Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A tale of two adaptations

In considering Andrew Davies’ brilliant 2005 adaptation of Bleak House, it seemed appropriate to revisit both the earlier 1985 television version with Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliot, and also to reread the novel itself as the baseline from which to take the measure of the two productions.

On the evidence so far, long-form television is the best medium yet devised for translating the novel—or at least any novel of significant depth and complexity—into dramatic form. We may perhaps take the recent tendency in motion pictures to draw upon comic books for their source materials as a tacit acknowledgment of this truth. To bring a perfectly faithful rendering of Charles Dickens’ sprawling novel to the screen would likely require an undertaking approaching the brute duration of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, and since on both occasions, 1985 and 2005, the BBC elected to tell the story in eight hours, a certain amount of judicious pruning of the author’s mad proliferation of subplots, a culling of the minor characters who scamper through his pages, was perforce required. Both versions preserved and ably presented the meat of the tale, although each naturally differed from the other in points of emphasis and of omission.

It seems to me that any dramatization of Bleak House will absolutely require the four principal parts to be competently written and performed, and this requirement has been met for both. The roles to which I refer are Lady Dedlock, the haughty aristocrat with the tragic past (Diana Rigg, 1985; Gillian Anderson, 2005), John Jarndyce, the nicest man who ever lived (Denholm Elliot/Denis Lawson), Tulkinghorn, the baleful, censorious lawyer who has it in for Lady D (Peter Vaughan/Charles Dance), and Esther Summerson, the waif grown to young womanhood, and the beating heart of the story (Suzanne Burden/Anna Maxwell Martin). The lovers Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, “the wards in Jardyce,” are capably portrayed in each series, but not, I think anything like as essential to dramatic success as the first four named roles.

Among the secondary characters the actors portraying Smallweed, the moneylender, Krook, the gin-soaked hoarder, Snagsby the stationer, Bucket the detective, Guppy the unctuous striver and Skimpole, the odious freeloader, all acquit themselves honorably (well, obviously dishonorably in Skimpole’s case). The “Jellaby” and “Turveydrop” subplots are scanted in the Davies screenplay and omitted altogether in Arthur Hopcroft’s 1985 treatment, to no great detriment of either dramatization. Dickens purists might object to Davies’ creation of a new character, Clamb, out of, as it were, whole cloth, but this minor figure deftly and economically discharges a few narrative functions that might otherwise have required some cumbersome exertions on the part of the screenplay.

I find no fault in the 1985 Bleak House, and yet in almost every particular it seems to me that the 2005 model wins on points. Taking performances to begin with: Diana Rigg inhabits her role with properly aristocratic icy hauteur, and so conveys her character’s air of condescension in some matters and indifference to the rest that it is a little difficult to see in this fortyish jaded patrician the passionate young woman who gave herself half a lifetime before to a dashing young officer. As thespian craft, and in fidelity to Dickens’ conception, without fault, but as Lady Dedlock’s doom inexorably descends upon her, that remoteness infects us with some of her own detachment, and the resonance of her fate is diminished in like degree. Anderson, equally proud, equally languid, equally brittle, permits us glimpses of the buried grief and remorse she carries within her, and the scene in which she opens her heart briefly to her lost daughter is borne upon the viewer with considerably greater emotional force. I might mention that Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, seems a little too decrepit in the newer production as against the older.

As to John Jarndyce, the preternaturally beneficent master of the eponymous Bleak House, there is little to choose between the performances of Denholm Elliot and Denis Lawson, although the character is better developed in the latter production. Either man could have been swapped into the other script, and would have performed with distinction.

The two portrayals of the malefic Tulkinghorn, legal advisor of long standing to the venerable Dedlock clan, present a fascinating contrast: the writing of the parts, drawing as it does upon the authorial dialogue, is not so very different, but the performances could scarcely stand in greater contrast. I think Dickens might have preferred Peter Vaughan’s portrayal: his Tulkinghorn is dried-out, all dust and stale paper, an embalmed, desiccated presence in the story, whose menace is of the creeping, inexorable kind, like a wasting disease. Charles Dance, by contrast, carries himself with a coiled tension, an icy malevolence, a deadly readiness to strike in a moment—he’s Dracula to Vaughan’s Mummy. I assign Vaughan’s turn, with its musty reek of mildew clinging to buried secrets, points for a greater resemblance to and a very effective depiction of the character as originally conceived, but Dance’s interpretation, carrying with it that whiff of cordite suggesting those same secrets’ imminent detonations, makes for better television, I think.

The character of Esther Summerson is, as I have described her above, the heart of the story in the novel as in both television adaptations, and here each of the dramatizations stand head and shoulders above the source material, because as written Dickens’ Esther, IMHO, is a narrative miscalculation. My wife once remarked how seldom it was that male writers seemed to be able to inhabit female characters. She made this observation in the course of being pleasantly surprised to find an exception to this trend in one of Ward Just’s novels. Bleak House would not have surprised her: those portions of the novel (mercifully not all of them) consisting of Esther’s first-person narration are almost howlingly unpersuasive, and her self-portrayal is timid, mousy, irritatingly self-effacing—one wants to drown her in treacle. When we first meet her, Esther is approximately twenty. The two television Esthers, Suzanne Burden and Anna Maxwell Martin, were twenty-seven and twenty-eight respectively when the 1985 and 2005 dramatizations aired. Both women give more spirited performances than one might have expected, rescuing Esther from the almost sanctimonious self-effacement her original author assigned to her. This said, Burden’s performance is studied and workmanlike. She is the more conventionally pretty of the two actresses (on the page, Esther makes much of her supposed plainness), and also looks somewhat older. Martin, at that point in her career, could have been mistaken for a girl ten years younger, and her unconventional features—in interviews she has lamented a lack of prominent cheekbones—persuade the viewer that Esther might imagine without affected self-deprecation that “my face will never be my fortune.” At the same time, it is equally easy to see how her visage might captivate the lovelorn Guppy, whose initially comic wooing of her gradually shades toward outright stalking.

One consequence of Martin’s more girlish countenance (against which the gravitas of her performance is set off to considerable effect) is that when her guardian Jarndyce at length proposes marriage, there is decidedly something of a squick factor that enters into the scene, largely absent in the 1985 version.

The two Guppies make for an interesting study in similarities and contrasts, having to do principally with the physical differences between the performers. Actor Jonathan Moore, in 1985, is one of those men whose features seem too small for his face. He’s soft, doughy, a veal calf taken human form, where Burn Gorman, twenty years later, is more ferret-like in appearance. The two are equally smarmy and oleaginous in their attentions, and their respective Esthers correspondingly appalled at the unwelcome courtships to which they are subjected. The two performances are on a par, but Gorman’s, as written, is the better developed.

As this brief essay is less a review than a comparison, I’ll conclude merely by saying that both productions are worthy and watchable, but if life’s too short for sixteen hours of Bleak House, then choose the 2005 version.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Monday, May 13, 2019

Paradise Glossed

I have lately revisited Paradise Lost, which I last read with reluctant attention and imperfect comprehension as an inmate in a freshman English Lit survey course nearly half a century ago. Although the work remains tough sledding, not the sort of thing you’d want to take in at a bustling airport in the course of a layover, I found myself at this sere point in my life, with considerably more cultural context under my belt (would that cultural context were all I had accumulated there!), better appreciating it. Milton’s gender politics will not strike the modern reader as particularly or even remotely “woke,” but I’m not a big fan of holding authors long dead to modern standards of belief, if only in the vain hope of soliciting like slack from posterity regarding my own shortcomings. He was a puritan and a republican (as this latter term was understood in the mid-seventeenth century England), having little use for the papacy and monarchy, respectively, as is evident in the poem. His descriptions of the starry firmament, reflecting as they do a cosmology then in flux, are fascinating.

I have taken the liberty of condensing and paraphrasing the “Battle in Heaven” sequence from Book VI, recasting it from blank verse to closet drama:

God: I’m calling this meeting to announce that I’m naming my son—you all know God Junior—CEO. He’s going to be in charge of day-to-day operations going forward. I’ll remain as Chairman, but all you seraphim and cherubim will be reporting to him from now on, which is to say unto eternity. And you know, at this time it might be a good idea for the entire Heavenly Host to do some serious genuflecting, and to sing a few hosannas to Junior, if you want to stay on My good side. Not, you understand, that I have an actual side, being omnipresent and all. It’s, you know, a—what do they call it?—a metaphor. Anyway, just, like, do what he says, and everything will be copacetic. Any questions?

Satan: This is bullshit! You’re jumping your kid up to the executive suite over senior management? What the hell for?

God: Speaking of hell…

Satan: Fuck if I’m going to bow and scrape to this squirt! Who’s with me?

(A full third of the shareholders walk out with him.)

Satan: The Old Man’s losing his grip. We need to mount a hostile takeover, and by that I mean hostile.

(Next day: the dissident faction assaults heaven. They’re outnumbered, and, after a certain amount of cut-and-thrust swordplay, soundly beaten. Plenty of ichor is shed on both sides, but these immaterial spirits have impressive powers of regeneration.)

Team God: Hurrah!

(Overnight: Satan devises cannons.)

(Next day: Team Hell’s artillery routs Team God at first, until TG drops a mountain range on TH. Series now 2-1 Team God.)

Team God: Hallelujah!

(Next day: Team Hell rallies.)

Team God: Jesus, you guys! What’s it going to take?

God’s Son: You rang? [to God] Now, Pop? Now?

God: Sure. Sic ’em, Junior.

(God Junior puts paid to Team Hell, and sends the lot into th’ lake o’ fire.)

God: Good work. Remind me to punish humanity once I get around to creating it next week.

God’s Son: Will do, Pop. Listen, about the whole, you know, “redemption” business…?

(fade to black: “To Be Continued”)