Persuasion modernizes Jane Austen for a new generation — but does it lack sense and sensibility?

Netflix's Persuasion has been criticized for modernizing a classic. So how does one adapt Jane Austen in 2022? CBC News spoke with writers and scholars — all superfans of the 19th-century novelist — who said maintaining the author's spirit onscreen goes far beyond setting or style.

Netflix adaptation of author's 1817 novel peppers dialogue with present-day terms

Modernized adaptation of Jane Austen classic draws mixed reviews

1 year ago
Duration 1:57
Featured VideoFans of Jane Austen are expressing skepticism over a new Netflix adaptation of her classic novel Persuasion, citing the film's modern language and fourth-wall breaks. Some viewers, however, say the film is more accessible for today's audiences.

Like the dreamy yearnings of a Jane Austen heroine, Dakota Johnson has always wanted to act in a period film set in the English countryside. So the actress — known best for her lead role in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy — jumped at the chance to star as Anne Elliot in Netflix's adaptation of Persuasion, Austen's final novel.

"When I read the script for Persuasion, the modernized language, the modern take, breaking the fourth wall was so much fun to read," Johnson told CBC News. "It made me feel like as a viewer, as an audience member ... it was accessible to me."

Not everyone feels the same, as Johnson readily acknowledges: Fans have criticized the film adaptation for using modern expressions, slang and tone, all while being set in the early 19th century.

"I am still in disbelief over what a trainwreck it was," wrote one online reviewer. "I'm not sure what it is, but it isn't Austen," said another. Critics from Vanity Fair, the New York Times and Slate have all echoed the same sentiment: It's Persuasion for the Instagram era, and it's not very good.

So how does one adapt Jane Austen for a modern audience? CBC News spoke with writers and scholars — all Austen superfans — who said maintaining the author's spirit onscreen goes far beyond setting or style.

No need to modernize Austen's prose: scholar

Persuasion, like the other five of Austen's complete novels, is set during the Regency period — a short era in early 19th-century British history often romanticized for artistic, social and cultural movements, especially among the English aristocratic class.

Heroine Anne Elliot, heartbroken and bored seven years after her family persuaded her to end her relationship with Capt. Frederick Wentworth — deemed unsuitable for his lack of status — has met him again by chance.

Jane Austen is shown in a portrait by British painter Ozias Humphry (1742-1810), displayed on April 16, 2007, at Christie's auction house in New York. Her six completed novels were set during the Regency period — a short era in early 19th-century British history often romanticized for artistic, social and cultural movements, especially among the English aristocratic class. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

In the 2022 adaptation, Persuasion's plot points and setting in Bath, England, remain, but Johnson's Anne speaks to her modern audience by breaking the fourth wall and peppering her dialogue with present-day lingo.

"Now we're worse than strangers. We're exes," Anne laments of Wentworth. When she feels sad, she pulls out a box of keepsakes that remind her of him, such as a stack of sheet music he left for her, which she calls a "playlist."

These contemporary quirks aren't limited to the protagonist. The Elliot family discuss their ratings of attractive men: "a five in London" is the equivalent to "a 10 in Bath." Anne describes her younger sister, Mary, as a "total narcissist" — and Mary describes herself as an "empath."

Canadian academic Robert Morrison is an Austen scholar. (W.W. Norton, Bernard Clark)

It's in this spirit that the film presents Jane Austen to a new audience, but the writer doesn't need to be simplified in order for younger generations to appreciate her, said Robert Morrison, an Austen scholar and British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University in England.

"The argument would be, 'Well, look, we want to make her modern. We want to make sure contemporary readers understand her. We want to make sure that this movie that we put a lot of time and money into can be understood,'" said Morrison, a Canadian academic and writer who's also the Queen's National Scholar at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"But Austen is not Shakespeare; I don't think that it's that inaccessible."

From left: Lydia Rose Bewley as Penelope Clay; Richard E. Grant as Sir Walter Elliot; Johnson as Anne Elliot; and Yolanda Kettle as Elizabeth Elliot are shown in a scene from Netflix's Persuasion. (Nick Wall/Netflix)

In Austen's 1813 classic Pride and Prejudice, the male romantic interest, Mr. Darcy, tells Elizabeth Bennett that he can no longer stay away from her: "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed," he says.

"Everybody knows what 'In vain have I struggled' means," Morrison said. "I don't know that you need to change that to, 'Boy, I've had a hard time getting over you.'"

Long record of screen adaptations

Austen's works are no stranger to onscreen treatment: They have been adapted for film and television since 1938, according to the Jane Austen Society of North America. For every traditional adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1995), Pride and Prejudice (1995 and 2005) and Emma (2020), there's a modernized retelling of the same story.

Case in point: The 1990s teen comedy Clueless shares Emma's plot and character arcs but is memorably set at a modern Beverly Hills high school. Bridget Jones's Diary, from a 1996 novel of the same name, is Pride and Prejudice in modern-day London. Love & Friendship is a 2016 vivacious comedy based on Austen's posthumous epistolary novel, Lady Susan.

From left: Brittany Murphy, Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash are shown during production of the 1995 movie Clueless. The teen comedy shares plot and character arcs with Austen's novel Emma but is memorably set at a modern Beverly Hills high school. (Elliot Marks/Paramount Pictures/The Associated Press)

Even a 2013 YouTube series inspired by Pride and Prejudice, called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, was a hit for its vlog-style take on the novel's beloved heroine. Its pilot episode has racked up more than three million views on the platform.

Netflix's Persuasion is caught between these two treatments, combining elements of a straightforward adaptation with modernized revision. But it's not the first Austen adaptation to be sourly reviewed: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the 2016 film based on an earlier parody novel, was a critical and box office failure.

Canadian author Natalie Jenner, who wrote the 2020 novel The Jane Austen Society, says she turned to Austen's works for comfort during a challenging time in her life. That was the inspiration for her book, which follows a group who bond over their shared love of the author during the 1940s postwar period.

"I think we all just want more," Jenner said, noting that Austen, who died on July 18, 1817, when she was 41, published only a small canon. "We want more of those characters that we have grown to love. And I know that many of us are very happy to see different interpretations of it."

Natalie Jenner, of Oakville, Ont., who wrote the 2020 novel The Jane Austen Society, says she turned to Austen's works for comfort during a challenging time in her life. (Sarah Sims)

Jenner, of Oakville, Ont., points to Clueless as her favourite interpretation: The characters from Austen's book are all there, behaving as they did in the novel, but they live during the present day and speak using modern language, she said.

"I think what people who are more purists or classicists are asking for is to just try your best to maintain the integrity of the plot and the characters that we have grown to love," Jenner explained. "But everything else around them can be made very different."

Something old, something new

Persuasion comes after the success of Netflix's Bridgerton, a two-season hit based on a series of novels by American author Julia Quinn that became a pop culture darling for its steamy take on Regency-era courtship. One of the show's enduring appeals is its soundtrack: classical covers of 2000s pop songs.

That something-old-and-something-new format has clicked with audiences. Like Bridgerton and the recent Regency romance Mr. Malcolm's ListPersuasion — which casts Henry Golding as William Elliot and Nikki Amuka-Bird as Lady Russell — offers a diverse reimagining of British aristocracy, casting people of colour as landed gentry and royalty alike.

Henry Golding plays William Elliot in Persuasion. Like Bridgerton and Mr. Malcolm's List, Persuasion casts people of colour as landed gentry and royalty alike. (Nick Wall/Netflix)

Nikki Payne, Washington, D.C.-based author of Pride and Protest, says that modernized adaptations willing to bend historical accuracy allow audiences who are normally excluded from the historical romance genre to see themselves.

Payne's book follows a young DJ who tries to save her neighbourhood from the property developer gentrifying it. Like Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, Payne's characters — who are Black and Filipino — fall in love instead.

"Who does the past belong to, right? What types of spaces are brown bodies, Black bodies, Asian bodies [allowed to inhabit]? What type of mental picture do you get when you think of a woman of leisure, when you think of a Jane Austen heroine?" Payne asked.

"I would be upset at any Austen adaptation that was not tongue-in-cheek about the time in which we live today," she said. "Because that's the thing that's the most Austen."

Nikki Amuka-Bird, left, as Lady Russell is shown with Johnson in Persuasion. (Nick Wall/Netflix)

Bath Spa University's Morrison, who edited an annotated edition of Persuasion, said there is an elegance and precision to Austen's prose — and that changing even a line could upset the author's delicate balance.

"I'm speaking as an Austen scholar, but also as somebody who believes that her novels speak very loudly and clearly to this generation without alteration," he said.

Discussing the challenges of updating Persuasion for a new audience, Dakota Johnson said she wouldn't expect a modernized adaptation to be well received across the board.

WATCH | Dakota Johnson on how contemporary women can relate to Anne Elliot: 

Dakota Johnson loved Persuasion’s modern twist

1 year ago
Duration 2:10
Featured VideoThe actress told CBC News about her starring role as Anne Elliot in Netflix’s Persuasion and why contemporary women can relate to a 19th century Austen character.

"I think it varies. I think some people really don't like that, and I think some people really do," she said. "I think it makes it feel fresh; it makes it feel less wrong."

It seems only fair to give Austen the last word. As she writes in Persuasion: "One man's ways may be as good as another's, but we all like our own best."


Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment and education teams and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

With files from Lisa Xing and Laura Thompson