The trailer for the new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen Persuasion recently appeared online, and the result was an outcry. Not since the first glimpse of Tom Hooper’s bastardy in 2019 Cats was there such horror at what appears to be an obvious parody of a much-loved work.
It’s easy to see why the premiere of director Carrie Cracknell’s debut film drew such opprobrium. Persuasion is considered by many admirers of Austen to be perhaps his greatest work. As well as being her final novel, it’s a dark and moving meditation on lost love and the possibility of redemption. It has already been successfully filmed for television twice, once in 1995 and again in 2007.
Austen remains a big company, and so Cracknell chose Dakota Johnson, star of the fifty shades series, like Austen’s heroine, Anne Elliot. Johnson has certainly proven she can star in films such as Maggie Gyllenhaal The lost girl and that of Luca Guadagnino Suspiria, but, as one wag on social media pointed out, “Dakota Johnson has the face of someone who knows what an iPhone is.” Cracknell and his screenwriters Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow seem to have been heavily influenced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge Flea bag, we are therefore presented with an Anne who constantly directs arcs and scholarly glances at the camera, interspersed with decidedly millennial observations on love and romance. The most miserable of them, no doubt, is when an Anne in love announces, of her long-lost lover, Captain Wentworth, “now we’re worse than exes: we’re friends.”
Helpfully, the trailer tells us that Persuasion is “based on the timeless love story of Jane Austen”, who is “the author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice”. Well, that clears that one up. It may, of course, be that Cracknell’s film is better than its marketing suggests, and that beneath its irritating and flippant exterior lies a sensitive and thoughtful adaptation of the novel. Admittedly, it seems to lean towards the same goofy vibe of irreverence that has permeated many period adaptations of late, most notably the excellent Armando Iannucci. David Copperfield, which made effective use of both a diverse cast and contemporary psychological insight into Dickens’ characters. But few who have read and loved Persuasion could have ended it and thought what he really needed was more jam mustache jokes.
[See also: What the “men don’t read novels” debate gets wrong about fiction]
Yet weak as it is, it won’t do much to stem the steady stream of Austen adaptations we face. Given that the half-dozen canonical novels have been adapted multiple times, it’s no wonder the filmmakers have branched out into apocrypha, both superbly – in the case of Love and friendshipSublime 2016 version by Whit Stillman of his epistolary novel Lady Suzanne – and indifferently. One wonders if the world needed two seasons of sanditconsidering Austen only wrote 11 chapters of the novel in the first place, but they were written regardless.
The most generous interpretation of recurring adaptations is that they cater to the same comfortably undemanding market as the perennially popular Bridgerton. Stripped of their linguistic wit and psychological insight, it’s relatively easy to turn Austen’s novels into panties and corset novels, revolving around the most heteronormative plots imaginable. Even though the writers and actors talk casually about the weird undertones of characters like Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price, it’s telling that the latest major adaptation of Emmadirected by photographer Autumn de Wilde and starring Anya Taylor-Joy, forgoes anything even mildly controversial, despite Johnny Flynn’s Mr Knightley showing his ass.
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Where Austen has most interested contemporary thought is postcolonial theory. The slave trade is often hidden in his books, but it is ubiquitous. The only novel in which he is even given a passing mention is (for my money, his masterpiece) mansfield park, in which it is implied that Sir Thomas Bertram’s immense wealth comes from the plantation; when the subject is briefly brought up at dinner, it is met with a “dead silence”. Still, that hasn’t stopped the filmmakers from viewing Austen through a post-colonial lens. As early as 1999, the underrated adaptation of mansfield parkstarring Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas, brought its themes of slavery to the fore, and no doubt future releases will further interrogate these ideas.
Perhaps the best way to adapt Austen to the future is to be more, rather than less, irreverent. fire islandthe recent loose version of Pride and Prejudice, put both a contemporary and gay spin on the story, drawing rave reviews in the process. Laura Wade’s recent stage adaptation of The Watsons offered a Pirandello-inspired twist that raised questions about the nature of the transformation from one artistic medium to another, and the recent West End success Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) mixed romance with karaoke for extremely entertaining effect. In their own way, all of these elements are more faithful to the spirit of Austen – a woman who made a name for herself and a career with her pen at a time when female fatherhood was considered an outrageous eccentricity – than to see an all-American actress offering a poor impersonation of Fleabag’s character.
But what would Austen say? She might take it as a universally recognized truth that the blame for a fashionable adaptation of Persuasion is likely to fall disproportionately on Cracknell and Johnson, rather than Bass or male stars, Cosmo Jarvis and Henry Golding, and sigh. Then she could quote a relevant line from the book: “If something unpleasant happens, men are always sure to get away with it.” But then she would be thrilled to know that her works are still read, discussed, and adored two centuries after her death, and that no know-it-all element of derivative postmodernism can alter that inalienable fact.
[See also: Philip Pullman on the end of the Costa Book Awards: a blow for children’s literature]