Friday, 7 March 2008

"My mother was a difficult and unfathomable woman, and I started trying to understand women at an early age."

So, my friend Z and I have a tradition. A tradition of three weeks, granted, but nonetheless a tradition. On Thursday nights, we curl up in jim-jams and armed with spoons and a tub of Haagen-Dazs, and we watch literary adaptations. So far so conventional, eh? WE DON'T CARE WE LOVE IT.

It all started on Valentine's Day; I am a bitter, twisted singleton, and she has a boyf who lives far away in another town and another university (but he does exist, I met him on Sunday). So we thought we should have a defiant girly night, and what better than the recent BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre starring the lovely Toby Stephens and the fabulous Ruth Wilson. We watched up until the proposal that night, then finished it the following week; then last week we watched North and South.

Needless to say, both sent us into paroxysms of delight (and lust). Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books of all time, having read it at the obnoxiously early age of nine (don't worry, I made up for it - it was the only classic I read by choice until I read Vanity Fair aged 17), and North and South is one of Z's. And the adaptations entirely lived up to the originals (or so Z assured me, since I shamefully have only read the first few chapters of North and South), which is what we've come to expect from the BBC.

None of this condensing the story into two hours rubbish like WhyTV (although props to them for casting the utterly delectable Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth). Both ran to a respectable four hours, condensing in the right places and expanding ditto - and although our anachronism alarms went mental at Jane and Rochester's parting (oh the heaving bosoms! The bizarre rolling on the bed!) we weren't really complaining that much. The characters were multifaceted and full of subtlety, especially Jane; the period details were lovely. Occasionally the screenplay lapsed into modern speak - I swear that in N&S someone said "Get together" but surely I misheard. And it all goes right in the end.

There are people who despair at literary adaptations, say that it makes people lazy, that it's a sign of dumbing down. Bollocks to that, I say. I worked in the library for my last two years of school, and whenever a book was adapted for film or for TV, people would come looking for the original. If it helps people get through their prejudices about the classics, and through the unfamiliar language and sentence structure, then that's all to the good, surely?

The best thing about both JE and N&S - and we're talking here about the books as well - is that they are so much more than chicklit (oooh, I hate that term with a passion). While lauded as classics, one can't help but feel that they are always dismissed a little, inferior always to doorstops like Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina. But why? JE is gothic, precociously agnostic, a complex treatise on the shifting bounds of morality and loyalty and love. N&S is almost a political manifesto, an investigation of class and capital and a picture of England in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, like JE showing the fluidity of morality and religion and the different ways someone may be master of another. And I love both for reaffirming my belief in - and love for - homegrown moral codes. All four protagonists, while not conforming to traditional morality, as judged by the standards of the day, are nonetheless fiercely moral and honourable - a quality that is no longer respected as it should be. Even Mr Rochester, by far the least moral of the lot, won't pack off his wife to die, and resigns himself to being her keeper.

And on a much more shallow note, even sexed-up as the BBC is wont to do, the restraint of these adaptations is vair naice - much more erotic than anything else on TV. Oooh yeah. Although they would never kiss in public, people. Ever.

On Sunday: Persuasion, and at some point, a post about heroes and why Captain Wentworth is far sexier and lovelier than Darcy.

The quote in the title is by Andrew Davies, by the way, him of the Pride, Prej and the Wet Shirt.

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