Empire gowns, ballroom etiquette, and often scandalous romance, all staples to a Regency period drama – but are these key ingredients what makes the genre so popular? With Netflix recently announcing the production of a new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and the phenomenal success of both Bridgerton and Emma in 2020, it appears the popularity and demand for Regency drama has surged and shows no sign of stopping.
Jane Austen novels seem to lend themselves to continual reinvention, and it could be claimed that the enduring appeal of her writing explains the continued popularity of the genre. Her wit, humour and flawed, yet endearing, characters are still major staples of popular culture over two hundred years later. In fact, debates are still being had as to whether the 1995 or 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is the better one. Every decade seemingly brings with it another round of Austen adaptations, and this new announcement regarding Persuasion proves that the cycle is likely to continue. Whilst Austen’s continued popularity is certainly a major element in the Regency period drama, it fails to explain the success of Netflix’s Bridgerton, which was not an Austen classic but instead an adaptation of historical romance novelist Julia Quinn’s ‘Bridgerton’ series. The Netflix show garnered 82 million views within its first month, making it the most popular Netflix Original series to date.
The popularity of both Bridgerton and Emma might be explained by a perfect formula of cast and production. Bridgerton saw the Netflix powerhouse team up with Shonda Rhimes (the creator behind popular long-running shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal), and Emma saw the feature film’s directorial debut of Autumn de Wilde (something that the new Persuasion might also benefit from, as Carrie Cracknell too makes her film debut). Both also feature an impressive cast, with the popularity of Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page and Emma’s Anya Taylor-Joy prime examples of the excitement that surrounds these Regency adaptations. With Netflix’s Persuasion set to star Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, it remains to be seen whether she too will garner the same praise.
‘Breathing new life and colour into the Regency Period’
The most obvious difference and likely reason for the popularity of these adaptions, however, is how they seem to be breathing new life and colour into the Regency period. Bright colours rejuvenate what might have previously felt like a muted and old historical period drama. Indeed, costume designs by Emma’s Alexandra Byrne and Bridgerton’s Ellen Mirojnick have sparked fashion trends across social media. Despite remaining firmly in the Regency era, both come across as more modern and relatable to audiences. Furthermore, the sex and scandal of Bridgerton is something that is kept in the subtext of Austen and other Regency period dramas, so it is certainly a new and exciting element to see play out on screen for many viewers. It may have had the same effect on the Regency genre that the X-rated content of Game of Thrones had on bringing a whole new audience to Fantasy.
‘Casting…provides hope for a more diverse genre that can represent our current society whilst telling stories looking back to the past’
Another element that certainly helped to make Bridgerton feel more modern and realistic is its diverse casting, with many people of colour in lead roles and represented in all positions of the social hierarchy (even the Queen). This is a new and exciting twist on what some would argue has been a pale, white world that previously prioritised historical accuracy over its ability to connect with audiences by allowing for on-screen representation and a greater diversity of roles for actors in historical dramas. This casting strategy, popularised by Hamilton: An American Musical, has seen many period pieces follow suit, and provides hope for a more diverse genre that can both represent our current society whilst telling stories looking back to the past.
The COVID-19 pandemic itself has created an environment that has allowed people more time to consume content like Bridgerton and Emma from their homes, but it also seemingly fostered a greater need for escapism through media – something that the beautiful romance dramas set in the Regency period are more than able to provide.
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