The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: February, 2012

Review of Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna (2011)


Though “fidelity criticism” is somewhat frowned upon by academics in the field of adaptation theory, it is nonetheless irresistible to the general public. When one watches an adaptation of a book with which one is already acquainted, what is more natural than to compare the two and ponder the differences between them? Where this may become less than helpful is in the not uncommon case that any deviation from the source text is considered as a flaw or failure, without consideration to the possible reasons for making such a change. Of course, when one is seeing an adaptation of a work one does not particularly like, this danger is averted. Such was my situation yesterday when I attended a screening in Dublin’s Cineworld of Michael Winterbottom’s new film Trishna, as part of the Jameson Dublin Irish Film Festival.



Trishna, with Frieda Pinto in the title role, is based on Thomas Hardy’s oft-adapted Tess of the D’Urbervilles, updated to contemporary India. Winterbottom makes many substantial changes to the story, even apart from those contingent on the new setting. Most strikingly, the figures of Angel Clare and Alec D’Urberville are conflated into one character, Jay Singh (Riz Ahmed). Jay is both the ruthless predator and the gentle romantic. In this respect, I think Trishna marks a progression in terms of psychological complexity from Hardy’s work. Even Michael Irwin’s introduction to my copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Wordsworth, 2000) finds Alec to be “the merest stereotype” and Angel’s dialogue to be “pompous and unidiomatic […] if anything less credible and less appealing even than Alec’s”. Of course, Irwin goes on to claim that Tess’s merits transcend mere characterization, but one’s acceptance of this depends on how one ranks characterization v. symbology/ abstract themes as novelistic criteria. So Winterbottom adds interest by making these two one character, but even he avoids the full complexity of the issue by introducing a temporal separation: Jay begins as a gentle and kind figure, even when fulfilling Alec’s plot-functions like teaching Trishna to whistle and eventually seducing her; quite suddenly, a certain discovery about Trishna turns him into an irredeemably nasty individual – his nastiness is in itself, though irredeemable, believable, but in the context of his previous self, it’s questionable. Similarly undermotivated becomes Trishna’s original decision to flee Jay in the wake of her seduction, as her feelings for him do not appear to have the same equivocality as Tess for Alec.


This is always one of the dangers of adaptation: retaining plot while altering characters. A character function which made sense when the character was presented in a certain way can suddenly seem incongruous. Thus, I think Trishna is a flawed film, but an interesting and at least intermittently powerful one, and one that deserves appreciation for its attempt to explore gender relations in a way that Hardy never envisaged.

Beating the Poor: the BBC North & South (2004)

The adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South first aired on BBC1 in November/ December 2004 was, I believe, quite well received, particularly the portrayal of mill owner John Thornton by Richard Armitage, who made quite an impression if the IMDb reviews are anything to go by. It is, of course, quite faithful to Gaskell’s novel, which is half romantic melodrama, half commentary on industrial relations, the rise of trade unions and so forth. I want to talk about one scene which jarred me somewhat, and which is not taken from Gaskell.

It is the introduction of our hero Mr Thornton, occuring a few minutes in. The heroine and the focalizer in the serial (and the book), Margaret Hale (played by Daniela Denby-Ashe), enters Thornton’s factory. The setting of the factory is given a strange wonderland quality by the wisps of cotton floating through the air like snowflakes. I’m not sure if this is intentional; obviously, such airborne materials were highly obnoxious to the health of the workers, but they sure looked pretty, in this serial at least. Anyway, she sees Mr Thornton in the distance, standing looking down over the plebs on the factory floor, smartly dressed in a black suit, striking a very stylized pose, very Byronic in fact. Suddenly, his watchful stillness gives way, he roars out “Stephens! Put that pipe out!” and rushes after a worker, presumably Stephens, then grabs him, tears the pipe from him and, in an awesome display of macho power, actually beats the crap out of him, punching him in the face and stomach till he falls to the ground, then gives him a few kicks to the torso before letting him crawl away.

Why the insertion of such an excessive scene? Perhaps it’s a particularly strong expression of the class bias of period drama. Of course, Margaret is suitably shocked by Thornton’s actions, and expresses her disapproval to him and to other characters, but really, she knows better, and so do we as viewers. The swelling strings that accompany Thornton’s entrance, the idealized pose, his conspicuous handsomeness, the open-mouthed awe in Margaret’s face as she watches him– it is very obvious that this man is to be our hero, and here he is performing an act of unbridled violence. We can’t approve of this, we tell ourselves, but always knowing: this is the hero, there’s going to be a good reason for this; and provisionally exonerating him as we await the rationale for his actions. So strongly is he coded “hero”, that his act of violence is already endorsed.

And to introduce him with this act. Before he is anything else, he is a man who subjugates his social inferiors through brutal force. This scene makes a strong statement indeed about the class values of the period drama, or at least of this particular period drama – I don’t want to over-generalize, though I think that a class bias may well be more generally detectable in this type of adaptation, albeit not so violently expressed.

And yes, the reason, when it finally emerges, several scenes later, is an infallible one. Mr Thornton witnessed the aftermath of a devastating fire in a cotton mill, seeing bodies of the 300 dead. Including children. All because of an accidental flame. Subconsciously, we already knew that.


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