Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Don't be stuffy over screen adaptations

A N Wilson pays tribute to the skill involved in turning books into film
Addicts, not merely of Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece, but also of the 1981 Granada Television version of Brideshead Revisited can only look forward to the new screen version with diluted enthusiasm.

We are told that the new version has Charles Ryder and Sebastian snogging; that the story turns into a "love triangle" between Charles, Sebastian and Julia. Religion is played down. And how could it be Brideshead without Geoffrey Burgon's superb music?

Still, it would be stuffy to say that no one should ever be allowed to adapt our favourite books for cinema or television. Think of the number of enjoyable Sherlock Holmes films, for example, starring Basil Rathbone, which bear only small relation to the books.

The reason Jane Austen films are so deadly is that they remove the chief attraction of the books - which is Jane Austen's own voice. Without the jokes in Pride and Prejudice, there is a sort of inevitability that you will end up with the flavourless Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet.

Something of the same kind operates with Dickens. It takes real skill to adapt him, since there is so much more in the books than just the "characters".

The best Dickens adaptation, however, is also my favourite film - it is Christine Edzard's Little Dorrit, with its total faithfulness to the book, and its extraordinary line-up of great actors, including the totally unknown Sarah Pickering as the child-woman.

Joan Greenwood - Sibella from Kind Hearts and Coronets - never gave a finer performance than she did as Mrs Clennam. Max Wall and Patricia Hayes make the most superb Flintwinch and Affery. The sublime Miriam Margolyes simply is Flora Finching, and Derek Jacobi and Alec Guinness create marvellously understated Arthur Clennam and Dorrit.

The film looks as if it was made on a shoestring. When I speak of its total faithfulness, that is not to say that they have not made judicious cuts - all the lesbian intrigue between Miss Wade and Tattycoram goes, and so does the opening in the French prison and the plot which goes with it. The film is in two longish parts - the first Nobody's Fault sees the story from Clennam's viewpoint, and the second is Little Dorrit's Story.

I remember when it first came out spending almost all week in the cinema, viewing it repeatedly. I suppose I've watched the videos - and now a DVD is available - any number of times. Rather than starting in Marseilles, the film comes immediately to London, and it comes intimately indoors.

The interiors are beautiful - tiny, panelled rooms, sparsely furnished. Mrs Clennam's dark house, from whose black shadows Max Wall sinisterly hobbles, or Little Dorrit flits with her baskets of darning or trays of oysters, is a place which, once you have come to inhabit it, will haunt your dreams for ever.

The outside shots, Shotter Boys prints brought to life, are done in almost toy-theatre fashion. Dreamy shots of Borough High Street suggest the background that leads to the Marshalsea Prison, which is just a small yard when you get inside it. The roofscapes of London have a similar near-amateur brilliance. And crowd scenes are suggested by comparatively few actors passing and repassing shop windows.

Little Dorrit, my own personal favourite among Dickens's novels, is a sort of fairy story. Yes, it is "about" money - but not in the sense that Trollope or Balzac would have written about it, with their knowing worldliness. The exact nature of the Clennams' business transactions in China would have taken up pages of Balzac's time, but in Dickens, Arthur merely comes home with the uneasy sense that his father's money was gained unjustly.

Likewise all the Dorrit money arrangements - both Dorrit's ruin, and the sudden restitution - come about quite arbitrarily. Clennam and Mr Pancks could as easily have been fairies with magic wands, for all the interest which Dickens takes in the actual details of the debts. (In Trollope, we would be rummaging about looking for lost cheques and promissory notes).

The point of money in Little Dorrit - as in the last few weeks of excitement in the world markets - is the effect it has on the lives of human beings whose values are out of skew. That is why, though we have no Marshalsea prison any more, figures like Dorrit and Merdle are perennial, and the love between Dorrit and Clennam remains so hauntingly touching.

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