Following Katherine Voyles’ insightful essay about why nobody can seem to agree on what the 2022 adaptation of Persuasion is supposed to do, this essay explores another question: why do we all keep watching Austen film adaptations, even when we don’t like them? The first filmed Austen adaptation was released in 1938, with a television movie of Pride and Prejudice, and it seems we haven’t stopped watching Austen since. There is a huge variety in what Austen adaptations look like, although each decade seems to hold onto a unique idea of Austen. Carrie Wittmer of Vulture offers a chronology of Austen adaptations, where she traces the themes explored in different eras. To Wittmer, the 2020s are bringing Austen back into the cinema, a comeback that is taking us away from the superheroes and romcoms of the 2010s. As Voyles demonstrates, the intense criticism of the film is in part due to how we are all looking to get something out of Austen adaptations. It seems that viewers of Austen adaptations side with Mary Musgrove (Mia McKenna-Bruce): “You assume just because I hate something I don’t want to do it?” (Persuasion, 2022). Mary is willing to endure a long walk even if it pains her for the sake of not being left out. I disagree with Mary’s approach.
I watched the new Persuasion with an open mind. But I am not going to do something that I hate or watch an adaptation that does not work more than once. To be completely transparent, I prefer an adaptation that has more consistency between the novel and the film, but I’m open to experimentation. However, although this adaptation experiments with some promising strategies, the execution is inconsistent. For instance, I was struck by Anne Elliot’s (Dakota Johnson) narration and the use of contemporary dialogue. In this review I reflect on how these elements of breaking the fourth wall and inconsistent use of dialogue support some of the critiques and how a familiarity with the source material can challenge the popularity of an adaptation. In the end, I came to understand that these two elements exemplify what detracts viewers like me from enjoying Cracknell’s adaption: it does not experiment intentionally or through historically sourced material, as evidenced through the contemporary language and references to popular media.
The film opens with a title card stating that it is “based on” Austen’s novel (Persuasion, 2022). I was struck by the choice of the phrase ‘based on’, rather than ‘adapted from.’ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adapted means “to alter (a literary work) to make it suitable for filming, broadcasting, or production on the stage” (OED, 5), whereas ‘based on’ implies that the film is using Persuasion (1817) as a jumping off point, rather than creating what viewers might see as a ‘faithful’ representation of the text. While each viewer would naturally have their own understanding, or expectation, of what a faithful film adaptation of Persuasion would look like, the choice of the phrase ‘based on’ indicates that the filmmakers were not engaging in what many Austen fans would consider a reliable adaptation. The concept of ‘based on’ is echoed throughout the film’s attempt to craft a narrative that engages with modern audiences. The ‘based on’ quality of Persuasion announces that it will not be a historically sourced film. This does not necessarily mean its experimentation will fail, but because it is not ‘adapted from’ it will follow that the director and writers will take more liberties. Even a ‘based on’ film could do meaningful work if it is historically conscientious, but Persuasion did not go that route.
One of the many references to popular media throughout the film is the style of Anne Elliot’s narration. Hallmarks of this film are Anne Elliot’s constant glances and narrative asides to the audience/camera. We have seen this narrative strategy in everything from The Office (2001-2003), Modern Family (2009-2020), and Fleabag (2016-2019), to name just a few examples. In Persuasion this narration serves several purposes. First, it acts as a guide for viewers who may not have read the novel, or who are less familiar with the plot. For instance, Anne’s narration also acts as a replacement for Austen’s free indirect style of narration that is inaccessible in the medium of the film. However, the breaking of the fourth wall in Persuasion is not wholly consistent. My concern is not that Cracknell included the breaking of the fourth wall, but that the execution of this gesture does not further the plot. As an audience member I was left with the question: who can see and hear Anne’s narration and is it consistent?
The audience can, but it seemed that although intended to be a private moment between Anne and the audience, sometimes other characters could access this communication. In one scene, Anne is decrying Captain Wentworth’s (Cosmo Jarvis) behavior after a ball at the Uppercross Great House and exclaims “Love me you idiot! Love me or kill me now! I can’t bear it!”. Mary overhears her, and Anne explains it away as a Shakespeare recitation. This shows that Mary is oblivious, but it also complicates the role of Anne’s private conversations with the audience. The scene highlights how the breaking of the fourth wall in Persuasion is merely a gesture. To contrast this, in Fleabag, the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) is the only one who can hear Fleabag’s (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) asides. This is meaningful because that’s when we know he can really hear her and understand her, something that is not apparent when Mary hears Anne’s narration. These inconsistencies are compounded by the language Anne uses in her conversations with the audience which is where the film most emphatically disconnects from the novel.
While modern phrases abound in the film, they are particularly evident in Anne’s narration to the audience. Together, narration and language create an unbridgeable gap between the novel and the film. The most striking example of this is Anne’s account of how she has been, first, keeping track of Wentworth’s whereabouts, and second, showing off her mementoes of their earlier courtship. She shows a “playlist,” a collection of sheet music he had given her eight years ago. This wording, and the physical memento, are out of time because the term “playlist” used to refer to “a list of songs or pieces of music to be played” was not popularized until 1962 (OED). Anne Elliot would have no reason to call a collection of sheet music a playlist, and I think it does a disservice to the audience to assume that it must be put in contemporary terms for them to understand. This is not the only example of contemporary language pervading the film. Later, there is a scene where Anne tells Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird) that, while she finds Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding) attractive, she doubts she could pursue him. When asked why not, Anne replies with the fact that she “never trusts a ten.” (Persuasion 2022). While common phrasing now, the idea of numbering people by attractiveness is a relatively new concept. We have always been obsessed with beauty, but it has not always been numbered on a scale of 1-10. In the interest of a quick laugh from the audience, the film misses the opportunity to make jokes that more meaningfully connect the past and the present.
In short, watching Persuasion (2022) has reminded me that the more familiar I am with a source material, the more reason I argue with an adaptation. I am not suggesting that an adaptation has to be faithful to the source material. Rather, if it is going to experiment with the original material, I expect the creators to be intentional, historically informed, and meaningful in their efforts. The use of contemporary language in this adaptation came across as pandering to the audience, and while I don’t mind the language on its own, it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Both the breaking of the fourth wall and the contemporary language are poorly executed and superficial. This film reminded me of the importance of distinguishing between an adaptation vs a film that is ‘based’ on source material. In the case of Persuasion, the choice to base it on the novel led to a film that failed to connect the present to the past in a meaningful way. What do you look for in your Austen adaptation? For me, an adaptation succeeds when it is faithful to the novel while experimenting intentionally and through historically sourced material. I won’t be taking Mary Musgrove’s advice and watching this adaptation over and over again.
Cracknell, Carrie. Persuasion. Netflix, 2022.
Wittmer, Carrie. “A Timeline Of The Jane Austen Adaptation”. Vulture, 2022, https://www.vulture.com/2022/07/jane-austen-adaptations-timeline.html