One month before my posting day, Netflix premiered its adaptation of Persuasion, and I knew what I wanted to write about in August. But even before Juliana posted her excellent “Netflix Left Me Unpersuaded,” I started to doubt how I could even write a review of the latest Austen adaptation. All my ponderings kept leading me towards a single question: what makes a good adaptation, anyway? 

As a child who spent her hours reading, book-to-film announcements always filled me with excitement. My sister and I would look up movie trailers on YouTube and its predecessors, analyzing casting choices and split-second glimpses until the day we could see the final result. But the more adaptations I watched, the more I started to learn what kind of changes made me a little sad, and which changes made me absolutely furious.

Though I’ve spent years asking questions about adaptations, I can’t say the answers always come more quickly. A bad adaptation can make my words erupt one after the other, and a good one might even speed up that pace. But a mediocre adaptation can often stun me into silence. How can I stay true to my impressions about one element, while not denying my impressions of the others? Should I recommend the experience—and if so, how enthusiastically?

As I’ve processed, I’ve settled upon these three ways to identify a good adaptation—or its reverse—in the wilds of bookstores, living rooms, and theaters.

Good adaptations adore specific elements of their source material. 

The best storytellers are often those who remember being the listeners. In the case of adaptations, I believe that the best re-storytellers are those who remember what it was to be in the story’s original audience, falling in love with plots, characters, and themes. They retell the story for reasons deeper than the surface, deeper than money or marketability. The more specific the elements a re-storyteller adores, the more cohesive the resulting adaptation will be.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been filmed dozens of times by dozens of different filmmakers. I grew up loving the 1995 version, which captures the struggle to grow up into your independent self while still cherishing the warmth of family and sisterhood. I love its rich, brassy music, its spunk and humor, the way it slams the shock of Beth’s death into the audience with all the horror of losing a beloved sister so early in life. But I also love the 2019 version, which captures the ways our past shapes our present and the ways dreams and reality can struggle to survive into adulthood. I love its light, Impressionist music, its echoes and nuances, the way it depicted Amy’s character with humanity and understanding.

The creators of these adaptations clearly loved Little Women, but they created very different movies, ones I watch with very different priorities. Perhaps one may prefer one version over the other, but one cannot claim that either was made without love.

As applied to Persuasion: I found Netflix’s Persuasion so frustrating because I cannot name what, exactly, drove these creators to retell this story. I catch glimpses of their love for Persuasion’s beautiful settings like Lyme Regis; I catch glimpses of their love for Anne’s final speech at the end of the book. But the adaptation is so unfocused that I can’t identify any unifying object of the creators’ adoration. I doubt they loved Persuasion’s central character, since this version changes her essence so dramatically. Maybe they liked the idea of the lost love plotline, or maybe they just wanted another moneymaker in the mold of Pride and Prejudice or Bridgerton.

Good adaptations know their medium and its benefits, and use it to capture the benefits of the source material and its medium. 

As a Narnia-obsessed child in the early 2000s, the only available film versions of the stories were those created by the BBC in the 1980s. Like Susanna, I have a soft spot for these films’ quirky, ramshackle charm, but I’ll admit that they are not particularly good movies. They are faithful adaptations, but much of their pacing and filming feels exactly like the books’, to their own detriment. When Lucy steps through the wardrobe, the tiny, TV-budget set and tinny music do little to create wonder in the audience. When Aslan dies, one can easily disassociate from the children’s grief—it’s only a furry puppet, after all. Again and again, the cuts and creative decisions reflect the needs of a novel, not of a story on screen.

In 2005, Disney released a big-screen, big-budget version of the story, and—while big doesn’t always mean better—the wider care and creativity available could allow for a more emotionally faithful adaptation. Director Andrew Adamson and his team took advantage of their medium, using the language of film to replace the language of the book. Lucy steps through the wardrobe, and—in the sparkling sweep of the snow and the swell of Harry Gregson-Williams’s music—the audience doesn’t have to imagine what it might be like to share her wonder.

As applied to Persuasion: The most maligned element of Netflix’s Persuasion is its choice to have its protagonist speak to the audience in Fleabag-style ironic commentary. I can understand the struggles of showing an interior plot line on screen, and I can understand why the filmmakers might have chosen for Anne to share her thoughts with the audience. But I didn’t—don’t—understand what about the source material provoked this creative choice. Austen’s Anne is a gentle, considerate character, a mature woman who recognizes her past mistakes but struggles to be brave and honest in the present. Her indecision grows not from cynicism, but care: would it be right and good for her to speak the truth, even if the consequences could be disastrous?

I respected Netflix’s decision to use a tool of their medium, but—without good reasons—the tool becomes a distraction rather than a gift. If Anne is now a cynical, snide woman who doesn’t care what others think, why should she wait so long to voice her romantic feelings? Why would a woman like that give her true love up at all? Instead of enriching the story, Anne’s fourth-wall talks only confused the story, blurring a thoughtful, deliberate character into a person who makes unjustified, uncharacteristic decisions.

Good adaptations have confidence in their creative decisions, deviating from the source material with thematic and artistic purpose. 

Not every bad adaptation is bad art. I think of The Green Knight, which makes drastic changes to Arthurian tales in order to grapple with big questions about purpose and identity. I think of Ella Enchanted, which takes inspiration but little plot from its source material, in order to create a totally different but still charming fairy-tale teen comedy. I think of The Phantom of the Opera, which ignores entire characters and subplots of Gaston Leroux’s novel in order to develop romance, drama, and the need for deliciously over-dramatic 80s music.

Changing a story isn’t wrong, by any means; sometimes, changing the details or mechanisms of a story can bring it from one medium to another. And sometimes “based on” blurs into “inspired by,” and both stories represent different joys. But when an adaptation doesn’t have confidence in its creative decisions, that diffidence will bleed into other corners of the story, confusing audience members and frustrating them with inconsistencies. I remember a Stratford production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that dressed the fairies in a combination of Renaissance and modern attire, with some characters in doublets and some in prom dresses. I somewhat admired the creative bravery, but because the costumes had no colors, no visual elements tying them together as a culture, I found it difficult to understand the mechanics of the play’s world. If I hadn’t already known the script, I would have struggled to recognize the fairy characters as somehow different from the human characters. Instead of caring about Oberon, Titania, Puck, and their compatriots, I spent my time wondering what chaos backstage had created the confusion onstage.

As applied to Persuasion: Watching Persuasion, I had no idea what sort of movie its makers intended to create. Perhaps the makers of Persuasion wanted to please both devoted Janeites and casual viewers. Did they want a modern spin on a timeless story? Did they want a movie about people in the past feeling timeless emotions? Did they want a story about lost love? A movie about a ~strong independent woman~ who gets what she wants? At times, the script seemed to settle into its purpose or genre, but the creative decisions never felt consistent enough to identify. When an adaptation has confidence in its choices, one can identify whether or not one agrees with the adapter’s chosen path. But when an adaptation haphazardly changes details without considering meaning, more than one audience member will leave confused, frustrated, and ready to consider what even qualifies a good adaptation.


  1. Tom Eggebeen

    Terrific … with my thanks … kept thinking about how your three points pertain to a sermon, since every sermon is, in fact, an adaptation. I’ve posted this piece on a fb page called Happy to be a Presbyterian, a group I created some years back, now with 15K members and several admins. Again, my thanks for this good piece of analysis as to how an adaptation is going to work, or why it may fail.

  2. Lauren Cremean

    As someone who’s been disappointed by many an adaptation—including Eragon, which I thought was going to be the highlight of my birthday party that year—I loved this. Saving it to my media criticism folder!

  3. D. Naylor

    The 1995 adaptation of Persuasion is beautiful! If you haven’t seen it, see it immediately. Candidate for best adaptation of a novel: 1981 series of Brideshead Revisited.


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