“What is (preemptively) pissing me off about the new Persuasion is that it speaks to a much, much larger problem in adaptations of classics where studios seem to think all these female characters need to be glossed with a zany millennial girlboss patina to become Relevant™.”
This is one of many scathing Tweets (the above penned by user @chaipters) about Persuasion, the Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s last completed novel. The film, starring Dakota Johnson as protagonist Anne Elliot, landed on the streaming platform last Friday evening, and has since copped a plethora of criticism from both viewers and film critics alike.
But is Persuasion that bad? Has our obsession with pulling apart film, literature and television resulted in a complete inability to just, you know, enjoy stuff?
Persuasion is one of the most fiercely-loved Jane Austen novels. It’s my personal favourite – I fell in love with Anne Elliot, a woman verging on spinsterhood pining for a lost love she feels she foolishly threw away in her youth. This was a heroine I could identify with. A woman who made choices that she regretted, and one who was grappling with the idea of never falling in love again. Anne was a character ripe for a modern portrayal – she is every 30-something woman languishing in a small dating pool in this day and age, wondering if we’ve missed our chance.
If you’ve never read the novel, you can probably guess that it’s pretty depressing – at least in parts. Anne is definitely not the fiery, passionate Elizabeth Bennett of Pride & Prejudice nor is she a romantic dreamer like Emma Woodhouse of Emma. She’s, well, sad and mopey. That is definitely not how Johnson portrays her, nor how she is written in the Netflix adaptation.
Instead, it’s clear the writers were heavily inspired by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Think plenty of fourth-wall breaking – winking to the camera, giving us backstory, all the fun and clever ways Waller-Bridge made us feel like Fleabag’s confidante.
I can admit that an Anne Elliot who cheekily glances at the camera whenever she’s annoyed at her irritating sister Mary feels a little out of character (okay, a lot out of character). Johnson’s Anne is a “zany Millennial girlboss” – she’s far more independent and fun-loving than the Anne Elliot of Austen’s novel.
This makes the way her relationship with Frederick Wentworth plays out very different to the novel. Instead of Anne perpetually adrift and cripplingly lonely as she deals with Wentworth being back in her life, the Netflix film sees a bumbling, floundering Anne clunking her way through all the awkwardness.
Because of this, I guess I felt less attached to “Netflix Anne” than I did to the Anne of the novel. Reading the book, I found myself grieving alongside Anne. Watching the film, I felt like it was all a silly game of crossed wires and miscommunication. Kind of like Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy’s relationship in Pride & Prejudice – two people simply not getting their shit together.
So sure, I can agree that this is an adaptation that fundamentally changes what Persuasion was all about. A lot of creative licence has been taken, and I can see why people feel it’s completely changed the tone and feeling of the novel.
But is that a bad thing? So bad that we pan the film entirely?
I watch Austen films for entertainment. I want the love story. The period costumes. The angst and yearning. I don’t really need anything beyond these factors. I’m not so attached to the novels that I want all their adaptations to remain true to their messages and characters, and I will take a wild guess and say that many of you reading this article feel the same. If you don’t, then this adaptation isn’t for you. But if you just want a period romance with some drama and a dash of comedy, what’s not to enjoy?
I’m aware this novel has important significance, and deeper meanings beyond the surface romance. But this film is fun. It’s easy to watch. Johnson gives a spirited performance, and the support cast (especially Henry Golding as the rakish William Elliot) do a great job around her. For me, that’s all I really wanted from this adaptation. It’s the kind of film you watch on a Friday night with a bowl of pasta and a merlot. For that purpose, it delivers.
When it comes to Netflix’s Persuasion, I think we need to set the critique aside and just have a good time.