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Adaptations for the New Age (Spoiler Warning)

By Holly Miller

Image credit: Vanity Fair

For most (unless you’re an English Literature student) period drama adaptations are either boring, outdated or just a bit strange to watch. They’re associated with fuzzy camera work and frilly costumes, long pauses and intense eye contact. Or, in what has become a rather bemusing shorthand, Colin Firth emerging from the lake as Mr. Darcy in Andrew Davies’ 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. This deep, longing-sigh moment has come to symbolise the whole genre for the past twenty years. It took on a life of its own when it features prominently as the basis of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary and subsequent films (including Colin Firth in his meta-role as Mark Darcy after playing the one in the miniseries). It is often dismissed as ‘women’s television;’ women supposedly painted as the ones who wish to hark back to the age of manners and decorum to achieve their happy ending, much like the modern-day protagonist Amanda in Lost in Austen (2008). For me, it was the ITV adaptations of much of Austen’s work during the 2000s, as well as Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that made me love adaptations. Yet entering the new decade, there has been a seismic shift in the period-dramatisation of much-beloved literature, one that had its beginnings in the earlier adaptations. It reaches new generations, as could be observed by attending screenings of these new films that older generations have to come to share their love as much as the new ones just arriving at these works. It is interesting to see what new takes the new adaptations can say about the canonical works which have remained and will endure for generations to come.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which came out at the end of last year, is a startling new take on the costume-drama. Louisa May Alcott’s much-beloved part children's book, part instruction manual for constructing meaningful women’s roles post-Civil War 1868-69, is transformed through a playful, feminist lens. Gerwig’s adaptation interestingly focuses on less adapted parts of the novel, including Meg’s (Emma Watson) married life to John (James Norton). Alcott ended the first part of the novel with Meg’s acceptance of marriage, which is where a lot of adaptations leave Meg’s happy story, at her wedding. By including the moments where Meg struggles to accept her limited income and rallies against her desire for the niceties in life, the film pays homage to Alcott’s instructional aspect of her novel on not just how to be a good daughter in the home, but how to take those lessons learnt and apply them to your own life. Meg’s conventional life has cause to be celebrated by a third wave feminism generation that is fighting to embrace all life-choices and not ardently rejecting ‘traditional’ roles of womanhood if that is what some women wish to do.

What is so resonant about this latest adaptation is how, like Meg, all the sisters are allowed to grow into their adult beings, where the film flits back and forth along the timeline of the novel. The glow of their childhood and adolescence is signaled by warm, homely colours and the bleaker reality of their adulthoods are bathed in cool, often stark blue tones. Meg’s struggles in her life are placed upon the same level as Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan0 striving to make the best of her life in New York as a writer, or Amy’s (Florence’s Pugh) predicament of marrying for economic security. Though they are women of certain means and privileges operating in a limited sphere of opportunity for them, they have their own life paths that are fought for to reach the eventual happiness. Not being shown just one type of woman such as the women that have become our familiar stereotypes as the career-woman, the ‘cool’ girl male fantasy, or the Strong Female Lead,™ Little Women continues to showcase women who are on different paths and are celebrated for their passion in those lives. It can be argued as them making the best of it with the circumstances that they have, but to see Amy’s excellent Oscar-nominated monologue about the economic motivations driving a good marriage and the security it will bring demonstrates articulate women aware of their social positions but also what they want to get from their lives. The close bonds of their sisterhood and the light humour that follows with the March sisters’ dynamic are ingrained as much as they are in the usual adaptations.

Gerwig’s inclusion of biographical elements of Alcott in the film is also an interesting choice, as a way to pay homage to the author as well as the brash and independently striving Jo. Jo is ambidextrous, as Alcott was, and Gerwig said in an interview that the deal Jo negotiates for her novel at the end is the same one Alcott negotiated for Little Women. The ambiguous ending also follows Alcott’s original intentions for Jo not to get married, yet the publisher argued that the book would not sell if she didn’t. Through the character of Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), there is a slight comment made on the treatment of immigrants as he leaves the warmth of the March’s house. Adaptations of the classics are so resonant because the issues centre-stage in our modern times often have their echoes in the past. As Gerwig has explored, with all the great adaptations of the classics, the love for the story comes in the portrayals of the characters’ humanity, through the struggles and the love in all its forms, that connects with the audience across generations.

Armando Iannucci’s recent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield is an overdue example of the brilliance of colour-blind casting. Amidst the murky, half-hidden racism surrounding some of the purist arguments that this is not whom Dickens would have written the character for, it is a reflection and celebration of the diverse, multicultural Britain we live in in the modern-day. Dev Patel as David Copperfield, Dickens’ self-claimed ‘favourite child’ of all his characters, relentless barrels his way through the tribulations of the extremities of society to finally claim his voice back at the end and through the sturdy authoritarial role as a writer himself. This was a particularly touching motif throughout the film, as his name is repeatedly taken away and rebranded through other people’s intentions.

His journey to find his own name, his voice and place of happiness (which he knows can be snatched away from him as it does several times in the film) is buoyed along by the often absurdist, satirical humour that has come to be the brand of Iannucci’s style. Whether it is Tilda Swinton battering away donkeys, or Peter Capaldi ducking from the creditors and bailiffs, these moments seem to capture the oddities of people that are also rocked by their current circumstances. There is the typical Dickensian generosity when Copperfield, Betsey Trotwood (Swinton), Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), forced out of their comfortable genteelly into a cramped London slum, inviting the Micawber family (Peter Capaldi) and all their children into the tiny space to share it.

The contrasts between the spaces in the film are starkly contrasted between the large, open spaces of childhood visiting Cornwall and the upside-down boats on the beach and his life with Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick, to the cluttered, dark factory where he is forced to go by Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd). The film traverses the wide-open countryside and sea space with the cramped, wandering cityscape and the dark and dingy parts contrasted against the startling white. It is a reminder of the huge disparities within the areas we can see in our modern spaces today. When David and Mr. Dick come across Mr. Micawber lying on a doorstop, destitute and homeless, with his wife and numerous children sitting smiling happy across from them, it is a stark moment of humanising one of the many bodies of the increasingly familiar sight of homeless people on the streets in our own time.

Iannucci’s rendition captures the broad and diverse talent of actors in our multicultural world and celebrates the heart of the much-loved story in a light and often poignant way, tracking the young man’s quest for his voice and his happiness through riches to rags and back again.

The final adaptation at the beginning of this new age is Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, based on Jane Austen’s much-loved match-making comedy. As its release date suggests, it is supposed to fulfil your romantic whims of an Austen happy ending.

Aesthetically, the film is beautiful to look at - the soft pastel walls and delicate dresses are lit gently throughout the entire film, and this account often makes up for the awkward pauses or strange changes to the story. The trailer gives it a playful preluding sense, much like the humour highlighted in the David Copperfield trailer, yet this doesn’t play out in the same way. The confrontational head-on shots of the character’s in dialogue do give it a sense of intimacy, but there are too many lingering shots on Emma’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) vague expression. It is a bright adaptation, with an incredible supporting cast, such as Miranda Hart as the twittering Miss Bates whose heartbreak at Emma’s snide remark is genuinely difficult to watch and Josh O’Connor as Mr. Elton, smarmy and silly, his performance is humorous in its absurdity. However, the strange Handmaid’s Tale-esque shots of the girls in the boarding school marching in pairs in their red cloaks and bonnets felt like it was supposed to signify something that never came to fruition. Was de Wilde attempting to draw the parallel between the girls in the boarding school, all with questionable parentage and there to make good matches, with the visible cultural sign of female oppression that Margaret Attwood’s book has come to symbolise? The symbolism was overt and yet fell flat of what it was possibly trying to achieve.

One thing that was an interesting inclusion was the establishing shots of both Emma and Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) in which they are meticulously dressed and assisted by other people. They are endlessly pampered and helpless, as this was beneath the class they belong to and had an army of servants for. The humour played between the servants, in particular, their interactions with the overbearing Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), were some of the most humorous moments. However, throughout the film, I felt as if I was waiting for something radical to occur, some new take on a story much loved and known. In comparison with the other adaptations, this felt like a very pretty but rather familiar and safe adaptation, circling only lightly around the edge of a new take for the modern gaze, but ultimately falling flat in the middle somewhere, weighed down by its opulence and the limitations of the plot, perhaps.