Why Austen Is All the Rage This Summer
With 'Persuasion,' we're going back to the Regency era yet again.
From the first moment Dakota Johnson locks eyes with the camera in the new adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion it's clear that the movie, directed by Carrie Cracknell, wants to be clear that this is not your mother's Austen adaptation. As Johnson's Anne Elliot mourns her relationship with Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis), she reacts in almost Bridget Jones fashion: She drinks wine straight from the bottle and cries in the bathtub. "It felt really interesting to go back to Persuasion, and just see whether there were ways of slightly shifting the lens on the material, and opening it out for a new audience," Cracknell explains. "And also possibly finding a connection point with a younger, more strident, and slightly more feminist audience."
The new Persuasion—wherein Anne Elliot breaks the fourth wall and is played by the stunningly beautiful Johnson despite being described by Austen as someone whose "bloom has vanished early"—has already incited the ire of some Austen purists. But it's part of a mini wave of films this summer that have rewritten the Austen aesthetic, one way or another, for the present day.
The season kicked off with Fire Island, which takes the Clueless route of setting one of Austen's plots in the present day, except this time, instead of Emma in a Beverly Hills high school, it's Pride and Prejudice in a gay vacation community. Then there's Mr. Malcolm's List, which is not based on an Austen novel, but a self-published book that is nevertheless deeply indebted (not unlike Bridgerton) to the allure of the Regency romance. And finally, there's Persuasion, the most direct Austen adaptation that has its characters throwing around anachronistic dialogue.
As Cracknell noted in our interview, Austen adaptations have come in waves in the past. The year 1995 was arguably a pinnacle of Austenian entertainment with the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle BBC Pride and Prejudice; Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, written by and starring Emma Thompson; and, like duh, Clueless. At the same time, these new spins are taking bigger swings. All of them use diverse casting in a way that previous Austens did not. Even 2020's Emma., which added an indie-rock sensibility thanks to director Autumn DeWilde, was overwhelmingly white. Beyond that, there's less of an interest in loyalty in adaptation. Instead it's a desire to play in the world whether the characters are costumed or not.
Now this Regency reboot all could be purely coincidence. Director Emma Holly Jones made the short that became Mr. Malcolm's List in 2019, while Fire Island was greenlit in March 2020 for Quibi. But Jones recognizes why audiences might gravitate toward the pleasures of these plots right now. "After a pandemic and going through that, I think it's really lovely for people to get lost in that sort of feel-good, romantic cinema again," she says. "So maybe distributors are investing in looking in this sort of material because maybe I think audiences are desperate to feel a bit of hope, feel a bit of love, and be made to laugh."
Even though Jones was working on Malcolm's List before Bridgerton debuted on Netflix, she acknowledges that the success of Netflix's Shonda Rhimes drama set in Regency England with a racially diverse cast probably made her project a more appealing business decision on the part of the studio that greenlit it. Jones, who first encountered Suzanne Allain's script on the Black List Podcast, gravitated toward it because she wanted to make a Richard Curtis-style romantic comedy like Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral. The period setting upped the stakes, and allowed her to indulge in the witty repartee of not just Austen, her successors like Oscar Wilde. Still, Jones also wanted to rebuke the rules of the time. "In my world, I don't want women in the movie today conforming to these ridiculous rules that society imposed on women," she says. "I was like, in my world, they're going to go to horse auctions and they're going to play croquet with the boys and they're going to enjoy their lives. And I basically approached this from mashing up the '90s rom-com and a period film."
Fire Island does away with the period, using Austen's story about a stuck-up bachelor and the wise woman who falls for him to comment on the racism and classism of the queer enclave that gives the film its title. In the first minutes of the film, writer and star Joel Kim Booster's character Noah calls Austen "the queen," but argues that her famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice—"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"—is "hetero nonsense." Except he meets his own Darcy in the form of a hot lawyer played by Conrad Ricamora. It's proof that you can reject Austen's heteronormativity, but the stories still inherently work, even if your plot involves the Fire Island underwear party.
So why mess with the original? According to Cracknell, Persuasion screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow wanted to give Anne a "boldness" that was more subtextual in the novel. "I think Alice in particular has said that she wanted to move away from the iconography of the silent suffering woman, and look for ways in which our Anne could acknowledge her faults, and also have a kind of gallows humor about the situation that she's put herself into," Cracknell says. Meanwhile, Cracknell uses period costuming, but does away with the tightly wound curls that would be more historically accurate, opting for a more natural, accessible look on Dakota.
But no matter how you try to change it, the appeal of Austen is still, essentially, elemental. "I think the reason every generation revisits Austen and looks for ways to reinvestigate it, is because the storytelling is so strong and also because we still have very few female written, female protagonist pieces of literature in this era," Cracknell says. "It is this own kind of extraordinary unique canon, actually." It may not be your mom's Jane Austen, but the reason you're watching is the same reason she was.