It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that any Jane Austen adaptation must be in want of haters.
The latest to come under fire is Netflix’s take on Persuasion. You would think Dakota Johnson had burned a copy of book the way Jane Austen purists have reacted to her performance as Anne Elliot.
I, like so many Austen fans, hit play the moment Persuasion hit Netflix — despite all the early grumblings from reviewers. And do you know what? I bloody well loved it.
The key word in this age-old debate over adaptations is exactly that: adaptation. The Netflix film, like any other adaptation, was never meant to be a line-by-line re-enactment of the 1817 book. The screenwriters adapted it for a 2022 audience. Since, you know, a lot has changed in 205 years.
If you enjoyed the 2020 take on Emma, or Netflix’s runaway hit Bridgeton, then I can tell you now you’ll enjoy this version of Persuasion. It’s got the same vibrancy, which is no mean feat when you’re working with a centuries old setting.
So why all the hate? Personally, I put it down to an overly protective fan base. The Janeites and Austenites, if you will. They just love Jane Austen’s work so much that they feel the need to defend it at all cost. And I get it — her stories mean a lot to a lot of people, especially women. And we all know women’s work, especially in literature and entertainment, is rarely given the same respect as men’s.
But while I dearly love Austen’s books, I also love the many screen adaptations of them. This is controversial but… I actually prefer the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film over the 1995 six-part BBC series. Do you know why? Because if I’ve had a shitty day, in two hours and six minutes the film version reassures me that I am not Charlotte and I do not have to marry Mr Collins because I am a “burden” on my family. I can’t always wait six hours to get that same reassurance from the BBC — no matter how handsome Colin Firth is as Mr Darcy.
Screen adaptations also open up Jane Austen’s work to a new wave of potential fans. I was first captured by Gwyneth Paltrow’s turn in Emma way back in 1996 (before she lost me with all the woohoo of Goop, but that’s another story). Austen’s books weren’t on a single reading list in all my high school years. I was, however, forced to read Wuthering Heights and Heart of Darkness and I’m still holding a grudge about that.
While we’re on the subject of Emma, did you enjoy Clueless? Because that is also an adaptation of Emma. And if you thought Cher hooking up with her ex-step-brother Josh was a stretch, rest assured Austen’s 1815 original had a 16-year age gap between Emma and Mr Knightly — old enough to be her father in those days.
Meanwhile, there have been endless adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work and yet it’s never met with the same level of hatred as Jane Austen’s stories. Is that because he’s been dead for longer? Or because her fans are just more devoted? I loved 10 Things I Hate About You and its 1999 spin on The Taming of the Shrew. Same goes for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. It made studying Shakespeare at school exciting. The many, many Kenneth Branagh takes on The Bard didn’t quite do it for me as a teenage girl.
I think it’s time we took all book-to-screen adaptations for what they are: someone’s interpretation of a story that clearly touched them, or they wouldn’t have spent years working to turn it into a film. We can all respect that level of passion.