix’s ‘Persuasion’—Hold Your Pitchforks, Please
Watching the newest adaptation of Persuasion get roasted by Jane Austen fans online was deeply amusing. As a lit major, I find it fascinating whenever a new Austen-inspired thing comes out because it is always divisive.
Sanditon was criticized for not being a good continuation of the unfinished novel, and the 2020 Emma was favored, but everyone had to note that appreciating the tone “depends on your tolerance for archness, twee and lightly deployed Anderson-ish tics.” There have long been blood feuds between fans of the Pride & Prejudice miniseries vs. the 2005 film. The Sense and Sensibility 2008 miniseries is so deeply in the shadows of the Ang Lee film that even a sex scene and a duel don’t make it a topic of conversation.
Persuasion is among the more difficult of Austen’s novels to adapt because it is Austen’s most introspective. In David M. Shapard’s annotated version of the classic novel, he writes, “While it contains a comparable number of characters, most of these characters, most of these characters are developed in much less detail. It contains fewer passages of dialogue, relying far more on authorial descriptions to summarize what the other novels show through the characters’ speech and action. […] Finally, this novel stands out for being the least humorous of all the novels, the only one without two or three supporting characters who provide substantial comic relief.”
All this to say that what makes Persuasion both a difficult book to adapt and a deeply personal one to fans is that it is more introspective and thoughtful than many of Austen’s other novels. Anne Elliot is a passive heroine. To quote Shapard again on the topic of Anne Elliot, “Her feelings for Captain Wentworth are already set, and she has no important discoveries to make about herself. She does not observe anything of great significance not witnessed by others; her superior insights into Captain Wentworth’s mind result primarily from her state of prior knowledge, not from anything that she does over the course of the novel.”
Other than two major moments, Lousia’s fall and her nephew’s fall, she waits, watches, and reflects.
Previous attempts to adapt Persuasion
When looking at previous adaptations of Persuasion, the two most recent are the 1995 BBC film and the 2007 television film made for ITV’s Jane Austen season. The 1995 film, which I’ve seen brought up in comparison to this most recent adaptation, had to change Anne’s character to make her less passive. It also took much of the proto-feminist subtext of the book and made it more explicit, regarding class and gender. Professor Nora Foster Stovel, in “From Page to Screen: Dancing to the Altar in Recent Film Adaptations of Jane Austen’s Novels,” said of this adaptation,
In the 1995 BBC adaptation of the novel, directed by Roger Michell, screenwriter Nick Dear augments the pathos by adding a scene in which Wentworth gives up his seat at the piano to Anne in order to dance with the Musgroves, leaving Anne to play solo accompaniment. This scene provides a good example of a director adding a dance scene that enhances Austen’s characterization.
Yet, this film got overshadowed and didn’t get much attention until the 1995 Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility came out and pushed in that mid-’90s Jane Austen Renaissance. It is now considered one of the best Austen adaptations, but it is not as mainstream as others.
When I went back to look at the reviews for 2007’s Persuasion, while they were good overall, the bad reviews tell a very similar story to 2022’s Persuasion: “the script telegraphs its themes along the way, rather than letting them emerge, as the word “persuasion” pops up one too many times.” The 2007 version is also very dry; Anne is always so wet in the eyes. Without the text there to add depth, I found it to be quite forgettable. The most amusing part was Amanda Hale as Mary, who is very similar to the 2022 version.
Why do I lead with all this before getting to the much-maligned 2022 movie? Because we are talking about adapting a book that is over 200 years old—one that has been adapted multiple times and has struggled with having a passive heroine as the leading lady.
How does the 2022 Persuasion compare?
Doing a modernized version of Persuasion is a good idea. It is the most millennial story. Anne, at 27, feels put on the shelf, has a love she let go of too soon, and has a family that demoralizes her. She is lost and afloat. I can see how the Anne of the book becomes Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot. The major problem is they should have made it more anachronistic, or had it take place in the modern day.
Even the movie’s 4th wall breaking isn’t that bothersome. Anne is an introspective character, and having that voiceover would have worked; they should have just tweaked it to having Anne write letters, as they did in the 1999 Mansfield Park—another book whose adaptation has struggled under a passive heroine.
There are lots of fair and good arguments against 2022’s Persuasion, but I find that some of them treat Jane Austen as if it is all the same thing. I’ve seen people take issue with the idea that the novel is being spoon-fed to them, but I feel that is true of most adaptations of any classic text, especially in film form.
I first saw the perfect Ang Lee adaptation of Sense & Sensibility before I read the book, and one of my favorite moments is when Marianne is talking to her mother about Edward and Elinor:
Mrs. Dashwood : Why so grave? You disapprove her choice?
Marianne : By no means. Edward is very amiable.
Mrs. Dashwood : Amiable? But…?
Marianne : But there is something wanting. He’s too sedate. His reading last night…
Mrs. Dashwood : But Elinor has not your feelings. His reserve suits her.
Marianne : Can he love her? Can the soul really be satisfied with such polite affections? To love is to burn – to be on fire, like Juliet or Guinevere or Eloise.
Mrs. Dashwood : They made rather pathetic ends, dear.
Marianne : Pathetic? To die for love? How can you say so? What could be more glorious?
Mrs. Dashwood : I think that would be taking your romantic sensibilities a little far.
This scene is not in the books, but in her wisdom, Emma Thompson added it in because it tells the audience exactly where Marianne’s mind is. Most people are familiar with Juliet and Guinevere and their tragic ends. It is shorthand for Marianne’s character. Is it leaps and bounds superior to “in Bath, she’s a 10”? Yes, but it is the same instinct.
I believe Persuasion 2022’s greatest sin is not getting Anne right. Dakota Johnson can play a passive character with inner fire, and I think if she had been the straight woman in this world, it would have made the comedy work better. I think people love Persuasion because of Anne’s character, and if it had been done right, the rest of the sins would have just been basic.
Despite its problems …
Yet, I can’t find it in me to hate this film because I understand why it made its mistakes. I don’t think it was done out of malice or hatred of the source material; it was done with a flawed understanding of what audiences want from modernized Austen—and that’s always going to be hard because not even we know.
Persuasion is, in many ways, Jane Austen’s best work. It shows massive growth in terms of theme and (along with Mansfield Park) is deeply critical of the era’s class system. I understand the desire to see it done well, especially because Jane Austen is still talked down about as a writer.
But I also understand why writers would think, Wow, look at all the depressed millennials who love Anne Elliot. Let’s make her lean into that. The problem is that if you do that, it changes everything, so just change everything. Persuasion 2022 is afraid to be a modern-day romcom reimagining, and that is exactly what it needed to be.
And I think I love Jane Austen, but when are we gonna examine the stuff that inspired HER or the works of her contemporaries? Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Hamilton, etc. I will never be tired of Jane Austen and her heroines, but I am tired of us only focusing on 2 (sometimes 3) female authors’ works.
Okay, now you can yell at me. But also stream Fire Island for a great Austen reimagining.
(featured image: Netflix)
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