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  • Ninay Desai

Netflix's Persuasion: How not to adapt a classic

I watched Netflix’s Persuasion last week. It is based on Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, in terms of the broad plot and the Regency aesthetic – which seems to have been Netflix’s sole reason for going ahead with this adaptation, given the success of the Bridgerton series. In keeping with the wokeness of our times, Netflix brings in actors of diverse backgrounds (of African and Malaysian origin) to play characters that were written as white and English. This is another Bridgerton effect, I suppose. I haven’t read the Bridgerton series but did watch the first two seasons of the show. The author of the romance series, Julia Quinn wrote it as a reimagining of the Regency Era if race hadn’t been a dividing line between people. And so, Bridgerton the show stays loyal to the author’s intention of essentially bringing certain modern-day sensibilities into the Regency period. That’s great. Jane Austen, on the other hand, had no such ideas, given that she was writing of that time in that time. Also, she didn’t have a twitter (now christened X) account!


A laptop playing Netflix's Persuasion, a copy of Jane Austen's novel, a notebook and glass with a pink drink on a glass table overlooking a garden

COLOUR BLIND OR CONFLICT-AVOIDANT?


I get it. Regency fashion is a vibe at the moment and so, the folks at Netflix thought any drivel in those outfits is likely to be a hit with the demographic that watches Bridgerton. What they seem to have forgotten or perhaps never realised is that literature is more than an aesthetic. In fact, even aesthetics are more than an aesthetic. They are, more often than not, a reflection of social, religious, political and economic factors. Don’t buy my statement? Think about why we dress differently from the way that our grandparents did.


To ‘modernise’ characters to better fit our current ideals and soothe our sensibilities rather than reflect the truth of the period depicted is a form of dumbing down. Not only because it assumes that the viewers wouldn’t understand the social mores of the era in question but also because it attempts to fool its victim (the viewer, in this case) into mistaking this screening of facts as a symbol of their empowerment.


To gloss over historical wrongs (as in the case of slavery or colonialism) is not just factually incorrect but also escapist. Does pretending that injustices that occurred centuries ago didn’t happen make our present-day world a fairer place? What’s next? A white Nelson Mandela in a remake of Invictus? Or does ‘colour-blindness’ not work in that direction? If so, then perhaps we should re-examine its efficacy. I know there is a stereotype of Generation Z and Millennials being conflict-avoidant but this has got to be a new level of avoidance. History, I’m afraid, doesn’t come with trigger warnings. Not at least, in the real world.


WHERE IS THE REAL ANNE ELLIOT?


Despite my obvious irritation at the ineffectual and token inclusiveness of diverse or colour-blind casting in dramas set periods of history when race was practically destiny, the aspect of Netflix's Persuasion that baffled me most was the characterization of the protagonist, Anne Elliot. In Jane Austen’s novel, she is a somewhat plain-looking, quiet and melancholy aristocratic woman with a rich internal life. A wallflower with more intelligence, fortitude and kindness than she gets credit for. Unmarried at 27, Anne believes that life has passed her by and worse still, she’s to blame for it. We are told that eight years ago, she broke her engagement to a man she loved, Frederick Wentworth, who at the time was lacking in status and wealth as an ordinary naval officer.


The sadness and guilt that followed the end of the relationship has been a heavy burden that Anne has borne in silence and without any real confidants. The passage of time has only deepened her feelings for Wentworth and sharpened her regret at having allowed herself to be persuaded to abandon a love worth fighting for. Jane Austen puts it best,


“She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”

This character in Netflix's film is portrayed by Dakota Johnson who, I’m quite sure isn’t anyone’s idea of plain-looking. But that’s a minor niggle compared to the assault of the ‘feisty woman’ trope that so many filmmakers and showrunners are determined to foist upon us. I wish someone could get a memo to folks in the entertainment business that every female character cannot be feisty, outspoken and given to enacting rambunctious impressions of naval captains, complete with jam moustaches (yes, I know, this a spoiler but it was a spoiler for me too. In a different way though).


Jane Austen was a master of characterisation and like any good author, many of her plots develop from the interactions between her characters and their circumstances. Change the character and the outcome cannot be the same. I find it hilarious that Netflix executives don’t understand that characters in stories (at least, good ones) have agency and purpose within the plot and aren’t interchangeable. What’s next? Anna Karenina as a chirpy soccer mom? I shudder to think.


In Persuasion, Anne is in the situation she is in because she lacked the conviction and boldness to not be persuaded by a person whose opinion she valued. If she was as feisty and strong-willed as Wentworth said she was (in the film, not the book) then why did she not marry him in the first place? That way, there would’ve been no movie. And that, in itself, would have been no mean achievement, I promise you.


A WENTWORTH WITHOUT MYSTERY


Further on in the story, we are told that Wentworth’s sister and her husband, Admiral Croft would be renting the Elliot home, Kellynch Hall (due to Anne’s father’s diminished finances and consequent move to Bath). As expected, Captain Wentworth also shows up on the scene soon enough. His prospects have improved drastically over the years, making him an eligible match. For the rest, you’ll have to order yourself a copy of the book. Or catch the film, at your own risk!


A handwritten letter written in extravagant cursive on a yellowed, aged paper

One of the major elements of suspense in Austen's Persuasion is what Wentworth thinks or how he feels about Anne eight years after she called off their engagement. In the novel, both Anne and the reader are equally in the dark. The film ruins that suspense by injecting a strange chat between the protagonists on a beach. Hence, when at the climax of the film, Wentworth writes Anne a letter (which ranks amongst the greatest love letters in English literature) professing his feelings, it doesn’t have quite the same impact because the build-up to it has, frankly, been punctured.


FILTERING MELANCHOLY


Persuasion is a story of true love lost and the regret it leaves in its wake. So, it’s not hard to imagine that melancholy would be the presiding mood of the novel. Jane Austen achieved this by using free indirect discourse in which a third person narrator often views things from the protagonist’s perspective and weaves their insights and thoughts into the narrative. But it’s done so subtly that you might forget it is happening at all. Austen also balanced her satire of societal norms and Anne’s silly relatives with an underlying current of loss and sadness, mirroring Anne’s state of mind.


Netflix's efforts in this direction seem limited to using a colour palette that reminded me of a blue-toned Instagram filter. It looked nice but that’s all it was - style over substance.


KNOCKING DOWN THE FOURTH WALL


With respect to weaving in Anne’s perspective, the makers of Netflix's Persuasion took a chance with having her speak straight to the audience. I can understand their reasons for doing that. One of the challenges of film-making or any visual medium is to show what someone thinks or feels. Novels have omniscient or close third person narrators or even first person point of view where readers can literally read the character’s mind. Film-making doesn’t have that advantage. A technique to make up for that lack is for a character to directly address the audience by breaking the fourth wall.


The term ‘fourth wall’ originated in theatre. It refers to the imaginary wall between the characters of a play in their fictional world and the audience. In Netflix's Persuasion, Anne Elliot speaks directly to the viewers as if they were her confidants. It’s been done earlier, of course. An example I can think of at the moment, is Kevin Spacey’s character, Francis Underwood, in House of Cards. That was a masterclass. This, on the other hand, is detention!


It fails mainly because the movie Anne continues to sound chirpy and upbeat (even in this intimate exchange with her confidant, the viewer) in a story about a woman who is in the depths of misery at the prospect of watching her lost love find love with another in front of her very eyes. I’m sure you, dear reader, see the incongruity of it all. I imagine that the screenplay writers and the director probably thought this could be their way of giving us, the viewers an insight into Anne’s inner world. Sadly, snarky and almost witty comments don’t do much by the way of evoking sympathy for Anne’s character in the film.


PERSUASION’S THEMES: MISSING IN ACTION


Jane Austen’s Persuasion revolves around the themes of constancy in love, regret and transformation brought on by love and regret. In the film, we don’t see that kind of constancy, no regret other than surly references to being ‘worse than exes’ and certainly, no transformation in the Anne’s character. You could be forgiven for thinking of her as a single-note character.


GET A CLUE


In conclusion, I hope the failure of this venture for Netflix wakes them up to the consequences of jumping onto the bandwagon of a megahit success i.e. Bridgerton and churning out lazy and soulless adaptations of beloved classics in the hope that their target demographic won’t catch on. Next time, instead of focussing only on keeping the empire waistline (a staple of Regency era fashion), perhaps Netflix could stay loyal to what the story is about. If all else fails, they could pick up a clue or two from Clueless.


The makers of that film adapted Jane Austen’s Emma and set it in a high school in contemporary Los Angeles, complete with cellphones and designer outfits. Starring an effervescent Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy and Paul Rudd, Clueless had a diverse cast, all while staying faithful to Austen’s characterization and the spirit of the novel, making the film a cult classic. Watch and learn, Netflix!






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4 Comments


Guest
Oct 30, 2023

Although I haven't read the book nor watched the show on Netflix, I know how soulless a character that is consumed by melancholy in a classic, is shown to be a chirpy character without an iota of regret. That is quite a shift to digest. More when I read the book and watch the show (if I have the patience to finish!).

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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
Nov 02, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for your comment. Please do drop us a line when you read the book and watch the film (fortunately, it's not a show) and let us know what you make of both. The Fox hopes you will read the novel before watching the movie though. We look forward to hearing from you.

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portia.putatunda
Sep 03, 2023

Ninay, your critique of Netflix's adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion is thoughtful and thought-provoking. It raises important questions about how classic literature is adapted to modern sensibilities. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this cultural shift in storytelling. 🎬📚 Now, I do want to watch Clueless!

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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
Sep 04, 2023
Replying to

Hi Portia! Glad you enjoyed the post. Check out Clueless. It's fun! :-)

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