As the last of Jane Austen's novels, Persuasion (published posthumously in 1817-18) is noted amongst her fans for the maturity of its protagonist and of the narrative. But sadly, this is just what is lacking in Netflix's recent adaptation of the novel. It has left fans like me fuming.
"I'm single and thriving," Dakota Johnson's Anne tells us sarcastically at the beginning of the movie that dropped on Netflix last Friday. She then flops onto her bed in desperation because her "ex" Captain Frederick Wentworth is back in town (no, I don't think they used the word ex in 1817 and yes, Netflix knows that too), and because no one seems to value her or even notice her much.
My problem with the movie isn't really the 21st-century dialogues as much as the portrayal of Anne herself and her relationships with those around her.
When the novel begins, Anne is 27 — almost middle-aged in the time the book was written, and unusual for a woman to not yet have gotten married. At this point, eight years have passed since she was urged by Lady Russell, part-friend, part-mentor, part-surrogate-mother to Anne, to end her engagement with Captain Wentworth because of his lack of prospects and connections. In the ensuing years, Anne grows up to be kind, considerate, and thoughtful, but she doesn't fall out of love with Captain Wentworth.
This act of persuasion by Lady Russell is central to the plot and to Austen's thoughts while writing this novel. It is widely believed that the story was inspired by Austen's niece asking her for advice about a suitor. The question and her own influence made Austen uncomfortable, and it is this that she tries to explore in the book.
An eye on the parents and children
The relationship between parents and children is a fascinating element in all of Austen’s work, and therefore also in most subsequent adaptations. Persuasion has two important sets of parent-child dynamics: one is between Anne and her father Walter Elliott; the other between Anne’s sister Mary and her children.
Mr. Elliott is nothing but a handsome man, interested in nothing but his own handsomeness. He is not a source of support for Anne, whether emotionally or financially. In fact, for the most part, he doesn't notice her presence at all. He's not evil, just insipid and vacuous. Without a parental figure to depend on, Anne becomes more independent in both thought and action.
His youngest daughter Mary has a similar relationship with her own children. She's too narcissistic to really care for them, says Austen. And the Netflix version shows that too — Mary is far more interested in her own life and pleasures, needing to be the centre of attention at all times, and needing time away from her children regularly. She shocks others with her disinterest in being a mother. It seems like nothing has changed for mothers since Austen wrote Mary’s character three centuries ago.
Anne and her sense of self
While the romantic plot and ending of Persuasion are, of course, obvious, it can't be read as just another love story. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the happy ending is not in the marriage of the long-separated and later-reunited lovers. Rather, it is in Anne's acceptance of herself and her ability to make her own choices.
When Captain Wentworth and Anne finally end up together, it is only after Anne has grown to be aware and capable – not complimentary adjectives for young women in the early 1800s. She begins to think for herself and is not swayed or persuaded even by the most well-meaning advice.
In fact, in the book, even before she is able to reunite with Wentworth Anne is hurt, but not bitter or mopey. And her hurt is mainly directed towards herself — for allowing herself to be persuaded away from the person she loved. Anne’s final triumph lies not just in her happily-ever-after, but in how she does not get swayed by the words and opinions of others — for example, when Mrs. Smith praises Mr. Elliot in an attempt to get Anne to marry him. It is, thus, Anne's relationship with herself that is at the core of Persuasion. And these slowly cultivated qualities are especially admirable even today, and the movie would have done well to show them.
But here is Anne, on 2022 and on Netflix, being a bumbling, distracted girl, who is moping in bed. She is not, as in the book, caring for the ill and injured or helping father with his finances. She only frequently breaks the fourth wall and passes a snarky, lazy remark or two about the people her book-version would’ve been kind and responsible towards.
I understand that in the book, most of Anne's growth into a discerning and wise woman takes place before the novel even starts – it comes alive through her introspection and this doesn't make for great movie material. Still, her maturity and understanding set her apart from other Austen heroines. To take that away from her is to do her a grave injustice.
Anne's romantic relationships
In the movie, Anne spends a lot of time looking at news clippings featuring Wentworth and going over the "playlist" of sheet music he had made for her (yes, she says playlist). We're told from the beginning that she never got over him. But Persuasion is a complex novel because Anne and Wentworth’s love story isn’t limited to one place, time, or age — it grows with them.
They are not the same people they were at 19. They have been torn apart, experienced strong passion, and seen different struggles. When they are reunited, the love is there, but it is bound to have changed, altered, developed. The Netflix version completely fails in this aspect. It is disappointing that the film could not show Anne the intelligent, capable, older woman who just happens to still be in love with her estranged fiance. These are not mutually exclusive sides to a person — not in real life, and definitely not in Austen’s novels.
Austen's works are still relevant today because of how little human nature and relationships have changed in the 300 years since she lived. There is just so much to learn from her books and the minutiae of human bonds that she shows in them. These are details and deliberations that OTT and films would be better off sticking with, especially given the algorithm-influenced, insipid, and templatised romances and romantic comedies that they keep churning out.
Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships. She is based in Mumbai, and posts as @weepli on Instagram and Twitter