It’s been years since I’ve used my blog to rant on anything, but today I happened to be browsing Youtube the hour that the trailer for the upcoming Persuasion movie dropped. I had my doubts about it already, but, if possible, the trailer was even worse than my fears. It doesn’t even look like an adaptation of the story at all. Parody almost seems more apt.
I could say all the reasons I’m bothered- the gimmicky breaks in the fourth wall and the “subversive-ness” that one article mentioned are just a regurgitation of that awful 1999 Mansfield Park film, and I want to sue whoever’s decision it was to have the word ex’s come out of Anne Elliot’s mouth. (Seriously…I feel like much of the trailer is salvageable except for that)
You see, that’s the real problem that I have: not the historical inaccuracy, or even the over-the-top comedic tone in one of Jane Austen’s least comedic stories. (Really, that would be an entire post itself–while there’s definite humor and satire in Persuasion, it’s also in my opinion one of Austen’s most genuine, romantic, and gentle stories, not one given to a tongue-in-cheek, flippant adaptation. A vibe like this would work much better with Northanger Abbey.)
Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot is not only beautiful, she’s witty and fun and flirtatious. She smirks. When she gets into scrapes–like spilling gravy over the top of her head–it’s in a disarming, goofy way. She’s not the forgotten, overworked, and neglected character from the book. Book Anne Elliot isn’t Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse; she’s sympathetic and likable, but she’s shyer, more wistful. And she’s still a dang good heroine.
Mentioning Mansfield Park here is all too appropriate, because Fanny Price isn’t your typical strong heroine either. And yet, Fanny is one of Austen’s strongest heroines, as far as morality goes. She refuses to budge when it comes to her convictions, which is made all the braver when you consider her natural meekness. 1999’s Mansfield Park bulldozes over that, turning Fanny into a sarcastic aspiring author with a biting wit who appears more like a fangirl’s imagined version of Austen herself. Netflix’s Persuasion–from the trailer at least–is doing the same with Anne.
What do we have against shy girls? Against girls with fierce, “old-fashioned” moral convictions that aren’t popular? Against girls who say the wrong thing, or can’t think of things to say, or who avoid the men they like (or once did) because it’s awkward? Against the girls who let themselves get pushed around and are too easily persuaded by those around them?
Today, it often appears that the only flaws allowed having as a heroine are the ones that make you too independent, too “much,” too stubborn, too rebellious, or too endearingly klutzy. And of course, over the length of the story we (and the heroine) discover these aren’t even “real” flaws at all. (How can we be too independent? We don’t need any man to save us!)
We all like to think we’re Elizabeth (although it seems her flaws are often ignored in admiration of her). But many of us–I would even argue most of us–are more like Anne, or Fanny, or Catherine, or Marianne. One of Jane Austen’s strengths is that her heroines’ personalities are so different. Completely disregarding the actual personality of a character to create some sort of quirky girl ideal or modern “strong heroine” isn’t just disrespectful to the source material, it’s disheartening to the very women whose personalities and struggles have been disregarded as not being worthy enough to display.
The fact of the matter is, I didn’t always love Persuasion, either. Anne simply wasn’t as exciting as Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse or even Catherine Moreland and Elinor Dashwood. As a teen, it was one of my least favorite Austen novels, and when I read reviews of readers saying they didn’t appreciate the book when they were younger, but do now, I rolled my eyes. That wasn’t going to happen to me, I thought. I would not change my mind so easily. And how wrong I was! Believe me, Anne’s story rings so much realer to me at 28 than it did at 16.
To be honest, the point of this post isn’t about whether this new Anne Elliot is likable or not–it’s that this is just one more instance of needlessly re-writing a story to erase a character whose strengths we don’t appreciate and whose flaws we can’t twist into quirks to emulate.
I have nothing against filmmakers who want to try making a sly, satirical Regency comedy. But I do believe that when you are adapting a novel for the screen, you should try to be as true to the themes and the characters as possible. And that’s not what I’m seeing here.
Will I watch this new Persuasion? I had been planning on it. After all, it’s been some time since we’ve had a PG level period drama offering, and while I think Jane Austen stories are over-adapted, Persuasion is one of the more neglected ones. I had hopes this one would be done right. Having seen the trailer, I doubt it, though I’m willing to be proven wrong. If I do decide to watch it, my expectations are just going to be very, very tempered.