Why Is It So Hard to Adapt Austen? (The Fans Might Play a Part.)
The backlash to the Netflix version of “Persuasion” has as much to do with who’s watching as who’s scripting. Still, the new film broke some rules.
By Sarah Lyall
July 20, 2022, 9:00 a.m. ET
Few authors (leaving aside Shakespeare, always a special case) have had their works reimagined as frequently, or as liberally, as Jane Austen. Onstage, onscreen and in books, her novels have been recast as slapstick farces, fantasy mash-ups, all-hands-on-deck Bollywood extravaganzas and saucy rom-coms. They have been transported to, among other places, Cincinnati, Delhi, Fire Island, Los Angeles, modern London and, in the case of the “Pride and Prejudice”-inspired vampire novel “Twilight,” the sleepy town of Forks, Wash.
So why has the most recent adaptation — Carrie Cracknell’s spicy version of “Persuasion,” now streaming on Netflix — sent so many viewers to their fainting couches, heaving in high dudgeon? What caused Slate magazine’s Dana Stevens, for instance, to call the movie “not only the worst Austen adaptation but one of the worst movies in recent memory”? Or Philippa Snow, referring in a New Republic review to the heroine’s modern drinking habits, to snipe that the film seemed to be set “not just in the early 19th century but at wine o’clock?”
The answer lies in the expectations that Austen fans, a particularly passionate and opinionated crowd, bring to her work. The problem isn’t that Cracknell’s version takes liberties — every iteration does; that’s practically the point — but what sort of liberties those are.
“Persuasion” is the least showy of Austen’s six major novels. The last of her completed books, published in 1818, it is quieter and more introspective than its more crowd-pleasing siblings, though many Austenites claim it as their favorite. Anne Elliot, its 27-year-old heroine, spends much of her time lost in thought, consumed by regret and seemingly reconciled to playing a supporting role in the lives of others rather than being the heroine of her own story.
But the moment the trailer for “Persuasion” was released, Austen purists rose up in collective indignation. There was Anne, no longer reserved and thoughtful and suffering alone, but wallowing in performative self-pity, speaking directly to the camera à la “Fleabag” and making arch asides about her relatives. At one point, speaking of Captain Wentworth, the man she still loves after having foolishly rejected years earlier, she anachronistically observes that “now we’re worse than exes — we’re friends.”
The release of the movie confirmed the fans’ misgivings. The feeling seemed to be that while quirky period pieces featuring feisty, sassy, operatically emotional heroines are OK for “Bridgerton” and “Dickinson,” two recent streaming series, they are not OK for Jane Austen.
In Harper’s Bazaar, Chelsey Sanchez wrote that the characters seemed to be “unrecognizable from their origins.”
“Would Anne Elliot quip snarky, girlboss one-liners to a knowing audience?” she wrote. “Would we even want her to? When we lose the beauty of subtext — Austen’s greatest storytelling strength — what else exactly do we gain?”
The best Austen adaptations are both true to the spirit of the original — the basic plot, the way the characters interact with each other and in society — and confident in the world in which they are placed, even if that world is a group of gay men looking for love and hook-ups in present-day Fire Island, in the Hulu film of that name.
Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” (1995), which transposed “Emma” to a status-conscious high school in 1990s Beverly Hills, succeeded because it reflected an exquisitely Austenian understanding of even the most picayune social gradation. Endowed with a deliciously modern name — Cher Horowitz in place of Emma Woodhouse — Alicia Silverstone deftly channeled the original character’s highhanded self-regard, the way her superciliousness detracted from her charm, and her ability to own up to and atone for her faults.
By the same token, Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) gave the book a feminist slant — emphasizing the injustices of primogeniture and depicting the difficulty of being an unmarried woman with an uncertain financial future — while remaining faithful to the emotional truths and romantic possibilities of the original.
And Autumn de Wilde’s highly stylized “Emma” (2020) was choreographed almost as Kabuki opera — with a bold, witty color palette, strikingly offbeat costumes and heightened elements of both farce and erotic longing — but featuring recognizable characters behaving the way they were meant to.
Authors and playwrights who have grappled with Austen say that the challenge of adaptation is to keep within the contours of her worldview while being clear about what is up for grabs.
“You should know the rules in order to break them, and you have to be clear what the rules are within your work,” said the actor and playwright Kate Hamill, whose Austen adaptations for the stage include a riotous “Sense and Sensibility” with a gossiping chorus of trenchant busybodies. “It has to work both for people who enjoy the original book and for people who have no relationship at all to it.”
The British author Gill Hornby, who has written two novels — “Miss Austen” and the newly published “Godmersham Park” — that feature Jane Austen herself, said that she had a high tolerance for fanciful adaptations, with a few caveats.
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“My instinctive view is that anything can work, as long as the characters are preserved and the basic moral issues — Snobbery Is Revolting, Gossip Is Harmful, Nobody Likes a Bighead — are seriously addressed,” she said via email.
She said, too, that the language of the adaptation should fit with its milieu. One of the most jarring aspects of the new “Persuasion” is the way it drops modern colloquialisms into what presents as a classic period drama, with its Regency settings and costumes. (“Dickinson,” the wild fever dream on Apple TV+, that reimagined a kind of alternative life for the poet Emily Dickinson, could get away with anachronisms because they were baked into the enterprise to begin with; this was clearly no 19th-century American family any of us had been exposed to before.)
It’s very odd to hear a character in “Persuasion” make a snide geographic point by announcing that “if you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath.”
“You can’t cross the waves,” Hornby said. “If you keep the period dress, then you must keep the language. That is not to say it should be verbatim, or exactly in the Austenian style. Obviously, allowances must be made for the realism of the screen, versus the literary demands of the page. There is a middle way — a credible translation that is accessible.”
Perhaps even more shockingly, the new adaptation dispenses with the long slow burn of the novel, undermining its own melancholy tone and messing with Austen’s careful pacing by allowing its characters to reveal their feelings and motivations far too early. “By weaving a comedic narrative out of a tragic one, the film undercuts Austen’s goal,” Emmeline Cline wrote on LitHub. “I think she wanted us to cry, not laugh.”
Of course, no Austen adaptation will ever satisfy the most rigorous fans. There were even objections to perhaps the best scene in the BBC’s six-part “Pride and Prejudice” (1995, a banner year for adaptations): when Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth), emerges from a swim in the lake, his wet shirt clinging alluringly to his hunky chest.
“I have not had any Bram Stoker or Homer or Hawthorne fans beating down my door,” she said. “Jane Austen fans are remarkably passionate.”
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Sarah Lyall is a writer at large, working for a variety of desks including Sports, Culture, Media and International. Previously she was a correspondent in the London bureau, and a reporter for the Culture and Metro desks. @sarahlyall