Book to screen

How Netflix’s Persuasion talks over Jane Austen’s novel

Persuasion is Jane Austen's greatest novel – not that you'd know it from Neftlix's brash, drunk and embarrassing Anne Eliot.

Anne Eliot, the heroine of Jane Austen’s last and greatest novel, Persuasion, is described as possessing “an elegance of mind and sweetness of character”, something that seems to have been forgotten in Netflix’s new adaptation (available from Friday). This Anne – portrayed by Dakota Johnson – is liable to make a fool of herself, prone to drinking and outwardly delights in the fall of her ridiculous family. As in the novel, viewers first meet Anne aged seven-and-twenty, unforgivably single and still hopelessly in love with the dashing Frederick Wentworth, who she was persuaded to reject eight years ago. When she learns that Wentworth has returned to the country as a wealthy Captain in the Navy, Anne takes to her bed. He “was the only person who ever really saw me," she sobs. Thus begins Persuasion.

And who doesn’t enjoy a good lovers-to-exes-to-friends-to-lovers story? It’s very #relatable, and is ripe fodder for an adaptation seeking to add an injection of Gen Z sensibilities. Indeed, Netflix have worked hard to ensure this adaptation will appeal to those who spend as much time online as they do reading Austen. It’s impossible to look at Anne as played by Johnson without recalling one commenter’s description her as having the face “of someone who knows what an iPhone is". Yet for this new adaptation, that seems precisely to be the point.

Anne is no longer the overlooked sister in the corner, quietly judging those she sees as below par, but a Fleabag-Bridget Jones hybrid of spontaneous outbursts and awkward encounters. The language follows suit and jostles for space between direct quotes from the source material and a contemporary vernacular that wouldn’t sound out of place on Love Island. One character declares that, “if you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath” and Anne’s sister Mary speaks of being “an empath” and needing some “self-care”. Imagine the string quartet covers of pop songs in Bridgerton but turned into a whole film. It feels designed to go viral, and no doubt it will.

And to the filmmaker’s credit, it almost works. Netflix’s Persuasion is often funny; there’s a thrill in hearing such usually uptight characters make sexy jokes about “calling cards”. It’s trying something, at least. All adaptations are a product of their time; without modernisation we would have no Clueless (a great loss), but it’s impossible not to feel that Austen’s razor-sharp prose has been slighted in this shift. Take, for example Austen’s heart-wrenching description of Anne and Wentworth’s first meeting:

There could have been no hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for the could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.

In the film these lines are addressed to the camera by Anne. She tells us: “We are strangers. Worse than strangers. We’re exes.” The content remains the same, but it doesn’t quite pack the same punch.

'The filmmakers are worried we’ll miss out on the joke. But Austen trusted the reader to find the humour for themselves'

This speech, like many others on-screen that attempt to reflect Austen’s witty tone, are given over to Anne in fourth wall-breaking glances to the camera and arch asides. And while this isn’t a new device in Austen adaptations, it’s used so frequently here that it suggests the filmmakers are worried we’ll miss out on the joke. But Austen trusted the reader to find the humour for themselves; she was an expert writer of comedy and never more so than when skewing family dynamics and those lacking self-awareness. Her satire relies on the reader being able to understand the characters better than they do themselves and find humour in their contradictions and outlandish statements. Having Dakota Johnson wink at the viewer every time this occurs belies the intelligence that Austen ascribes to her readers.

Thankfully, there are times when Austen’s brilliance is allowed to shine through, nowhere more so than in Wentworth’s iconic letter to Anne, in which he finally declares his feelings. It is the cumulation of an entire novel’s worth of uncertainty and pining as Anne and Wentworth learn to understand one another again. It’s rare for Austen to portray such a moment so directly; in showing Wentworth’s letter in full, the reader shares Anne’s experience of some of the most romantic and timeless words ever written:

You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such previous feelings are gone for ever. For you alone I think and plan. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. A word, a look will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening, or never.

While Wentworth’s speech mostly survives intact, aside from the script cutting to get to the juicy bits, the emotional release of this moment is completely undermined, mostly because the characters can’t stop saying what they feel. In his introduction in the Penguin Deluxe Edition of Persuasion, Colm Tóibín writes that it is “a novel filled with shadows and silences”, something which this film version would have you forget. Persuasion is a book about yearning and separation. It’s about love that is demonstrated in action, first. Most crucially it is about what is left unsaid, until the very last moment, when the heart can bear it no more.

The exquisite agony that Anne feels to be in the same room as the man who was once ardently in love with her, and now can barely look at her, is gone. Instead, they flirt, they banter, and they speak of their shared past (this while jam is incongruously smeared on Anne’s face). All of Wentworth’s steady resolve that he is “indifferent” to her can’t be worn away – it was never there in the first place.

Anne and Wentworth are not given the space to yearn in this adaptation. And the yearning is what makes Persuasion such an enduring love story

In this adaptation, everyone freely expounds their feelings to each other and often in public: Wentworth declares at dinner that he is ready to marry any young women between “18 and 80” (a conversation in the book which happens privately between him and his sister). Anne responds by blurting out that Charles Musgrove wanted to marry her first and – in the style of the “messy women” of millennial pop culture – must stutteringly back-pedal on her words. In the book this conversation happens between Louisa and Wentworth and is one of the first indications to him that Anne still cares for him. In saying the quiet parts loud (as the kids say) the dramatic tension and bittersweet foreknowledge the reader is privy to all but vanishes. In essence: Anne and Wentworth are not given the space to yearn in this adaptation. And the yearning is what makes Persuasion such an enduring love story.

In striving to bring Anne into the 21st Century, the filmmakers have sacrificed much of what makes her the heroine that she is. Judged on its own merit this adaptation is an enjoyable, amusing film that happens, coincidently, to include the names and places that resemble those in Persuasion. Comparing it to Austen’s prose directly almost feels unfair, as any adaptation would. As a reflection of our current times, Netflix’s version presents an interesting portrait of a woman navigating an unruly family, social convention and her own heartbreak. If nothing else, it demonstrates how relevant and universal Austen’s writing is over 200 years later. While this adaptation fails to give Anne Eliot her due, one can only hope the renewed interest in Austen’s most romantic and heartfelt novel will bring new readers to discover her work for themselves. On that point we can be persuaded.

Image: Istock/ Netflix
Illustration: Selman Hosgor for Penguin

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