With Netflix’s Persuasion dropping tomorrow, there’s a case to be made that all Jane Austen adaptations, no matter how irreverent, have a right to exist. Subjectify contributor Jamie Whitebread shares her thoughts about why Jane Austen is so ripe for revisiting, and how even movies that miss the mark are still valuable to the Austen fandom.
The latest adaptation of Persuasion, Jane Austen’s final novel, hits Netflix on Friday and Austen fans, as always, will rush to watch it and then proceed to laud all the unique elements of the retelling that we liked while simultaneously lamenting all the changes that are just too egregious to let slide. (Personally, I’m extremely dubious and if the early reviews are any indication… I should be.)
It’s already happened with the trailer — Austenites everywhere flinched at hearing Dakota Johnson say lines like, “Now we’re worse than exes. We’re friends.” Is Anne Elliot the right Austen heroine to break the fourth wall? What’s the point in making adaptations that don’t take risky chances to separate themselves from all the others? These and similar questions have popped up on the online debate-osphere — fandom will be fandom after all — because even with a body of work much smaller than many other authors, Jane Austen remains a pop culture mainstay. So reservations or no, watch Persuasion we shall.
Autumn de Wilde’s Emma was the last movie I saw in theaters before the pandemic shut everything down in 2020, Sanditon fans created a social media campaign and succeeded in getting the show a second season despite not even having a completed piece of source material to draw from, and the most recent adaptation of the ubiquitous Pride and Prejudice hit screens earlier this summer in the form of Fire Island, featuring Saturday Night Live darling Bowen Yang in an LGBTQ+ take on the story.
There was even supposed to be another Persuasion film. Searchlight Pictures had attached Mahalia Belo to direct and Sarah Snook (Succession) and Joel Fry (Our Flag Means Death) were set to play the main roles of Anne and Wentworth, but Snook confirmed that the project was abandoned by the studio due to Netflix greenlighting the version that’s about to come out. Before we know it there will be news of yet another project based on one of Austen’s books, and it’s because no matter how many times we’ve seen her stories told countless different ways, we still love them enough to watch them again in a slightly different form.
What is it about the works of Jane Austen that still speak so profoundly to audiences no matter the passage of time and the differences from the world in which they were written? Why are we still just as excited to see yet another take on these stories as we’ve been to see all the others that have preceded it? It’s a lot of things really, and the answers will vary with each reader and viewer. With an untold number of people who love Austen’s novels comes an untold number of reasons why they speak to us, and that’s a wonderful thing.
I am always irritated by the snobbery that holds up William Shakespeare’s oeuvre as vital while relegating Jane Austen to “chick lit.” I have nothing against The Bard, but the inherent sexism in that sentiment attempts to dismiss the fact that stories primarily about, and for, women that are still beloved centuries after they were written are just as vital to culture as anything else. It turns out that we actually are people, and the things we care about do actually matter. Lasting power is not an inevitability, but the mark of work that transcends. Jane Austen’s talent for crafting mesmerizingly immersive romances was truly the work of a genius, and should be regarded as such.
That’s the joy of movies like Fire Island, which show that even with alterations Austen’s stories still have a place in our lives, and her characters are still recognizable. Sadly, I find that it’s the more unbearable type of men she created that I see most often in the world, which isn’t that shocking given the current state of…everything. If Pride and Prejudice took place in real life today, Mr. Collins would write an insufferable thinkpiece for some outlet about how he got canceled for reading Fordyce’s Sermons. After Emma rejected his proposal, a modern Mr. Elton would lick his wounds by becoming a right-wing incel. But through Austen we get to enjoy watching them suffer the consequences of their own actions and vile personalities, sad mockeries of the strong men they’re trying so desperately to be — those romantic heroes who do what all romantic heroes do, and make us sigh wistfully.
None of this is to say that fictional men in stories written now don’t serve the same function, because they absolutely do. Nor is it to imply that the 19th century was “the good old days” — far from it, and it does no one any good to get nostalgic for an illusory past that’s been constructed after the fact. Unless you’re a rich, white, straight, cis, Christian man, the good old days have never existed.
The Regency England we escape to in Jane Austen’s books is a fictional one, because the things that were bad about the world hundreds of years ago are still the things that are bad about the world, even if cultural shifts have made them look different. Petulant, insecure men who don’t get their way have always been, and continue to be, a menace. John Willoughby would probably cry on live television while throwing a tantrum about how maligned he is and end up with a seat on a Supreme Court that would take basic rights away from tens of millions. It’s depressing that we can read books written in the early 1800s and still find so much in common between the heroines of Jane Austen’s novels and ourselves. If the world were just or fair, those gender dynamics would be an ancient relic.
There are, thankfully, many aspects of Regency England that are no longer things we can recognize. Far too many others, however, are as present as ever and all the more infuriating because of the parallels we can still draw between 2022 and 1822. The certainty that the women of today have it so much better than the women of Austen’s time is actually not as certain as we’d like it to be. That’s not a statement meant to be overdramatic or hyperbolic, but more an anguished and infuriated one from a person who just lost basic human rights in the country they live in, knowing that there are countless women in a worse position than me, and livid that it should be an issue that requires comparison at all.
But nothing as widely adored as Austen’s collected works finds itself in that position for one factor alone, so to reduce Jane to a doyenne of only romance and women would be an insult. She was also a master of capturing the timeless, fundamental aspects of humanity, and choosing just the right prose to convey how things like hope, sadness, heartbreak, fear, and loneliness feel. Those words have spoken to readers for generations, and it’s why we can never get enough of her work. There is always a little bit of joy and a whole lot of comfort for me in reading Jane Austen’s stories and knowing that there have been countless women like me over the span of centuries that are connected by our use of these stories as a safe space.
Which brings me back around to Persuasion, and why we’ll all flock to our televisions next week to welcome Netflix’s spin on it into the Jane Austen Cinematic Universe, no matter what doubts we may harbor about the creative choices that were made. It sounds simplistic, and maybe it is but… why wouldn’t we?
“Do we really need another one of these?” is the constant refrain when a project like this, or another installment of an old and well established franchise is announced. And I suppose we don’t. You also don’t need to put that piece of lean chicken breast back in the freezer and order a pizza after a long day, but dinner is way more delicious when you do. You don’t need to wear that old threadbare t-shirt that you’ve had for years instead of all the other things in your closet, but you’re much more comfortable during your cozy weekend at home when you do. Media that already feels familiar and like hanging out with an old friend does serve an important purpose. It’s certain and safe, and exactly what we need when life is the exact opposite of those things.
Why else would something like fanfiction be so popular? You would think that reading about the same people falling in love over and over again in various alternate universes should lose its shine after a while. And yet, spending countless hours reading or writing fanfiction (or both!) is a formative pillar of fandom for many. It all scratches the same itch; fulfills the same need. It’s not at all surprising that women and members of the LGBTQ+ community make up such an overwhelming majority of fanfiction authors, as well as their audience. Isn’t a screenwriter and director’s take on a classic like Persuasion just a version of fanfiction in a way, and is it any wonder why there’s still constant demand for it?
Despite the declarations from the entertainment industry that it would quickly start to do better and balance the scales when it comes to female representation, the powers that be haven’t been as quick to act on those statements as they were to make them and then pat themselves on the back for doing so when they wanted to look good. There is still so little media that is truly targeted towards a female audience, and it’s absolutely baffling as to why. No matter the barometer by which you measure success, every single indicator backs the idea that you will not find a more fervent and dedicated fanbase anywhere.
So yes, there’s a reason Austen adaptations are always a winning bet — from our first introduction, so many women become lifelong and stalwart consumers of all things Jane. We love the world she created and the reprieve, however brief and fictitious it may be, from having to exist in an actual one that hates us.
Too many things feel terrible right now, so why not revel in a little bit of Captain Wentworth for a few hours, just as a treat? In a world that’s truly awful for women, at least we know that he’ll never disappoint. Even with all signs pointing to my probable dislike of the take on Persuasion we’re about to get, I’m still happy to see it. An adaptation that really misses the mark can still be a win for the Austen fandom, because disappointment with the movie will lead to palate cleansing rereads of the book and conversation with each other about what we’d all like to see in the next version. Because we know there’ll be one, then another five after that, and I can’t wait for all of them.
‘Persuasion’ comes to Netflix on July 15.
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Jamie Whitebread. Find her on Twitter at @jamiewhitebread.