The latest film version of Jane Austen’s classic novel hits Netflix next week. It’s fine to be at once amped and disappointed, argues Alie Benge.
We all waited, half agony, half hope, for the Persuasion trailer, and hoo boy did people get upset when it came out. It’s unclear from that two-and-a-half minute glimpse whether the film will be faithful to the plot of the novel, but it’s obvious it won’t be faithful at all to the tone, or to the character of Anne Elliot. Obviously the creators wanted to make something like Bridgerton or Eleanor Catton’s adaptation of Emma, but they’ve picked the wrong book. Persuasion is a far cry from Emma.
Persuasion is Jane Austen’s final novel, written just before her death. It’s about Anne Elliot, who at 19, at the persuasion of her family, rejected the proposal of naval officer Mr Wentworth. The story begins eight years later when Wentworth returns, rich, esteemed, and in want of a wife. Unlike other Austen novels, this isn’t a story about various members of the landed gentry, but interactions between new money and old, badly-managed money.
Anne is not charismatic or witty like Elizabeth Bennet. When we meet her, she’s unseen and unloved, regretful, at the end of hope, and a spinster at the old age of 27. She’s the Regency equivalent of someone who peaked in high school. Things happen around her, rather than to her, or because of her. Her quiet intelligence is recognised by few other characters. The novel has a single moment of action when someone falls down and conks their head. The rest is thoughts, long walks, overheard conversations, letters, and a lot of seamen. Anne’s dialogue is limited to a few perfect speeches, and Wentworth gives barely an indication he’s even into Anne until the final quarter of the book. No one but Austen could take ingredients like that and make it what it is.
This is, in my opinion, Austen’s most deeply felt and believable novel. The character development is so subtle that you’ll miss it if you aren’t paying attention. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin has described Persuasion as Austen’s “present to herself … to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring.”
Despite being a romantic idiot with an English lit degree, I’m not an Austen purist. I think she was a brilliant writer, one of the best, but as far as adaptations are concerned, I’m yet to hear a convincing reason why the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice is not a perfect film. Like, the hand flex? The billowing coat as Matthew Macfadyen strides through a field with the sun rising behind him? The “I love, I love, I love you”? Sure, the BBC adaptation is a masterpiece, but it’s five hours long! I used to watch it on a three-VHS tape box set from the library. So while I understand the uproar over this new trailer, I can’t get on board with it.
Most of the criticism is that it seems to have been made into a romantic comedy, and that Anne breaks the fourth wall, speaking to the camera like Fleabag. I admit it looks like a CliffsNotes version. Anne’s character has been criminally misunderstood, that much is clear from the trailer. She’s far too coy and sparkling, rather than restrained and shy. A quite stunning passage from the book has been reduced to “now we’re worse than exes, we’re friends”, which is comically basic and anachronistic. If they change a word of Anne’s speech about which gender loves longest without hope I will take to my chambers with poor nerves. A more expansive, melancholic tone (like a cross between Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Call Me By Your Name) could have made this a god-tier film. I canvassed the opinion of Emma, my most Austeny friend. She said, “Anne Elliot is the Austen heroine that introverts relate to the most, and it’s like they’ve taken away her quiet thoughtfulness.”
That being said, I wholeheartedly refute the notion that heartbreak and regret can’t exist alongside humour. Austen is funny. And though Persuasion isn’t a comedy, there is room for it in Anne’s vain family, and in the central social group that bring the vibes wherever they go. Fleabag was funny, and if that didn’t break your heart, nothing can. And speaking of Fleabag, this isn’t the first Persuasion adaptation to break the fourth wall. The 2007 Persuasion also had Fleabag-esque nods to the camera, as well as occasionally using letter-writing to reveal Anne’s thoughts. A 2018 play had Anne turning from the other characters and speaking directly to the audience. These are solutions to the central problem in adapting Persuasion: hardly anyone speaks. Anne and Wentworth barely have a conversation until the last few chapters. The romance consists of a chat while waiting for a carriage, a long look across a room, and a quickly scrawled love letter. A book is not a film and what works in a novel won’t necessarily work on screen, especially when it doesn’t get spicy until the final chapters. Ninety minutes of hot people looking at each other and thinking things would be more faithful to the book but wouldn’t make a good movie – or make much money.
You can watch adaptations in two ways: with the book in one hand checking for accuracy, or as a standalone film. Despite its failings, I’ll be opting for the latter because I like to have a nice time, and because stories belong to all of us. Different people tell the same stories differently, with new emphases. Fire Island set Pride and Prejudice at a big gay weekend party. Were we upset that it wasn’t bonnets at dawn? Of course not! Because what a fun time we had watching it, and that story belongs to the creators of Fire Island as much as it belongs to me.
Interpretation keeps stories alive, especially when a new take makes them accessible to new audiences. Loyalty to plot is important, but I believe that’s all. To me it’s lovely that Austen stories can be set in a Beverly Hills high school, in India, and in 90s London as convincingly as in the Regency era. Maybe this new movie won’t be the best adaptation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a decent standalone film, and people have every right to enjoy it. Part of Austen’s brilliance, and why we’re still reading her 200 years later, is that you can choose your level of engagement. You can read her novels for social commentary, and to see a master of irony do her utmost, or because you want a cracking yarn. Take from it what you want.
If this still doesn’t convince you, be like my friend, Emma, who watched the trailer and said, “Nah maybe I won’t see it.” Unproblematic queen woke up and didn’t choose violence. Remember, the option to not watch is always available to you, and the film’s existence doesn’t spoil the original material, or take away the fact that you still have the 1971, 1995, or 2007 adaptation. Just let us enjoy our silly movie.
The film version, directed by Carrie Cracknell and starring Dakota Johnson, will be available on Netflix from 15 July.