What’s missing from quirky period dramas?

The ’90s offered something of a renaissance for period dramas, particularly with meticulous on-screen adaptations of beloved Jane Austen novels. During the filming of the 1995s Sense and sensitivityEmma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay and starred as Elinor Dashwood, was distressed by the line changes and refused producers’ requests to “novelize” her script and sell it as an “update”.

Fast forward two decades and a new kind of period drama takes over today. Filmmakers abandon accuracy and precision in an effort to cater to millennial and Gen Z audiences. Young, “handsome” actors are cast, contemporary music is played in ballroom scenes, and the flirting and sex are intensified. From the language to the scenography via the score, the incursions into period drama are increasingly spiced up with modernity with effects that are both pleasing and disappointing.

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Inspired by Austen Bridgerton (2020) – Netflix’s Regency romance based on Julia Quinn’s novels published from 2000 to 2006 – uses candy-colored costumes and an idealized portrayal of race in society, featuring black and white characters and motifs. important South Asians like string quartets playing Ariana Grande covers instead of period waltzes. Lady Whistledown, A Gossip GirlNarrator-esque sheet of scandal, dominates the plot.

Since its release, Bridgerton proved as controversial as it was popular. It explores race and representation in the early 19th century through the Duke of Hastings, a black man named Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) in season 1, and Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) in season 2, an Indian woman. . But in a rush to be inclusive, it blatantly neglects nuance. A controversial scene from Season 1 depicts the sexual assault of a black man by a white woman in a context where the reverse was a narrative used to kill black men. It’s appalling, to say the least.

“Sharma”, Kate’s last name on the show in season 2, is a common name among upper caste Indians – and therein lies the problem. In celebrations of performance, the notion of being an “Indian” continues to be cemented in the upper-caste Hindu mold in popular culture and media. While it’s nice that Hollywood showcases diversity in a genre that has long been largely dominated by white characters, in an effort to be a light, fluffy, and visually pleasing spectacle, Bridgerton does not meaningfully address these complex issues.

Emma. (2020), starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the smart, wealthy, and indiscreet titular matchmaker, is a prime example of a period film that incorporates subtle contemporary influences into the character’s personality and costume design. The adaptation stands out for its commitment to a luminous aesthetic, as evidenced by Emma’s flashy mustard yellow dress and extravagant black hat with yellow feathers. This all sounds very appropriate for an Instagram feed.

The relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley is also bolder in the film and more socially acceptable. There are sarcastic retorts, scenes of gloveless dancing, fleeting male nudity, and kissing when the girl’s father is present in the room. Emma has to take care of her widowed, neurotic father – or is that just her excuse to live as free from constraints as any man? It’s a radical notion for the Regency era, and Taylor-Joy relishes Emma’s snobbery and insensitivity, confounding expectations of how a young woman of fortune should behave. The period at the end of the film’s title is a self-conscious move that matches the film’s youthful appeal and signals an aesthetic departure from the genre and source material.

Such acting is in keeping with the spirit of the book and Austen’s humor. However, Emma. falls at the risk of being so highly stylized and clumsy that it loses many deeper layers of the novel.

Meanwhile, Netflix Rebeccabased on the Daphne du Maurier classic and released the same year as Emma. and Bridgerton, largely disappointing. It intends to attract new, younger fans with a decidedly romantic, colorful and provocative narrative. But the bland screenplay lacks the dark, sinister tone of the source material and belies du Maurier’s ornate writing.

Meanwhile, Apple TV+ original three seasons Dickinson is a delightfully odd amalgamation of contemporary and Victorian sensibilities, centering on a teenage version of the iconic American poet Emily Dickinson, who rose to fame after her death as most of her poems (nearly 1,800 in number) were published in posthumous title.

With Gen Z actor Hailee Steinfeld in the lead role, Dickinson features a passionate romance between Emily and her sister-in-law Sue, with whom the poet shared a complicated relationship that was most likely romantic. Most of what we know about the life of the great poet comes from the letters she wrote and some that were written to her. The show takes a liberal approach to Emily’s story, imagining her as a lively, rebellious Goth who wants to throw wild parties when her parents are out of town. She also struggles to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer at a time when female writers were frowned upon. Each episode is themed and titled after the opening lines of Emily’s poems.

Dickinson looks like a traditional period drama, in every way. The production design is accurate and historically true to mid-19th century Massachusetts, when and where the real Emily lived, but the story is set to a soundtrack populated by the likes of Lizzo, A$AP Rocky and Billie. Eilish. The adults speak more archaic English, while the protagonist and her peers speak like millennials: ‘That’s such bullshit,’ says Emily, when reminded that her older brother can’t fetch water because “Austin is a boy”. . The advantages of the decidedly modern dialogue and music are clear: Emily is now a very endearing character.

More recently, the Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen Persuasion (2022) plays like a romantic comedy rather than a complex, dark story about a second chance at love. In the film, protagonist Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) finds herself in several contrived circumstances in her quest to win back her “ex”. Breaking the fourth wall, she cheekily addresses the audience after comments from her family members, which seems absurd to the introverted and dispirited Anne we know from the novel. She has become the goofy yet sassy and vivacious heroine who has appeared in recent and contemporary period dramas. Trying too hard to be offbeat, the film largely fails to capture the tone of the book. This highlights a problem prevalent in adaptations of classic novels today where studios seem to think that female characters need to be masked by a “goofy” and “feisty” persona to be relevant.

Persuasion would have benefited from removing a page from Greta Gerwig’s book Little woman (2019), which recasts Louisa May Alcott’s novel with a twist that’s both faithful and radical. The director gives us the warm, family pleasures and emotional satisfactions of Alcott’s beloved story – the period costumes, the sisters’ fireside chats and brawls, their verbal and emotional fights with Laurie, the boy next door – but she also approaches the text from a new perspective and even considers its flaws and trade-offs.

Alcott had a different ending in mind for Jo than the more conventional and romantic one she had been forced to write by her readers and editor. Gerwig righted that wrong with a director’s decision that bridged the gap between readers’ expectations then and audiences’ desires today, with female ambition at the center. His adaptation makes changes to the novel, but still revels in its period aesthetic and Alcott’s characters. This testifies to our current interest in rediscovering what is contemporary and interesting in these ancient texts, without having to stray too far from what they are.

It’s worth pointing out that we don’t just look to classic literature and period dramas for relatability. We’re more able than ever to thoughtfully engage with the social commentary, irony, and modern resonances of these tales, and we’re equally excited about their intricate storylines and character arcs. Such texts, based on social contexts of the past, help us to perceive the history and social fabric of a country. They offer insight into long-forgotten cultures and heritages while giving us the opportunity to understand the significance of historical references and classical allusions.

By turning on-screen period pieces into colorful, digestible, clickable content for Millennials and Gen Z viewers, the filmmakers are doing a disservice not only to historical and literary texts, but to audiences as well. they are apparently so desperate to attract.

Chababa Iqbal is a Daily Star Books contributor. Email: [email protected]

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