Why is it so difficult to adapt Jane Austen? The fans play a role.


Few authors (leaving aside Shakespeare, always a special case) have seen their works reinvented as frequently or as generously as Jane Austen. On stage, screen and in books, his novels have been transformed into slapstick farces, fantasy mash-ups, Bollywood extravaganzas and saucy romantic comedies. They’ve been transported to, among other places, Cincinnati, Delhi, Fire Island, Los Angeles, modern-day London, and, in the case of the “Pride and Prejudice”-inspired vampire novel “Twilight,” the sleepy town of Forks, Wash.

So why is the most recent adaptation – Carrie Cracknell’s spicy version of “Persuasion,” now streaming on Netflix – sent so many viewers to their couches passed out, heaving high dudgeon? What prompted Dana Stevens of Slate magazine, for example, to call the movie “not only Austen’s worst adaptation, but one of the worst movies in recent memory”? Or Philippa Snow, referencing in a New Republic review of modern heroin consumption habits, pull that the film seemed to be set “not just in the early 19th century but in wine time?”

The answer lies in the expectations that Austen’s fans, a particularly passionate and opinionated crowd, bring to her work. The problem isn’t that Cracknell’s version takes liberties — every iteration does; that’s pretty much the point – but what kind of freedoms are these.

“Persuasion” is the least flashy of Austen’s six great novels. The last of his completed books, published in 1818, it is calmer and more introspective than its more popular siblings, although many Austenites claim it as their favourite. Anne Elliot, her 27-year-old heroine, spends much of her time lost in thought, wracked with regret and seemingly reconciled playing a supporting role in the lives of others rather than being the heroine of her own. story.

But the moment the teaser for “Persuasion” was published, Austen purists rose up in collective outrage. There was Anne, who was no longer reserved, thoughtful and suffering alone, but performing self-pity, speaking directly to the camera à la “Fleabag” and making asides about her loved ones. At one point, speaking of Captain Wentworth, the man she still loves after foolishly rejecting him years earlier, she observes anachronistically that “now we’re worse than exes – we’re friends”.

The release of the film confirmed the reluctance of fans. The feeling seemed to be that while quirky period pieces featuring fiery, sassy, ​​and emotionally operative heroines are OK for “Bridgerton” and “Dickinson,” two recent streaming series, they’re not OK for Jane Austen.

In Harper’s Bazaar, Chelsey Sanchez wrote that the characters seemed “unrecognizable from their origins”.

“Would Anne Elliot make sarcastic, girlboss jokes to a discerning audience?” she wrote. “Would we even want her to?” When we lose the beauty of subtext – Austen’s greatest storytelling strength – what exactly do we gain? »

Austen’s best adaptations are both true to the spirit of the original – the basic plot, the way the characters interact with each other and in society – and confident in the world in which they are set, even though this world is a bunch of gay men looking for love and dating in the current isle of fire, in the Hulu movie of this name.

by Amy Heckerling “Careless” (1995), which transposed “Emma” to a status-conscious high school in 1990s Beverly Hills, succeeded because it reflected a deliciously Austenian understanding of the most piquant social gradation. Gifted with a delightfully modern name — Dear Horowitz in place of Emma Woodhouse — Alicia Silverstone deftly channeled the authoritative self-esteem of the original character, the way her height detracted from her charm, and her ability to admit and atone for his faults.

Likewise, Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Ang Lee’s “Sense and sensitivity” (1995) gave the book a feminist slant – highlighting the injustices of primogeniture and describing the difficulty of being a single woman with an uncertain financial future – while remaining true to the emotional truths and romantic possibilities of the original.

And Wilde’s fall is very stylized “Emma” (2020) was choreographed almost like Kabuki theater — with a bold, witty color palette, surprisingly quirky costumes, and heightened elements of farce and erotic desire — but featuring recognizable characters behaving the way they were meant to.

Authors and playwrights who have struggled with Austen say the challenge of adaptation is to stay within the contours of her worldview while being clear about what stands to gain.

“You have to know the rules to break them, and you have to be clear about the rules in your job,” the actor and playwright said. Kate Hamill, whose Austen adaptations for the stage include a riotous “Sense and Sensibility” with a chattering chorus of incisive actors. “It has to work both for people who love the original book and for people who have no relationship to it.”

The British author Gill Hornbywho wrote two novels – “Miss Austen” and the new “Godmersham Park” – which features Jane Austen herself, said she has a high tolerance for whimsical adaptations, with some caveats.

“My gut view is that anything can work, as long as the characters are preserved and the core moral issues — Snobbery Is Revolting, Gossip Is Harmful, Nobody Likes a Bighead — are seriously addressed,” she said per E-mail.

She also said that the language of adaptation should adapt to its environment. One of the most shocking aspects of the new “Persuasion” is how it lays modern colloquialisms into what bills itself as a classic period drama, with its Regency sets and costumes. (“Dickinson”, Wild Fever Dream on AppleTV+ which reimagined a sort of alternative life for poet Emily Dickinson, could get away with anachronisms because they were built into the business to begin with; it was clearly no 19th century American family that any of us had not been exposed to before.)

It’s very strange to hear a character from “Persuasion” make a sarcastic geographical point by announcing that “if you’re a five in London, you’re a 10 in Bath”.

“You can’t ride through the waves,” Hornby said. “If you keep the period dress, then you have to keep the language. That’s not to say it should be textual, or exactly Austenian in style. Obviously, the realism of the screen must be taken into account, compared to the literary demands of the page. There is a middle way – credible and accessible translation.

Perhaps even more shockingly, the new adaptation dispenses with the novel’s long, slow burn, undermining its own melancholic tone and hampering Austen’s careful pacing by allowing her characters to reveal their feelings and motives far too soon. “By weaving a comedic narrative out of a tragic one, the film undermines Austen’s purpose”, Emmeline Clein wrote on LitHub. “I think she wanted us to cry, not laugh.”

Of course, no Austen adaptation will ever satisfy the most rigorous fans. There were even objections to perhaps the best scene in the BBC’s six-part ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1995, a peak year for adaptations): when Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth), emerges from a swim in the lake, his wet shirt clinging seductively to his hunky chest.

Hamill, who has adapted classic works by other authors for the stage, said that in response to one of her plays, she once received an email from an Austen fan that began “Dear Mrs. Hamill: How could you?”

“I haven’t had any Bram Stoker or Homer or Hawthorne fans knocking on my door,” she said. “Jane Austen fans are remarkably passionate.”


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