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A Victorian invasion

May 3, 2021

first_imgIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a Hollywood studio in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a Victorian novel to turn into a movie. From Vanity Fair (2004) to A Good Woman (2005), and now with Roman Polanski’s new Oliver Twist and another version of Pride and Prejudice to add to the roster, our Victorian ancestors have never been so fashionable since, well, two centuries ago. Wilde, Thackeray and Austen – they’re all ripe for the picking. Petticoats, cravats and cads – throw ‘em all in. The more the merrier.What is less universally acknowledged is that this bizarre regression into period drama is rather at odds with another trend in modern cinema: that of the exciting forward movement of directors such as Tarantino, Rodriguez or Gondry. In many ways, it is more enjoyable to watch Keira Knightley in a tight-fitting corset in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice than it is to watch a flatulent yellow rapist in Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005). However in the latter film there is a driving desire to challenge cinematic boundaries, all the while keeping the audience on their toes. In the former there is, well, Kiera Knightley in a tight-fitting corset. I know which one I’ll remember in a few years’ time.Yet this reliance on rehashing the past seems set to continue in the future. And it is seeping through to the small screen as well. The BBC will soon be launching a new sixteen-part series of another Dickens novel, Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson. Dickens wrote Bleak House as a serial novel, to come out in short installations. Following on from this idea, the BBC is televising it in twice-weekly, half hour episodes (“returning the novel to its natural state,” as they call it). A bit like they do with Eastenders. Victorian opus to some, convenient doorstop to others, Bleak House has now become that paragon of easy-watching entertainment: a soap opera.So why is there this plethora of Victorian adaptation on our screens these days? Is it out of an overwhelming respect for our stern predecessors? I think not. Perhaps it is down to Hollywood’s crusade to turn every famous book into a film, to save you the bother of reading anything. After all, the curse of Hollywood is the fear of everything fresh, anything potentially risky. With a point of reference for a movie-going crowd like a sequel or a well-known novel, there is a guaranteed audience and guaranteed money. Or maybe it is all just an excuse to watch Reese Witherspoon walking around daintily in a petticoat, smiling coyly.This is not to say that these Victorian adaptations are bad. Mike Barker’s A Good Woman, a version of Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, was as funny and warm as it was Witherspoon-free. And the rich visuals of Polanski’s Oliver Twist are a truly impressive evocation of Victorian London. These films are all a pleasure to watch, and that, after all, is the first thing we ask of a movie.Here’s the catch. Provided that all these films are doing is compressing eight hundred pages of Victorian prose into ninety minutes of screen time, they will never be more than a distracting hour-and-a-half in the cinema. For a Victorian adaptation to be truly memorable, it must be much more free with the material it’s moving from the page to the screen. In Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001), Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice love triangle was updated into a story that appeals to this age far more than three toffs prancing around on horses. The result is a movie that remains funny and vivid long after the credits roll. In Wright’s offering of the same story, the alterations are much less conspicuous. The result is great entertainment, but nothing to set 2005’s film version apart from those which have preceded it.Any movie industry should be looking to the future and not to the past. There is nothing wrong with adapting the Victorians; there is always something wrong, though, with a lack of imagination. There surely must come a time when audiences cotton on to Hollywood’s recycling act. In the end, it is the importance of being revisionist that is more crucial than the importance of being earnest.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005last_img

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