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In Praise of the Jane Austen Fuckboi

What is a Jane Austen adaptation without a certain type of scoundrel in the mix?

Jane Austen Fuckbois Persuasion Fire Island
Persuasion (Netflix)
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    Jane Austen has become immortal over the centuries thanks to her witty, nuanced, and charming tales of romance in Regency England. But while the names of her famous heroines and heroes — Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars — are as well-known as her own, let us take a moment to appreciate one common thread that runs between all of her classic novels, adapted countless times for film and television. In them, there is one character type who has many different faces but one key purpose to the narrative: A type we’ll define here as the Jane Austen Fuckboi.

    In Austen’s time, of course, fuckbois were not known as such, but oh, the society of the time knew they existed, using words like “rake” and “rogue” and “scoundrel” to describe them instead. These characters, when they appear in these stories, might be handsome prospects for a happy marriage, but some deficit in their characters — snobbery, greed, or just plain cruelty — ensures that instead of ending up with one of the central heroines, they instead cause real problems for these women and their families.

    Netflix’s new adaptation of Persuasion, which begins streaming Friday, features plenty of modern touches, including details like heroine Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) bemoaning a “playlist” that her true love Captain Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) made for her… consisting of pages of sheet music. But plot-wise it’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, including the character of William Elliot (Henry Golding), a distant relative of Anne’s who stands to inherit the Elliot title and uses his charms to mask his ambition and greed.

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    In the film, Golding is serving pure unleashed Austen fuckboi magic, and while it’s wildly over-the-top, it’s tonally pretty in line with the rest of the film. More importantly, the character is just the latest in this proud tradition of Austen-verse villain, characters who are essential to Austen’s storytelling. Because as her stories continue to fuel new screen adaptations, they continue to explore how these are villains created by as much by society as they are by their own defects.

    Not just specifically Regency-era society, either. One fascinating element of these characters is how easy it is for modern-day adaptations to make them work within a 20th or 21st-century context: For example, 1995’s Clueless (adapted from Austen’s Emma) tweaks the original text to make its Elton (Jeremy Sisto) more of this type (while Emma‘s most prominent fuckboi, Mr. Churchill, is transformed into Justin Walker as Christian, whose greatest crime is keeping his sexuality quiet). But the changes work well — even reincarnated as a high school student, Elton is as status-obsessed as any fussy lord of the Regency era, snapping “Don’t you even know who my father is?” when Cher (Alicia Silverstone) rejects his advances.

    Meanwhile, this summer’s hilarious rom-com Fire Island, riffing on Pride and Prejudice, features Zane Phillips as a Wickham so seductive that our proto-Lizzie Noah (Joel Kim Booster) actually goes a lot further than a casual dance with the man when the two of them hit the “dark room.” But when it comes time for Fire Island to reveal the poor behavior which proves Dex (as the Wickham character is actually known) is a scumbag, it actually comes up with something as disturbing in 2022 as running off as an unmarried couple in the 1800s would have been.

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    Across most Austen stories, a nearly universal aspect is that her fuckbois may be the cause of much angst, but they are usually punished for their crimes — more often than not with an unfortunate marriage. After running off with the youngest (and most high-strung) Bennet sister, Wickham is bribed by Mr. Darcy to marry Lydia, and no spoilers for Persuasion, in case those unfamiliar with the original novel are looking forward to seeing the new Netflix film, but while William Elliot’s fate in the film is slightly different from the book’s, his punishment also fits the crime of toying with a woman’s feelings with ulterior motives.

    In fact, the more sympathetic interpretations of these characters see a certain sort of tragedy in their ultimate fates — take 1995’s Sense and Sensibility and how director Ang Lee and writer Emma Thompson let Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise) express real regret over his treatment of Marianne (Kate Winslet). In a world less ruled by status and money, it’s inferred, Willoughby would have been very happy to spend his life with Marianne. Instead, he’s almost as trapped by society as any of the women.

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