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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Fifty Shades of Anne

Years ago, when the Harper Collins Austen Project was announcing which contemporary authors would undertake its modernizations of Austen novels, my husband suggested that E.L. James, of Fifty Shades of Grey fame, would be the perfect choice for Mansfield Park. (Inexperienced yet clear-eyed young woman wins the heart of rakish seducer? Check. Explicit BDSM sex scenes? Um. . .)

Alas, the Austen Project fizzled out before the release of its MP update. But now it seems that the Gods of Casting have granted us a partial fulfillment of my husband’s vision: Dakota Johnson, who played the virginal Anastasia Steele in the movie trilogy based on James’ famously racy novels, will take the role of Anne Elliot in an upcoming Netflix/MRC Entertainment adaptation of Persuasion, we learned last month.

Exactly what this version will look like remains obscure: The companies describe it as a “modern, witty approach to a beloved story,” but it’s unclear whether that means that it’s an update setting Austen’s story in contemporary times – along the lines of last year’s charmless Modern Persuasion – or just a not-your-mother’s-costume-drama period piece, a la Bridgerton. (If the former, perhaps the writers can work in a product placement for Johnson’s sex-toy company. We can dream, at least.)

Whatever the plans, it seems an odd time for yet another Persuasion, given not only the aforementioned Modern Persuasion but also the well-publicized plans for a completely different period adaptation of the novel, starring Sarah Snook and Joel Fry. But hey: Back in the mid-‘90s, aka the Golden Age of Austen Adaptations, we had three Emmas in two years, all of them with their strong points and one of them (Clueless) an immortal masterpiece. So why not a couple more Persuasions? Johnson has often been better than her material -- she certainly was in the Fifty Shades movies -- and she might make an excellent Anne. (Just so long as they don't cast Jamie Dornan as her Wentworth. If those two couldn't generate any chemistry while naked and handcuffed, and they couldn't, it's hard to believe they'd fare better with petticoats and a naval uniform.)

Speaking of Emma, in a truly delightful bit of serendipitous life/art inbreeding, it appears that Johnson, our future Anne Elliot, is the longtime girlfriend of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who is, as we celebrity-watchers know, the ex-husband of actress-turned-lifestyle-entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow. Who, as we Janeites know, played Emma in one of those mid-90s adaptations.

Anne Elliot dates Emma Woodhouse’s ex! Imagine the fanfic possibilities here! After a few tiring years with the high-maintenance Emma, Mr. Knightley realized that he wanted someone more sensible and down-to-earth? Or, alternatively, Captain Wentworth tried to mend his broken heart via a liaison with the strong-willed heiress of Hartfield, before returning to his first love? Now those are movies I’d like to see.


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