Posts Tagged BBC Adaptation
Author Elizabeth Gaskell
Genre English Literature, Classic
Publisher Heritage Illustrated Publishing
Publication Date March 17, 2014
Format eBook via Project Gutenberg
Setting Regency England, Industrial Revolution
Synopsis: Cranford, sometimes referred to as Chronicles of Cranford, was originally published between 1851 and 1853 as a series of vignettes belonging to a larger body of work by Elizabeth Gaskell in the magazine Household Words, as edited by Charles Dickens. The novel follows the lives of spinster sisters Misses Deborah and Matilda (Matty) Jenkynses and their bevy of matronly comrades who oversee the genteel standards of living for the society of this titular town. The narrative accounts are related by Miss Mary Smith who spends the larger share of each year living with the Misses Jenkynses given her unwavering attachment to the townspeople – though her family moved to and officially resides in the nearby city of Drumble for the benefit of her father’s growing business. Mr. Smith, an industrious man preoccupied with his work, rarely feels Mary’s absence, much to the satisfaction of all principal characters in the story. Mary, in turn, especially benefits from the female society Cranford affords since her mother passed away some years ago, upon whence, she has been left mostly to her own devices in her household. Meanwhile, the women of Cranford take great care to uphold all appearances of dignified living despite any pecuniary shortcomings. What unfolds is a witty commentary of a community that strives to retain the “old ways” despite any modernity the industrial revolution brings to their small town and a heartwarming portrayal of feminine friendship that enlists infallible assistance even in the face of irreparable tragedies.
Experience (some necessary spoilers): Honestly, I did not procure this book until I saw the 2007 BBC adaptation starring Judy Dench and Eileen Atkins last month. I never even listed it among my TBRs. The TV mini-series, however, was very enjoyable and so, as I never deny myself a comparative assessment once I have seen the adaptation of a classic literature, I began reading.
When, in the Making of Cranford, creator and writer Sue Birtwistle (one of the geniuses behind the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) confessed that the crew had taken many liberties while writing the script for Cranford, I did not imagine the extent to which this admission was accurate. If one reads the novel and then seeks any accuracy of narrative or characters in the adaptation, they will feel the discrepancies. However, if the heart of the novel were to be determined, they will discover that the adaptation has amplified Gaskell’s intentions. In essence, while the adaptation made unscrupulous changes to the original story(s), it made up for the one gross limitation of the novel, i.e. a structured plot.
Indeed, it was not until I reached Chapter 12 that I began to see a plot formation. Upon a bit of research into the work, I learned that Gaskell, due to her commitment to writing another novel, was quite irregular with the installments for this one, which must account for why the first half of the book chiefly details individual events in the lives of the various Cranford ladies without amounting to any particular direction in which the overall the story headed. However, the adaptation more than provides for a plot even though the scriptwriters often resorted to omitting certain characters by merging them with others, killing off some characters early in the series while keeping alive throughout the program others who were meant to have died as per the novel, and generally attributing the events of some characters to the roles of others. To wit, there was a lot of shuffling around; however, not always at a deficit. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the adaptation was better than the book but Birtwistle and her team edited Gaskell’s story whereas the original author had not.
Having provided you with a fair warning on book vs. adaptation, allow me to proceed to tell you how I felt about the novel itself. Despite the lack of structure in the storyline, both the subject of the narrative and the writing voice had me vested from the first page. In fact, it boasts one of the better opening sentences I have ever read:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.”
For a feminist, this line would be of guaranteed interest and I can imagine the popularity the series would have garnered with its very first installation among bluestockings. Indeed, as Household Words aspired to raise the “affection of both sexes”, Cranford was ideal literature towards that objective.
Gaskell, herself, wrote of her characters with much affection, even though she was not impervious to listing their many deficiencies where soundness of logic is concerned, which may have been engineered to recommend the material to the male readers – or, at least, it prevented the reading from becoming wholly unpalatable to her opposite sex given how self-sufficient the characters were. Before the first paragraph is over, we learn that the men manage to find themselves out of Cranford one way or another (“In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not in Cranford”) because the autonomy with which the womenfolk conduct themselves renders any male presence redundant. As if to exemplify, early in the book, the one man who manages to infiltrate this community and endear himself with his unassuming and obliging ways, manages to get himself killed in an act of heroics.
The Misses Jenkynses, who are themselves daughters of the former rector of the parish, act as the moral compass for the community as well as regulators of the general decorum of their society. The women adhere to certain rules, which would not always make sense to outsiders but manage to ensure that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them and lives in harmony with one another. And while the older Miss Deborah Jenkyns passes away early in the novel, her guidelines are continued to be followed by her peers. So much so that the surviving Miss Matty cannot make most of her decisions without in some way counseling with her conscience as to what her sister might have done. In fact, it is one of the distinguishing traits of Miss Matty to second-guess herself and always reflect upon the inferiority of her mental capabilities in comparison to others because she was so determinedly steered by her sister in all things while the elder still lived. It is not until later in the novel, when Miss Matty begins to demonstrate a bit more independence in decision-making – albeit with temerity – that we begin to realize that she is the central character of Mary’s narrative even though so much of their lives is presided over by the spirit of the long-deceased Deborah Jenkyns.
Yet, the women are not without their individualities, from fashion sense to personal peculiarities. For example, Miss Matty always saves on household expenditures by burning only one candle at a time but would alternately burn two candles every day to ensure they are of the same height in a sense of “elegant economy” (since having two candles lit was the due riggeur) for the benefit of witness should they have visitors. While another character Mrs. Forrester regularly washed her prized lace in milk to obtain that fine creamy hue and once, when her cat swallowed the unattended lace with the cream, had even fed the animal current-jelly before stuffing it in a farmer’s boot so it could “return” the favored item, for such fine lace could no longer be procured given the nuns from the continent who used to produce it had stopped. And such was the friendship between the women in the community that such eccentrics were not laughed at nor even found wanting. In fact, I thought for a feminist herself who wished to demonstrate how well women could get on on their own, Gaskell was rather harsh towards her characters, ridiculing them more often than they did one another though there was plenty of inducement. However, such indiscretions on Gaskell’s part could easily be overlooked when considering how honest and consistent her portrayal of each character was.
Nonetheless, as the story progresses, the true intent of the author becomes more visible and the reader may realize that amidst all the satire, Gaskell’s message from the town of Cranford is related by how Miss Matty continues to remain a paragon of goodness and kindliness even in the face of adversity, which without fail manages to bring about the best qualities in others. We see, in an hour of need, the devotion with which other characters come to her aid, self-sacrificing without hesitation, simply founded on an assurance that, if situations were reversed, Miss Matty would have happily ransomed every single one of her comfort to benefit another. Even individuals outside their immediate social circle is fully aware of Miss Matty’s eternally benevolent heart and childlike expectation of others to do only good, ensuring that they mirror the same qualities – at least in their deeds towards her. As Mary’s father, upon learning how Miss Matty’s friends rally around her, aptly explains:
See, Mary, how a good, innocent life makes friends all around. Confound it! I could make a good lesson out of it if I were a person; but, as it is, I can’t get a tail to my sentences–only I’m sure you feel what I want to say.”
And Mary, who grows into a woman under the unconscious counsel of this woman, too emulates to think of others before herself, particularly resourcing ways to make Miss Matty happy one of her priorities, faithfully concludes:
We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”
Recommendation: There is nothing I love more than a story that depicts the wholesome traits of humanity and this book had this in many folds. I recommend the read to anyone who feels the need to restore their faith in the goodness of mankind and a reminder that kindness begets kindness.
WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS #04 – Jane Austen’s Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins, Alice Krige, Anthony Head and Rupert Penry-Jones
Title Persuasion (A BBC adaption of the Jane Austen novel of same name)
Starring Sally Hawkins, Alice Krige, Anthony Head and Rupert Penry-Jones
Director Adrian Shergold
Screenplay Simon Burke
Genre Romantic Satire, Drama
Release Date January 13, 2007
Filming Location Bath, Somerset, England
Parental Guidance PG – General viewing, but parental discretion advised
IMDB Rating 7.6
Synopsis: Anne’s (Sally Hawkin) life has been led by others. She lives with a narcissistic father, Sir Walter Elliot (Anthony Head), and a self-absorbed elder sister who leave her to handle all household responsibilities but give her none of the credit for it. She has a younger sister married off but who always calls for her ministrations whenever fancying herself ill. And her only confidant is her deceased mother’s best friend, Lady Russell (Alice Krige), who has only her “best interest” at heart but may love her a little too dearly. At twenty-eight, Anne has resigned herself to spinsterhood and obscurity when the return of a former paramour sends her heart once again aflutter. Once almost engaged to Fredrick Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones), Anne’s love affair had been halted by Lady Russell’s advice on the unsuitability of their stations and connections in life. But Wentworth returns to their lives as an exalted Royal Navy captain who made a sizeable fortune serving the nation and Anne must eat crow. As a series of circumstances keep pushing the former lovers into each other’s paths, each struggle in their own way to be not affected. Anne does not believe she has another chance with Wentworth because she rightly discerns that he still blames her for being so easily influenced away from his proposal in the past. And then there is also the sudden entry of a distant cousin who is to eventually inherit her father’s baronetcy and who seems to fancy Anne. Any chance of reconciliation and rekindling affection between Anne and Wentworth, therefore, seems hopeless.
Experience: I always feel that whenever a Jane Austen novel is adapted into a film, people start comparing it to the epic 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. So I consciously switched off my parity tool because let’s face it – there will never be another flawless masterpiece like Pride and Prejudice or such a dedicated collection of cast and crew to turn a literary work into a 06-hour cinematic indulgence of an author’s genius. So with a deep breath and a mind as unbiased as possible, I sat down to watch Persuasion. For a 1.5-hour TV movie, it was a pretty good attempt to emulate and entertain. And not only because it had Austen’s clever storytelling style to fall back on.
Definitely, the strongest facet of the movie was its mechanics. The direction, the cinematographic techniques, the queueing of the scenes and music all swelled and dissipated to match the ethos of the story as it progressed. From the first scene where the camera circled Anne and followed her about as she rushed from room to room auditing items in preparation for the time when the Elliot family will move out to lease their home to strangers to that when she rushes all through Bath in search of Wentworth so she could tell him she accepts his proposal to that in the privacy of her room as she records in her diary her romantic success and secretly smiles into the camera to allow the audience to bask in her happiness, Burke and Shergold perfectly captures the protagonist. As to the protagonist herself, Hawkins may not have been my first choice for the role of Anne, a girl in her late twenty’s that has lost some of her bloom but still remains adequately pretty, but Hawkins manages to flirt with the camera in a subtle way that gives Anne life. While in the book, Anne’s character is more subtle, the movie-Anne does not suffer for the little boldness inspired by Hawkins.
Moreover, Hawkins manages to portray the drama that revolves around Anne’s character. She allows herself to be shuffled between her family members and is often led by Lady Russell’s advice, but it does not make her unobservant or unfeeling. She watches and notes her surroundings acutely but accepts her lot in life for the most part. But there are moments when she does not allow herself to be bid, moments where her logic prevails. This aspect of Anne’s character is well-turned out by Hawkins in the movie in the manner with which she moves. In the novel, Austen did not give the docile Anne much dialogue but Hawkins very intelligently trounces that challenge with her body language. Comparatively, Penry-Jones did not pick up on the subtlety of Austen’s depiction of Wentworth. Rarely do I say someone has underacted but Penry-Jones playing Wentworth is one of those times. I can only assume he did not read the novel, which for an Austen fan like me is unforgivable. However, he is handsome and just enough handsome to be adequately cast as Wentworth.
Another notable portrayal is of Sir Walter Elliot by Head. Now, I must admit I am a bit biased towards Head from his Buffy the Vampire Slayer days but, again, I tried not to be while watching the movie. I found Head to portray Sir Walter with just the right level of ridiculousness necessary to make him unlikeable. I initially thought Head was disappointing me with overacting until I remembered Sir Walter and the rest of the Elliot clan were meant to be comic relief. They are the characters that are the butt of Austen’s satirical wit. So, yes, when Head does literally huff and puff at the possibility of having to rent his family seat to people of “inferior birth” and potential “coarse countenance”, it is the required precedent.
The one character I felt that could have gotten more screen time was Lady Russell’s. Lady Russell plays an indispensable antithetical role to Anne-and-Wentworth’s relationship in the novel. More so than the fact that she openly discourages Anne from pursuing a relationship with Wentworth (in the past and present), it is the nature of her influence, the subtlety that is wrought in her relationship with Anne, that makes Lady Russell a centrifugal force in Anne’s actions in abandoning her desires, and later in her polite decline to subjugate. While Anne’s tendency to be persuaded to do the biddings of her family members is the surface manifestation of her character, it is Lady Russell’s persuasiveness, albeit, in good faith that does the pertinent harm to Anne’s happiness. It is especially more disappointing Lady Russell’s character is not more explored in the movie because Krige has proven in past performance that she is able to deliver the necessary gravitas for such a role.
The other smaller parts are played relatively well and relevantly ensures the smooth flow of the plot depiction. In particular, the characters of Mary (Amanda Hale), Anne’s younger extracting and fretful sister, and Charles Musgrove (Sam Hazeldine), Mary’s husband and Anne’s once upon a time admirer, are performed suitably well. Interestingly enough, the role of William Elliot (Tobias Menzies), the distant cousin who aims to sweep Anne off her feet, is played better than one would expect. The novel mostly portrays Mr. Elliot’s character via the grapevine, yet Menzies brought out the character with mastery.
Recommendation: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do. If you are a Jane Austen fan, do it right now! After BBC’s 1995 versions of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility [too many ‘and’s but you’ll figure it out], I found this to be the next best Austen rendering.