Flora Watkins

Six literary adaptations that outdo The Pursuit of Love

Six literary adaptations that outdo The Pursuit of Love
Image: BBC
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The actress Winona Ryder once declared that if anyone attempted to film The Catcher in the Rye, she’d have to burn the studio down, such was her love for the book.

There’s many a Mitfordian wishing they could enact this retrospective action on the new BBC production of The Pursuit of Love. RAGE-messaging amongst my friends began even before Emily Mortimer’s directorial debut dropped on the iPlayer. ‘There’s not a single line from the book in the trailer!’ ‘Has she actually read the book?’ ‘Let’s go and crack stock whips under her window’.

There’s so much not to like about it (Andrew Scott’s viciously fabulous Lord Merlin notwithstanding): the jarring soundtrack lifted from Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the loss of much of the humour. But what has most upset the book’s many, many fans is that Mortimer (who also wrote the script) often substitutes her own leaden dialogue for Nancy’s effervescent wit.

When you’re gifted lines like — ‘Ducks can only copulate,’ said Linda, ‘in running water. Good luck to them’ — it’s best to leave well alone.

But translating a classic novel to the screen doesn’t have to be traumatic for purists. Done well, they can be treasured alongside the original, sometimes becoming iconic in their own right — and even, whisper it, improving in certain areas.

The Pursuit of Love (BBC One, 2001)

Deborah Moggach’s skilful blending of Pursuit with its follow-up, Love in a Cold Climate is a masterclass in how to retain the essence of a book, whilst tightening them dramatically. ‘Her dialogue is like cooking with the best ingredients,’ Moggach told me, when I interviewed her for a feature about the Mitford sisters, ‘but her grasp of narrative momentum wasn’t her strong point.’ Excising the ‘saggy bits’ (like when Fanny, played by a young Rosmund Pike, moves to Oxford), and intertwining the stories of Linda and Polly further, meant fans could leave Uncle Matthew’s entrenching tool hanging happily above the chimney-piece.

The Go-Between (EMI-MGM, 1971)

One of the most famous first lines in literature — ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’ is intoned by Michael Redgrave over the opening shots of his younger self (played by Dominic Guard) hastening towards Brandham Hall and the summer that will change the course of his life. Harold Pinter’s masterly adaptation of the LP Hartley novel lets the dialogue sing, whilst playing around with time in the storytelling in a way that pre-dates Christopher Nolan by decades. Pinter duly won the BAFTA for best adapted screenplay; the movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Brideshead Revisited (Granada TV, 1981)

Bringing a period piece to the screen doesn’t need a script that crudely rams home aspects of the era (as the new Pursuit does with women — Happily married or unhappily married — that’s the choice'). Imagine if Jeremy Irons had broken the fourth wall in the final scene of Granda’s Brideshead, turned to the audience and whipped a rosary out? Thankfully, the 11 glorious episodes are about 95 per cent Evelyn Waugh’s own script and viewers can ‘drown in honey’, just like the young Charles Ryder in Venice with Sebastian.

Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock’s faithful interpretation of Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel only strays from her plot where insisted on by the Hays Code (its rigid moral censorship wouldn’t allow a murderer to get away with it). It won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Conversely, the recent Netflix version is a prime candidate for defenestration by Mrs Danvers.

Casino Royale (Eon Productions, 2006)"

Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond is a clever updating of Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel, staying true to the book in its plot, erotic charge and air of menace. Notably, Bond’s preferred card game of Baccarat was updated with no-limit Texas Hold’em poker in the re-boot.

The Box of Delights (BBC TV, 1984)

John Masefield’s children’s novel of 1935 is the essence of Christmas — yet for the generation of forty-something Xennials who sat transfixed by the six-part BBC TV series in the run-up to Christmas 1984 (no such thing as binge watching in those days, we tell our incredulous offspring), this version may have the edge. It’s pacier and Robert Stephens is tremendous as the evil Abner Brown. But the real star is the special effects, a blend of animation and live action. The blue screen might look clunky now, but children raised on CGI watch with as much wonder as their parents did, nearly four decades ago.