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
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…