Few authors (aside from Shakespeare, always a special case) have redesigned their works as often or as liberally as Jane Austen. On stage, on screen and in books, her novels have been rearranged as slapstick farces, fantasy mash-ups, all-hands Bollywood extravaganzas, and spicy rom-coms. They have been transported to Cincinnati, Delhi, Fire Island, Los Angeles, modern day London and, in the case of the “Pride and Prejudice” inspired vampire novel “Twilight”, the sleepy town of Forks, Wash.
So why did the most recent adaptation — Carrie Cracknell’s racy version of “Persuasion,” now streaming on Netflix — send so many viewers to their fainting couches, heaving in high opinion? For example, what was the reason that Slate magazine’s Dana Stevens called the film “not only the worst Austen adaptation, but also one of the worst films in recent memory”? Or Philippa Snow, who in a New Republic review refers to the heroine’s modern drinking habits, sniping that the film appeared to be set “not just in the early 1800s, but at wine hour?”
The answer lies in the expectations that Austen fans, a particularly passionate and idiosyncratic crowd, place on her. The problem isn’t that Cracknell’s version takes liberties – every iteration does; that’s practically the point – but what kind of freedoms are those.
“Persuasion” is the least ostentatious of Austen’s six major novels. The last of her completed books, published in 1818, is quieter and more introspective than its more crowd-pleasing siblings, though many Austenites consider it their favorite. Anne Elliot, the 27-year-old heroine, spends much of her time in her mind, consumed with 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 in collective outrage. 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 brushing aside her relatives. At one point, speaking of Captain Wentworth, the man she still loves after being foolishly rejected years earlier, she anachronistically remarks that “now we’re worse than exes — we’re friends.”
The release of the film confirmed the doubts of the fans. The feeling seemed to be that while quirky period pieces featuring feisty, sassy, operatic-emotional heroines are okay for “Bridgerton” and “Dickinson,” two recent streaming series, they’re not okay for Jane Austen.
In Harper’s Bazaar, Chelsey Sanchez wrote that the characters seemed “unrecognizable from their origin.”
“Would Anne Elliot pull off snarky, girlboss one-liners in front of a knowing audience?” she wrote. ‘Would we even want that? If we lose the beauty of subtext – Austen’s greatest narrative power – what 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 they find themselves in, even if that world has a group of gay men on it. look for love and connections in present-day Fire Island, in the Hulu movie of that name.
Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” (1995), which turned “Emma” in Beverly Hills into a status-conscious high school in the 1990s, succeeded because it displayed an exquisite Austenian understanding of even the most picayune social gradation. Gifted with a delightfully modern name – Cher Horowitz instead of Emma Woodhouse – Alicia Silverstone deftly conveyed the original character’s haughty self-esteem, the way her haughtiness detracted from her charm and her ability to admit and atone for her mistakes. .
Similarly, Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) gave the book a feminist slant—emphasizing the injustice of the birthright and portraying the difficulty of being an unmarried woman with an insecure financial future – while staying true to the emotional truths and romantic possibilities of the original.
And Autumn de Wilde’s highly stylized “Emma” (2020) was choreographed almost like Kabuki opera—with a bold, witty color palette, strikingly unusual costumes, and heightened elements of both farce and erotic desire—but with recognizable characters who behaved as they intended. were up to.
Authors and playwrights who have struggled with Austen say the challenge of adapting is to stay within the contours of her worldview while being clear about what’s up for grabs.
“You have to know the rules to break them, and you have to be clear about the rules in your work,” said actor and playwright Kate Hamill, whose Austen stage adaptations include a riotous “Sense and Sensibility.” with a gossiping chorus of sharp busybodies. “It should work for people who enjoy the original book as well as for people who have no relationship with it at all.”
British author Gill Hornby, who has written two novels – “Miss Austen” and the newly published “Godmersham Park” – which features Jane Austen herself, said she had a high tolerance for fanciful adaptations, with a few caveats.
“My instinctive view is that anything can work as long as the characters are preserved and the basic moral issues — snobbery is disgusting, gossip is harmful, nobody likes a bighead — are taken seriously,” she said via email.
She also said that the language of the adaptation should fit its environment. One of the most shocking aspects of the new “Persuasion” is the way it drops modern colloquialism into what presents itself as a classic historical drama, with its Regency settings and costumes. (“Dickinson,” the wild fever dream on Apple TV+, which rediscovered some sort of alternative life for the poet Emily Dickinson, could get away with anachronisms because they were ingrained in the enterprise to begin with; this clearly wasn’t a 19th-century American family where a of us had been previously exposed to.)
It’s very strange to hear a character in “Persuasion” make a hateful 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 dress from that era, you have to keep the language. That’s not to say it has to be literal, or exactly in the Austenian style. Of course, the realism of the screen, versus the literary demands of the page, must be taken into account. There is a middle ground: a credible translation that is accessible.”
Perhaps more shockingly, the new adaptation omits the novel’s long, slow burn, undercuts its own melancholy tone, and disrupts Austen’s careful pace by letting the characters reveal their feelings and motivations way too early. “By weaving a comic story out of a tragic story, the film undermines Austen’s purpose,” 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 of fans. There were even objections to arguably the best scene in the six-part BBC program 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 seductively to his muscular chest.
Hamill, who has edited classic works by other authors for the stage, said that in response to one of her plays, she once received an email from an Austen fan that began with “Dear Ms. Hamill: How could you?”
“I haven’t had any Bram Stoker, Homer or Hawthorne fans at my door yet,” she said. “Jane Austen’s fans are remarkably passionate.”