(Mis)Reading and Mind-Reading in “Persuasion” and “The Lost Daughter”￼
Adapting the intimate interiority of literature to film parallels our efforts to understand one another
Hollywood’s perpetual hunt for literary IP, or intellectual property, has given audiences an ever-expanding library of book-to-film adaptations—some exhibiting more intellect than others. Without the proper care and insight, a book undergoes a flattening effect when transferred from page to screen, as nuance and ambiguity are smoothed over into something that’s easier on the eyes, like a mousy heroine airbrushed into a sex symbol. The recent Netflix adaptation of Persuasion is a case study in how a cinematic retelling can fail to translate the subjectivity and psychological complexity of the written word. Directed by Carrie Cracknell from a screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow that has all the substance of a SparkNotes summary, the movie favors quotable quips over the potent emotional subtext of Jane Austen’s novel.
The novel follows the reunion of former lovers Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth more than seven years after Anne rejected his marriage proposal at the urging of her family and friends, who felt the naval officer was beneath her station. Now, he’s a successful captain; and everyone knows that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Though it features the author’s signature satire and social critique, the narrative is intensely internal—tinged with an aura of regret, of love lost and rediscovered. Also notable is the fact that Persuasion is the final novel Austen completed before her death. She did not live to see it published.
It’s probably for the best that she did not live to see the Netflix adaptation.
Soon after the trailer dropped, Janeites took to social media to lament the misreading and misguided Fleabag-ification of Austen, complete with a winking and wine drinking Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot. Speaking directly to the camera, the unrecognizable heroine cracks wise about her awful relatives while cracking a hole in the fourth wall. Devoted readers of the novel also mourned the reduction of poignant passages into memes:
Austen: There could have never been two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved. Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.
Netflix: Now, we’re worse than exes. We’re friends.
In her review in Harper’s Bazaar, Chelsey Sanchez poses the question: “When we lose the beauty of subtext—Austen’s greatest storytelling strength—what else exactly do we gain?” The answer is an adaptation that belittles not only the author’s work but the attention span and interpretive power of the viewer.
In each of her novels, and especially in Persuasion, Austen uses the device of free indirect discourse, a commingling of first and third-person narration that creates the impression we’re inside a character’s head as they’re taking in their surroundings. The central conflict between Anne and Wentworth stems from their attempt to decipher each other’s feelings after years of estrangement. They can’t speak frankly or privately, at the risk of breaching the rigid decorum prescribed by Regency society. So how else can each determine if the other still loves them? It’s only through a close-reading of minute glances and micro-expressions, and words left unsaid.
Viewed from the lens of modern cognitive science, they’re practicing Theory of Mind, also known as mind-reading: the process by which humans attempt to understand experiences and perspectives outside our own by reading and translating both verbal and nonverbal cues. In other words, empathy. The reader, too, is simultaneously involved in this act of interpretation and imagination, of reading character. Literary critics such as Lisa Zunshine draw on Theory of Mind to examine how fiction conjures the illusion of subjectivity. In her article “Why Jane Austen Was Different, And Why We May Need Cognitive Science to See It,” Zunshine describes the immense pleasure and social-emotional benefits of reading literature. It’s a risk-free trial run for IRL interaction and all its accompanying stresses and uncertainties:
It is as if we are made to feel that we are dealing with a genuinely complex, nay, almost intractable, social situation, but we are navigating it beautifully… an illusion, but a highly pleasing one, that we will be all right out there in the real world, where our social survival depends on attributing states of mind and constantly negotiating among those bewildering, approximate, self-serving, partially wrong or plainly wrong attributions[.] Is this lovely illusion of sociocognitive well-being one reason that some writers persist in constructing such scenes and some readers seek out texts containing them?
One good thing can be said of the Netflix Persuasion: it prompted me to revisit the original book and my first impressions of it. After all, so much of Austen is about reading and re-reading. Looking back at my margin notes, I had the somewhat mind-bending and metafictional experience of re-reading my younger self reading Anne reading Wentworth. The movie also inspired me to dig out a college paper I wrote in 2010, applying Theory of Mind to the novel. Austen describes Anne as “a most attentive listener,” with an “elegance of mind” and a propensity for “quiet observation.” Clearly, the creative forces behind the latest movie adaptation chose to elide these character traits. Reencountering Wentworth after an extended separation, Anne wonders, “Now, how were his sentiments to be read?” Her reflection reveals the mechanism behind Anne’s cognition: a figurative form of mind-reading. The heroine interprets a series of visual signs in the form of glances and gestures, translating them into the language of emotion and intention.
The association between reading looks and inferring a character’s inner state illuminates the principle of Theory of Mind at work in Austen’s sophisticated prose. Take the exquisite subtlety of this scene when Wentworth, recognizing Anne’s fatigue after a walk, insists that she ride in the carriage.
Captain Wentworth, without saying a word, turned to her, and quietly obliged her to be assisted into the carriage.
Yes—he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. She was very much affected by the view of his disposition towards her which all these things made apparent. This little circumstance seemed the completion of all that had gone before. She understood him. He could not forgive her,—but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment … it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain …
The passage hints at the enduring intimacy between the two, as if they’re speaking a secret, silent language. But rather than translate the riveting inter-subjectivity of this nonverbal exchange—the mutual awareness and understanding that continues to pulse between the former lovers—the Netflix version has Anne limping after a pratfall while eavesdropping on Wentworth. Her need for a ride is obvious to everyone. The whole sequence is more cringe comedy than psychological portrait. Scene after scene, the adaptation chooses shallow dialogue over emotional depth and interiority. In a conversation invented wholly for the film that turns subtext into easy-to-digest text, Wentworth attempts to smooth things over with Anne. Instead, he makes her more uncomfortable. He concludes their stilted conversation with two words that smack of 21st-century irony: “Good … talk.” So much for Austen’s emotional commitment.
Kara L. Smith remarks in her 2017 article, “Cognitive Embodiment and Mind Reading in Jane Austen’s Persuasion,” that “Persuasion captures, and in a lot of ways precedes, the psychological advancements of [Austen’s] time.” Smith praises the author’s intuitive and “truly accurate representation of Theory of Mind as being the imperfect medium through which we interact with others in this complex social world we inhabit.” In contrast with the book’s psychological richness and realism, the film’s screenplay cuts corners, throwing around pop-psychology buzzwords like “narcissist” (Anne describing her selfish sister Mary) and “empath” (Mary un-ironically describing herself). At one point, Mary says she’s focusing on “self-care”—as if she ever thinks of anyone but herself. We’re meant to view Anne as a paragon of insight and understanding, a foil for her family of narcissists. But without passages like the one below, in which Anne replays frame-by-frame her interactions with Wentworth in order to puzzle out his true sentiments, we’re left with a shell of her character.
She was thinking only of the last half hour, and as they passed to their seats, her mind took a hasty range over it. His choice of subjects, his expressions, and still more his manner and look, had been such as she could see in only one light… Sentences begun which he could not finish—half averted eyes, and more than half expressive glance,—all, all declared that he had a heart returning to her at least… She could not contemplate the change as implying less.—He must love her.
Austen emphasizes Anne’s mental process, what today is known as Theory of Mind, through references to her “thinking” and “mind.” Anne assigns greater significance to Wentworth’s silent gestures and looks than to his “choice of subjects” and verbal “expressions.” She’s convinced that “all declared that he had a heart returning to her at least.” The word choice “declared” anticipates Wentworth’s final declaration of love in the form of a letter. But even before reading his confession, Anne is almost certain of her own powers of observation: “He must love her.” In the book’s final act, Austen literalizes the recurring metaphor of mind-reading through Wentworth’s letter to Anne. The sincerity and transparency of his words encourage the ultimate recognition and reconciliation of the two lovers.
I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul … I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan.—Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes?—I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine.
Wentworth figuratively “speak[s]” through his pen, “seizing a sheet of paper, and pouring out his feelings.” He admits that Anne’s power of perception is stronger than his own, referencing her ability to “pierce” his soul and “penetrate” his feelings. It’s an intimate, even sexually charged, confession of his unwavering love. No surprise, director Cracknell squanders this moment of Anne reading the letter, what could have been an opportunity to play with voiceover or other cinematic techniques to merge Anne and Frederick’s voices and underscore the fulfillment of their longstanding desire to read each other’s hearts and minds.
The resolution of the novel, in the form of the couple’s reunion, suggests the importance of reading as a kind of social-emotional intelligence. Like fiction, Theory of Mind relies on the interpretive act of recognizing another experience outside of one’s own. Reading and translating, both texts and people, are valuable survival skills. Fluency in a symbolic language of looks, gestures, and facial expressions enables one to decode hidden thoughts and feelings. Austen exposes the capacity for reading to promote an alternative form of communication and communion. This is where the novel’s poignancy and poetry reside; and this is where the Netflix adaptation fails. Johnson’s eye rolls and direct address of the audience, in lieu of indirect discourse, are symptoms of Cracknell’s misdirection. Her choices remove any trace of ambiguity or tension. They also reveal the downright Austenian irony of a filmmaker misreading a heroine who is a paragon of close-reading. Austen’s prescient psychological exploration of the twinned processes of reading literature and reading character is lost in translation.
Bringing Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel The Lost Daughter to the screen entailed multiple layers of translation. The first step on the journey was linguistic. Originally published in Italian, the book was rendered in English by Ann Goldstein, the translator of Ferrante’s other works—most notably her Neapolitan Quartet. Goldstein is an invaluable ambassador for Ferrante. Even though I speak Italian, aside from a few excerpts, I’ve only read Ferrante in English, via Goldstein.
The Italian title La Figlia Oscura literally means “the obscure daughter.” Shrouded in a pseudonym, Ferrante the author is, herself, obscure. Austen likewise wrote anonymously, signing her books “by a lady.” Ferrante stated in a 2015 essay for the Guardian, “The fact that Jane Austen, in the course of her short life, published her books anonymously made a great impression on me as a girl of 15.” Both authors simultaneously shine a light on female interiority while asserting their own right to privacy and inaccessibility. How does one translate an enigma? First Goldstein and, in turn, writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal take up this challenge. As with all translations, there is loss but also discovery.
The most obvious change in the 2021 film adaptation of The Lost Daughter is from Italian to English, and from the Southern Italian setting to the Greek Isles. Ferrante’s narrative voice is also transformed. The intimacy and immediacy of first-person narration is notoriously difficult to capture on screen, as the camera’s presence suggests an external point of view. Gyllenhaal makes the wise decision not to use voiceover, instead employing other film devices to immerse the viewer in protagonist Leda’s precarious mental state. Casting Olivia Colman as the heroine, a 48-year-old professor on her solo beach vacation, is another canny move. With an economy of gestures—a squint of the eye in the bright sun, a slight tilt of the head, a strained smile—Colman communicates a host of conflicting emotions while she observes and later becomes enmeshed with two strangers on the beach: Nina (played by none other than Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter, Elena. The filmmaker leaves space for the audience to note these behavioral shifts and try to intuit, and perhaps understand, Leda’s perspective. This is Theory of Mind or mind-reading in action, and it’s what makes the film so compelling to watch.
Leda’s interior comes into sharper focus as we learn, through a series of flashbacks and present-tense confessions, of her past, including the three-year period when she left her husband and two young daughters. The maternal transgression reverberates in Leda’s body and mind. We see its lingering impact when Colman as Leda literally loses her balance in key moments, physicalizing the unstable inner life that Ferrante/Goldstein telegraph with such force on the page. No doubt, Gyllenhaal’s experience as an actor enables her to elicit this degree of specificity in performance. The film presents Leda in all her messiness as a character worth examining from inside and out.
By training the camera on Colman’s eyes as she watches the mother and daughter playing and caressing on the beach, the director underlines the importance of the female gaze as a driving force in the plot. Like Anne Elliot in Persuasion (the novel, that is), Leda surveys her environment to try to understand the people around her and their motivation. We too are voyeurs, watching Leda transition from passive observer to active interloper. A single act, taking and concealing the girl’s misplaced doll (a recurring and resonant object in Ferrante’s oeuvre), sets the psychological drama in motion. But as much as the close-up can convey, it can’t allow us to see through the character’s eyes or into her mind, to the “racing thoughts and whirling images” referenced on the page. The closest we can get is through the aforementioned episodes of Vertigo, as well as flashbacks to Leda’s days as a young mother (played by Jessie Buckley).
Ferrante simulates time travel and the cognitive process of remembering through prose alone. In a sort of internal tracking shot, we follow Leda’s thoughts and nostalgic associations as she’s walking through the pinewood to the beach on her first day of vacation:
I love the scent of resin: as a child, I spent summers on beaches not yet completely eaten away by the concrete of the Camorra—they began where the pinewood ended. That scent was the scent of vacation, of the summer games of childhood. The squeak or thud of a dry pinecone, the dark color of the pine nuts reminds me of my mother’s mouth: she laughs as she crushes the shells, takes out the yellow fruit, gives it to my sisters, noisy and demanding, or to me, waiting in silent expectation, or eats it herself, staining her lips with dark powder and saying, to teach me not to be so timid: go on, none for you, you’re worse than a green pinecone.
This single passage by Ferrante, translated by Goldstein, evokes an intricate network of emotionally tinged memories. Here, time collapses and the distinction between past and present blurs as Leda is catapulted back into scenes from her youth. See how her mother’s actions from years before are transposed to the present tense: “she laughs … she crushes …” It’s telling that Leda’s recollection starts with a scent—one of the strongest senses, and one that can’t be captured on film. Texture, too, is suggested through the reference to resin, which brings to mind a sticky residue of the past. Resin can encase things, like a memory preserved—or trapped—in time. Also worth noting is the omission of the Camorra and Leda’s Neapolitan roots in the film. (In the book, it’s implied that Nina’s in-laws have mafia ties, which adds a degree of menace to the proceedings.) “The summer games of childhood” will soon replay before Leda’s eyes through Nina and her daughter, but there’s conflict and crisis on the horizon.
In addition to pulling us into the heroine’s past through her first-person reflections, this scene in the pinewood foreshadows two pivotal points in the story: the first, when Leda is hit in the back by a pinecone—whether by happenstance or human hand is unclear—and the second, when she witnesses in the woods a clandestine kiss between Nina, who is married, and the beach attendant Will (played by Paul Mescal, known for his role in another literary adaptation, Normal People). The pinewood is a site of cognition, recognition, and even precognition. But due to the limitations of the film’s visual translation, the viewer can’t glean the full significance of the setting. We’re left with a hollow husk where the yellow fruit of the pine nut should be.
Through a number of metafictional touches, Gyllenhaal cleverly draws attention to her film’s status and limitations as a work in translation—both linguistic and cinematic. During a dinner with Will when she gets the lowdown on Nina and her family, Leda likens her earlier observations and inferences to watching a foreign film without subtitles. A version of the line occurs in the book, in Leda’s narration: “It was like discussing a film that one has watched without fully understanding the relationship between the characters, at times not even knowing their names, and when we said good night it seemed to me that I had a clearer idea.” The theme of translation is also foregrounded in a series of flashbacks. Gyllenhaal recasts Leda as a literary translator of poets Yeats and Auden into Italian. (In the book she’s a scholar of English literature, including E.M. Forster.) In a crucial sequence, she attends a conference on translation, subtitled “The Art of Failure.” That phrase reminds me of the Italian saying “tradurre è tradire” (“translation is betrayal”) and of the impossible standards facing translators such as Goldstein and Gyllenhaal. A translation is often either praised for being “faithful” or denigrated for being “unfaithful,” a flawed binary that doesn’t leave room for the creative work of interpretation. And what of an adaptation like Persuasion that remains faithful to the author’s plot while betraying the characters and spirit of her original work?
On a thematic level, questions of infidelity and betrayal are at the heart of Ferrante’s original story—a fact which Gyllenhaal highlights with sly precision. The translation conference marks the start of Leda’s affair with Professor Hardy and her eventual, and irrevocable, break from her family. The director delivers another meta in-joke by casting her real-life husband, Peter Saarsgard, in the role of Hardy. In spite of these and other self-aware nods from the director, Michael F. Moore notes the troubling erasure of translator Goldstein from the film, pointing to her name being omitted from the credits. Though Gyllenhaal has since acknowledged and thanked Goldstein publicly, it’s an unfortunate reminder of the translator’s relative obscurity—a “figlia oscura.”
Translation—whether across language or format or both—may be “the art of failure,” but it’s a necessary and worthwhile art, opening our minds to perspectives and stories that we might not otherwise be able to access. But without close reading of the source text, and subtext, translation is futile. In this way, the practice of translation and adaptation parallels our daily, often frustrating, efforts to read and decipher our surroundings. There’s hope in the principle of Theory of Mind: the idea that, if we only try hard enough, we can make our chaotic and confounding world legible through cognition, imagination, and empathy. Filmmakers who take on the heady challenge of translating female interiority to the screen should do so with a sense of reverence for their heroines and a facility with the cinematic techniques at their disposal. They should regard film as an emotive language with a grammar all its own, capable of animating beloved literary works and characters. When directors get it right, they validate the importance of female subjectivity, liberating women from the reductive male gaze—if only for a few hours. Authentic, psychologically complex representation matters, especially in a world where men are preoccupied with judging women’s outsides and legislating their insides.