Features

Beyond Austen and Dickens: the classic novels that should be on TV

Prestige novel adaptations are a big British export. Why can’t we show a bit more imagination about what to adapt?

30 July 2016

9:00 AM

30 July 2016

9:00 AM

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever ITV or the BBC decides — the latter usually with charter renewal in the near or middle distance — that it needs to make some of that World-Class Drama it’s so proud of, its thoughts turn to regency frocks, scruffy urchins, pea-soupy London, agreeable country houses and the incessant clip-clop of hoof on cobble.

Classy costume drama — invariably based, for extra classiness, on classy fiction of the sort you might find in Penguin Classics — is one of our major exports. But in the range of its source material they consider, its makers are as blinkered as the inevitable horse that draws Mr Darcy’s inevitable carriage in the inevitable tracking shot round Pemberley.

You’ll get Dickens, Tolstoy, Jane Austen and — so garlanded by now in TV adaptation terms that she joins their ranks — Hilary Mantel. You might get the odd better-known Brontë, if you’re lucky, and Hardy always goes down well. Then what? George Eliot — quite wrongly — is usually seen as a bit on the stodgy side and not concerned enough either with love or jokes. In more recent times entire decades seem to be monopolised by Waugh, Wodehouse and Le Carré.

I think we can attribute much of this to the Midas touch of Andrew Davies — who has become so much the metropolitan power in the genre that he has shaped the landscape around him. And it makes sense that Davies makes a beeline for the big beasts of the 19th century. He seems, in large part, to be actuated by the innocently childish desire to épater la bourgeoisie by sexing up the classics and filling all those crinolines with erections. But there’s no shock value in shaking up something of which the general public had only the dimmest idea in the first place. You won’t read howls of outrage from Angus Wilson purists on the front page of the Daily Mail, no matter what you do to the original: at best you’ll get a pained note from D.J. Taylor in the back of Private Eye.

So there’s room for the net to be cast wider, it seems to me. Among other things, if you adapt a classic that has been much adapted before, you are inviting the Comparison Odorous — either to original or prior adaptation. With something less well known you have more room for manoeuvre.


We should surely be adapting minor books by major writers; fine, neglected books from second-string writers as they slip out of the canon; or outright bad books from writers who were never quite in the canon in the first place. The current rule seems to be that trashy books by living writers make Hollywood movies, and that famously outstanding books by famously dead writers make big-ticket TV adaptations. (Game of Thrones we leave to one side as being something else altogether.)

I canvassed bookish friends on social media briefly while writing this, and can report as a finger to the wind that there’s considerable enthusiasm for Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Green, Ronald Firbank, George Gissing, Somerset Maugham, Fanny Burney, Naguib Mahfouz, Patrick Hamilton, Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, Wilkie Collins, Simon Raven, Arnold Bennett and Joseph Roth (you could chuck in Roth’s frenemy Stefan Zweig while you were at it — snoots may sniff at his prose but that’s by the by when it comes to the telly). Why not Saki’s Clovis stories? G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is quite as strange and intriguing as you could want from a surrealist spy movie. More recently the Johnny Depp movie of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Mortdecai novels seemed to be a criminally wasted opportunity. Michael Moorcock’s back catalogue is bursting at the seams, as are those of 1970s writers in eclipse such as Anthony Burgess, John Fowles and Robertson Davies.

From across the pond I would like to see new versions of Nathanael West and Damon Runyon on screen. Or James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. And hell, how about an Upton Sinclair novel or two narrated (now he has time on his hands) by Bernie Sanders?

On the trashier end, I would love to see some old-style Gothic nonsense given an outing — The Monk or The Castle of Otranto or even (though this might be a bit too trippy) Vathek. And — given the success of True Detective — H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen surely deserve another look. In SF, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut are ripe for revisiting (not just retreading Farenheit 451 and Slaughterhouse-Five: what about the Cecy stories, or Cat’s Cradle and The Sirens of Titan?); and how awesome, for that matter, would Larry Niven’s Ringworld books look now that CGI could give us his Kzinti and Puppeteers?

And in crime? Couldn’t we take a break from the conveyor belt of slice-and-dice-on-the-slab merchants to investigate Jim Thompson (beyond the decent, if sanitised, film of The Grifters a good while back), Ed McBain or John D. MacDonald — to say nothing of the less celebrated pulp writers being rediscovered by smart small presses such as Pushkin and No Exit?

I should resist the temptation, though it is a strong one, to make this article a bare list of suggestions. My point is simply that by playing so safe — as I suppose they see it — our major broadcasters are not only gypping the general public: they are gypping themselves. The secondhand bookshop is a cornucopia of television that could be surprising, exciting, nourishing for screenwriters and every bit as visually impressive as anything in the front row of the 19th-century canon.

Television adaptation is a superb way of opening up literary history to the reading public in all its many-splendoured diversity. It just takes a little imagination and curiosity. And, rather than promoting a staid, restrictive and self-perpetuating idea of the canon as a metalled road down which a small handful of stately carriages proceed, it could open people’s eyes to what’s going on in the undergrowth. Where was Richard Yates with the reading public before someone took a punt on Revolutionary Road?

As I say, canvassing the bookish reveals considerable enthusiasm to see any number of neglected writers on the small screen. In fact, there’s considerable enthusiasm, tout court, for no more bloody Jane Austen.

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