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Opinion: do we really need more classic novels adapted? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: do we really need more classic novels adapted?

Opinion: do we really need more classic novels adapted?

There are no new old titles left. It's time to get inventive

Unfinished business: Matthew Rhys, Tamzin Merchant and Freddie Fox in the BBC's newly completed 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

Wanted: classic novel, preferably 19th-century but 18th will do, or early 20th. Anything reeking of period before television acceptable, though preferably not too working class. English if poss. Barnaby Rudge need not apply.

Is there a crisis in the adaptation industry? Is inspiration running dry? This Christmas a new adaptation of Great Expectations became the fifth – yes, the fifth – version of the work put out by the BBC. In a nanosecond or two the movie will follow with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Mike Newell (Four Weddings, Harry Potter 4) at the helm. No matter that Dickens turns 200 this month, poor Pip Pirrip can surely make the journey from the Kentish marshes up to London only so many times before he and we are finally exhausted.

Meanwhile, last autumn the Brontës were also out for yet another jaunt. Jane Eyre this time took the impressive form of Mia Wasikowska, while Wuthering Heights was given the Andrea Arnold treatment. And Sherlock Holmes is currently stalking large screen and small as if employing a body double. Not that you'd mistake Guy Ritchie's chop-socky version and the BBC reinvention starring Benedict Cumberbatch (pictured below in The Hounds of Baskerville).

For the most part, the classic novels of English literature keep coming round again and again and, although there are a lot of them, you do wonder at the extra expense of making a new version of a well-known story. Couldn’t they just show the last one? The situation has grown little short of desperate. It’s not unlike those dire warnings of the North Sea oil running out. Film and, especially, television have always relied on plucking much-loved tomes from the library of classic fiction. In recent years, though, they have plucked a little too greedily. Even if you allow a 20-year moratorium before novels can be adapted again, thanks to Merchant Ivory, Andrew Davies and ITV’s discovery that their viewers don’t just like to watch grumpy cops reel in and bang up serial killers, stocks are now ominously low.

Think of the classic adaptations as a set of Panini stickers you collect in an album. The Austen page is now full, twice. EM Forster’s page has been for ages. The Hardys have been collected, if not always very well and not including all the ones nobody reads. The one decent Thackeray has gone, on TV and on film. The better George Eliots have all been done. (Anyone for the unreadable Romola in six parts? Thought not.) Even Joseph Conrad has been busily adapted in recent times, although all that the screen versions of Nostromo and The Secret Agent proved was that he is unadaptable. There’s not much Henry James still worth doing and there is no collectible Wilkie Collins left. Mrs Gaskell has been mined to exhaustion. Meanwhile, the most filmable novels of the 18th century – Tom Jones, Gulliver’s Travels, Clarissa and Moll Flanders – have all been adapted and won’t be again soon.

In recent years some creative minds have grown inventive. Jane Austen’s perpetual popularity has proved so overwhelming that every novel has been done twice since that lovely BBC Persuasion directed by Roger Michell kicked things off in 1995. Pride and Prejudice has been done for TV, for film, for TV again in the form of Lost in Austen and for film with a Bollywood spin in Bride and Prejudice. The novels of Sarah Waters have given Davies and others a different way of rummaging in history’s drawers. And Downton Abbey is, of course, a costume drama awaiting a cash-in novelisation. Thanks to Posy Simmonds's graphic-novel version of Far from the Madding Crowd, they've taken to updating Hardy.

The more urgent news is that Sebastian Faulks's bestselling World War One novel Birdsong, having just been done on stage by Trevor Nunn, has finally made it to the screen with Eddie Redmayne (pictured left) in the lead and Clémence Poésy (who played Fleur Delacour in Harry Potter). It is yet another cinematic gig for Abi Morgan after Shame and The Iron Lady. The scenes from the trenches may well look a little more visceral than Downton's. It's also pleasant to note that The Mystery of Edwin Drood is putting in a rare appearance on television this week. It's a more intriguing gig for a scriptwriter than simply banging out yet another variation on a familiar story. No matter that the novelist's latest biographer Claire Tomalin is bracingly frank about the novel's shortcomings, Dickens's final and unfinished novel has been completed on this occasion by Gwyneth Hughes.

But the question still remains. Where do we go from here, apart from over the same old ground, or into the poxy fake past of Ken Follett? Has poetry been considered? Has Andrew Davies thought of wrestling Byron’s unfinished Don Juan onto the screen? You can picture a luscious if low-budget BBC Four account of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and couldn’t someone commission Tim Burton to bring off a massive international co-production Spenser’s The Faerie Queene? There’s a bit in the third canto where two completely naked nymphs with long blonde locks are washing themselves in a river. That may come up reasonably well on screen. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for the commissioning apparatchiks:

  • This Side of Paradise: Scott Fitzgerald’s debut bustles with beautiful young Princetonians being elegant and witty. Downside: too damn smug for its own good.
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho: Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic chiller, big on rugged Italian landscape and haunted castles. Downside: may need a feminist reboot to get the green light.
  • La Terre: Zola’s muddy epic about peasants squabbling over land rights is perfect for television. Downside: suicidally depressing.
  • New Grub Street: George Gissing’s timeless portrait of the struggling hack, a Blairite tale of vacuity triumphant. Downside: it’s about journalists.
  • The Good Soldier Šveyk: Jaroslav Hašek’s hilarious WWI satire about the little man pitting his witlessness against the system. Offers ideal mix of big military canvas and gags. Downside: no female lead.
  • Finnegans Wake. Joyce's 17-year suicide note. Some readers who started it on publication in 1939 are now nearing the end. Downside: how long have you got?

Let us know if you've got a better idea.

  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood begins on BBC Two on Tuesday, 10 January at 9pm
  • Birdsong is on BBC One later this year
  • Great Expectations opens in cinemas later this year


The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. One of the best 19thc novels. A brilliant, meaty plot; sharply delineated, entertaining and loveable (and hateable) characters, and with the theme of fraud (financial, social and literary) running through it, absolutely relevant to the happenings of today. And very funny. Would be a great film, but an even better TV series I think. Contains a pleasing amount of sex and violence.

Great idea, Anna, except that the BBC did an excellent version in 2001, adapted inevitably by Andrew Davies and starring Matthew Macfadyen, David Suchet, Shirley Henderson, Douglas Hodge and Anne-Marie Duff. Trollope was also done in The Barchester Chronicles in 1982. Maybe it's time to have another go at them.

Really? Totally missed that - must look it out! Of course there's the enormous, creaking Pallisers adaptation with Susan Hampshire etc - almost unwatchable now (although hilarious) and worth doing again too. Also, The Old Wives' Tale (Arnold Bennett) and Anna of the Five Towns by the same author. Atmospheric and heartbreaking.

Hasn't it been done? I seem to recall David Suchet and Shirley Henderson stamping around a lot - it was great!

I'd love to see an adaptation of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani.

I agree, there was a beautiful film of this made in 1970, certainly due a remake. What about any Stefan Zweig but especially Beware of Pity? And wouldn't Andrew Davies have a ball adapting that frothy romp Evelina by Fanny Burney?

Surely it's time to go back to George Bernard Shaw and have another look and see if there is another Pygmalion in his back catalogue just aching for chance at the big-time.

I'd like to see any of the good, old-fashioned gothic novels filmed -- though I'd choose "Melmoth the Wanderer" by Charles Maturin over "The Mysteries of Udolpho". Though it would certainly be difficult to pull off, I'd love to see any attempt. Also, I think adaptations of "Pamela" and "Shamela" are in order, preferably as a pair. (The second could temper some of the more disturbing aspects of the first.)

I'm working with a couple artists on an adaptation of The Faerie Queene. Ours is just a graphic novel, but I have high hopes for a film adaptation :) Part of it will appear in an anthology by Seven Stories Press this summer. We don't have a great deal of material online (I need to take an afternoon and overhaul the website) but you can check it out here: or here:

Parts of Byron's "Don Juan" made it into "Don Juan DeMarco" with Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, and Faye Dunaway, and that seemed to do okay, so I think this is a property producers might really be interested in. Curious souls thumbing through the third canto of "The Faerie Queene" looking for the blonde skinny-dippers will only find Una setting aside her cloak before being accosted by a lion. You could appease their annoyance by directing them to Book Two, Canto 12 for the skinny-dippers (or just to the cover of the Hackett paperback of Book Two),

I meant to add, or else to Max Valentin's lovely statue of Una riding naked on the lion's back (much nicer than its nineteenth-century precedents).

Trollope, The Way We Live Now! Great suggestions and so very timely. And what's with no Heyer?! Here's one of the most charming writers ever and, like Barbara Pym, seems to get no respect. I'd kill for some terrific lively adaptations of Marie de France's tales.

Well of Loneliness?

Steampunk E.T.A. Hoffmann, "James Miranda Barry" by Patricia Duncker, and remember all that Balzac they did back in the 70's? That was fun.

I'd love to see Mary Barton adapted as a miniseries. And despite the '96 film, I think Jude the Obscure would be great to see again as well. On a less bleak, more costume- and landscape- and tortured-love-drama note, has Goethe's gorgeous Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) EVER been adapted in English?

I agree on 'Anna of the Five Towns' - this reminds me that Arnold Bennett's 'Clayhanger' was adapted many years ago and sadly I have never seen it. I did just write a long comment which unfortunately got lost due to some technical problem, and don't have time to write it all again, but will just say I think there are still many classic novels and short stories which have never been adapted at all, or not for many years, so there should be no danger of adapters running out. Sadly most adaptations now seem to be far too short and have to cut out most of the book, though.

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, glorious and heartbreaking, several hankies F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night, ditto Mrs. Gaskell, Wives and Daughters (or has it been done?)

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