Gen Z has a history of falling for fictional men. From Edward Cullen to the Winter Soldier, it seems teenagers find nothing more attractive than a stoic guy with daddy issues. Or, apparently, a duke.
Falling for a new kind of fictional man, Gen Z is now a massive contributor to the viewership of historical fiction romances. Gone is the popularity of vampires and assassins; now, all a young girl needs is a tall man in a top hat to make her dreams come true. Many attribute this popularity to the Netflix Original series “Bridgerton,” but the Duke of Hastings cannot take credit for the renewal of all Regency romances. Long before “Bridgerton” put historical fiction in the social media spotlight, Gen Z was entertaining a different kind of British society: the country life of Jane Austen novels and “Persuasion.”
Women Who Like To Read Books
A longtime favorite of those who love fiction set in the past, Austen’s novels are the epitome of Regency romances. Full of longing glances and ballroom dances, the 19th-century novelist creates worlds ripe with potential for re-imagination. From faithful adaptations to inventive interpretations, all six of Austen’s major novels have graced the silver screen at least once since their print publication. Though each movie and television miniseries differ in their execution, a single theme connects them all: female independence.
Austen’s novels (and their movie adaptations) appeal to modern audiences because Austen writes modern characters. Unlike her male contemporaries who treat women like plot devices, Austen centers her novels around freethinking female protagonists. Just as Elizabeth Bennett speaks her mind to those above her station and Emma Woodhouse rejects marriage proposals that would guarantee her stability, Austen writes independent women. Her characters read books and talk out of turn. They defy society. While some might call such women undisciplined or wild, modern audiences call them liberated.
The Next Regency Romance
With such high expectations for Austen-inspired films, it’s no surprise Gen Z rushed to the streaming platform to view Netflix’s newest Regency romance, “Persuasion.” Released on July 15, the film recreates Austen’s 1818 novel: Following protagonist Anne Elliot, who eight years ago abandoned the man she loved at her family’s request, the novel is one of Austen’s most melancholy. However, the film is not.
After it was first announced last year, people were excited for “Persuasion.” Promising a modern take on a timeless classic, the film features actors like Dakota Johnson (Anne Elliot), Henry Golding (Mr. William Elliot) and Cosmo Jarvis (Captain Frederick Wentworth). But despite growing audience expectations, the film’s release did not meet its initial excitement.
Wrapped up in its own expectations, Netflix’s “Persuasion” makes many deviations from the original novel, most for the ostensible benefit of its intended Gen Z audience. The changes were anything but small: “Persuasion” goes far beyond the wardrobe updates of “Pride and Prejudice” (2005) or even the pop music instrumentals of “Bridgerton.” In trying to connect with younger viewers, Netflix took several risks in both the screenplay and direction of its latest Austen adaptation that, simply put, did not pay off.
Forgoing Austen’s original melancholy, Netflix makes a mockery of Anne’s misery. Trading the author’s subtle wit for facetious jokes, “Persuasion” becomes a satire of itself within the first 30 seconds of its trailer. But more than just nod-and-wink humor ruins the film: From an over-reliance on modern colloquialisms to directorial decisions that are better left to TV sitcoms, “Persuasion” breaks the suspended reality of historical fiction. And it all starts with an ill-executed plot.
Strike 1: Straying From the Storyline
Though “Persuasion” — both the book and the movie — ends with Anne in love, the two works follow different paths to get there.
In the novel, Anne keeps her feelings to herself. Though she is overcome with emotion at the return of Frederick Wentworth, the sailor-turned-captain she once loved but let go, she does not make her misery known. A generally introverted person, Anne stews in solitude, hardly opening up to her own sisters at the renewed heartbreak. Her struggle is an internal one, as is her love for Frederick. As one viewer comments, Anne and Frederick “skirt around each other awkwardly for the entire book until the gravity of their feelings is too much and they collide back together in the most romantic scene I have ever read.” The point of “Persuasion” is this introspective, slow-to-action love — a storytelling trope popular in many of Gen Z’s favorite romances. Yet the movie takes a different approach.
Discontent for Anne and Frederick to, as the same commenter puts it, “exist in the same room for months and barely acknowledge one another,” Netflix alters the relationship between its protagonists. In the film, Anne and Frederick enter a so-called “friendship,” setting aside their past feelings while they each pursue alternate romantic relationships. The deal is clearly a ruse, but it’s one that both love interests seem to believe.
Netflix implements this friendship to create conversation between its characters. Rather than let Anne explore her emotions independently, the film puts her in constant contact with Frederick so that she might express her feelings. Not only does this situation defy the plot of Austen’s “Persuasion,” it defies the character of Anne.
Strike 2: Changing the Main Character
Remember that much of the love for Austen’s novels and for Regency romances in general stem from their tendency to give back the voices of female protagonists. For some adaptations, this means making room for women to be wild and opinionated and feisty. But not every heroine is headstrong.
Unlike other Austen characters, Anne is reserved. She does not shout her emotions from the mountaintop like other protagonists might. She is a woman of few words and many feelings, and she prefers it that way. But Netflix, it seems, does not. The film abandons Anne’s original personality and thrusts her into an archetype of rebellion. Perhaps seeking to capitalize off the reputations of other brazen Austen women, Netflix dramatizes Anne’s temperament until she becomes an entirely different character.
As can be expected, audiences did not take the change too kindly. As reviewer Marissa Martinelli noted in an article for Slate, this new Anne is a woman lacking in pensiveness: “She chugs wine at every opportunity and … wonders aloud why people assume ‘all women want is to be chosen by any eligible bachelor.’” At one point, Anne even drunkenly announces at a public dinner how her sister’s husband first proposed to her.
In trying to appeal to Gen Z audiences, Netflix strayed too far from the original text. The beauty of “Persuasion” lies in Anne’s subtlety. Though she is opinionated, she is not outspoken. She holds her cards close to her chest, a trait to which many modern viewers can relate. Austen proves with Anne that women do not need to be rebellious to defy society. But rather than represent her character as she is, Netflix invents situations of jam mustaches and octopus dreams to sell Anne as the extroverted protagonist she is not.
Strike 3: Breaking the Fourth Wall
Yet, it would be unfair to deny any understanding of the motivation behind the character change. The conflict of “Persuasion” is largely internal, confined to the barriers of Anne’s mind. As such, communicating her thoughts and feelings is essential for the momentum of the plot. But viewers cannot read her mind. As Austen-fan and The Spinoff writer Allie Benge said, “Ninety minutes of hot people looking at each other and thinking things…wouldn’t make a good movie.” Unlike an introspective novel, film is an audio-visual medium and therefore demands an audio-visual plot.
To accommodate this storytelling need, Netflix’s “Persuasion” adopts a theatrical tone, compelling Anne to narrate her own story in real time. Often accompanied by literal winks to the camera, she breaks the fourth wall to address her audience just as I address you. What thoughts Anne does not speak as dialogue, she dictates as voice-over. In this way, she communicates the story’s conflict: Whether she is explaining her father’s narcissism or pining over Wentworth, Anne maintains a constant monologue for the audience.
While an effective way to reveal Anne’s thoughts, such a tactic is elementary. Especially for an Austen adaptation, to assume audiences incapable of more complex storytelling methods is insulting. Netflix attempted to cater to its Gen Z viewers by creating a simplistic story that spoon-feeds plot points to its audience. Its intentions were to gain the favor of younger viewers. But in doing so, it pushed away the very demographic it sought to attract.
Strike 4: Overusing Internet Slang
The final nail in the coffin of Netflix’s “Persuasion” is its conflicting language. Though set in roughly 1814, the characters speak more like 2022 influencers. Likely an appeal to Gen Z viewers, the film incorporates an excessive amount of modern language and internet slang into its Regency romance. The most egregious example of this is an unfortunately-advertised TikTok reference.
In the weeks leading up to the release of “Persuasion,” the studio plastered ads for the film across TikTok FYPs. In one such video, a post by Netflix that received over 3.5 million views, Anne denies her feelings for a potential suitor with the excuse, “He’s a ten. I never trust a ten.” Commenters were quick to make the connection to the trending “he’s a ten, but…” game that took over TikTok in June and July. Some will say the correlation is a coincidence, but Gen Z is not so convinced. Whether or not this scene was original to the script of “Persuasion” or added last minute to fit the current trend is unclear, but calling the out-of-place phrase a coincidence gives far too little credit to its Netflix creators.
But these 19th-century characters don’t stop at making TikTok references. The film continues to blend original and modernized speech in a way undoubtedly unoriginal to the 1818 novel. In one scene, Anne’s narration will quote Austen directly, but in another, she will refer to a stack of sheet music from Wentworth as a “playlist he made me.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, director Carrie Cracknell claimed, “We have simplified some of the lines, and taken away some of the fuss of the period trimmings, to make the characters and the worlds feel more alive and accessible.” Yet Gen Z audiences are hesitant to believe her words. In just viewing the trailer, it’s clear that the film script is not a “simplified” replica of the classic novel. Though one can’t be entirely sure, I doubt Austen ever wrote anything comparable to “He’s a ten.”
Modern Adaptations Don’t Mean Modernized Characters
Period pieces are trending. With such a large portion of Gen Z currently obsessed with steamy Regency romances, it’s no surprise Netflix would try to capitalize on the current market. But rather than engaging with younger viewers, the platform let down its intended audience. “Persuasion” crosses the line from catchy to cringey with directorial decisions and internet slang that feels out-of-place in a Regency romance. While Austen’s novel might be a 10, its adaptation is a 4 at best.