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On The Table Read, “the best entertainment magazine in the UK“, author of historical fiction novels E.L. Johnson writes about the mixed response to the Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

E.J. Johnson, The Strangled Servant, The Table Read

Written by E.L. Johnson


Finally, the long awaited period drama Persuasion has come out on Netflix, and it’s got Jane Austen fans in a tizzy. 

Based on the nineteenth-century novel by Jane Austen, this Regency romance explores the heart-wrenching relationship of two lost loves reunited. Following in the wake of Netflix’s beloved Bridgerton, readers and film lovers have tuned in for the promise of corsets and carriages, intrigue and deceit, amidst smouldering glances and stolen kisses. What’s not to like?

With an all-star cast including Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey), Henry Golding (whom we fell in love with in Crazy Rich Asians) and Richard E. Grant (a legend of his own), this promised to be a stunning film. So what went wrong?

Critics are having a field day, with some fans finding the film’s dialogue ‘cringey’. Film critic Clarisse Loughrey said: ‘At no point do you ever get the sense that anyone’s actually read Persuasion’ (The Independent). Some are calling the film ‘an absolute disaster’ (Vox), with Rotten Tomatoes describing it as ‘a beautifully shot film without substance’.

With such a negative reception, this will likely make some viewers pause and to wonder whether to watch it at all. So where did it all go wrong?

What’s the plot?

The film is adapted from Austen’s book Persuasion, featuring former sweethearts the aristocratic Anne Elliot (played by Dakota Johnson), second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant), a baronet, who is possibly one of the most vain titled gentlemen in the county.

Anne is romantically linked to Frederick Wentworth (played by Cosmo Jarvis), a poor sailor in the English navy with no connections, money or rank, but only offers himself and begs for her hand. When she is persuaded to reject him at age 18, they separate and years later are thrown into each other’s social circles, where sparks fly.

The film starts with a fresh take on the story’s locations, and offers a close look at Anne’s desires and passions, as her smart and sarcastic character consistently breaks through the fourth wall, in a move reminiscent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s popular BBC show Fleabag.

The differences continue from there. From slight historical innaccuracies to inserting new scenes that change the story, in some cases drastically so, there is a lot to entertain lovers of period dramas but which may also dismay die-hard fans of Jane Austen. 

What do the fans say?

Mark Teltscher, organiser of the popular meetup group dedicated to Jane Austen and her novels, The Season – London Jane Austen Meetup, explained how one of the main issues with this film is its depiction of the main character. He said: “They’ve misrepresented Anne Elliot’s character. She’s submissive, quiet and reflective. She’s not witty and doesn’t make jokes. Comedy does not work well with Austen’s Persuasion. It’s a story of heartbreak and second chances for both of them.”

Teltscher also pointed out that in Austen’s work, “A major theme in the book is indirect communication between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth through overheard conversations, looks and glances. They have their first real dialogue at the concert 75% of the way through the book.”

This differs from the exchanges Elliot and Wentworth have throughout the film, especially when they agree to be friends, which may be relatable for 21st-century audiences but as one Twitter user wrote, “Jane Austen crying shaking throwing up in her grave after Dakota Johnson said “now we’re worse than exes, we’re friends” in Persuasion on Netflix.”

Introducing Younger Generations

But maybe Jane Austen isn’t turning over in her grave. Maybe Persuasion is the new way to introduce younger generations who fell in love with Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series on Netflix during the pandemic and now are ready for a new drama adapted from a classic Regency romance novel.

With filming now having begun on season three of Netflix’s Bridgerton series, it’s clear there is a demand for period dramas. And why not? There is something bewitching in the idea of exchanging covert glances at an assembly or feeling butterflies in your stomach when a dance partner touches your hand. This is what makes regency romances great. Perhaps Netflix’s Persuasion isn’t so bad after all.

These thoughts are shared by Jane Austen fan and entertainment writer Sarah Perchikoff, who said: “I loved Netflix’s Persuasion. There was love, satire, ridiculous characters, yearning, and a happily ever after.

Anne getting a chance to voice her opinions through the breaking of the fourth wall was a breath of fresh air and Wentworth could not have been better. When he asks her “what would you have me be?,” I needed smelling salts to wake up from swooning. It also features the best rendition of Mary Musgrove I have ever seen. I believe Jane Austen would have loved the modern language, the wit, and the satire. It was fun and don’t we need a little more of that nowadays?”

Which is better, the book or the film?

USA Today bestselling historical romance author Emily E.K. Murdoch points out that the negative reception of the film might be down to the ongoing debate between book lovers and filmgoers as to which is better, the book or the film?

close up photo of assorted books
Photo by Leah Kelley on

Murdoch explains, “Will Austenite purists love this new Persuasion adaptation? Probably not. It’s my favourite Austen book, and I have to admit, losing some of her beautiful prose was a shock when watching.

Reading Never Goes Out of Style

But we have to think about the purpose of such an adaptation, and I can’t help but feel the resurgence of historical romance in the mainstream is going to create more and more content like this: appealing to modern audiences. And let’s be honest, it’s not like viewers are forbidden from reading the original text. It’s an exciting way into a world of delicious literature, filled with villains, heroines, and of course, those morally dubious characters.

Remember, the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was criticised at the time for altering characters’ ages, entirely deleting some favourites, adding new scenes, and technically including fewer than ten lines from the source material…and now it’s considered a Jane Austen classic.

Who knows? Give it twenty years, maybe the 2022 Persuasion will be considered just as hallowed.”

Straying From The Original

Has Netflix’s Persuasion strayed too far with its new interpretation of Austen’s work? TV and film adaptations of novels are nothing new, but not all novels have the lasting fanbase of Jane Austen.

For a film to reinterpret a novel is no easy feat. But for it to be a success with fans of the book, it seems that it needs to follow the original story, keeping the main characters and general plot, or risk the wrath of the novel’s fans online. Whilst new takes and interpretations are a great way of introducing new audiences to the author’s work and the time period, when does it go too far? Is Persuasion as one twitter user wrote, ‘the millenification of period pieces’ or is it a beautiful film that others praise as sharp, witty and insightful?

Whether you are a Jane Austen purist or simply love a good period drama, for Netflix’s Persuasion, Jane Austen fans remain divided.

Find more from E.L. Johnson:

E.L. Johnson is a historical mystery author. She writes novels featuring villains people love to hate, and smart heroines who aren’t beautiful by society’s standards, but whose minds are sharp, especially when it comes to solving murder. The Strangled Servant is her first book set in the Georgian era, and is available from Amazon.


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