Indiana Daily Student

COLUMN: Netflix’s ‘Persuasion’ and the problem with modernizing classic literature

"Persuasion" was released on Netflix on July 15.
"Persuasion" was released on Netflix on July 15.

Since the birth of cinema, film adaptations of classic novels and plays have thrived. The first “Les Misérables” film adaptation was released in 1909, and Shakespearean plays have been the source of inspiration for hundreds of filmmakers and artists across history. The same can be said for novelist Jane Austen, whose six novels about English society and the female experience in the Regency period have been adapted countless times for film, television and the stage. 

The latest Austen adaptation is Netflix’s ‘Persuasion,’ directed by Carrie Cracknell and based on the novel of the same name. The film stars Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot: a fourth-wall-breaking, borderline alcoholic woman whose world is upended when a former flame, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), reenters her life. 

To put it simply, this adaptation is a complete and utter mess. In an attempt to modernize the novel and connect with younger audiences, the beautiful, poetic language of Austen has been switched out for modern, quippy dialogue like “he’s a ten. I never trust a ten” and “I’m single and thriving.” 

All of Austen’s rich, nuanced writing about perseverance and grief is completely lost. The film is painfully unserious, turning the original story into a shallow rom-com with very few redeeming qualities. Sure, Dakota Johnson is technically fine, but she’s basically playing a version of herself. The American actress is out of place in the period setting. 

This film is unabashedly capitalizing on the success of Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” another somewhat modernized retelling of life during the Regency era. “Bridgerton” is able to successfully combine modern and period elements because the show is based on a series of books written between 2000 and 2006 by American author Julia Quinn. The source material itself is modern, so it is easier for the show to retain that feeling as well. 

“Persuasion,” one of two novels published after Austen’s death, is a product of its time. Trying to adorn it with modern phrases and a lighthearted tone feels like a misguided attempt at seeming relatable. 

The problem with that is that Austen’s writing has always been relatable.

Her novels have withstood the test of time because new audiences keep finding her stories relevant. That’s why the 2020 adaptation of “Emma.” starring Anya Taylor-Joy was so well received as Eleanor Catton, the film’s screenwriter, let Austen’s natural humor shine through.

It is certainly not impossible to modernize an Austen story. Just look at the beloved teen film “Clueless,” released in 1995. Many fans of the film may not know that it’s a loose adaptation of “Emma,” Austen’s fourth novel. “Clueless” works because they committed to modernizing the story. Rather than use '90s-style dialogue in a period setting, the film is set in current-day Beverly Hills. The characters and some of the plot points are completely different, but Austen’s charm is still present. 

This same method was used for films such as “10 Things I Hate About You,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “She’s the Man,” all of which are based on different Shakespearean plays. If Netflix was really so adamant about modernizing “Persuasion” and attracting the “Bridgerton” crowd, this approach would have been much more appropriate.

Whether you’re a Jane Austen purist or just a sucker for period romance, “Persuasion” is a film to skip. You’re definitely better off rewatching the 2005 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” for the tenth time.

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