In this transition from 2019 to 2020, Janeites have been regaled with a TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s last and incomplete novel, Sanditon (1817), directed by Andrew Davies and produced by PBS Masterpiece, and a glamorous new version of Emma (1815), directed by Autumn de Wilde and produced by Focus Films. Both are backed by major production companies, whose prowess is evinced in the quality of the production, the casts, and the costume design. Both have generated a frenzy of Tweets and a proliferation of online essays. Unlike Sanditon, which will almost certainly not see a second season, Emma has fans and critics—especially those with a penchant for period minutia—drooling, albeit not enough to displace the irreplaceable Clueless (1995). These high-powered adaptations have also ignited a debate over the perceived and, in some instances undeniable, whiteness of Austen fan culture. Most recently, in “The Battle over Jane Austen’s Whiteness,” Jasmin Malik Chua explores how even though Sanditon aspires to foreground the historical presence of black women and men in Georgian England, some pockets of Austen fan culture remain closed off, and insensitive, to the experiences of her racially and culturally diverse readers. But Rational Creatures (2019), the newest—and most exciting—adaptation of Austen’s last, complete novel, Persuasion (1817), suggests that the trouble with lack of representation in Austen adaptations might have less to do with her fans and more to do with the television and film industry. Hazel Jeffs, one of the series creators, calls Rational Creatures an “Austen inspired rom-com full of things Hollywood would never give us.” Indeed, in tune with the unconventional protagonists of Austen’s novel, Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, whose original story develops against the grain of the courtship plot, these independent filmmakers are redefining how Austen inspired series are told—and produced.
Far from being cloaked in the name of a famous director, the web series Rational Creatures was created by four young women hailing from Britain (Hazel Jeffs), Canada (Ash Barrios), and the USA (Jessamyn Leigh, Anya Steiner). Their collaboration is emblematic of Jane Austen’s literary culture, which is known for its fervent fans who make up a global community of discerning and creative readers and writers. They found each other online and from their respective locations—without ever meeting in person—they conceived the idea for a series that would ingeniously update Austen’s novel to include a cast of LGBTQ+, ethnically, racially, and culturally diverse characters, to retell Persuasion for an audience long awaiting a bold adaptation of Austen’s novel.
After raising enough funds to produce their project, they traveled to Chicago in the winter of 2019 and in three days created an impressive five-episode series which roughly covers the first volume of the novel. The season captures the always disarming wistful nostalgia of the original as it transports some of the novel’s key characters to a contemporary apartment complex, where Ana Elías (Kristina Pupo) and Fred Wentworth (Pete Giessl) unexpectedly find each other again. Ana, who is disheartened and exploited by her father, Guillermo Elías (Armando Reyes), the arrogant owner of the troubled Kellynch Travel Agency, moves in with her sister Marisol Musgrove-Elías (Gabriela Díaz) and her partner Charlie Musgrove (Leticia Julian). Charlie’s brother, Louis (Derek Quesada), is rooming with Ben Wick (Ben Mills), who, in addition to having the best name, has developed a crush on his roommate. Ben is thrust into a painful situation when Louis falls for Fred, who has moved into the apartment building at the invitation of his sister, Sophie Wentworth (Cat McKay), as he finds his way out of an eight-year writer’s block.
The web series’ ingenuity resides in how it captures the spirit of the original text through select, meaningful motifs. In the opening scene of episode one, the sound of waves crashing in the background conjures up the naval theme of Austen’s Persuasion while a listless, twenty-something Fred doodles a ship in a notebook. Exasperated by his uninspired drawing, which alludes to his lackluster writing, he crosses it out, throws the notebook, maps, and writing books into his backpack, and aimlessly leaves the undisclosed location where he resides. As the first episode unfolds, we realize that this opening scene encompasses Fred’s characterization as a once prolific travel writer, a kind of one-hit wonder, who has lost his way.
Unlike Austen’s Captain Wentworth, who is a successful naval commander upon his return to Kellynch Hall and Uppercross, Fred appears as lost as Ana, who has traded a job as her father’s underpaid assistant to return to her old one as a barista. The third episode of the season further develops the naval motif when we are thrown back to the beginning of Fred and Ana’s relationship via Ana’s personal YouTube channel, a witty self-reference to the series’ own medium. On Ana’s channel, we are made privy to the moment when she and Fred embarked on their short-lived romance: she gifts Fred a compass, an object not featured again in the first season but which we anticipate might reappear as the series develops. Back in the present, Fred is showered with Louis’ attention and seems happy to return his advances. However, as the first season closes, we are left with an eye-level shot of Ana and Fred, who meeting each other again for the first time, are lost in each other’s eyes.
The virtues of the series’ writing and editing are paired with its unassuming tone. Rational Creatures seamlessly transforms the patriarchal world of Georgian England into a contemporary, diverse, and gender non-conforming community, where viewers will feel at home. The most evident testament to the web series’ sway—and the timeliness of the project—is that, unlike the self-congratulatory PBS Masterpiece Sanditon, Rational Creatures just got itself a second season funded solely by its fans.