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Reinventing Jane Austen: A Lowly Film Scholar’s Review of the Recent Austen Film Binge

Classics are classics because they transcend time. Whether the book takes the public by storm immediately after publication, or it takes a hundred years for a book’s brilliance to be recognized, once a book is a classic, it remains a classic forever.

The problem with classics is that when they’re adapted to film or even modernized for a new book, we expect to see the same story with the same charm. Sometimes, with a bit of talent, a writer can input a new element or a new take on the classic that is fresh, new, and gives an unexplored perspective on the classic.

Unfortunately, sometimes what publishers and producers see as “a new take” is distasteful, comes off as satirical, and even disrespectful.

This is what many reviewers have said about the new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, saying that the writers took liberties with the content and made it so detestable that the film is just about undignified.

While I am not a master Austen scholar, nor do I claim to be, I am an avid Austenite, have read the books several times, taken coursework studying Austen’s works and the time in which she lived, and I’ve adapted two of her novels into short films. One of them, in fact, was Persuasion.

You can imagine how excited I was to see a new adaptation of Persuasion.

I only hesitated when I stated seeing the scathing headlines, foretelling a horrible media take on screen. Some went as far as to say that the everything about the film was deplorable.

I couldn’t disagree more.

If you haven’t read Persuasion let me tell you, it is not for the light hearted. I would even go as far as to say that Austen’s Persuasion is her Wuthering Heights (ahem Brontë) in that the drama, melancholy, and longing is so thick, the first time I read it, I felt like I was drowning in dark liquid – coffee, tea, chocolate, pick your poison.

Literally, the general tone of the book is melancholy. Anne is miserable, so much so, the modern reader might not understand why Anne just doesn’t lash out at her family, disown them, even go after what she wants on her own.

If only there was a way for Anne to communicate with the reader.

In film and theatre there is.

It’s called “breaking the fourth wall” or an instance where a character talks directly to the audience or in a film looks directly at the camera. Is it modern? Absolutely. Did it ruin the new Persuasion adaptation? Many say “yes.”

I say that it gave viewers the opportunity to share in the story as if we’re Anne’s unnamed friend. Think about it for a second. Anne talks directly to the camera, explains what is going on and how she is really feeling because she doesn’t show that side of herself to anyone but her closest friends and Frederick.

Many people have also said online that Anne’s new vulgar habits – such as drinking too much wine, and there’s a scene where she is using the bathroom in the woods – degrade her character and destroy her credibility.

I hear you. I was a bit appalled too. But let’s put the pitchforks down and think about this for a second.

Probably the worst, and hardest scene to swallow, is the scene where Louisa and Frederick are sitting in the woods talking about Anne. Unintentionally finding them, Anne backs up to a tree and uses the bathroom. (First of all, I agree with you – who does that?!) It was here my Director’s Cap came in handy. Allow me to shed a little bit of light on the situation.

First of all, nothing in film is accidental. In this scene, Louisa and Frederick are sharing conflicting accounts of Anne’s character. Frederick says she is proud. Louisa says he couldn’t be more wrong and that Anne is “pure kindness.” Hearing all of this and trying to keep herself hidden, Anne talks to the camera here, explaining how she really feels. She not only says that’s she’s lost her dignity because of her love for Frederick, but the filmmaker shows us this by her actions in the woods (tastefully done thankfully). To drive the point home even further, Anne then falls in the spot where she relieved herself, a very undignified position. As much as I hate to admit it, as gross and undignified as it is, that’s exactly what the filmmaker wanted us to think.

As for the drinking, again, I am not a fan, but think about it for a minute – how can you show melancholy to a modern audience in such a way that they’ll understand it?

Please don’t stone me – I am not calling the modern audience “stupid” – all I’m saying is that there is a new generation that hasn’t been introduced to Jane Austen. They haven’t read the language, they haven’t pined away for Mr. Darcy, or played piano-saturated playlists in their spare time. How do you reach them? How do you get them interested?

You’ll notice too that we never see Anne passed-out drunk. We see her “drowning her sorrows” so to speak, and even though some of us, myself included, think that it is not how Jane Austen imagined Anne, I think perhaps the director is trying to make us think again.

Anne is a survivor. She is literally drowning in sorrow day after day, being bullied by her family, completely unnoticed and unappreciated, not to mention she does all of her family’s dirty work while barely treading water in a pool of regret for giving up the only man she ever loved. Her family sees her as uninteresting, unremarkable, and a convenient relation that serves as an easy substitute for a servant.

Most adaptations of Persuasion paint Anne in the same light. While Anne is one of my favorite characters, often in films she is mousy, meek, and submissive. Some might even say a wimp or the weakest character Jane Austen wrote in that she has zero gumption. (Even Fanny Price has gumption and that’s saying something). Perhaps all of these elements give the viewer a sense of what’s really going on with Anne, what she is really feeling, because she certainly can’t tell her family. In fact her family knows very little of her, and so much so, it seems that the only person who truly ever knew Anne was Frederick, and perhaps Louisa.

While the escapade in the woods and the constant drinking are not objects of praise in this new adaptation, I don’t think they’re meant to be. I think they’re meant to be devices, or vehicles of communication.

Vehicles that every once in a while provide a bit of humor, lightening what is one of the heaviest books every written. (And I say that with full respect for Austen, her characters, and the plot).

What made me like it the most – and you’re welcome to disagree with me – is this: when you’re adapting a novel for screen, you cannot possibly include every detail described (even Andrew Davies didn’t cover every ounce of Pride and Prejudice – let’s be real here). Some things must be cut, reimagined, reinterpreted, or evolved. In fact, when a friend and I adapted Persuasion into a short film, we eliminated one of Anne’s sisters, and combined her remaining sister with Lady Russell into one character for the sake of time and sense. (You just can’t have a whole ensemble cast for a short film – it would be too confusing.) The trick of adapting something like this is being able to boil the plot down to its bones and pick out what really matters – what makes Jane Austen’s Persuasion the classic that it is?

For me, it is Frederick’s letter.

After the recent butchering of the most important part of another Austen adaptation – I say “recent” but I really mean 2020 – I was watching the end of the the new Persuasion on the edge of my seat thinking, “don’t you dare mess up this letter.”

And there it was – Frederick’s letter, in all of its passionate glory – read by Anne as it should be, and – bonus – she read it to us like she’s reading it to her closest friend.

Please know, I’m not so naive that I don’t see the changes, feel the hinge on satire in the script, and felt uncomfortable and confused at the sight of what many would call “defects” in this interpretation of Anne Elliot. I think perhaps the only reason I’m not picking up a pitchfork myself is because I think I wanted to see Anne with a coping mechanism – I wanted to see her with a bit of fight. All of Austen’s characters have a spunk or an opinionated nature that was unconventional for women at the time. Perhaps this interpretation of Anne is extreme, but we understand it and, dare I say it, even relate to it at times. Some may say the script went too far in normalizing or humanizing Anne Elliot, but I think to know that for sure, we would have to see what happens after she marries Frederick.

Oh, wait. We do.

Yes, it is but one blissful scene of what appears to be just after Anne and Frederick’s wedding, but they’re happy. There’s nothing undignified, no drinking, no sarcasm – just Anne and Frederick being blissfully happy.

What are your thoughts? You’re welcome to agree, disagree, partially support or not. As I said, I’m not an expert, but I do consider myself slightly more informed than most. Maybe this new adaptation isn’t to your taste, but maybe, it just might be the adaptation that hooks a whole new generation of Jane Austen fans.

Watch the new adaptation exclusively on Netflix.

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