My relationship with BBC costume dramas has ebbed and flowed over the years. When I was growing up, “exactly like the book” seemed to be the guiding principle – I can remember doggedly enduring something like fourteen episodes of The Jewel in the Crown, twelve of I Claudius, and God knows how many of Brideshead Revisited. I don’t think I’d quite cottoned onto the notion of a text as an interpretive rather than absolute space, so to my young mind the success of these adaptations hinged on how precisely they adhered to my (often imperfect) understanding of the book. I can remember being actively disdainful of Colin Firth’s maritime adventures in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, being at that point a rather prim young gentleman who felt that Colin Firth in a clinging, transparent shirt brought absolutely nothing to the original novel. (Reader, I now understand completely, I feel that he actively improves it). Sometimes, I’ll discover that these venerable artefacts are available on Lovefilm or DVD, and I’ll gleefully force my partner into a re-watch. “Well,” we inevitably say, eighteen exhausted hours later, “they don’t make them like that any more.”
Nowadays, I value costume dramas as acts of interpretation. I’m also quite busy, so while I may once have lamented that any production of less than twenty-seven episodes would require the loss of vital – yes vital – material, now four is pretty much my limit. I took a run at the 2005 Bleak House not so long ago, and while I could probably spend fifteen hours watching Gillian Anderson be magnificently bored, I bogged down in the rest of the Dickensian shit, and gave up.
So, now that I’ve established my credentials as a shallow bastard, I’d like to talk about the two most successful adaptations I’ve seen recent times. These are 2006 Jane Eyre (with Ruth ‘Murderer Chick’ Wilson and Toby ‘Maggie Smith’ Stephens) and the 2009 Emma (with Romola Garai, and maybe some other people, I’m not sure, whenever Ms Garai is on screen I am only capable of looking at her). I know some of you will want to fight me over North and South, which is also really good, but I get all freaked out that they snog in public. On a train. In 1855.
Jane Eyre 2006 works for me because it allows me to see something in the text that I’m sure is there – i.e. that it’s romantic – but am completely unable to find for myself in the original. I’m fascinated by Jane Eyre, and I have been for as long as I can remember, but part of my fascination springs from my complete bewilderment. I know, from things I have read and conversations with other people, that it is possible to find it genuinely engaging and satisfying as a love story on its own terms. The best I can come up with, however, is a romance of selfhood: a poor, plain young woman rises from obscurity to get absolutely everything she wants, including family, money, security, respect and – incomprehensibly – a grumpy, self-pitying, immoral git who isn’t worthy of her. And while I can see on a rational level that for someone as love-starved as Jane, a man who is completely obsessed with her, and dependent on her, would be a bonus … I just struggle to find it in any way, romantic.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots I admire about Jane Eyre. It’s got, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks. Enormous, shiny, in your face bollocks. The way it co-opts patriarchal religious discourse for the language of love: that is some crazy shit, especially when you have your hero literally comparing to the heroine to some kind of personal Jesus figure. I respect how completely and comprehensively Rochester is disempowered from basically the first moment he appears. This figure of dominant masculinity who gallops into the text on a big, black horse, promptly falls off it – injuring himself – and spends the rest of the novel being rescued by Jane, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And let’s not forget the amazing scene in the garden when Jane demands her to right to everything she damn well wants – including love – while Rochester is, as usual, too chickenshit to do anything for himself.
What I like about the 2006 adaptation is that it somehow contrives to present Rochester as a man you could conceivably respect and fall in love with, something I just can’t find in the text, no matter how hard I squint. Honestly, it might just be Toby Stephens’ mouth, which has these two deep brackets on either side, suggesting secret mirth. But I find him an unexpectedly likeable Rochester, a man with a sense of self-irony, who seems to be always on the verge on smiling when he’s with Jane. It also helps he has a hobby – naturalism – and knowledge of the world garnered on his travels, which must surely be attractive to someone as sheltered as Jane. And when they’re together, there’s an intense chemistry between them, leavened by understanding, sympathy and a current of merriment (something else, I’ve never been particularly been able to find in the book, which has always struck me as unremittingly serious with the possible exception of “I must keep in good health and not die.”).
My favourite scene is this one, where they bicker about Jane having to visit her dying aunt. In the book, it always came across to me like Rochester was being a complete dick for no reason, trying to control Jane’s movements, and showing off the fact he has wealth and she doesn’t. But, on screen, you can see how they look at each other, and respond: it’s nothing but a game to them, a wicked, secret little piece of flirtation. And Rochester’s weird insistence on her coming back within two weeks is a clumsy attempt to reassure her that she is wanted, she is valuable and needed, regardless of her aunt’s rejection.
Excuse me a moment, I need to melt all over the floor.
Emma is my favourite Jane Austen heroine, but I’ve never yet managed to find an adaptation in which she wasn’t either smug or shrill. But then Romola Garai existed, and everything was good. Emma 2009 is a light and quite self-consciously “modern” adaptation (which I can see some people finding off-putting), but I like it because it treats all the characters with sympathy and kindness. Much of Emma (the book) is filtered through Emma’s unreliable and occasionally ungenerous perception of the people around her – people, incidentally, she has known her whole life, so there’s an extent to which she hasn’t learned to balance childish frustrations with adult understanding. And a lot of adaptations have essentially supported those readings – so you have Miss Bates being unbearably irritating, Jane so reserved as to be practically non-existent, and Frank utterly charming until he turns out not to be – which has a knock-on effect on how we react to Emma’s behaviour. If Miss Bates has spent an entire adaptation being basically a cartoon, then it’s hard to actually given a damn when Emma tells her to STFU at a picnic, and if Jane is a background figure of no interest or personality, then there’s nothing lost by Emma’s failure to recognise an opportunity for real friendship with an equal.
But in this particular adaptation the layers of perception, interpretation, and meaning stack up really nicely. Miss Bates (while still annoying) is painfully vulnerable, and there’s a real sincerity and sadness to Jane, underlying her reserve. Frank is exactly as charming and engaging as you would expect, but at the same time, shifty, restless and erratic. Mr Elton, while slimy, pushy and hypocritical, is also handsome and relatively socially competent, so the fact he would aspire to Emma, and Emma would find him a good match for Harriet, are both genuinely plausible. Harriet, incidentally, comes across as a warm and giving person, with just enough awareness to understand the precariousness of her social position. And, even Mr Wodehouse’s fussy selfishness is underpinned by real love (which I’m not sure is in the book, but I don’t really care, because again it kind of adds emotional depth to Emma’s refusal to marry, and her care for him, making it as much choice as duty)
Which brings me to Emma herself. What I find particularly interesting about Emma, especially when set against Jane Austen’s other heroines, is her emotional vulnerability. All of Austen other heroines are socially vulnerable, but they tend to have strong personal resources: Elinor has her sense, Lizzie her wit, Fanny her morals, Catherine her kindness, Anne her resilience. But Emma … Emma is lonely. And, yes, she may think too well of herself, and be too used to getting her own way, but while that may lead her into errors of judgement, what I find really heartbreaking is the way a lot of her behaviour is motivated by both the certainty and the fear of loss. Her mother’s death, and her father’s reaction to it, Miss Taylor’s marriage to Mr Weston, and Frank Churchill being basically shipped off to be raised by his aunt. It’s a tiny, claustrophobic world, and at the same time a deeply unstable one. Poor Emma has spent her whole life with too much power, and not enough. The 2009 adaptation centralises these themes very effectively – we get to see the young Frank Churchill being swept off in a carriage, and there’s always an air of sadness underlying the excitement whenever he’s spoken of.
I can imagine some readers/viewers might prefer a more poised Emma to Garai’s, but I really like the thread of uncertainty in her confidence. Her enthusiasm for gossip, and even the simplest changes to the routine of village life, serve to highlight just how stifled she is, and how alone. In the adaptation, at least, her interest in Frank Churchill (even before she’s met him) seems to be as much a desire to be in love with him, and to have a special friend, than real feeling. Frank’s behaviour – while perhaps understandable (there’s real joy in a small, added scene, when the engagement finally comes out, and Frank and Jane rush into each other’s arms) – is particularly cruel to both Emma and Jane because it tortures Jane and uses Emma’s loneliness against her. She isn’t in any danger of falling for him, and I think on some level they both recognise this, but she’s so desperate for any kinship and comradeship that she accepts even a facsimile of it, without fully understanding the way Frank is using her, or the hurt they’re both causing Jane. Again, the intricacies of this are beautifully depicted in the adaptation, with Frank often moody and restless, and Emma confused and quite frustrated with him.
I especially like the picnic at Boxhill because it’s deliciously socially awkward, and full of undercurrents, even before Emma puts her foot in it. It’s just a really well constructed and contextualised scene, as all the competing emotions and agendas and needs and wants flow together to accidentally create this incivility warhead that Emma – blind to everything that’s going on around her, confused at everyone’s misery and Frank’s over-done flirtation, and desperate to wring some pleasure out of an experience that meant a lot to her – fires at Miss Bates.
I know it probably sounds like I like these particular adaptations for completely different, and perhaps contradictory, reasons since the Jane Eyre 2006 goes against my interpretations, the Emma 2009 doesn’t. But I think what connects them in my appreciation is the way they engage with the base text. I’ve come a long way since my “give me moving pictures of the book please” phase and, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (the Harry Potter franchise seems to have followed this principle very successfully, although tellingly my favourite of the movies are III and VI which stray closest to being their own entities), for me, a successful adaptation of a classic text essentially all comes down to the way it formulates and presents its argument. It turns out I don’t really mind what that argument is – whether you want to show me that Jane and Rochester are really in love, or that Emma is emotionally vulnerable – or even whether I agree with it. Just that it’s there, and that someone has seen something in a text, and has found a way to show it to me.
The truth is, a good adaptation makes me feel spoken to. It’s feels like a conversation with a friend about a book you both love. And I honestly can’t imagine anything more satisfying or interesting than that.