Classics Club

The classics from page to screen

This month The Classics Club asks:


What are your thoughts on adaptions of classics? Sclassicsclub3ay 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.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

12 thoughts on “The classics from page to screen

  • I’ll definitely have to check out those you listed! I don’t ever go far enough back for my adaptations and often judge based solely on the most recent (or the one released in my own memory)!

    • Some of the old ones are a bit creaky now in hindsight ( I Claudius) but still worth watching.

  • The three you mention are personal favourites of mine as well and I loved the last TV adaptation of ‘David Copperfield’ with a pre HP Daniel Radcliffe as the boy David and a wonderful Betsy Trottwood from Maggie Smith.

    It’s interesting to compare versions from different eras of the same novel. I had a student who looked at three different serialisations of ‘Pride and Predujice’ and each one of them reflected the social and political concerns of the time in which they were produced. We read the classics in the light of our current preoccupations, but perhaps the fact that we can do that is why they are classics.

  • I used to think I didn’t like adaptations of books until I realised that some of them – including the ones you and others have mentioned are actually very good. I think the first ones I saw befire I read them were P & P and Jane Eyre both in black and white (which dates me!) and I was terrified by the mad woman in the attic and the fire. It all seemed so realistic to me when I was about 10!

  • I love adaptations of classics. I haven’t seen any of the three you mention so I will definitely have to make a note of them for future watching 🙂

    • You should be able to pick up some copies of them in reasonably priced box sets given how old they now are.

  • Couldn’t agree more about Andrew Davies – as well as the brilliant P&P he’s responsible for two of my other favourites, Vanity Fair and Bleak House. I’d be hard put to it to decide which of these three is best. I also have fond memories of his adaptation of To Serve Them All My Days. Looking at his filmography on Wiki it appears he’s adapting War and Peace for 2015. Intriguing…

    • I didn’t realise he wS behind To Serve them all my Days. I too enjoyed that one.

  • I wa going to answe thi quetion too on my blog, but I haven’t got around to it or arranged my thoughts properly and I know I won’t now.
    Funnily enough the Jewel in the Crown series was high on mu list, so too A Passage to India. I too love that Colin Firth adaptation of P&P – who doesn’t? I also love adaptations of Jane Eyre – they usually cast Rochester all wrong but I just love the story so much,

    • Oh yes Passage to India was a wonderful adaptation of a book I didn’t understand the first time I read it. The film helped me get into it more and so when I read it again, I enjoyed it.

  • My 6th form English Lit teacher was miffed that it took a BBC production to get us to read “Northanger Abbey” (circa 1985….with Peter Firth in it)

    • I bet many lit teachers feel the same way. That’s the one Austen novel I don’t rate. I think I’ve seen the Firth adaptation but found him a bit whimpish


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