I have not seen the movie but I have read the book
Let me state up front that I have not seen the Neflix movie, Persuasion, only the trailer and a few other clips, and this is not a review of that movie. I suppose what this really is, is an answer to all the hand-wringing going on over it, of which I admit I have been a part. But I’m pretty much over it now. Here’s why.
Back in June, when the new Netflix Persuasion movie was announced, and a bit later when I actually saw the trailer, I have to tell you, I was angry.
I love Jane Austen and Regency
I’m a long-time fan of Jane Austen, I love Regency period fiction of all genres (there is more to Regency fiction than just romance), and I’ve researched it just enough to fall in love with a lot about that time of history. Fall in love, that’s what I said, which seems kind of silly I suppose when you consider the wars, the colonialism, the “mad” (ill) king, as well as slavery, poverty, child labor, sexism, homophobia, rigid class separation, and so on and so forth. But as a picturesque (to some degree) period of time in which manners counted so much, and the clothing worn by the upper classes was so beautiful, it can be just a pleasant fantasy for us today if we don’t think too hard about it, and knowing that Jane Austen engaged in some of her own criticism of some of the less savory things going on, I’ve felt justified in loving nearly everything Austen and a little of everything Regency.
It was also a romantic era for music, poetry, art, architecture, and gardens. My feelings about it haven’t changed. Add to that, there were abolitionist, labor, and women’s movements coming to life, and people wanting to cross those socio-economic boundaries. It was a time of great potential for good. Perhaps it’s also just far enough removed from many of the problems of today, or I can see enough improvement in those problems now, that it provides me some good contrast. Perhaps it gives me some hope that we’re moving in the right direction.
Persuasion is Jane Austen’s most mature and serious novel
Persuasion is one of my favorites of Austen’s novels. It’s also her most mature and most serious. So, as I watched that trailer and read more about the movie, I grew incensed, indignant, and ultra-defensive of my beloved author and my second favorite of her main characters, Anne Elliot. So much so that I barely even absorbed the fact of the racially diverse casting, which should have been the highlight of the news about that movie.
BIPOC Inclusion Was Great But Overshadowed
By the end of the trailer, I was seeing red, not BIPOC inclusion, which level of distraction from something to be celebrated I find sad. I have since seen comparisons to Bridgerton and a series called Fleabag, but I’m not familiar with them. I don’t subscribe to TV or a streaming service, haven’t for 12 years or so, which is why I haven’t seen this movie yet, so I guess I’m out of that loop, so this production (the trailer anyway) came as a bit of a shock as far as snarky comedy and fourth wall breaking. Maybe I’m just not with it enough to get it. I keep trying to deny to myself that my age might have something to do with that.
Stop Changing the Story!
But there was background to my anger. It had already begun seething long before this movie appeared on the horizon. I’d been through two earlier botch-ups of the plot of Persuasion for the sake of movie-making, in both the 1995 and 2007 versions. Mind you, I do love both those movies, own them on DVD, and have watched them repeatedly. But why, oh why, I wondered with much hand-wringing (it’s hard to take myself seriously, looking back now), why could no one make a movie that was faithful to the story? Especially as regards Mrs. Smith? The most accurate screen adaptation of the story so far had been a 1971 miniseries which in other regards seems now sadly outdated.
Where is Mrs Smith?
Now I learn that the newest movie ignores Mrs. Smith altogether, in fact leaves her out? And then they have the gall to turn Austen’s subtle satire into veritable slapstick comedy? They do this with her most serious of novels, the last one she wrote?
Wait — Daphne du Maurier wrote The Birds?
In the midst of my outrage, something happened. I came across a documentary about Daphne du Maurier, and in the first few minutes of it there was a mention of her story, “The Birds,” being the inspiration for the Hitchcock movie with the same title. That sent me in search of the story, because I had not been aware of that, or somehow the information had never registered in my memory before.
I found The Birds and Other Stories, formerly titled The Apple Tree, and started reading it. I’m still not finished, so this isn’t yet a review of that book either. I’ve only finished reading the forward and one story, so far.
You can read more about The Birds and Other Stories on Wikipedia.
Fortunately for me, I began with the 2004 forward written by British film critic and historian David Thomson, titled, “Du Maurier, Hitchcock and Holding an Audience,” and Thomson’s window into reason. I read what he had to say about it, and then du Maurier’s story, and my indignation and anger dissolved.
Du Maurier’s original story is quite different from Hitchcock’s rendering. But before I get to that, let me say that the original short story is excellent. Especially if you like horror, but even if you don’t. Horror is not a genre that I enjoy, ordinarily, and while du Maurier’s other stories might be called Gothic or suspense, this particular short story is definitely horror.
The story takes place in Cornwall, after the Second World War, and centers around a man named Nat Hocken, a war veteran who works on a farm, where he and his family are provided a cottage. He’s a disabled veteran, so he’s given some of the easier work, and is happy to work alone most of the time.
One day, while pausing to eat during his workday, Nat notices some odd bird behavior, which he doesn’t take seriously until he is actually pecked at by some birds. That night, an unseasonably cold night, birds start trying to get into his house. At first Nat blames their behavior on the cold. But then they get into the cottage and attack both him and his son. As the night progresses, he and his wife have to take extraordinary steps to protect their two children.
From Cornwall to California
When he made his movie, Hitchcock moved the story forward in time, and across an ocean and continent to Bodega Bay, California, and created entirely new characters. His film only resembles the short story in that the main focus is on strange bird attacks on humans, which increase in intensity, with strange lulls between attacks, and the main action of both the printed story and the movie takes place in small seaside towns.
WARNING, spoiler ahead:
Eventually, in the short story, a pattern emerges in the attacks. They seem to follow the tides. But the cause of the attacks remains a mystery, and the end of the story doesn’t provide any promise of a resolution, only the survival of one small family, and only for the time being. It’s quite chilling!
Of course, so is the movie. It was released in 1963, but I was in my early adolescence when I first saw it on TV, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and both my sister and I, as well as our friends, were so haunted by the movie that one day on our walk to school we became overcome with fear of a large flock of starlings and we all ran terrified down the street.
With The Birds, I never experienced that conflict I have between written fiction and adaptations into films, mostly because until now I’d never read the story. I just thought of it as a wonderful, suspenseful, scary vintage movie. As an adult I can watch it with tongue in cheek, even laughing at the absurdity and melodrama.
“An author takes three or four years to write a fine novel; it’s his whole life. Then other people take it over completely.”
– Alfred Hitchcock
But with Jane Austen’s Persuasion this conflict seems especially fierce for me, perhaps because it’s my second favorite of Austen’s stories, I’ve read it numerous times, and I feel a connection with the character of Anne Elliot. I feel her empathy for her friend Mrs. Smith, the one person she gives up her usual serene demeanor to defend. I feel this so much that when I saw the recent movie trailer I almost went ballistic. But I won’t go into that any further. What reading the forward to du Maurier’s short story, “The Birds,” did for me is of great value. A brief quote from the forward may help explain:
“… Still, a serious writer needs to be wary of the movies – don’t look for too many thanks, and keep away from the shooting if you’re sensible, because writers’ feelings are seldom spared.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s own words (as related by Thomson), when asked how many times he had read the story before making the movie, The Birds: “What I do is read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema. Today I would be unable to tell you the story of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds.’ I read it only once, and very quickly at that. An author takes three or four years to write a fine novel; it’s his whole life. Then other people take it over completely.”
If you get a chance to read the full forward to this edition of The Birds and Other Stories, I highly recommend it, as well as the title selection of the book. I’m still in the process of reading the rest of the stories.
This forward served very well to calm my anger over Netflix’s Persuasion, and that may be the best thing I took away from it, thanks in part to du Maurier, in part to Alfred Hitchcock, and in perhaps even greater part to David Thomson’s ability to make sense of it to me.
A Reader Makes a Story Their Own
As readers, we think we’re reading what the author wrote, feeling what they felt, getting out of the story precisely what they put into it. But that’s an illusion. We project ourselves into everything we experience, and that includes artwork, music, books, movies, even history or the news. Every story we take in becomes in a sense our own, affected to a greater or lesser degree by an unconscious mind we’re unaware of, as well as our conscious thoughts, memories, and wishes. I own my impression of Jane Austen’s work, but it’s not her impression of it, and it’s clearly not the same impression anyone making a movie from it has. Even if they come close to mine, they’re working in an entirely different medium from the book, which can’t do what the written word can (though it can frequently do more), and possibly shouldn’t try too hard to mimic.
A Movie With the Same Vision is a Rare Bird Indeed
It’s natural, as people who love to read, that many of us form our own mental images and impressions, and that we long to see those impressions acted out on a stage or screen. But it’s not going to happen very often that our impressions match even loosely what someone else makes of the story.
One day perhaps someone will come up with a screen version of Persuasion that does what I think it should, even better than BBC did in 1971. But if they don’t, I still have the book, and my enjoyment of it, which is a deeply personal experience. I’m happier as a reader if I let that be enough.