It’s perfectly understandable the media should habitually pistol whip the Hollywood studios for their obsession with remakes and sequels, decrying them for a woeful lack of creativity.
By contrast the independent sector is usually by held up as a shining example of how to avoid such crass and short-sighted thinking. But is that reputation always deserved? Not when you look at the number of adaptations of familiar 19th century novels trotted around the paddock repeatedly. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations are now not just popular novels, they are (and I apologise for using this abominable but now unavoidable term) “franchise” properties - the Avengers, Dark Knight, X-Men and Iron Man of the art house. Something you can always rely upon when you’re stuck for ideas.
Exhibit one: prominent among the movies screening in independent cinemas this winter is a handsome remake of Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg with Carey Mulligan in the lead role as farm owner Bathsheba Everdene.
'Just look at the number of adaptations of familiar 19th century novels trotted around the paddock repeatedly.'
Thomas Hardy’s source novel was first filmed in the silent cinema era, though the most celebrated of its four adaptations is the epic 1967 version magnificently directed by Tony Richardson. The current version is sure enough a good film, intelligently adapted and with a strong lead performance, but given its predecessor’s inspired casting (Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch – beat that) and Richardson’s unerring eye for widescreen compositions and feel for the rhythm of country life, it’s hard to see how anyone could hope to match it. Vinterberg doesn’t do badly, but it’s hard to see how anyone who has seen the older movie will cherish it in the same way.
Exhibits two and three: we have no less than two new versions of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s tale of rural boredom and adultery. First up was Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovary, which updated the story to the present day and debuted in local cinemas in late May after opening the annual Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. It was followed in early July by a relatively traditional 19th century take on the story starring Mia Wasikowska and directed by Sophie Barthes.
These are but the latest in a long line of adaptations of Flaubert’s tale, with the internet movie database IMDb listing a total of 17 versions. The most recent before this year’s remakes were the 2000 UK television series starring Australia’s Frances O’Connor, and Claude Chabrol’s 1991 French language film version starring Isabelle Huppert.
'You could argue that the same books are constantly adapted because of their popularity, but it’s a circular argument.'
The above films are perhaps not strictly “remakes”, in that they are adaptations of popular novels that have been filmed before, rather than attempts at directly adapting a previous film or television series, but nonetheless they are remakes in effect – retellings of stories designed to appeal to their modern target audiences with cosy notes of recognition rather than the more bracing experience of a previously unheard tune. The fact audiences have heard of them, even if they don’t know the stories, is meant to act as a kind of marketing safety net. A visitor from another solar system, looking at our cinema for clues about our wider culture, might imagine Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens had written no more than a handful of successful novels.
You could argue that the same books are constantly adapted because of their popularity, but it’s a circular argument, because it’s equally valid to argue that a handful of classic novels are still widely read and regarded as pillars of the literary canon precisely because they’re repeatedly adapted for film and TV. Had far-sighted screen producers cast their net a bit more widely and adapted George Eliot’s terrifically stirring tale of political reform, ‘Felix Holt, The Radical’, it’s likely that great novel would be far better known today than it is. Instead, somewhat incredibly, it has never been adapted for either the big or the small screen.
TV has been more adventurous in tackling some of the more forgotten and neglected 19th century works, especially the BBC, which for several decades has presided over an entire genre of adaptations including the predictable Greatest Hits (Jane Eyre and co.) as well as less obvious works by Anthony Trollope (‘The Way We Live Now’, ‘The Barchester Chronicles’), Elizabeth Gaskell (‘Cranford’, ‘North and South’) and moving into the early 20th century, Ford Madox Ford (‘Parade’s End’).
I admit that before seeing Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes, due to open on July 23 and starring Ian McKellen as yet another incarnation of the world’s most famous screen detective, I wondered why he had bothered. In the last five years we’ve been drowning in Sherlock Holmes, from two mini-series (Benedict Cumberbatch in the UK’s 'Sherlock' and Jonny Lee Miller in the US’s 'Elementary') to the flashy Guy Ritchie movies, where Robert Downey Jr. plays the detective as a kind of superhero. But while the new film is no masterpiece, it at least tries hard to give us a unique view of Holmes – depicting him as a retiree desperately trying to recover the memories of his final case while tending his bees. Not very exciting, perhaps, but a view of the character we have never seen.
More adventurous adaptation choices don’t always work. Michael Winterbottom’s take on Laurence Stern’s “unfilmable” ‘Tristram Shandy’ – Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story – was brave but good only in parts. Much more impressive was his The Claim, a loose adaptation of Hardy’s relatively rarely filmed ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, boldly transplanted from the author’s beloved Wessex to the Sierra Nevada mountains. Here is a model for successful adaptation of 18th century novels, whether they be beloved or neglected.
Scott McGehee and David Siegel had a similarly inventive approach to their take on What Maisie Knew, taking a rarely filmed novel by a great author, Henry James, and transplanting it to the present day – a decision that allowed their cinematic imaginations to soar. If only more would take their path.