Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Things – My Favourite Book to Screen Adaptations

Note: I have now given up on attempting to do lists of ten favourites. Fifteen (or seventeen) is a far more reasonable number. Yes I do have problems making decisions.

So, last week a new film adaptation came out of Thomas Hardys brilliant novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. Before I go and see it in the cinema, I do I thought I’d take a look back at some of my all time favourite book to screen adaptations. This is obviously not a comprehensive list in any way. The oldest one is from 1998 and the majority are adaptations of nineteenth century novels. But they’re a handful of adaptations that I really love.

Apologies for the quantity of Austen and Dickens. I’m sorry. I can’t help myself.

17. Elementary (2012-)

I’ve put this first as I feel it’s a slight cheat. Obviously it’s a very loose adaptation, and has been more inspired by the original Sherlock Holmes stories than adapted from then. I should also admit that I’m not very well versed on the original stories; I’ve only actually listened to a couple on audiobook. However, this is such a great program I wanted to mention it. Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu are brilliant, and I’ve been so impressed by how Elementary manages to be different from BBCs Sherlock, although they both bring Sherlock Holmes into the present day. They manage to sustain episode upon episode with these brilliant mysteries, and the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and (Dr. Joan) Watson is really engaging. I’m half way through the first series and it is just so thoroughly well done.

16. Cloud Atlas (2012)

I saw this film quite recently after having read (and reviewed) the novel last year. I love the film. It looks wonderful, and is such a clever feat of cinema, making the stories intersect and slot together in a very clever way. The acting is great and each world well created. The reason why it’s not higher on this list is that I think the film is telling a telling a slightly different story to the novel. The film is more obviously moralistic in its ending, and if the book tells the story of one soul moving through time, the film seems to tell the story of multiple souls. However, I acknowledge that the book’s structure wouldn’t quite work in film, and what they do here instead does work, and works excellently.

15. Pride and Prejudice (2005)

And I’m not going to include the 1995 BBC series either. Now I should make it clear that I do love both, but I have a particular soft spot for this adaptation, especially because a lot of people dismiss it. And I know it’s less close to the book, but in a two hour film obviously you can’t fit in as much as in a six hour series. So yes, the beginning goes too fast and yes, Lizzy Bennet is frequently seen outside without a bonnet (how scandalous), but to me, this film captures the heart and essence of Pride and Prejudice. It’s less clean than the older series, and presents a more down to earth interpretation of the book. Yes Colin Firth gets across the pride of Mr Darcy, but Matthew Macfadyen gets across his social awkwardness as well, and the chemistry between him and Kiera Knightley as Lizzy Bennet is brilliant. And I like Kiera Knightley. It’s always bewildered me why people take so much against her. Besides that we have Judi Dench playing Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and there are several truly superb scenes: the Netherfield ball, Mr Collins proposal, that beautiful bit near the end where Mr Bingley’s rehearsing with Mr Darcy... I just love it.

14. Little Dorrit (2008)

I love Little Dorrit the book, and it’s one of Dickens’s underrated ones – so to see it adapted for TV with such a brilliant cast was so exciting for me at the time. The series looks perfect and the script is (mostly) great. Claire Foy as Amy Dorrit is fabulous and Matthew Macfadyen (of course) makes a brilliant Arthur Clennam. There were some other fabulous more minor performances, such as Russel Tovey as John Chivery, James Fleet as Frederick Dorrit, and Ruth Jones as a hilarious Flora Finching. I love how this adaptation is split into half hour episodes; it suits Dickens’s stories, which were after all written to be serialised. It gets the humour so often missed out of Dickens screen adaptations, and it gets the poignancy too. It would be so much further up this list if it wasn’t for the simple fact that they utterly ruined the end. The reveal in the final episode is bizarrely and bewilderingly just the wrong reveal. I think Andrew Davies, the screenplay writer (who I generally have a massive respect for) was trying to simplify a Dickensianly complex ending, but it resulted in a weird confusing one that just didn’t work. The final episode infuriated me – but the fact that I’ve still put it on this list shows just how much I love the rest.

13. Small Island (2009)

It’s been a while since I saw this one, but it’s a great adaptation of a great novel. The story focuses on race relations in Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War, and is so well captured in this adaptation. Ruth Wilson as Queenie is as always superb and Naomie Harris as Hortense is brilliant. The series also features the talented David Oyelowo as Gilbert, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Bernard, in those days before every man and his dog knew his name. As I recall it does cut a substantial proportion of Bernard’s story from the novel, but it’s nonetheless a well shot, well directed and just well adapted series that I really enjoyed.

12. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012-13) and 11. Emma Approved (2014) 

A slightly unconventional two here. I’m going to talk about them together because they have so much in common and were produced I think by the same team. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved are YouTube series, in which Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma are brought forward into the twenty-first century and adapted into five minute episodes. Lizzie Bennet is a grad student making vlogs about her life, with a lovely elder sister Jane and a party girl little sister Lydia. Darcy is the high-flying CEO of Pemberly Digital, a hipster and a ‘douchebag’ who Lizzie detests. Meanwhile, Emma Woodhouse is professional matchmaker; Mr Knightley is her business partner and Harriet is the assistant she’s trying to make more confident and cool. These two just work so brilliantly for me. They’re well-acted and funny and so cleverly done. They update the relationships, the characters, and the situations in a truly effective way. They both just work. And I love what these adaptions do with Lydia Bennet and Harriet Smith, because I’ve always sort of thought that both of them get a little bit of a hard time in the novels.

I often think Jane Austen is a bit harsh on female characters she deems “silly”. Lydia, Kitty, Mary and Mrs Bennet, Anne Steele, Harriet Smith, and so on are judged quite harshly in my opinion. It’s only sort of okay in Austen’s mind for Miss Bates from Emma Eyre to be silly because she’s also poor. We see the same in Charlotte Brontë’s female characters, in the treatment of Adele in Jane Eyre or Ginevra Fanshawe in Villette. And I do understand it. Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë were very intelligent women writing in a century where generally women were seen to be less intelligent than men – so perhaps it’s only natural that they were quite disdainful of the sort of women who seemed to be perpetuating this idea that women were unintelligent. If we look at Jane Austen’s heroines, the only one that isn’t clever is Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, and even then she’s characterised more by naivety than a lack of intelligence. Much as Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are two of my all-time favourite authors, I do always feel bad for some of their female characters, the ones who mean well but lack intelligence, and are thus sort of dismissed. It’s all very well to get at Lydia for being vain, silly, selfish and a bit conniving – until you remember she’s actually only fifteen years old. So it’s nice to see Harriet Smith and Lydia Bennet updated as they are in Emma Approved and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. But anyway.

10. Harry Potter (2001-2011)

Yes I know they don’t do the books justice, and yes I know they miss out some brilliant characters and some brilliant scenes, and yes I know that some of the acting of one or two younger members of the cast is a little wooden at times – but I still really love the Harry Potter films. Watching them is not only like capturing a magical bit of childhood, but also like seeing all the most talented British actors in one place. The films have everyone from Timothy Spall to Maggie Smith, from Alan Rickman to David Tennant, from Helena Bonham Carter to Richard Griffiths. There is just so much talent in these films. And the actors age across the films; we literally see these characters grow up. It’s wonderful.

9. Emma (2009)

Another brilliant Austen adaptation. As always with screenplays written by the amazing Sandy Welch, I love that we get so many conversations lifted straight from the book, that Welch keeps Austen’s words in tact. Romola Garai is a brilliant Emma and Jonny Lee Miller is to me the perfect Mr Knightley (especially in all those glorious floral waistcoats). The adaptation is well paced and looks perfect, and I like that they keep so much of Emma’s relationship with her father, which sometimes gets a little left out. The characters are for me done just right, and the ending is simply beautiful.

8. Bright Young Things (2003)

Adapted from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, and written and directed by Stephen Fry, this film is just wonderful. It’s so fun, so lively, so brilliant and sad, capturing that muddle of emotions and hurry of life just as the book does. It has a great cast, highlights including Emily Mortimer as Nina and Fenella Woolgar as Agatha –and the music and costumes and just the whole look of the film is spot on. Admittedly Stephen Fry does take a rather big liberty with the story’s ending, but for me it actually really works. I’m not sure Evelyn Waugh would entirely approve - but I do.

7. Sense and Sensibility (2008)

This is my absolute favourite Austen adaptation of all time, even though Sense and Sensibility is not my favourite Austen novel, love it as I do. This series has what the 1995 film does in terms of liveliness and romance but with something else – a sense of the characters’ youth and of the darkness in their lives. And they get Wiloughby and Marianne’s relationship perfect. It has a brilliant cast, and David Morrissey (more on him shortly) is spectacular as Colonel Brandon. I like what they do with Margaret’s character, and there’s some beautifully tender moments between Eleanor and Edward. Hattie Morahan does Eleanor’s emotional repression so well. And Clare Skinner as Fanny Dashwood is deliciously horrible and thoroughly perfect.

6. Never Let Me Go (2010)

Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel, about the lives of three clones bred for organ donations, is one of my favourite books. And the film just does it justice. It’s beautifully shot, well structured, and keeps so much of the raw humanity and sorrow of the book. The performances throughout the film are superb, by both the adults and the child actors. How on earth they managed to find children who were both such brilliant actors and look so like the adults playing their characters later amazes me. Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield really capture the characters. The film resonates with the same superb poignancy as the book.

5. Bleak House (2005)

This is probably the most epic book to screen adaptation I know of, and it’s truly brilliant. It takes Dickens’s lengthy and brilliant novel and, like the 2008 Little Dorrit, adapts it into fifteen half hour episodes. This structure really allows them to explore the characters and the feel of the book, to get the humour and the misery. Naturally they still have to make a lot of cuts, but the adaptation is so strong, that I forgive it. Denis Lawson is the perfect Mr Jarndyce, Anna Maxwell Martin and Carey Mulligan  arebrilliant as Esther and Ada, and then of course Gillian Anderson is wonderful as always as Lady Dedlock. Charles Dance captures the sinister Mr Tulkinghorn with such utter skill and Burn Gorman is the perfect Mr Guppy. Genuinely every performance in this adaptation is just right. I think Dickens would be proud.

4. Jane Eyre (2006)

This miniseries has a lot to answer for. I watched it with my parents when I was thirteen, and found the first episode so exciting that my mum told me to read the book. So I went and read the whole book before the second episode, just to find out what happened. And thus began my love of nineteenth century literature. But anyway, it’s a brilliant series. Ruth Wilson is as ever wonderful and I can’t fault Toby Stephen’s Mr Rochester. It’s engaging, exciting, creepy, cleverly done, and the adaptation just looks right; the colour scheme of it all, muted grey with the odd touch of red – it’s so powerful. The screenplay was written by Sandy Welch (who also adapted the 2009 Emma, and two other adaptations in my top five). What I love about adaptations written by her is that even when larger plot cuts have to be made, she keeps so many of the original dialogue intact. Frequently we get Jane and Rochester’s brilliant exchanges word for word as they are in the novel. It really feels like Sandy Welch respects and loves the novels she’s adapting.

3. Our Mutual Friend (1998)

I must have seen this series (all six hours of it) well over ten times. Possibly twenty. This is partly because it’s an adaptation of my favourite novel ever, but also because it’s brilliant. And yes one of my favourite subplots is lost to the ether of cutting and yes, I have no idea why they cast my favourite character Jenny Wren as an adult when she’s supposed to be about thirteen  but I forgive this adaptation what faults it has because it is so superbly beautiful. It demonstrates what a wonderful novel this is and shows off the weirdly wonderful plot and its brilliant characters to perfection. The very way it’s filmed, the contrast between bright society scenes and the dark of the river, so captures the atmosphere of the novel. As with the Jane Eyre adaptation, Sandy Welch’s brilliant script honours the book and keeps so much of the original dialogue. The acting is brilliant, and most of the characters for me interpreted just right. David Morrissey’s Bradley Headstone is an absolutely perfect performance of one my absolute favourite literary characters ever.

2. Big Fish (2003)

I have a confession to make. Unusually for me, I saw and loved this film long before I read the book. I actually only read it a few weeks ago; I’ve been meaning to for years, and while thinking through ideas for this blog post, I decided it was about time I read it. I also have another terrible confession to make: unusually, I actually prefer the film to the book. That’s not to say that I don’t love the novel too; there are some brilliantly poignant passages and some lovely writing in it, and it’s a great read. But I simply adore the film. To me the film takes the characters and essence of a good and intriguing novel and makes it into a masterly brilliant film. It’s not an adaptation that follows the book exactly, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. It takes liberties, adds in whole storylines, combines places and characters – but for me it really works. The acting is wonderful; it looks brilliant, and we really get this sense of storytelling and jokes, of never quite knowing what’s true and what’s not. The film reflects the spirit of the book, if not always the exact plot – and that’s the most important thing for me. It’s a bizarre and beautiful film and I love it.

1. North and South (2004)

But my favourite screen adaptation of all has to be this. I love Gaskell’s North and South, and the TV series just does it so well. It’s shot brilliantly and the scenes of the mills are just incredible. Again Sandy Welch has written a brilliant script. I’ll admit that there are a few plot changes I dislike, especially with regards to the first time Margaret sees Mr Thornton and with regards to Mr Bell – but I can overlook them because the rest of the adaptation is so brilliant, so moving, so powerful. The soundtrack is gorgeous. Daniela Denby-Ashe is brilliant as Margaret Hale, and Richard Armitage gets Mr Thornton’s awkwardness and repressed passion just right. Sinead Cusack is a perfect Mrs Thornton and Lesley Manville’s Maria Hale is so moving and so well done. It’s such a lovely and beautiful adaptation and every time I watch it I can’t fail to be moved.

Next week: I’ll be reviewing Carrie Hope Fletcher’s All I Know Now

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  1. My friend has been persuading me to watch Elementary for ages now since she knows that Natalie Dormer is my favourite actress of all time. Sadly, I haven’t gotten around to it yet but I can definitely say that I’m going to download it as soon as possible.

    I also have a soft spot for the Pride and Prejudice mini-series (the girl who played Lydia was a hoot) but aesthetically speaking, the 2005 film version takes the bag. Kiera Knightley is such an amazing actress and I don’t get all the hate that’s being directed at her.

    Duh, Harry Potter! The soundtrack alone is perfect!

    Have you watched the 2012 Anna Karenina film? It didn’t really stay true to the book but if you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice (2005) then I think Anna Karenina will be your cup of tea too. Keira Knightley plays the main character too!

    Do you mind if I do a post like this on my blog as well? I’ll credit you and everything. :)

    1. Well I definitely recommend Elementary, and I'm glad to find another who shares my love of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Sadly I haven't seen Anna Karenina yet - I really want to, because it's got such a great cast and the trailer looked amazing. But I haven't had the time to read the book yet and I want to read that first. Hopefully I'll get round to both soon.

      I would be absolutely delighted if you did a post like this too - it's lovely to think you want to use the idea as well. And if you could credit me with a link that would of course be brilliant too :)

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