By Mia Hyde
Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a quintessential tale of misunderstanding: boy thinks girl is romantically uninterested, girl thinks boy loves another, then happily-ever-after. But Netflix’s recent adaptation of Persuasion takes such misunderstanding to an entirely new level. Directors torpedo Austen’s acclaimed narrative sensitivity, heavy-handedly patchworking it into an anachronistic shipwreck which I’m certain the literary goddess herself would disown. As firm an advocate that I am that literary interpretation is elastic, I would not hesitate to brand this film an abhorrent misinterpretation.
Persuasion remains a classic for a reason. Austen chronicles former lovers reunited in pastoral claustrophobia, struggling to navigate change and the past eight years later. In short, a romance trope that transcends time barriers. So, adapting Persuasion to fit modern screens ought to be easy, right? Wrong.
Behold Netflix’s utterly bewildering cinematic marriage between Regency culture, early-noughties rom-com, modern reality TV, and slapstick mockumentary. Suffice to say, it deviates from the text. Awkwardness takes root in mere seconds through the metamorphosis of the novel’s third-person narrative into protagonist Anne’s sardonic The Office-style running commentary. Long gone is the sentient free-indirect-discourse that idiosyncratically laces Austen’s novel, deposed by Anne’s blinkering perspective.
Adding to this are the PG-rom com hallmarks, supposedly intended to humanise Anne. She screams into her pillow, characteristically nurses a bottle of red, encounters her ex-lover wearing a strawberry-jam moustache and spills gravy over herself. Perhaps, indeed, this facilitates contemporaneous empathy, but it’s a far cry from Austen. At least Clueless, however witless, is self-consciously distanced from Emma. Netflix’s Persuasion, however, artificially foists modern notions onto the nineteenth-century context. For instance, our fatuous practice of rating people’s attractiveness from one to ten (a vulgar ritual which Austen would doubtless repudiate) undercuts Netflix’s Persuasion — at one point, Elizabeth announces that she’s a London ten, but a Bath thirteen. At another, Anne solicits: “never trust a ten”.
I immerse myself in nineteenth-century culture and literature to escape modern toxicities. But watching Netflix’s Persuasion is tantamount to watching Love Island. It’s true that SparkNotes might prune Austen’s poignant “it was a perpetual estrangement” into “we’re exes”, but for Netflix to sanction this in dramatisation is iconoclastic vandalism of the delicacy of Austen’s words. Romance drops dead in its tracks.
So, has the label ‘classic’ burdened novels like Persuasion? Fiction that ought to be evergreen is abandoned, dusty and unreachable, on the top shelf. Austen today has garnered a reputation as indigestible and irreconcilable with modern ideology. Accordingly, Netflix strives through this film to oust Persuasion from its pedestal of high, classic literature, sensationalising it and saturating it with anachronisms to render it watchable. As an audience member, I feel acutely patronised as I’m spoon-fed Persuasion’s plot with 21st century utensils as if I couldn’t possibly consume it without dilution.
You might recall your primary-school English teacher’s golden rule of ‘show, not tell’, advice to which directors clearly paid zero attention. With Anne’s vlog-style commentary, the entire plot is artlessly told and externalised, leaving little to inference or imagination. Oversimplification stampedes inner, subterranean beauty. Austen’s Persuasion, to me, constitutes such a nut: a perfect encapsulation of love’s trials and tribulations, wieldy enough to stand the test of time thus far. But Netflix has chiselled a crack in its perfect exterior in a materialistic endeavour to render it more ubiquitously edible.
As a voracious reader and writer, I’m overcome with fear — are the classics becoming obsolete? If we must cocoon historical culture in modern idiosyncrasies, the aftertaste is that archaic historical culture and literature cannot stand on their own two feet in our day and age. What’s the point in reading, studying, or dramatising such literature?
Let me restore your faith: Emma (2020), Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Little Women (2019) supercharge their protagonists’ voices, allowing Austen and Alcott’s heroines’ strength to shine and inspire more potently. Or take Anna Karenina (2012) for a heavily stylised, experimental Tolstoy innovatively set in a theatre. Such films erect bridges between past and present, reminding us that the overarching theme of love and its challenges surpass temporal fissures. Simply put, these are adaptations mindful of the magic of the raw textual material and its contexts.
I blame Persuasion’s failure on Netflix’s heinous artistic insensitivity. Clickbait culture has wholly eclipsed artistic and aesthetic appreciation.
The novel thematically pivots on persuasion: the question of the degree to which one should be swayed by one’s entourage. The irony is that Netflix here exquisitely incarnates the dangers of such excessive persuasion by others, as the film blindly appeals to preconceived marketability in lieu of respecting a classic text.
One thing’s for certain: I’ll be needing a lot of persuasion to ever watch any Netflix literary adaptation again.
Image: Ed Robertson via Unsplash