“Awful,” “awkward and lifeless,” and “a tough sell,” are just a few of the ways critics have described the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel “Persuasion.”
Critics and Austen fans alike have widely panned the film, which premieres July 15 on Netflix, for diluting Austen’s language and altering the characterization of its heroine, Anne Elliot, played by Dakota Johnson.
“It warms the cockles of my heart to see how Austen lovers have risen as one and condemned this monstrosity,” wrote one user in a comment on the YouTube trailer. (The film has received some positive reviews, but holds a 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)
What went wrong with this iteration of “Persuasion”? Nicole Aljoe, professor of English and Africana studies in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, teaches classes on Austen, including Austen in film. She says that while it’s not possible to achieve full accuracy in a film adaptation, from what she’s seen, this one does fall short of expectations.
“Persuasion” was written shortly before Austen’s death in 1817, becoming the last of her six major published novels, which include other classics like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma.” The story follows Anne Elliot, an upper-class woman who, following the advice of those around her, rejected a marriage proposal seven years earlier. Now in her late 20s, Elliot is forced to contend with her decision after her former suitor comes back into her life.
In the 200 years since its publication, Aljoe says, “Persuasion,” and especially its lessons on marriage, friendship, and class, still resonates widely with readers. “It’s just a really wonderful novel, and it has the most romantic letter ever written,” Aljoe says. “For a lot of people, it’s a touchstone.” The strong response to the adaptation, then, is not surprising.
Aljoe may be more charitable than some fans; she acknowledges that even the best Austen adaptations are not going to be completely accurate, and it’s unfair to demand that they are. Translating a book to film is a creative process, and the two media are so different that elements of the novel will always be lost. Previous Austen films have always taken liberties, such as by including weddings (none of Austen’s novels have a wedding).
In this case, though, “it doesn’t seem to have been very successful,” she says.
The watered-down language was one of the biggest grievances among Austen fans, who circulated the most egregious examples online. “Now we’re worse than exes,” Elliot says in a trailer. “We’re friends.” In another trailer, she refers to a man as “a 10.” In a scathing review, The Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “appears to have lifted sentences from the novel and fed them through some kind of Instagram-filtering, catchphrase-generating, text-summarizing idiot bot.”
Updating the language of a novel isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Aljoe says. But here, it’s uneven. “If it was consistent and thoughtful, then I think it would be really interesting,” she says, comparing it to the use of contemporary music in Bridgerton, a Netflix series set in Regency England. Unlike Bridgerton, in “Persuasion,” modern English is sprinkled in rather than made into a feature.
“There’s a way to use 21st century tropes to communicate timeless concepts but ground it in Regency context or ethos,” she says. “It just works in Bridgerton in a way that doesn’t seem to work [in “Persuasion”].”
Previous Austen adaptations have made similar mistakes. A 1940 Pride and Prejudice adaptation starring Lawrence Olivier used Victorian costumes out of necessity, but the language and setting were not adapted to match that era, Aljoe says.
However, “It’s completely possible to update and translate Austen in some pretty compelling ways,” Aljoe says. “Clueless,” the 1995 modern riff on “Emma,” achieved wide acclaim, and Aljoe calls “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” a 2001 “Pride and Prejudice” update, “fantastic.”
The other pervading theme in criticism of the new film is how its protagonist is portrayed. Elliot is one of Austen’s most sophisticated characters, which may be why she’s so well loved—she’s also smart, and charming, and “incredibly self-aware,” Aljoe says.
This characterization, Aljoe says, doesn’t quite match up with the film. In Netflix’s “Persuasion,” Elliot accidentally falls off a bench and has a run-in with a gravy boat, uses jam to paint a mustache on her lip, and chugs wine. The film is interesting in that it’s a deviation from previous Austen adaptations, where the protagonists are portrayed as perfect, Aljoe says.
However, “to portray her as basically a hot mess is just a wild misreading,” Aljoe says. “It could work, possibly, but that would be a different story.”
The film does succeed in one way, by bringing people of color into a genre that normally lacks diversity. A few key—yet still secondary—characters in the film are people of color. And while Aljoe does not want to diminish the importance of representation, she also would like to see the conversation about diversity in film shift to acknowledge the very real presence of people of color in the Regency period.
“[The casting is] not just a reflection of 21st century values,” she says. “There were actually upper and middle class Black people and people of color in England at this time, who were going to balls, who were participating, who people know about.”
“The Regency period was actually more diverse than the films ever represent them,” she says.
In this way, the Netflix film is progressive when compared to previous adaptations, though those were stronger overall. Persuasion has been adapted more than once, including a 1995 television movie that Aljoe calls “just a great film.” A 2007 BBC adaptation starring Sally Hawkins eliminated a climactic scene from the novel, but “It doesn’t feel like a complete failure,” Aljoe says. “The way that [Hawkins] emphasized Anne’s internal regret, I really appreciated in that version.”
Otherwise, the novel hasn’t gotten quite as much attention from Hollywood as Austen’s better-known works. Aljoe had a few guesses for why this is—Elliot is older than the rest of Austen’s heroines, and the tone of the novel is more wistful, though it still features Austen’s signature wit. But it doesn’t follow the “marriage plot” trope of the rest of her novels.
It also ends differently from the other novels. Elliot is “not the typical domestic protagonist” that Hollywood might like. Instead of ending the novel settled in domestic bliss, she’s out at sea.