“Horrible,” “awkward and lifeless,” and “a hard sell” are just some of the ways critics have described the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel “Persuasion.”

Critics and Austen fans have widely criticized the film, which premieres July 15 on Netflix, for watering down Austen’s language and changing the characterization of its heroine, Anne Elliot, played by Dakota Johnson.

“It warms the shells of my heart to see how Austen lovers have stood up as one and condemned this monstrosity,” one user wrote in a comment to the YouTube trailer. (The film received positive reviews, but holds a 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

What was wrong with this iteration of “Persuasion”? Nicole Aljoe, professor of English and African Studies in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, teaches courses on Austen, including Austen in film. She says that while it’s not possible to achieve full accuracy in a film adaptation, from what she’s seen, this one doesn’t live up to expectations.

“Persuasion” was written shortly before Austen’s death in 1817, becoming the last of her six great published novels, which include other classics like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma.” The story follows Anne Elliot, an upper-class woman who, on the advice of those around her, rejected a marriage proposal seven years earlier. Now in her late twenties, Elliot is forced to come to terms with her decision after her former suitor comes back into her life.

Nicole Aljoe, associate professor of English and African American studies at Northeastern University. Courtesy picture

In the 200 years since its publication, says Aljoe, “Persuasion,” and in particular its lessons on marriage, friendship, and class, still resonate widely with readers. “It’s just a really wonderful novel, and it contains the most romantic letter ever written,” says Aljoe. “For a lot of people, it’s a touchstone.” The strong response to adaptation is therefore not surprising.

Aljoe is perhaps more charitable than some fans; she acknowledges that even Austen’s best adaptations won’t be entirely accurate, and it’s unfair to demand that they be. Translating a book into a film is a creative process, and the two media are so different that elements of the novel will always be lost. Austen’s earlier films have always taken liberties, such as including weddings (none of Austen’s novels have a wedding).

In this case, however, “it doesn’t seem to have been very successful,” she says.

The watered-down language was one of the biggest grievances among Austen fans, who posted the most egregious examples online. “Now we’re worse than exes,” Elliot says in a trailer. “We are friends.” In another trailer, she refers to a man as “10”. In a scathing review, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “seems to have survey sentences from the novel and ran them through some sort of silly bot filtering Instagram, generating taglines and summarizing text.

Updating a novel’s language isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Aljoe. But here, it’s uneven. “If it was cohesive and thoughtful, then I think it would be really interesting,” she says, comparing it to the use of contemporary music in Bridgerton, a Netflix series set in Regency England. Unlike Bridgerton, in “Persuasion” Modern English is sprinkled rather than turned into functionality.

“There’s a way to use 21st century tropes to communicate timeless concepts, but ground them in the Regency context or ethos,” she says. “It works at Bridgerton in a way that doesn’t seem to work [in “Persuasion”].”

Previous Austen adaptations have made similar mistakes. A 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Lawrence Olivier used Victorian costumes out of necessity, but the language and setting were not suited to match that era, says Aljoe.

However, “It’s entirely possible to update and translate Austen quite convincingly,” says Aljoe. “Clueless,” 1995’s modern riff on “Emma,” has been widely acclaimed, and Eljoe calls “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” a 2001 “Pride and Prejudice” update, “fantastic.”

The other dominant theme in the review of the new film is how its protagonist is portrayed. Elliot is one of Austen’s most sophisticated characters, which perhaps explains why she’s so beloved. She’s also smart, charming and “incredibly self-aware,” says Aljoe.

That characterization, says Aljoe, doesn’t quite fit the movie. In Netflix’s “Persuasion,” Elliot accidentally falls off a bench and bumps into a gravy boat, uses jam to paint a mustache on his lip, and drinks wine. The film is interesting in that it deviates from previous Austen adaptations, where the protagonists are portrayed as perfect, says Aljoe.

However, “painting her as a big mess is just a wild misreading,” says Aljoe. “It might work, maybe, but that would be another story.”

The film somehow succeeds, bringing people of color into a genre that normally lacks diversity. A few key, but still secondary, characters in the film are people of color. And while Aljoe doesn’t want to diminish the importance of representation, she would also like to see the conversation about diversity in film change to recognize the very real presence of people of color during the Regency era.

“[The casting is] not just a reflection of 21st century values,” she says. “There were actually upper and middle class black people and people of color in England at that time, who went to balls, who participated, who people knew.”

“The Regency period was actually more diverse than movies ever depict,” she says.

In this way, the Netflix movie is progressive compared to previous adaptations, even though these were stronger overall. Persuasion has been adapted more than once, including a 1995 TV movie that Aljoe calls “just a great movie.” A 2007 BBC adaptation starring Sally Hawkins eliminated a climactic scene from the novel, but “it doesn’t feel like a complete failure,” says Aljoe. “The way that [Hawkins] underlined Anne’s inner regret, I enjoyed it very much in this version.

Otherwise, the novel has not garnered as much Hollywood attention as Austen’s better-known works. Aljoe had a few guesses as to why that is – Elliot is older than the rest of Austen’s heroines, and the novel’s tone is more melancholic, though it still exhibits Austen’s signature wit. But it doesn’t follow the “marriage plot” trope of the rest of his novels.

It also ends differently from the other novels. Elliot is “not the typical domestic protagonist” that Hollywood might love. Instead of finishing the novel settled in domestic happiness, she is at sea.

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