Five literary greats and five great screen adaptations

When the nominations were announced for this year’s Oscars, one of the first things the media noticed was the number of nominees that were based on books. Eleven films shortlisted in the major award categories, and two-thirds of the Best Picture candidates were literary adaptations, including War Horse, The Descendants, and The Help.

So with that in mind I’ve compiled my own shortlist of screen dramatisations, and since my favourite reading is classic novels I’m going to concentrate on film and TV versions of some of the masterpieces of English literature. So, here we go, counting down from number 5…

5:         Henry Fielding – Tom Jones
The version I’m nominating here isn’t the famous ‘60s film with Albert Finney (and that eating scene), but the 1997 BBC adaptation starring Max Beesley. Having such a famous predecessor could easily have overshadowed the TV series, but Simon Burke’s script translates Fielding’s busy boisterous book into a light-hearted, exuberant, sexy series. The thing I particularly love is the way they freeze the action every now and again, and let Henry Fielding wander on-screen and talk to us about what’s going on – it exactly captures the novelist’s intelligent, intrusive style of narration (and John Sessions is perfectly cast to do it).


Special acting honours: Brian Blessed is a hilariously rumbustious Squire Weston, complete with pack of scruffy smelly hounds – he clearly had a ball making it.

4:         Thomas Hardy – Jude
Jude the Obscure is Hardy’s darkest novel, and this film certainly doesn’t flinch from the book’s desolate subject-matter. To quote one of Hardy’s most famous poems, the whole film is shot in ‘neutral tones’, as the tragedy of Jude Fawley’s thwarted ambitions and his doomed love for his cousin Sue plays out against an Oxford greyer and grimmer than Morse ever made it. But if you prefer your Hardy a little less heart-rending, then the 2003 ITV Mayor of Casterbridge is also excellent.


Special acting honours: Kate Winslet, for her portrayal of Sue Bridehead. Every bit as magnetic and mercurial as Hardy’s original.

3:         Jane Austen – Persuasion
When The Mansfield Park Murder came out and I was doing the rounds of festivals and book clubs, there was one question I knew I’d be asked every time: ‘Which is your favourite Austen adaptation?’ And the answer – then and now – is the 1995 BBC Persuasion with Ciarán Hinds and Amanda Root.

This version is just perfectly pitched – the production values are as high as you would expect from the BBC, but they also get some of the trickier period details absolutely right. The most obvious is the use of candlelight for evening scenes – far too many Austen balls are lit impossibly brightly (literally, given the lamps available at the time). The adaptation is also very skilful – I particularly love the (very funny) sequence in which each of Anne’s relations corner her one after the other to complain about each other. It’s a perfect example of how you can make witty prose into clever drama.


Special acting honours: There are almost too many to list here, since part of the strength of the production is the ensemble acting. Fiona Shaw and John Woodvine make a particularly touching Admiral and Mrs Croft – all the more so since these two characters are (dare I say it) rather lifeless on the page. And Corin Redgrave is a deliciously self-centred Sir Walter.

2:         Charles Dickens – Bleak House
I think Bleak House is without question Dickens’ finest work, and it’s the inspiration for my own Victorian murder mystery, The Man in Black. So as you can imagine, I’m particularly demanding when it comes to adapting this one for the screen. But this BBC version scarcely puts a foot wrong. And let’s not underestimate the scale of the task – Bleak House is a huge book, with a huge cast of characters, and innumerable sub-plots, so turning that into coherent and compelling TV was a real challenge.

One way they achieved this was by adopting the ‘soap opera’ structure of half-hourly slots, which worked well for a modern TV-watching audience, but also – and delightfully – echoed Dickens’ own serial publication method, complete with episode-ending cliff-hangers. My only reservation – and it’s a relatively minor one – is that Charles Dance is hopelessly miscast as the lawyer Tulkinghorn: he’s too attractive, too young, and far too damn tall. 

Special acting honours: Phil Davis is (as ever) excellent as the wicked wizened old Smallweed, but the ultimate accolade has to go to Gillian Anderson. Like many other people, I was surprised and a bit sceptical when her casting was initially announced, since it looked too much like a blatant attempt to woo the US audience, but she proved me triumphantly wrong. She was perfectly aloof and glacial as Lady Dedlock, just as she was eerily beautiful as Miss Havisham in the recent Great Expectations.

And the winner is….

1:         Samuel Richardson – Clarissa
Richardson is a great literary hero of mine, and I think it’s a huge shame so few people now read him or (let’s be honest) have even heard of him. But that, dear reader, is exactly what a good screen adaptation can do. 

Clarissa was first  published in 1748, and tells the story of Clarissa Harlowe, tricked away from her oppressive parents and eventually raped by the libertine Robert Lovelace, who is in my opinion one of the great creations of European literature. The book is told entirely through letters, and if that weren’t challenging enough for a modern adapter, it’s nearly a million words long. This BBC version compresses the action into three brilliant hour-long episodes that portray the stifling oppressiveness of the Harlowe family house, the increasingly unsettling atmosphere in the London house Lovelace takes Clarissa to, and the full horror of the final rape scene, which in the novel takes place ‘off stage’. A truly marvellous book, turned into equally marvellous TV, and I can’t recommend either highly enough.


Special acting honours: Sean Bean is utterly mesmerising as Robert Lovelace, capturing his dangerous charisma with amazing skill. As his feelings for Clarissa contend with his baser impulses, you can actually see that conflict written across his face in tiny but terrifying changes of expression. And, needless to say, he looks absolutely magnificent in a pair of breeches….

This post was first written in 2012 for the FilmvsBook blog

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