Tuesday, 30 November 2010

It's Wednesday - This Must Be Barcelona

When I was in England recently, Downton Abbey was on the television. It is ITV's new programme, and it is wonderful. That is, it's terrible. Just like Upstairs Downstairs, (which they are making a new series of, apparently), it is high-class, (or faux high-class), tosh.

But that's not the point. Downton Abbey is wonderful, because it's an original show. It's wonderful, because, although it is gauzy, lightweight stuff, it is made from nothing but itself. It is a "period drama", but it isn't an adaptation. It didn't take a complex novel, pull out a few threads from it – storyline, characters and series title – and chuck away the rest. It is a piece of light, diverting entertainment and it makes no claims to be anything more than that.

The "classic serials" – the TV versions of Middlemarch, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and the various Dickens novels thus far presented – are also highly entertaining. They tell good stories – romances mainly – and are sumptuously presented - sprigged gowns and silk-ribboned bonnets blossoming at every turn. The problem is, as the visual translations of some of the best novels ever written in English, they are supposed to be more than frothy entertainments. They are supposed to be faithful representations of the great works from which they take their names.

And, in a way, they are - but only in the way a facade behind which an entirely new edifice has been constructed is a faithful representation of its original building, or the reporting in tabloid newspapers is a faithful representation of the truth. Watching the BBC's Little Dorrit, to take the most recent example of a television adaptation, you do gain some knowledge of the novel it is based on, but it is a pretty limited kind of knowledge. After viewing the full 14 episodes, you understand the original book as deeply as you might understand agricultural practices in rural Europe after crossing the Continent on motorways alone. When the final scene of the final episode of Little Dorrit fades from the screen, you are sad to say goodbye to the tale of Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit, star-crossed lovers, who meet, are parted and ultimately are reunited in a joyful wedding scene. It has been a long and not always straightforward romance that you have been watching, but at last it is resolved.

Of course, the Clennam-Dorrit plot line does exist in the novel. Indeed, it runs right the way through the thing. However, it is a pretext rather than the book's main reason for being. It provides the thread of human interest with which Dickens leads the reader on a ramble across his detailed canvas. It is the device (the much loved modern day scriptwriter's phenomenon, the URST) with which Dickens holds our attention, as he shows us the stuff that really interests him.

This ought really to be obvious, for, when we think about the word “Dickensian”, it is not young love but industrial misery that usually springs to mind. In the preface to Little Dorrit, it is not his attempt to depict a love story but his effort to portray a range of social evils that preoccupies Dickens. What concerns him about his new novel's reception is not how we read the tale of Amy and Arthur but whether his presentation of the Marshalsea Prison and of Merdle, the Barnacles and the Circumlocution Office will be a success. His one desire is that readers should not conclude “that nothing like them was ever known in this land.”

And yet, although detailed descriptions of the Circumlocution Office and the Barnacles and the effects of Merdle take up a major part of the text, although the Circumlocution Office becomes almost a character in its own right within the novel -

“Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart … Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT …the Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion … Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office ...” -

in the telly series it appears only on a few brief occasions, reduced to little more than some black-and-white floor tiles, a splendid staircase and Robert Hardy pulling faces up a set of library steps. Our understanding of its effects is diminished in much the same fashion. We see its impact on a few individual characters but there is no way to show how catastrophic and widespread its influence actually is.

Similarly, the far-reaching effects of the collapse of Merdle's business are portrayed in the television series in a very minimal way. What we see mainly are the financial problems Merdle's downfall creates for Clennam and his friends. The more dramatic aspects of the situation are, oddly enough, difficult to recreate in a dramatisation. It is beyond the scope of the medium of television to convey Dickens's description of the vast damage that has been done:

“Numbers of men in every profession and trade would be blighted by his insolvency; old people who had been in easy circumstances all their lives would have no place of repentance for their trust in him but the workhouse; legions of women and children would have their whole future desolated by the hand of this mighty scoundrel. Every partaker of his magnificent feasts would be seen to have been a sharer in the plunder of innumerable homes; every servile worshipper of riches who had helped to set him on his pedestal, would have done better to worship the Devil point-blank... For by that time it was known that the late Mr Merdle's complaint had been, simply, Forgery and Robbery.… He, the shining wonder, the new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts, until it stopped over certain carrion at the bottom of the bath and disappeared – was simply the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that had ever cheated the gallows ...The admired piratical ship had blown up, in the midst of a vast fleet of ships of all rates, and boats of all sizes; and on the deep was nothing but ruin: nothing but burning hulls, bursting magazines, great guns self exploded, tearing friends and neighbours to pieces, drowning men clinging to unseaworthy spars and going down every minute, spent swimmers, floating dead, and sharks”

I know some people will argue that removing the whole “didactic”, political side of Dickens can only enhance the original work anyway – and, after all, who but Fellini could do justice to imagery which includes a “piratical ship” and “floating dead and sharks”? For these viewers at least, removing all that dreary stuff that Dickens insisted on including can only be an improvement. However, even they must notice that there are other valuable elements that disappear in the transition from page to screen. Somewhere in the process, a number of important aspects of the original novels - not just those of Dickens, but also the works of Eliot and Hardy - vanish completely and the resulting productions are the poorer for it.

Just to begin with, the sharp characterisation that words on paper can give us is hard to mirror on film. Although in Little Dorrit – and, indeed, in all the “classic serials” - the acting is excellent, it is difficult to recreate the clarity of carefully chosen words. Even the finest performers are hard pressed to convey what Dickens so often manages in a phrase or two. The actress who plays Mrs Merdle, for example, has to overact like mad to get anywhere near showing us what Dickens conjures up in half a sentence: “she spoke as coldly as a woman of snow”. The actor who plays her husband, Mr Merdle, may look as withdrawn as he pleases, he may seem uncomfortable and slightly constipated, but it is impossible for him to get across what Dickens does when he tells us, “Merdle, as usual, oozed sluggishly and muddily about his drawing room” and had “a somewhat uneasy expression about his coat cuffs, as if they were in his confidence, and had reasons for being anxious to hide his hands.” The actress who gives us Fanny can flounce and stamp her foot to convey her impatience with Sparkler, but Dickens captures the same thing with so much less apparent effort: “At that point the object of his affections shut him up like a box with a spring lid, and sent him away.” Meanwhile the Mrs General on our television must sigh and sniff and purse her lips endlessly, when four words - “a Ghoul in gloves” - are all that is needed to capture her awfulness on the page.

And, as well as sharp characterisation, a truly intense perception of the setting of the story gets lost on the way to the studio. In the book, glimpses of a world swarming with colour and smell and texture rise vividly from the text. Strangely, despite the efforts of armies of designers, set-makers, costumiers, milliners, researchers and so forth, similarly detailed depictions of life in Dickens's London - such as this one, for instance –

"They walked on with him until they came to a dirty shop window in a dirty street, which was made almost opaque by the steam of hot meats, vegetables, and puddings. But glimpses were to be caught of a roast leg of pork bursting into tears of sage and onion in a metal reservoir full of gravy, of an unctuous piece of roast beef and blisterous Yorkshire pudding, bubbling hot in a similar receptacle, of a stuffed fillet of veal in rapid cut, of a ham in a perspiration with the pace it was going at, of a shallow tank of baked potatoes glued together by their own richness, of a truss or two of boiled greens, and other substantial delicacies. Within, were a few wooden partitions, behind which such customers as found it more convenient to take away their dinners in stomachs than in their hands, packed their purchases in solitude” -

do not come across as vitally on the screen.

Frequently humour is a casualty of the TV adaptations also. The verbal elements of the books are so often far too dense for television's speedy pace. We lose, as a result, the whole hilarious depiction of the residents of Hampton Court, including the retired ambassador, Lord Lancaster Stiltstalking, a:

“... noble Refrigerator [who] had iced several European courts in his time, and had done it with such complete success that the very name of Englishman yet struck cold to the stomachs of foreigners who had the distinguished honour of remembering him at a distance of a quarter of a century.”

In addition, with little except dialogue and images to tell the story, a great deal of subtlety ends up getting tossed aside.. For example, Mrs Clennam's steeliness is hideously undermined in the screen version, because it is too hard to explain her complexities with gesture alone. As a result, we even hear the redoubtable old boiler say, on Amy's departure, “I will miss her”, something the original character could never have brought herself to do. This is necessary because telly cannot convey the subtle nuances of personality that Dickens was able to supply in writing:

“As there are degrees of hardness in the hardest metal, and shades of colour in black itself, so even in the asperity of Mrs Clennam’s demeanour to all the rest of humanity and towards Little Dorrit, there was a fine gradation.”

Finally, and for me most grievously, in the case of Dickens in particular, television robs the viewer of the narrator's company. We lose detail, tiny asides – for instance, this comment about Mr Dorrit, when he appears, splendid, in his new dressing gown and cap: “the dormant grub that had so long bided its time among the Collegians had burst into a rare butterfly” - and authorial confidences, all of which are things that are antipathetic to the headlong nature of television and its need for the uninterrupted rattle of unimpeded action. 
Eliot, Hardy and, above all, Dickens produce writing that is packed with observation. Dickens's companionable voice adds an important dimension to his books. Without him there, we miss out on the wonderful hint of menace that his description of the signature that Blandois places under those of the Dorrits and the Gowans gives us: “ ... ending with a long lean flourish, not unlike a lasso thrown at all the rest of the names.” We are deprived too of his description of a pompous speech giver “trotting, with the complacency of an idiotic elephant, among howling labyrinths of sentences” and of wonderful phrases like this one: “the ascending night [coming] up the mountain like a rising water”. On television, Clennam merely stumps off down the street after leaving the Marshalsea, whereas in the book we see him “carrying the quiet with him into the turbulent streets”.

Even barely glimpsed characters come alive when we have the narrator at our side. “Young Barnacle appeared, attended by his eyeglass,” we are told. “A man so much in want of airing that he had a blue mould upon him” is pointed out to us, along with a lady who “was in such a tumbled condition altogether, that it seemed as if it would be an act of kindness to iron her.” We see Venice anew, as “a city where everything seemed to be trying to stand still for ever on the ruins of something else – except the water”. These insights and images are all left out of the screen versions of the various books, together with so many others (including, most shockingly, in my view, the fog which so memorably opens the original Bleak House).

Of course, all this impoverishing of the original rich material does not matter if you believe the justification that is often put forward for TV's flimsy adaptations - that they act merely as invitations, inspiring viewers to go away and read the original books. Leaving aside the fact that very few people do get around to doing that, those who actually turn to the original after watching a BBC production will almost inevitably find themselves disappointed. For a start, they will be expecting something light and easy, and they will find instead books that are dense, complex and quite often dark. On top of this, they will find that they have been robbed of one of the central pleasures of novel reading – the exercise of the imagination, the opportunity to form private and unique pictures in the mind. Preconceived images of all the main characters will have already been burnt indelibly into their brains by what they have seen on the screen.

But am I being too purist? Can it be argued successfully that seeing the TV versions of great books is better than nothing at all? Like a 10-day tour of the historic sights of Europe – it's Wednesday, this must be Barcelona – do these series give a wider public a small taste of things that they might otherwise never glimpse? And, if so, is it worth all the money and effort and compromise? A quick look at Milan Cathedral, a glance at the Colosseum, a rushed boat trip down the Grand Canal in Venice and a scurry through the Louvre – does it nourish the soul or is it an expensive waste of time? At what point is an experience so debased that it loses all its value? Does seeing pictures means you've actually got the picture or do you need to read the words as well?

(For anyone who actually reaches the end of this post [it was just something I had to get off my chest - at length], apologies for all the mad formatting - it will not go back to normal, no matter how hard I try; blogspot and I just do not seem to get along sometimes.)


  1. Interesting post (and worth getting to the end of it too). I find some TV adaptions more developed than the books, because they can highlight certain areas or characters more than my imagination can. Having said that, as much as I loved Cranford, the book far more enjoyable because of the deftness of touch.

  2. Agreed, in the main. But I really liked the recent series of Bleak House, one of my favourite of Dickens' books. And there was an earlier Little Dorrit (made in 1988), which told the story from first Arthur's, then Little Dorrit's, point of view as two separate films. This had much more depth and was, I think, more true to Dickens' text.

    But in the end, I think, a book is a book and a film is a film, and we enjoy them for different reasons.

  3. There's a lot in what you say, but The Sopranos and The Wire showed that, with great writing and a looooooong period to develop characters, TV can be a serious art form and do things that no other medium can do.

    The Beeb's Bleak House is probably the closest that British TV has got to this since Brideshead Revisited.

    I agree about the problem of seeing films before reading - that they diminish yr ability to imagine the characters as being other than the actor you've most recently seen - though it doesn't always happen.

  4. PS. If you post your text into the Edit HTML tab of Blogger, rather than the Compose tab, you shouldn't have these formatting problems.

    Basically you're retaining the format from the Word file, which is itself retaining the formats from wherever you've copied and pasted the bits from.

  5. Technical things first: Brit, it seemed to be all fine until I started trying to indent the quotations from Dickens, which I'd brought in from voice recognition - but they didn't cause a problem until I started fiddling with font and indentation. Any ideas?
    M-H and Brit: I think television is quite good for enlivening quite dull books - an example, for me, was Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which didn't excite me as something to read but, thanks mainly to some really good casting, I think, made terrific television. I just don't think anyone should dismantle a complex structure like, for example, Middlemarch and present it as in any way the same thing. It seems disrespectful to start turfing out bits and pieces from it - novels like that are always so carefully built and each decision about what goes in and where it goes has been taken with care by a master. On the other hand, if Bleak House had been called Miserable Hall and no-one had associated it with Dickens, I would have been quite happy with it.
    Madame - I agree about TV helping us to imagine characters, if we are talking about lesser works, but one of the things that makes 19th century novels so lengthy is the detail that is provided, which usually allows the reader to form a pretty good picture of all and sundry within the book.

  6. I tend to not be too purist - as you know by now I think - and agree with M-H that a book is a book and a film is a film. I think it's a bit naive (self-serving perhaps) of those who argue that a film/miniseries will lead people to the book - though it will for some. I think all we can expect (hope for) is an interesting interpretation that those of us who know the book in question can chew over, and the rest can hopefully enjoy and gain some understanding from. Anything more is probably asking too much cause a book is a ....

  7. I return to the theme today, Whispering, but over on the Dabbler blog site.

  8. Re. Can it be argued successfully that seeing the TV versions of great books is better than nothing at all?

    I wouldn't make a blanket argument for it, but I can imagine someone defending specific adaptations, saying, "This isn't the book, because it can't be the book, but it's worth seeing for itself." TV examples aren't springing to my mind right now, but I'd use that argument in favour of the Brothers' Quay's short film version of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, and Guy Maddin's feature-length Dracula.

  9. That 'worth seeing for itself' is not my favourite argument - often used to support fictionalised or dramatised imagined accounts of real historic events too. I'd prefer that people made up their own stuff.