By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 16 2020 02:00PM
Over at the CW, someone has had a startlingly original idea: How about – get this! – modern-day updates of Jane Austen’s novels?
OMG! Whoever imagined such a thing? My mind is blown!
To be fair, although permutations of this concept have appeared in print roughly seven hundred billion times, and often enough in the movies as well, Austen updates are relatively thin on the ground in TV Land. (Except insofar as every Enemies to Lovers romcom is a version of Pride and Prejudice.)
The new project, Modern Austen, will be “a one-hour anthology series that reimagines Austen’s beloved novels as six modern stories, offering a kaleidoscopic look at love and family in our time of inequality and disconnection,” Deadline reported last week. “Each season is a different novel, beginning with Pride and Prejudice, set in contemporary San Francisco.”
The people behind the effort are known for their engagement with issues of race, class, and gender. The writer, Eleanor Burgess, is the author of an interesting play called The Niceties, which explores the conflict between a young Black student and her white college professor. Co-producer Stephanie Allain heads a company “dedicated to creating content by and about women and people of color.”
If the aim is to take a fresh, playful look at Austen’s stories and to examine how the social mores of her time translate -- or don't -- to our own multicultural world, then I’m all for it. The Austen fan community has recently begun a belated engagement with issues of race and privilege, and, if done well, Modern Austen could be an interesting contribution to the conversation.
Still, I’m skeptical that this series will ever come to fruition in its entirety. (See under: Austen Project.) If I’m correctly understanding the plan, each season is to consist of a multi-episode adaptation of a single Austen novel. Take it from me: The Mansfield Park season will never happen, and I wouldn’t bank on the Northanger Abbey or Persuasion seasons, either.
There’s a reason that certain Austen novels are less frequently updated than others: the social, economic, and gender assumptions undergirding their plots make less sense in a contemporary context. Jettison the problematic plot points and you risk losing the Austen fans; keep the plots intact and you risk losing everyone else.
An exceedingly familiar, widely beloved prototype like Pride and Prejudice comes with a built-in audience; absent that lure, I suspect the series will have trouble attracting enough viewers to sustain a six-year commitment. (See under: Sanditon.)
But who knows? If the forthcoming film Modern Persuasion, now slated for a December 18 virtual release, is a surprise hit, perhaps we'll be in for a reprise of the mid-1990s flood of Austen adaptations. In any event, whatever happens, you know I'll be watching Modern Persuasion and anything the CW sends my way: I’m a sucker for all things Austen. Hey, I watched Unleashing Mr. Darcy.