During an overseas visit earlier this month, I was too swamped with family business to follow the news with my usual attention. This state of affairs proved curiously restful. For a week or so, I could shut out the usual drumbeat of doom: brutal warfare, polarized politics, skyrocketing inflation, controversial Jane Austen adaptations. . . .
But now I’m back, and the time for ignoring reality has passed. Yes, I’ve watched The Trailer. And no, I am not pleased.
I refer, of course, to the two-and-a-half-minute preview of Persuasion, the long-awaited adaptation that will air on Netflix beginning July 15. The trailer dropped nearly two weeks ago, and the howls of outrage have barely abated. (See, for example, here, here, and here.)
The problem, in a nutshell, is tone. Persuasion, the novel, is a quiet, melancholy book – the adjective of choice is usually “autumnal” – about two people, no longer young, who have squandered their first chance at love and are slowly finding their way back to each other. The action is internal and the satire is dark. It’s a story replete with that special loneliness that comes with being isolated and misunderstood at the very heart of family life.
Persuasion, the trailer, is altogether jauntier. Its heroine comes across as more histrionic than repressed, more irked than sad, and little effort seems to have been expended in making the gorgeous Dakota Johnson, as Anne Elliot, look like a woman who has lost the first bloom of youth. The vibe is Classic Romcom, all banter and physical comedy and knowing little asides to the audience. Whatever this is, it sure isn't the book.
So what can we expect from Persuasion, the movie? It’s always hard to draw firm conclusions from a trailer, and this one contains occasional hints – a look here, a line reading there -- of something truer to the spirit of the novel. A recent Vogue piece, brought to my attention by the indispensable Maggie Sullivan of AustenBlog, offers fodder for both optimists and pessimists: On the one hand, director Carrie Cracknell says Persuasion is “ultimately a piece about longing” (yes, exactly), but on the other, there’s much talk about Anne Elliot’s rebelliousness and biting wit, which strikes me as entirely at odds with the original.
Will it matter if this Persuasion, rather like the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice, turns out to be a Jane Austen adaptation that strays far from the sensibility of its source material? Not so much, really. I have my doubts about the claim (for instance, here) that “modernized” Austen adaptations do a service in bringing new readers to the novels – if those newbies come looking for something that isn’t there, how long will they stay? – but neither do I think that problematic adaptations do real harm. For those of us who love Persuasion just the way Jane Austen wrote it, the book will still be there long after the movie has faded to black.