The classics from page to screen
This month The Classics Club asks:
What are your thoughts on adaptions of classics? Say mini-series or movies? Or maybe modern approaches? Are there any good ones? Is it better to read the book first? Or maybe just compare the book and an adaptation?
I grew up in an era when the BBC could be relied upon for high class productions based on classic novels. Watching these serials was a highlight of the week in my childhood and early adolescence. It was how I first experienced many Dickens’ novels. Watching some of them now they feel rather stilted in comparison to the realistic dialogue and filmic qualities seen in recent adaptations. When you see that the screenplay is by Andrew Davies (the writer behind the version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth ) there’s a pretty high level of certainty it will be worth watching.
As good as that version of Austen’s novel was, there are still some classic interpretations from an earlier era that have stood the test of time. My three favourites are:
Middlemarch. BBC production from 1994 starring Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell
Jewel in The Crown. The ITV adaptation of Paul Scott’s saga set in India broadcast in 1984 and featured superb performances by Peggy Ashcroft, Tim Piggott Smith and Geraldine James
Martin Chuzzlewit. Another 1994 BBC series. Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff is the creme of many fine performances
All of them withstand repeat viewings.
Watching them while you’re reading the actual book can help to fix the relationships between characters and multiple plot lines more clearly in the mind – particularly helpful with Dickens who can often have a large cast list and multiple plot strands. But they’re not a substitute for reading the book itself. Watching the adaptation of Middlemarch you understand the ways that Eliot makes connections between the ambitions of Dorothea and those of Lydgate but what you can’t appreciate is the subtle way in which Eliot’s novel hows the whole of society as a web of connections. For that you have to get close and personal with the text itself.