Saturday, March 12, 2011

On "Masterpiece Theatre" and adapting the classics

After Downton Abbey ended, I wanted more Masterpiece Theatre in my life (my job has been stressful and I need to escape into British costume dramas), so I watched the rerun of the 2009 miniseries of Emma. And I just finished rereading Jane Eyre in anticipation of the new movie version. This has got me thinking about the challenges of adapting classic literature and how we watch and judge adaptations differently from original stories.

Roughly speaking, the more movies or plays you see, the better you get at predicting where the plot is going or what the writer will do next. This tendency becomes even more pronounced if you have formally studied dramatic writing. I distinctly remember realizing that I had started to watch plays "like a playwright," attuned to their construction and the tricks the writer uses, rather than just enjoying the drama as it unfolds.

When you're watching an adaptation of a familiar novel, rather than an original or unfamiliar story, it is even easier to recognize what the screenwriter is doing. What point of view does she take? What does she choose to emphasize that other adaptations leave out? Has she created any new scenes? All these are examples of the writer trying to put a new spin on old material -- but they are also writers' tricks that can easily lead to predictability.

For instance, the writer of the Emma miniseries chose to emphasize the narrowness of Emma's world. Though Emma is in her early twenties, she has hardly left the village of Highbury -- never visited London or the seaside. I can't remember Jane Austen particularly emphasizing this theme, because in her era it was not so unusual for a young lady to live a circumscribed life. But it is a valid reading of the novel, suggesting that Emma plays matchmaker because she desperately needs some excitement. And I can understand a 21st-century screenwriter wishing to highlight this theme, and thereby contrast Emma's era and our own.

So, during the first episodes of the miniseries, Emma kept commenting that she had never seen the sea. After the second or third time this happened, I turned to my roommate and said "What do you want to bet that the last shot of this is going to be Emma and Mr. Knightley walking on the beach?"

OK, so I was wrong. They're not on the beach -- they're on the cliffs of Dover.

But really, this wasn't hard to predict. All I did was pay attention to what the screenwriter had expanded and emphasized (Emma's desire to finally see the ocean), and added that to my knowledge of what a Masterpiece Theatre audience would appreciate (a picturesque, romantic final image) and my knowledge of Austen's story (Emma and Mr. Knightley get married). Craftsmanship, writers' tricks, that's all.

Moments like this, though, are why I find it hard to really absorb myself into movie adaptations. Because the plot cannot surprise me, I pay far more attention to the mechanics of the film, the choices made by the writer, actors, director, even the costumer! So I process it with my rational, judgmental, distanced brain, rather than my subconscious, emotional, immediate brain. However, I tend to believe that art that taps into your emotional, subconscious brain is more valuable than art that welcomes cool, distanced consideration.

Watching a movie adaptation of a novel I've read, I judge the actors harder than I judge actors in an original story, forcing them to compete with my memories of the book and my own ideas about what Emma Woodhouse or Mr. Darcy or Jane Eyre is "really" like. I get very attached to my preconceived notions. I think Michael Fassbender is very talented and very attractive, but when I heard he was cast in the new Jane Eyre movie, my first thought was "But isn't Rochester supposed to have black hair and eyes?"

Even when I haven't read the source novel, watching a movie adaptation can be problematic. For instance, you may still have picked up some preconceived notions about the characters or plot floating in the pop-culture ether. (I would wager that many people who have never read Jane Eyre are well aware that Jane is plain-looking and Mr. Rochester has a mad wife in the attic.) Or, if you truly know nothing about the story of Emma, but the first episode hooks you and you can't wait another week for the continuation, you can always just run out and buy the book. Or, you can watch the movie adaptation, and then feel guilty that you haven't actually read the novel, and think that you ought to read it, but you probably won't read it, because you already know the story!

I think maybe it's for all of these reasons that Downton Abbey was such a big success upon its premiere. People want the pleasures of a literary costume drama -- lots of characters, beautiful clothing and decor, a chance to escape to another era, touches of melodrama in the plotting -- without the literary pedigree. You can enjoy Maggie Smith's hilarious performance unfettered instead of saying "but the Dowager Countess wasn't like that in the book..." Even though some of the plot elements are familiar or predictable, there are also several surprises that keep the series lively. I found it much easier to really care about the characters of Downton Abbey because I, like them, had no idea what would happen next. Whereas, even though Emma was a well-done miniseries and Emma's gradual gaining of self-awareness is a good story, I knew all along where it would end up -- her and Mr. Knightley and a stroll on the beach.

Images from Emma (2009) with Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley. For the record, I enjoyed their performances, even if I thought the age difference between them should have been more evident!

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