Generic Progress in TV Adaptations of Classic Novels
by Mark Wallace
When one thinks of television adaptations, Sarah Cardwell noted in 2007 in an essay now available on Academia.edu, one tends to think of the classic serial: “relatively faithful adaptations of classic, mostly nineteenth-century, works of literature”. There is a certain pejorative edge to the use of the term, in many cases: classic serials are “conservative, staid and unimaginative”. Cardwell suggests that part of the reason the classic novel tends to find its home in the TV serial is that the serial form is a better fit than the standalone movie. TV has thus paid greater attention to the classics of English literature than film has.
Of course, when we think of a writer like Dickens, we know that he published in serial form, in itself a strong argument in favour of a “fit” between TV serial and classic novel. And Cardwell notes that TV serial adaptations have a particular aesthetic, one which brings out the expressionistic side of his work, rather than the elements of realism. Each new adaptation that appears in this mould demonstrates that adaptations adapt not only their putative source material, but also the generic conventions moulded by previous adaptations of the relevant work/ author/genre.
Characteristics of the classic serial, as opposed to film adaptations of classic novels, are, for Cardwell, that it places a “greater emphasis on dialogue, and on the slow development of characters and their interrelations” (184). She relates this to medium-specific technologies of the earlier days of TV, such as its studio-based character, involving the use of “cumbersome, heavy, and difficult to move” cameras, leading to the development of the characteristically ponderous to non-existent camera movement and high asl (average shot length) of the classic serial. Consequent upon this was a certain staginess to the actors’ movements, as they had to perform them all within a very constrained area so as not to go off-camera. It is such features that can render the classic serial particularly tedious and stilted to the contemporary viewer. The point Cardwell makes is that what began as medium-constraints that were soon discarded by other genres as the technological possibilities improved, were retained and exalted into genre characteristics by the classic serial. Cardwell’s example here is the 1971 serial adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion, a work whose old-fashioned staginess and limited camera movements make it rather difficult to watch (or at least to enjoy) from this vantage point. At this point the classic serial had decided not to move with the times, and to retain a directorial and cinematographic style from an earlier epoch.
Cardwell also draws attention to institutional factors, specifically the BBC’s Reithian objectives: to inform, educate and entertain (perhaps in that order). Television is not, in this sense, comparable to the more purely commercial sphere of film, and the classic serial was seen as the embodiment of the Reithian ideal.
But Cardwell sees the 1980s as the era when the most recognizable tropes of the classic serial were perfected, noting especially the influence of Brideshead Revisited (1981). The tropes in question are helpfully listed: “high production values; “authentic”, detailed costumes and sets; “great British actors”; light classical music; slow pace, steady, often symmetrical framing, an interest in landscapes, buildings, and interiors as well as characters; strong , gradually developed protagonists accompanied by entertaining cameo roles; and intelligent, “faithful” dialogue. (189) There’s a slight lacuna here, in that Cardwell doesn’t say why these came to prominence at this moment. She does mention the opening out of the TV market with the advent of ITV and Channel 4, but why this should have led to the increased success of the classic serial she doesn’t say.
Pride and Prejudice (1995) was both the high-water mark and the death knell of the classic serial. It was, Cardmell notes, “saturated with the norms of the genre”. This is true, but it certainly added to its appeal by the most overt sexification of the classic serial yet attempted, as exemplified by the famous Colin-Firth-dripping-wet moment. The iconicity of this moment also illustrates that the the popularity of the classic serial at this point rested above all on its appeal to female (heterosexual) viewers. Cardwell notes that it was in the years after Pride and Prejudice that the classic serial began to adopt different tropes, different directorial, cinematographic and scripting approaches. Yet, writing in 2004, the more pronounced deviations from the age-old norm were yet to come. Bleak House (2005) took the classic serial to a new place; the 2007 BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist attempted to marry the genre with the contemporary soap (using an established soap scriptwriter, Sarah Phelps), finally taking the old conjecture that Dickens wrote the soaps of his day to its logical conclusion.
War and Peace (2016), with its careful colour coding and emphasis on classical aesthetics, lavish costume and beautiful sets
Yet, from the vantage point of the present, the changes that appeared in the classic serial genre may not have run as deep as it appeared. Look at the BBC’s biggest production in the genre of this year: War and Peace. It’s got the high production values, the attention to historical detail in sumptuous sets and costumes; the use of a classical music score; the slow development; the cast of respected and established British character actors (Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson); the interest in landscapes, buildings and interiors as characters; the slow and stately direction (high asl); and it’s even written by Andrew Davies. One can easily see it as a sign of a regression in classic serials, and one may even postulate that the form of the classic serial is fixed ahistorically: it’s very point is that it does not “develop”, does not “move with the times”. Any efforts to move it in this direction are short-lived. The classic serial is what it is, and there is a significant market for that type of narrative. The 19th-century source and setting allow for types of stories that cannot be told otherwise. We don’t live as we believe they did; a 21st-century narrative involving such characters would strike us as implausible. But understanding the appeal of these narratives is a worthy goal, and would help us understand a little about ourselves.