Now that the nights are getting colder and darker, the TV networks are bringing out their winter heavyweights, which traditionally have included literary adaptations. On Monday night, BBC4 welcomed John Cleland’s saucy Fanny Hill while tonight will see ITV1 strive to reinvent Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a modern audience. And so to celebrate these new interpretations of classic novels, TV Scoop brings you our top ten literary adaptations.
Note how keen I am to stress that the source of these television gems must be those heavy things that fill libraries: books. A period drama, such as Rome or Band of Brothers, is keen to set the piece in a bygone era, but is not bound (ho!) to a plot by the work of a novelist. Other conditions of the list include no long-running serials (Jeeves and Wooster), no collective works of an author (Marple) and no, repeat no Catherine Cookson. The adherence to the author’s original work is all too often not what it should be, but any attempts to introduce the likes of Elizabeth Bennet, Rochester and Flora Poste to a mass audience must always be a good thing. And so on to the top ten
1. Bleak House
2005’s 15-part dramatisation of Dickens’ 1852/3 classic assumed an unconventional approach, being packaged in 30 minute instalments rather than the genre’s traditional 60 minutes, with two shown per week (at 8pm on Thursdays and 8.30pm on Fridays). This allowed it to follow Eastenders in the scheduling and like the Walford show, was promoted almost as a soap opera. This risk paid off with strong viewing figures, as it went on to BAFTAs and creative Emmys. The cast included respected British actors such as Charles Dance and international star Gillian Anderson alongside less expected figures such as Johnny Vegas and Matthew Kelly. But at the heart of the story featured three virtual unknowns: Anna Maxwell Martin, Patrick Kennedy and Carey Mulligan. The plot might be that of a long-running legal dispute, but Bleak House’s eccentric supporting characters, touching love stories and spiky humour resulted in another Andrew Davies triumph.
2. Brideshead Revisited
Bleak House might have packed some impressive names, but the 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s self-proclaimed ‘magnum opus’ carried probably the biggest on this list – Sir Lawrence Olivier. Of course, Sir Larry did not enjoy either of the starring roles of Charles Ryder or Lord Sebastian Flyte, these being handed to Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, but his presence testifies to the ambition, scope and quality of the 11-part mini-series. The show enjoyed impressive production values, beautiful location work and had everyone talking about the homosexual subtext between the two leading males. In 2000 the British Film Institute placed the programme as its tenth best British programme ever.
3. Pride and Prejudice
What is there left to say about P&P? The show gave us Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in his wet shirt, a heroine in Elizabeth Bennet to root for and many laughs courtesy of the hysterical Mrs. Bennet and her droll hubby. P&P had people watching a literary adaptation who would never think to do so and its widespread appeal transferred to fashion, interior design and launched the phenomenally successful Bridget Jones. Amazingly, the 1995 six hour production is rated on entertainment review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes with a 100% quality rating. Every girl’s favourite.
4. The Forsyte Saga
So good they made it twice in 1967 and 2002. John Galsworthy’s three novel set follows generations of Forsytes, with the materialistic and cold Soames at the heart of the action. The 2002 Granada version was presented in two parts and starred top British talent such as Damian Lewis, Rupert Graves and Ioan Grufford, while the original was such a hit for the BBC that 18 million tuned in for the grand finale.
5. David Copperfield
This Dickens two-parter was screened over Christmas Day and Boxing Day in 1999 and saw an ickle Daniel Radcliffe appear as a young David Copperfield. The starry cast also featured fellow Harry Potter stars Maggie Smith and Imelda Staunton with cockney hard man Bob Hoskins. This semi-autobiographical tale of a boy overcoming terrible adversities earned the BBC more BAFTAs and interestingly starred Harry Lloyd, the great-great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens as Young Steerforth.
6. Lady Chatterley
Director Ken Russell introduced a slight change to the name, snipping off the word ‘lover’ but remained loyal to Lawrence's bawdy plot of a young woman’s affair with gruff groundskeeper Mellors. The sexy shenanigans of stars Joely Richardson and Sean Bean caused a media uproar when broadcast in 1993, but helped rocket them both to stardom.
7. Jane Eyre
The most recent adaptation on the list, 2006’s four-part version of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 classic romance cast unknown Ruth Wilson as our steely heroine with Toby Stephens on moody-mode as Rochester. The programme earned plaudits both here and in the US, and despite a few, very slight discrepancies maintained the haunting quality of the novel.
8. Cold Comfort Farm
Twice adapted for television, the 1995 interpretation of Flora Poste’s comic struggles with the bizarre Starkadder clan at Cold Comfort Farm came with many names (Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley) but provided a terrific platform for star-on-the-rise Kate Beckinsale. This entry is unusual, both as a product of the twentieth century (author Stella Gibbons penned it in 1932) and especially since it parodies the grim realities in books by authors such as Dickens.
9. Tipping the Velvet
Written by Sarah Waters in 1998, this Victorian saga of lesbian love was her debut novel and earned this adaptation in 2002. Telling the story of Nancy Astley’s (Rachael Stirling) love affair with male impersonator stage performer Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes), the three-part drama refused to shy away from the graphic lesbian sex and provided an unusual spin on the conventional period drama romance.
10. Crime and Punishment
A philosophical examination of the moral dilemmas of committing crime, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel is a world away from bonnets, picnics and chaste kisses. With TV Scoop darling John Simm in the lead role as tortured soul Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, we witness the mental anguish of the individual in what Simm has revealed is his favourite book. As expected, 2002’s version is a heavy, intense and darkly challenging piece of television.