Archive | December, 2011

Great Adaptations

31 Dec

The fact that the world will celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday on  February 7th, is somewhat bitter-sweet. Although being born on the same day as Dickens is somewhat interesting, sharing my day of birth with someone quite so brilliant only serves to remind me that I am nowhere near being a  literary genius who will shape the English language for centuries to come. And as if to add insult to injury, this year… on the run up to OUR birthday he is unknowingly trying to stop me from reading one of his famous novels.

As I watched the credits fade on the BBC’s latest adaptation of Great Expectations, as part of their Dickens season, it raised an important question:Why do we  still kill ourselves reading what we can essentially just watch in the form of a film or a 6 part series? Okay…so apart from the fact that reading great works means you are experiencing them as they were meant to be experienced; marvelling at the authors use of syntax, symbolism and wit and so forth… the truth is adaptations are  just as good as reading the book if not sometimes much much better.

And because literary adaptations have given us some of the best film and television in recent years, here’s a round-up of five of the very best.

1.       Pride & Prejudice (1995)



This BBC TV mini-series, adapted by Andrew Davies, first hit our screens in 1995 and has failed to stay off it ever since! Pride and Prejudice, written in 1813, is one of Jane Austen’s most famous works and follows the trials and tribulations of the Bennett family. Though it may not have the glitz and glamour of the new HD adaptations, Pride and Prejudice hugely boosted the popularity of both TV and film period dramas, leading to the wealth of adaptations we see today. Most importantly, it brought actor Colin Firth to public attention, causing him to become synonymous with the character of Mr Darcy ever since. Though the 2005 film saw Keira Knightly attempt to take up the role of Elizabeth Bennett, this version still remains the definitive and most popular adaptation of the title to date.

 2.       North & South (2004)


If the world of Jane Austen is far too dull and upper class for you, then North & South is the perfect antidote. Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic follows the romance of two very different people, John Milton and Margaret Hale, who fall in love in spite of their differences. The second adaptation of this title in 2004, delighted period drama lovers everywhere as it managed to take us from the southern English countryside to the harsh realities of the industrial north. Adapted by Sandy Welch and directed by Brian Percival, this series initially had very low expectations, but its success led to the DVD being released a year later. Though this is essentially a novel about love, this adaptation contains a fair bit of action and historical context to even keep the cynics at bay.

3.      Bleak House (2005)




Dickens’ ninth novel, which was originally published in twenty monthly instalments between 1852- 1853, was made into a fifteen part series by the BBC in 2005. This was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished Dickens adaptations to date, winning multiple prestigious television awards including a BAFTA for Best Drama Serial. With an excellent cast and director to match, this piece really stands out from the rest for its impressive cinematography and dark and brooding atmosphere (though this can probably be attributed to the reported £8 million spent on production). Bleak House was more experimental than most through its soap-opera like approach, showcasing two episodes per week and allowing the audience to become fully emerged in the storyline. Added to all this was the outstanding and unexpected performance given by X-files actress Gillian Anderson as Lady Deadlock.

4.       Jane Eyre (2011)


Though there are so many adaptations of this Charlotte Brontë classic, a new release of Jane Eyre still never fails to set literary hearts racing. Rather ahead of its time and much loved by feminists past and present, Jane Eyre follows the eponymously named heroine as she seeks out a life of independence despite her harsh and meagre circumstances. And although lovers of Jane Eyre don’t quite think they can take yet another portrayal of the death of Helen Burns, we watch it again-in the hope that this time they’ll hurry the poor girl along. Though there are just so many to choose from, such as  the 1944 version with Orson Welles or Susanna Whites offering in 2006, Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 feature film gets a mention purely because it absolutely slayed Wuthering Heights in the 2011 battle of the Brontë blockbusters.

5.       Romeo & Juliet (1996)


Although this isn’t quite in-keeping with the costume dramas above, who could recall successful adaptations and not mention Romeo & Juliet? When Baz Lurman first decided to take on the Shakespearean tragedy using the original text, there were strong doubts that it would work. However, when the film was released in 1996, it took the world by storm, allowing Shakespeare to not just be enjoyed by the mainstream, but to also be understood by the mainstream too. This, teemed with a stellar performance from then Hollywood hottie Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes, made it an instant success. Not since Franco Zefferelli’s attempt in 1968, had an adaptation of this kind quite captured the youth like this did. This film seemed to be educational and intelligent, whilst containing all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that seems necessary to make a Hollywood hit these days. Though there are many moments of pure genius thoughout the film, the opening fight scenes between the Capulet’s and the Montague’s at the gas station solidifies this version of Romeo & Juliet as one that will go down in adaptation history.

Though it can’t hurt to read a classic or two, the above proves just how fulfilling they can be on the screen as well as on the page. As for the Dickens novel I am reading? Let’s just say it is rather hard times…

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Is This England?

17 Dec


Anyone who’s a fan of Shane Meadows’ work wouldn’t have missed the second helping of his spin off series this week. This Is England ’88 sees the young rabble two years down the line (in telly time that is) as they attempt to deal with the consequences of the last series’ dramatic events.

 The first instalment of this three-part series starts on a good note as we are taken on a trip down memory lane with the help of The Smiths and archive footage of protests, starving African children and the much beloved Maggie Thatcher… just in case we forgot how miserable life was back then. Still, it makes for an effective opening whilst reminding the audience just how very little actually ever changes.

Pretty soon we arrive back down to earth with a miserable thud… a thud that is actually the pitter-patter of tiny feet. Lol, now a single mother to a mix-raced child, whom we quickly deduce must be a consequence of her affair with Milky, is a far cry from the fresh-faced mod princess she used to be. But we forgive her. After all, she’s been through a lot. Nearly being raped by your psycho father, then having to stab him to death, tends to have that effect on a person. And as if to add insult to injury, for our heroine, now suffering from a triple whammy of post natal depression, post traumatic stress AND paranoid schizophrenia, the name LOL now seems all too ironic.

We witness a somewhat diluted version of Woody as he attempts to move on with his life with new squeeze “ginger Jennifer”, who… strangely enough is supposed to be attractive…but I suppose it is the 80s. Milky, although returning as absent father to baby Louise, is largely unimportant and spends most of his time mooching around with a teddy bear under his arm. Meanwhile, Sean falls for the co-star in his college play. Proof indeed that any man can be a two-timing scumbag, no matter how he looks. Still, this all seems pretty boring and irrelevant when we consider all that has occurred before. In fact, until its denouement, this series seems to go from one depressing inanity to another, and leaves it far too late to display any action.  

 The first sign that this isn’t just all disappointing filler comes in the form of Woody and Milky’s showdown, where we finally catch a glimpse of the destruction Milky has left behind. And just when we thought we’d got rid of Lol’s menacing rapist father, he returns via her hallucinations, breathing heavily and freaking us out just as much as he did before.  Then, just in case you hadn’t thought Lol had been through enough, episode 3 witnesses her attempted suicide and offers up the most harrowing scenes of the series so far. It is fair to say that when we first saw ‘those scenes’ in This is England ’86, we told ourselves we’d never watch them again… And yet here we are being treated to an encore during Lol’s stomach pumping ordeal. Still, as the newest series itself contains so little to make the viewer’s hair stand on its end, it’s a strangely welcome addition.

 Whilst This is England ’86 could be criticised for its pacing issues ’88 can be accused of hardly getting off the ground. Still, it serves its purpose in bringing estranged lovers Lol and Woody back together, and indeed enabling them to both participate in what is sure to be the ecstasy fuelled nights of This Is England ’90.