Screen adaptions of classics face two hazards, says Christopher Tookey. They either follow the original too closely at the expense of the drama, or see the past only through the eyes of the presentby Christopher Tookey / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Screen adaptations of classic English literature are suddenly in fashion. But are we in for an abridgement too far?
Shakespeare is set for his most prosperous screenwriting year ever. Kenneth Branagh took five years to give us his Henry V and Much Ado. The next 12 months will see him grappling with Iago and Hamlet, while Ian McKellen stars in a modern dress version of Richard III.
Virtually all Jane Austen’s novels seem to be in production or on release, after the BBC’s acclaimed Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, and the global success of Clueless, a Hollywood film comedy which engagingly transplanted the heroine of Emma to a modern American high school. Next month sees the release of Sense and Sensibility, already tipped to win Emma Thompson a couple of Academy Awards for best actress and best screenplay.
George Eliot’s Middlemarch was one of the most acclaimed television dramas of 1995, while that other giant of the English novel, Charles Dickens, is rarely off the stage or screen. Lionel Bart’s catchy musical adaptation of Oliver Twist at the Palladium remains the hottest ticket in the West End. The last 12 months have seen first-class musical tours of Pickwick, Scrooge and Great Expectations, and the BBC has produced adaptations of Martin Chuzzlewit and Hard Times (both out on video).
New writers for stage and screen may grumble, and wonder if all this plundering of the classics is a good thing; but literature has always provided theatre and the movies with some of their greatest stories and most memorable roles. The character most often played on the big screen is, in fact, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes-played by 72 actors in more than 200 films.
A common fault among British television and radio adapters is that they are too pernickety about trying to follow the structure of a particular novel, to the detriment of their quality as a drama. Often a quite different structure is needed to make the characters comprehensible and appealing to an audience which may never have read the original. PG Wodehouse’s comic novels suffer especially from this over-deferential attitude-all the more ironic, since Wodehouse himself was refreshingly ruthless when translating his own novels into other media.
Nick Dear’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion for the BBC took such a reverential approach that he did nothing about the central problem for a modern audience: that the vital first act of the narrative (the jilting of the hero by the heroine) takes place years before the start of the novel.
Hollywood, long notorious for its insensitivity both to writers and to history, frequently takes matters to the other extreme, producing versions of the classics which are unrecognisable. Disney’s recent film entitled Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was a rattling good yarn, but bore little relation to anything which Kipling might have thought or written, with racially and ecologically “correct” messages and British soldiers as the bad guys.
American literature has fared no better. Early Hollywood versions of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women were guilty of nothing worse than Christmas card prettiness and over-obvious attempts to jerk the audience’s tears. The recent film of it by Gillian Armstrong-though handsome and well acted-was spoiled for many by the inappropriate interpolation of feminist ideology into the mouth of Marmee (Susan Sarandon).
Roland Joffe’s recent version of The Scarlet Letter went to still wilder extremes, with Demi Moore as nobody’s idea of a 17th century Puritan. Not only did it have the tone of a soft-porn movie and a farcically unconvincing happy ending, but Hawthorne’s weedy hypocrite of a preacher was transformed into a tormented 1990s new man (played by Gary Oldman), converting Hawthorne’s tract against clerical hypocrisy into a rallying cry for the permissive society. It departed so radically from Hawthorne’s 1850 original, in fact, that it resembled nothing so much as a clumsy attempt to merge The Piano and Dances With Wolves.
Hawthorne’s English contemporary, Charles Dickens, has been exposed to the whims of film makers from the earliest times. The very first full-length feature film made in Britain was of his Oliver Twist (1912), one of eight versions of the story to be made internationally between 1909 and 1912.
Of all classic authors, Dickens is uniquely well suited to screen adaptation, for-quite apart from his gift for dialogue and characterisation- he writes with a cinematic sweep and a taste for strong visual imagery which virtually no modern novelist can equal.
Many of the descriptive passages in Great Expectations read like directions for a film script. David Lean’s film of the book in 1946, despite missing a few finer details (such as the extent to which Orlick is the evil alter ego of Pip), picks up on Dickens’s verbal cues with remarkable sensitivity, and must be one of the finest literary adaptations ever-so much so that it is impossible to read the novel now without thinking of Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham, Finlay Currie as Magwitch and Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket. Of all classic authors, however, Dickens has suffered most from oversimplification-so much so that Lionel Bart’s version of Oliver Twist has all but obliterated most people’s memories of the darker and deeper original.
Peter Barnes’s recent version of Hard Times for the BBC went to the opposite, miserabilist extreme and lost virtually all the high spirits of the novel. Gone was the fairytale and circus imagery which give the book texture and colour. In their place were crude, anachronistic jibes at the Conservative party-an agit-prop distortion of the novel’s message.
Not surprisingly, the principal villain of the BBC Hard Times remained Josiah Bounderby, a mill owner whom Dickens portrays as harshly oppressing his workers. But his counterweight, Jeremiah Slackbridge-a union agitator, whose invective of Scargillian class hatred Dickens denounces with equal vehemence-was played by Christopher Benjamin, a large, affable actor who was allowed to say nothing rabble-rousing, and in no way resembled Dickens’s description of “an ill-made, high-shouldered man, with lowering brows, and features crushed into an habitually sour expression.”
The BBC version totally censored out Dickens’s fear of union activism-a distortion of the novel which was more than just an example of political correctness. It actually ignored a pivotal argument of Dickens’s novel, which is that Bounderby and Slackbridge, though on different sides of industry, suffer from an identical fault: each lacks the imagination to see the other’s point of view.
Imagination-or perhaps one should call it negative capability, a modern writer’s ability to ignore his own prejudices and imagine himself into an earlier author’s mind-is where so many adaptations nowadays are lacking.
Of course every generation has the right to re-examine and re-interpret. Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for the Royal National Theatre and John Mortimer’s version of A Christmas Carol for the Royal Shakespeare Company were models of sensitivity, while the RSC’s epic production of Nicholas Nickleby will always be a highlight of my theatre-going life.
This year will certainly provide the opportunity to look again at many classics-and decide, for example, if Kenneth Branagh’s flamboyantly gay interpretation of Iago clarifies Othello or distorts it, and whether Ian McKellen’s interpretation of a 15th century king as a 20th century fascist is of more than passing interest.
I shall try to keep an open mind, but have my doubts. The current tendency is to over-simplify the original author’s viewpoint, diminish richness of texture, and see the past only in terms of the present.
Adapters, producers and literary agents are rightly concerned with the minutiae of contemporary authors’ copyright, including so-called “moral” rights. One thing which tends to be forgotten is that long-dead authors have moral rights too.