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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