Pride and Prejudice isn’t just Jane Austen’s most famous and popular novel. Of all her stories, it’s also the best suited to modern-dress adaptations, whether for page or screen.*
In my not-so-humble opinion, that’s because the plots of Austen’s other novels rely far more on cultural assumptions that have shifted radically. Why can’t Edward Ferrars break his engagement to Lucy Steele without dishonor? Why does Fanny Price object to amateur theatricals? What’s so scandalous about the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax?
It’s not that it’s impossible to update the crucial plot points of other Austen novels in ways that make sense in a world of greater sexual freedom, altered gendered roles, modern economic arrangements, and less exacting views of morality and obligation. But it’s difficult. It takes a degree of thoughtfulness and care that not every fanfic writer or screenwriter is prepared to apply.
Thus my. . . concern about the recent announcement of plans for A Modern Persuasion, a new indie film that purports to update Austen’s last completed novel to the world of corporate publicity in New York.
Our heroine, to be played by Alicia Witt, is “a happily single and self-confessed workaholic who, after steadfastly rising to the top of the ladder. . . finds herself coming home every night to her cat,” according to Deadline Hollywood. Then her ex hires her company, and she must deal with her broken heart while learning and growing and all that jazz.
Yeah, I agree with you: So far, I’m not feeling a lot of Persuasion here, except for the old-flames-meet-again situation, which is hardly exclusive to Jane Austen. And there might be a reason for that lack of Persuasion-y flavor: The central issue in Austen’s plot – Anne Elliot’s decision, years earlier, to allow herself to be talked out of marrying the man she loved – is extraordinarily difficult to update to the modern world.
Lady Russell’s fears about Anne’s early marriage to a man with uncertain prospects make perfect sense for her time. They make virtually no sense in a world in which young women can get jobs of their own, count on reliable birth control, and collect life insurance and Social Security payouts on husbands who die while pursuing risky professions.
In a world like that, an Anne Elliot who caves in to Lady Russell-style persuasion comes across as either a snob or a doormat, and Austen’s Anne is neither of those. You can write the character that way for updating purposes, of course, but then you have to work harder to make her sympathetic and her regrets believable. The Persuasion updates I’ve read – off-hand, I can only think of perhaps half a dozen, compared to groaning shelves of P&P updadtes -- address this issue with mixed success.
So color me skeptical about the likely success of A Modern Persuasion. Not that my skepticism will keep me from buying a ticket, of course.
* Which isn’t to say that all those adaptations are top-notch. No, indeed. See under Unleashing Mr. Darcy.