Archives for posts with tag: period drama

Adapting a novel for television is normally straightforward. Yes, you may want to update the language so as not to be un-PC and it is wise to cut any weak subplots (or add new ones to stretch out the series of more episodes than the material gives you), but overall the work is one for you.

So how then do you approach adapting an unfinished novel? It can be hard enough with a good author to guess how the final few chapters are going to go, but when you have less than half a book you are faced with countless questions.

This is the issue facing Sanditon, an incomplete Jane Austen novel that only had around 50-odd pages completed. It does help that Austen stories fit a clear pattern, but even so, it is quite a challenge. Yet perhaps it is also strangely liberating – the final destination of the characters are in the screenwriters hands and, so long as it feels like it fits the pattern, should not upset fans too much.

Sanditon focus on the story of Charlotte Heywood, a country girl invited by a wealthy family to the new seaside resort of Sanditon, which is being built around their ears. All the stereotypes of Austen are there – the dangerous young man (Edward Denham), the imposing matriarchal aristocrat (Lady Denham) and the brooding hunk (Sidney Parker).

The plot is therefore obvious – Charlotte is to initially dislike Sidney, with a mutual feeling in response, before some tragedy brings them together and makes them see each other in a new light, with other obstacles (not least the social order) getting in their way of being together.

To be fair, it is done well. Two episodes in and we are the still not liking each other stage, although Sidney has appeared naked in front of Charlotte, which is one of many things I’m not convinced Austen would have included. I doubt many viewers would have complained though, especially as Poldark has come to an end and Theo James clearly knows his way round a gym.

But it is the subplots that are more interesting. Firstly, the plotting of Edward and his sister Esther to sully the reputation of Lady Denham’s ward Clara in order to gain her inheritance. This also is very forward compared to traditional Austen, with its references, albeit coded, to hand jobs. It almost feels as if the book has been confused with some kind of Regency version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The other is the heirless Miss Lamb, the daughter of a sugar plantation owner and a former slave. Cynics might see it as deliberate casting of an ethnic minority. I personally think it adds to the battle of social orders Austen often included in her novels. Miss Lamb is hating England and her guardian Sidney. A friendship is forming with Charlotte though, which gives her another reason to throw her in the path of our hero.

Perhaps the best thing is to pretend this isn’t an adaption at all and is an entirely new creation. It allows us to hang those questions about its sincerity to the original text out to dry. Instead, let us wallow in everything and enjoy this slightly more edgy period drama. Not everything has to be authentic.

Advertisements

Sometimes a programme can be compared to another unfairly purely because of one key similarity. It is never the intention of the writers or cast, who are trying to produce something original, but the marketing and media latch on to something. I feel that Beecham House is suffering somewhat from this, in that you feel that ITV really wanted a new Downton Abbey and, bar a few comparable notes, haven’t got it.

The show is set in pre-colonial India, when it is a trading post for the British and French and plans for either to rule it are still in their infancy. John Beecham, former East India Company employee and now independent trader, has set up home here and his assorted friends and family are descending onto his life, both welcome and otherwise.

The biggest comparison to Downton is in its rather sanitised approach to its lead characters. Just as the Earl of Grantham and his family became pseudo social workers to their staff, John Beecham seems to be a one-man racial equality campaign. He is disgusted by his mother’s prejudices and, it emerges, was briefly married to a ‘native’, producing a mixed-race baby. The ‘colonisation’ of India’s women is instead portrayed through his wayward brother, who has a liking for a local brothel. I’m not an historian, so can’t say which picture is closer to the truth, but Beecham is a man with 2019 sensibilities. I fully expect him not to bat an eyelid at the first same-sex relationship he comes across.

It doesn’t help the show’s aim to form its own identity that Lesley Nicol, who played the indomitable Mrs Patmore, plays Beecham’s mother, channelling a late 18th century Hyacinth Bucket. Apologies for my own snobbishness here, but I don’t quite buy her as a social climber when she still sounds like she should be bemoaning having to make an extra pudding due to unexpected guests arriving.

The biggest problem the show is facing is that, unlike Downton, it is unwilling to give in to its more soapy elements. I have yet to see anything that could be seen as humour, or tension for that matter. Nobody seems under any real pressure or showing any sparks, and the plots seems to grind on. To add to this insult, all the female characters seem to be presented as obstacles to Beecham’s noble quest, whilst somehow also being unsubstantial in personality.

Why am I watching it? God only knows. Probably because there is nothing on and money is too tight for me right now to socialise. But dear God, does bankrupting myself seem a pleasure compared to sitting through this. At least Downton Abbey movie is coming soon. In doing so, it will only serve to expose its competitors flaws.

As I have mentioned before, I very rarely give up on something after one episode. The merest hint that it could get better or be worth investing in and I’m there. Often I am proven right. Sometimes though I am tested. The first episode does enough to put me off entirely and I never go back or get close to.

The Alienist very much pushed me to the limit of what I was willing to go back to. It had several off putting elements, including open misogyny and extreme violence. Yes, both were central to the plot, but it was still a very comfortable watch.

What challenged me the most was the gore. I don’t handle gore well and find subtle hints at it serve a much better function and make a more interesting narrative then serving it up on a plate. The desecrated corpse of a child was bad enough, but for me it was the man banging is head against the wall, blood pouring down his face and syphilis marks all over him that was the hardest watch. It was making me, in northern English parlance, ‘gip’.

I didn’t find any of the characters, even the good guys, likeable either. So the omens were not good for me carrying on.

Yet I did, because part of me, despite my disgust, wanted to see the crime solved. And the second episode was significantly better. Firstly, the gore, although still present, was in smaller doses. Also, I began to warm to Dakota Fanning’s secretary character and even warmed a little to Luke Evans, although Daniel Bruhl is still annoying me. The Jewish brothers are also getting more of a role, and like Fanning, are providing a bit of warmth to an otherwise cold story.

The plot of police corruption and male prostitutes is also serving a proper function now rather than just acting to shock. All in all, it has turned a corner. Of course, it can no doubt turn back again, but let’s hope it doesn’t.

Even so, this isn’t for the faint hearted. There is no attempt at humour, even dark humour, bar the odd aside. It is uncompromising in what it does and can border on the unpleasant.

My advice – have something sunny and happy in your back pocket for when you are done. I have season 2 of Nailed It! ready to go as soon as I am done with it, and also watching the last season of The Middle. After The Alienist, you need that dose of loveliness. It probably wasn’t what the writers intended, but it is the result.

I avoid adaptations as a rule. If it is a book I have no interest in reading, why would I want to see a TV version? If I do want to read it, why would I spoil the pleasures of it? And if I have read it, why would I want someone else’s interpretation ruining mine? I can’t help but thinking if everybody followed this logic, then there would be a lot more space for some original programmes to me made.

Yet every so often one suckers me in. It helps if I’m nostalgic about the book, the reading of it conjuring up a time in my life. Plus there are surely some books that they can’t mess around with that much.

Such is the case with The Woman in White. I read this at university and loved it. Victorians knew how to do Gothic sensationalism. Menacing aristocrats, creepy buildings, women who would kill you as quick as kiss you, it’s all there. And there is nothing like sinking your teeth into a good mystery. It transfers to TV so easily that it seems silly to faff about with it.

Yet there has been faff. First, an artsy narrative structure has been imposed of characters giving statements to a solicitor dealing with a case, but not necessarily the case at the centre of the story. Then there’s the feminist speech my Marian Halcombe. I have no objection to feminist speeches, but a good adapter would have found a way of showing us that men are wicked towards women rather than telling us. It’s all there in the plot anyway, so why club us over the head at the start

Having said that, I don’t totally object to this adaptation. Jessie Buckley is very good as Marian, playing the less-than-typical Victorian lady as was intended, opening speech besides. In fact, the casting all round works so far. I have a shaky memory of the finer details of the book, which will help the adapters get away with some things, but Walter Hartright is largely an ineffectual hero until the end, and Ben Hardy, without being rude, has that look about him.

What will make this adaptation live or die is the performance of Count Fosco, who makes his first appearance in the second episode. He needs to be charming yet threatening, and if memory serves me correctly, attractive despite (or because of) him carrying a bit of extra weight. If that doesn’t work, the book’s most alluring character is dead in the water and the rest of the plot with it.

I still come back to that jarring note though I understand that if a story has been told before then it needs a new way. But credit the viewers with being modern enough to see the misogyny played before them. Don’t make characters utter statements that render the plot impotent. And don’t think you know better than the classics. They became so for a reason.

Such is the power of Netflix, seasons may change their name to some of its biggest hits new release dates. Spring will become House of Cards, although quite how that will pan out following recent events we can only guess. Summer will be Orange is the New Black. Autumn so obviously is Stranger Things. And winter can only possible be named The Crown.

The Crown lends itself to the headlong rush to the festive season in the same way Downton Abbey did. No matter if the setting is high summer, there is something about the sumptuousness of the clothes, the stodginess of the food and the innate cosy feeling mixed with a dash of grimness of the architecture that it is always winter psychologically – both in positive ways and negative.

The Crown is possibly my favourite of all Netflix productions because, in its own slightly stodgy way, it tells us how the personal and political will always intertwine, yet appear to lead separate lives. A personal foible of a politician setting a train of events from which there becomes no escape. How those events can speed up or instigate social change, or at times try and be a last defence against it.

The first two episodes of the new season demonstrate this. Episode one may begin with a royal marriage on the rocks and be threaded throughout with suspicions of adultery, but it is the Suez Crisis that is a focal point and the vanity of those who instigated it. Already the Queen is faced with the challenging of being a stable fulcrum around which the men who serve her in government flail, grasping for power and a legacy.

Episode two sheds more light on the relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip, as the latter constantly battles to form his own identity. He is a navy man, happier in the company of men and physical pursuits, revelling in what one character calls ‘a six-month stag night’. Along the way, we see what formed him into an unemotional man who perhaps struggles with the idea of being part of a family. It takes the rumour of a private secretary’s own adulteries to remind him of his duty to his wife and children, and even then we still have not returned to the crescendo of emotions that opened the season.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith embody the slowly changing personalities wonderfully. She, slowly gaining in confidence to question the men in power; him, relinquishing his need to control. And then there is the cast who surrounds them – Vanessa Kirby still steals the show as Princess Margaret, giving us this seasons must-have GIF for all party goers over the festivities.

There are no doubt faults, but quite frankly I don’t want to dig for them. For all the harsh realities that this show portrays – the limited status of women and the decline of Britain to name two – it is still a warm blanket that envelops you. This is why it is perfect winter viewing, it wraps you up and brings you comfort. Which is exactly what we need.

One of the signs you are getting old is the fact that the decade you were born in can be classed as ‘period drama’. How you define this genre is debatable – I personally would argue that anything sans bonnet and breaches is modern – but it appears that the 80’s are now a valid historical setting.

Perhaps there is a need for a string whiff of nostalgia for a past time that qualifies an era for that term. It is certainly nostalgia that drives Stranger Things 2. The detail it employs is beautiful if a little clichéd. The mullets, the double denim, the perms, the knitwear – all mockable yet slightly revered. And then there’s the pop culture references, with the excitement of electronic music and a new wave of sci-fi.

Anybody over 35 could spend the show simply ticking off things from their childhood and not pay any attention to the plot. Which is possibly a good thing as, let’s be honest, it feels very slow. Bar a few hallucinations it has taken four episodes to give us anything approaching chills, and that came from breaking the golden rule of ‘Don’t Kill the Cat’.

If anything, it is proving its strength as a coming of age story meets social drama. The introduction of Max as someone mixing up the fraternity of teenage boys is a good example of this. She also comes with her own mini-mystery, which I find more enthralling than the ones that are supposed to be taking centre stage. Ditto, the pseudo father-daughter relationship between Hopper and El is more honest when it isn’t enthralled to El’s telekinesis.

The comedy also appears to be stronger this time round and is very much appreciated. It comes as a relief to what would otherwise be a very bleak landscape of decaying pumpkins, small-town claustrophobia and paranoia.

Which brings me back to the central problem I have – I don’t know if I care too much about the mysteries being solved or the tension/horror heightened. What are the vines that the scientists are killing about? Why are the pumpkins decaying? Who is number 008 and are there others? None of these matter to me personally as a viewer, bar maybe the last puzzle.

It’s a sign the Duffer Brothers were relying on our binge watch habits to put 008 in at the start of the season and not mention her again for at least four episodes. As a non-binge watcher I have spotted this flaw. Not all of us want to digest all nine episodes in one go and we deserve a reward for our more episodic viewing habits.

Yet, despite these many issues, I am compelled to watch on, not least because this is the show everyone is talking about, be it good or bad. Next month it will be The Crown. Perhaps that is the secret of Netflix’s success – it doesn’t matter how good the show actually is, so long as it gets enough mentions on social media to draw more moths to the flame. You can only hope that quality is going to be a second thought.

Adapting a novel for the screen, big or small, must be one of the most challenging projects on TV. It’s all very well having the plot nicely written for you, but this becomes a hindrance. Do you stick to it rigidly, digressions and all? Do you focus on just the main strands but axe some minor characters, who could actually be the most interesting of them all? Do change the ending to suit your ‘vision’?

However you answer these, you are bound to ruffle feathers. Be too close to the book and you risk making something pointless – after all, people may as well just read the story and get the full flavour unless you do something original. Lose a minor character and you remove potentially some of the best moments or give them to someone entirely unsuited. Change the ending or a major plot point and people will howl at the moon if you even put the slightest foot wrong with the change.

When it’s a book you love, you feel very protective of what is created. You have your vision and woe betide anyone who doesn’t go along with it. So I was nervous about the recent adaptation of Decline and Fall, a book I read as a precocious teenager. Or, at least I was nervous, until I realised I couldn’t remember most of it. I definitely recollect enjoying it and finding it funny though.

I suppose then, that this adaptation’s one and only test was to be funny. It stood a good chance with Jack Whitehall in the lead role of Paul Pennyfeather. Yet I was surprised by how lifeless he seemed to make the character. Of course, that is partially due to the nature of the story – the pitfalls that occur are caused by others’ actions on to him rather than his own agency. Even so, book Paul always seemed more robust than TV Paul. This could be partially due to a reader having more access to an inner monologue and the narration, where the satire is probably sharper. It could also be a faulty memory of mine.

Nevertheless, quietly politely rarely carries a story well, so it falls onto the supporting cast to give the story its life. They do this admirably, in particular Vincent Franklin as agnostic minister Prendergast and Douglas Hodge as Grimes, a man who is nearly always ‘in the soup’.

There are hints at the satire that Waugh was aiming for in his novel. The Bollinger Club and the government officials who manipulate their way to the top and stay there, largely by passing blame on to those underneath. The ‘trendy’ approach to maintaining discipline in prison. An education system that focuses on please parents over teaching children. All as true now as then. I can’t help feeling it couldn’t have been more savage though. This was satire with gloves on. What it needed was for a brick to be hidden in it.