Perturbation

Love stories with a happy end follow more or less four/five main patterns. There are the fireworks of first sight love but also its reverse,  that is,  first sight hate,  in other words,  that kind of dislike that  grows into you and makes you forge a series of unmotivated prejudices on the object of your aversion only to discover  that aversion was actually love and you end up with the ring on your finger( Mr Run and I have been masters of this scheme). Then there are those who after  having been friend for long realize that that innocent feeling has actually turned into something more involving and completely new, or those who have lost, for some reasons, what they believed to be the love of their life and  fate gives them a second chance with the same person or another one. Think about it, these are the main patterns of the love stories  we enjoy reading, but what makes us prefer a novel to another with a similar storyline? What makes the difference? My answer is: nuances.  The ability of an author to understand and depict the nuances of characters thus showing with craft  their contradictions, weaknesses, depths, hopes and, of course, the accuracy of the context they are made interact in makes a huge difference. The multiple colours of those nuances are so marvellous that hook the readers’ minds forever. This is what  has made me, like many others, become  a “vestal “of Jane Austen and this is why I cannot stand  the way screen adaptations keep making havoc of those fine colours only to  produce dull grey  versions unworthy of such writer.

The peak in matter of screen adaptation quality for what concerns Jane Austen’s works was reached in 1995 with the release of iconic BBC Pride and Prejudice with the unforgettable couple Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle  and the movie Persuasion with a super manly Ciarán Hind and a convincing Amanda Root. After that I have observed a slow and inexorable decline,  which has coincided with the first attempts to give a modern take to old Jane. I have nothing against modern interpretations of old classics, but  there should be a reason,  a message to convey, something that should  justify the necessity  of overturning what to my eyes represents perfection. Tell me, what is the point of transforming Mr Darcy into a sort of Heathcliff in 2005 successful version of Pride and Prejudice with Matthew Mc Fadyen  and Keira Knightley?  What does that walk on the moors at daybreak add to the story and why is Elizabeth awake at six o’clock in the morning? This choice has a great impact, I admit it, but it is so pointless and in a way overlooks Darcy’s  true self-controlled nature who would have never showed up in such a state , no matter how overwhelming his passion for his Lizzie might be.  And  talking about workout, why did Sally Hawking,  who acted as Anne Elliot in 2007 version of  Persuasion, have to run up and down Bath in search  of her Captain Wentworth? I guess they must have taken into consideration the ratio: 10 minutes run and 1 minute kiss. The director, in fact, thought it was a fabulous idea  to make the camera dwell on the two reunited lovers’ lips, when they were on the point of touching, for an endless embarrassing minute. Well, an entire minute is not romantic, it is just unbearably long!  Yet, these versions were, as Mr Darcy would say ,“tolerable”.

Nothing remarkable will I remember about 2020 Emma but the unnecessary scene when Anya-Taylor pulls up  her gown to warm up her butt by a fireplace. The cast was  wrong and  Mr Knightley too young. While watching the movie I couldn’t help but wonder: “have they read the book”? But in the case of the recent release of Persuasion on Netflix of one thing I am sure, if they have read the book – which I doubt, unless they got the abridged version – they have not understood it.

Anne Elliot is the most reserved  amongst Jane Austen’s heroines. Intelligent and endowed with  common sense,  a unique case in her family. At the age of 27 she is a spinster who  lives confined to the edge of society.  8 years before, Anne was persuaded  to refuse Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage as he was not her station or rich enough and she regrets it.  After all this time Captain Wentworth returns a wealthy man and has in mind a mild revenge,  but he can’t perform it as he is still in love with her. Persuasion is, actually, a delicate story of second chances rich in tension as the two step by step discover they still have feelings for each other. It is built up in a sort of crescendo, whose climax is the Captain’s famous passionate letter: “I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever………”Can you hear the sighs at this point?

Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot is nothing of the kind. She is playful, outspoken and speaks wryly to the camera. She is used to drinking straight from the bottle, speaks loudly  and her behaviour is often inappropriate, in short, this Anne Elliot is somebody I don’t know. This “Fleabag” style of narration has nothing to do not only with the character itself but also with the conventions typical of Regency time. Deprived of all her nuances I found myself unable to find this modern Anne interesting and be involved in the story. Much of the fault lies on this new Captain Wentworth too. The chemistry between Cosmo Jarvis and Dakota Johnson, in fact,  is of that degree possible between a fennel and a potato – I can’t say who was the potato and who the fennel, but I hope I gave you an idea – . The acting was so poor that it was possible to detect a  certain inconsistency sometimes between words and body language,  that lack of empathy I normally see in my students when I give them lines they don’t fully understand. 

None of the side characters has been fully developed. They have been reduced to the role of puppets who seem to have lost their function in Austen’s original framework , that is,  revealing Anne’s character and growth when they interact with her. Anne’s friend in Bath has been cut off from the movie, for example. Very likely they have not understood that the very moment Anne rebels her father refusing to visit their aristocrat relations to visit her poor and sick friend is the sign of her change, an important development in her character. She won’t be any longer persuaded by anybody and that episode marks this growth in self-awareness. Lady Russel, who should be like a mother to Anne and is responsible for having persuaded her to break up with Captain Wentworth , never shows a sign of  real empathy. As I said, a puppet.

Adding confusion to confusion, it has become now customary to see white characters played by black actors on movies, and this Persuasion winks at Bridgerton on this matter. I really can’t understand what is the point of depicting the society of the past  as perfectly integrated, it is not only a historical distortion but  it does not help raise the issue of ethnicity at all.  Do we really think we can make amend for racial  discrimination of the past (and present) giving white roles to black actors. Is it so easy, Shonda?

If this the best it can be done in adapting Jane Austen’s masterpieces, I would suggest to give a break and turn all the efforts to future seasons of Bridgerton and similes. There is no need of further profanations.

14 thoughts on “Perturbation

  1. There was an adaptation of Mansfield Park which turned Fanny into a confident, lively feminist! If you want to make a film about a confident, lively, Georgian feminist, fine, but don’t hang it on a Jane Austen work.

  2. Ha! Well said.
    There is something about modern remakes that just scream brainwashing. It’s kind of like the preaching you might find in young adult fiction where the story is coming along just fine when, for no reason at all, they suddenly point out that the main character has selected reusable grocery bags because she’s a good person and cares about climate change! I almost prefer this over the more adult version of movie remakes because they leave me aware of the brainwashing, aware of the the messaging, but for the life of me I can seldom figure out what the heck the messaging is supposed to be about!

    • Your right. Yet, I have nothing against modern takes , but if you completely change the main characters’ personalities, words etc, don’t call it – like in this case – Persuasion, give some other title and everyone is happy. I would have had no expectations and I might have even enjoyed it. That is all. 😉

  3. I enjoyed reading this. Mind you, as someone not keen on the whole Austen thing, I have no skin in the game, but I concur with the broad application of the argument.

    I’ve never liked “creative” adaptations of materials I was familiar with (but then, I’m typically not the target audience of adaptations).

    I also think we’re seeing the pressure to make money trump the passion to make movies. They have to produce something to stay in business, and the easiest way is to tap into something that’s succeeded before. The problem is they often do so without the understanding of why something was successful before. It’s like if they think they can just use the name (for example, the movie “I, Robot”) and slap it on something new.

    On the other hand, why even make a new adaptation if it would be the same as what’s already out there? The argument I hear is that they’re trying to bring the classics to a new audience, and if that’s true, the existing audience won’t like what’s offered, think it inferior, and perhaps even view it as an insult to the original material and, by extension, to its fans.

    One aside . . . the 1995 version of P&P was a miniseries; comparing it to the 2005 movie is a bit unfair because there’s limited time in a movie to develop the characters or, for that matter, to include everything (comparing a short story to a novel). Not to make excuses about a movie I didn’t watch, but I thought the movie did fairly well, so it must have struck a chord with some part of the audience.

    My expectations for movies based on books I’d read were only met once, and perhaps even exceeded, but in that case, the people making the movie were both passionate about the project and huge fans of the source material. I thought the changes and omissions actually improved the flow of the story, or, at least, didn’t interfere with it. I’m not sure that’s the case for most movies.

    Not being familiar with Persuasion or Bridgerton, I can’t comment on what they got wrong, but I can say that, for example, if they remade Lord of the Rings with half or more of the major characters recast as women, I probably wouldn’t like it because I’m so familiar with the characters as depicted in the book . . . but, if I’d never read the books or seen the original movies, I might not have any problems with it.

    For the record, I thought The Hobbit adaptation was crap — and miscast — and an example of cashing in as opposed to making something true to the source material. I also can’t help but compare the Bilbo I was familiar with from the books and previous movies to the ‘new’ Bilbo as interpreted by Freeman. There was more Freeman in the character of Bilbo than Bilbo. It’s like watching John Wayne play Genghis Khan.

    BUT! . . . separate it from the source material, and then, as a movie, . . . no, it was still crap.

    • That would be Lord of the Rings.

      I have a long history of not watching movies from books I’ve read (and vice versa) because of lessons I learned back in the last century. Not a hard and fast rule, but it would take some convincing for me to relent (similarly with sequels).

      I can think of only two instances where I didn’t follow the rule and was pleasantly surprised; Lord of the Rings (read the books first, watched the movies after) and The Dresden Files (watched the TV series first, then discovered the books … which were way better than the series (which I also liked when I watched it)).

      That’s the other thing with these adaptations . . . if someone who’s not familiar with the material watches the movie versions of classics, do you think it will move them to read the books?

      And, if they read the books after watching (and liking) the movie, do you think the majority would prefer the book?

      The last book I tried to read based on a movie was Reacher . . . and I didn’t get past the first few chapters. That had nothing to do with expectations, however . . . I didn’t like the writing.

  4. Hah! “The fennel and the potato” made me laugh and provides me with an alternative to the more commonplace “chalk and cheese” comparison.

    I essentially agree with you. And there’s something to be said about not having period dramas because they nearly always fall short in terms of authenticity and fidelity to their source material. Better to read the original and do a bit of historical research into period manners and social mores.

    But, but, but … I did sit down to watch the latest Persuasion drama forewarned and prepared not to be, er, persuaded. I’d heard all the criticisms of the hollowing out of Austen’s subtlety of speech, the Bridgerton-like colour-blind casting, and the preponderance of Fleabag glances breaking the fourth wall. And yes, I wasn’t convinced of the actual romance between the leads. Now come the buts.

    Just as I enjoyed modern takes on Shakespeare (Romeo+Juliet and Ten Things I Hate About You) and Austen (“Clueless” and “Bridget Jones”) I see this version in the same light. Yes, a dumbing down probably, and banale possibly, but I have to admit I enjoyed it in spite of my reservations. Would I watch it again? No. Would I reread Austen’s original? Yes, and – lifetime permitting – more than once.

    • In Italy when we want to refer to a man who looks a bit dumb, somebody expressionless like Cosmo Jarvis we usually say that he looks like an artichoke, un “carciofo”. To me he was even less, that is why I went for a fennel or a potato.
      I loved all the modern versions you mentioned and I could also include to the list “You’ve got the mail”, there is a lot of Pride and Prejudice in that movie.
      Maybe the reason I could not tolerate this version of Persuasion is that I loved the book so much – for reasons you cleverly detected posts and posts ago – to accept such a pointless take.

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