Thanks to Monica, one of my  latest acquaintances in the blogosphere, I got to read this article in The Guardian.co.uk by Mark Lawson. My friends know how hectic I am these days and are always ready to help me in the hard task of being an updated,  active blogger. Grateful thanks to them all!
This is a reflection about the success of and the great interest in filming the classics,  even when the same text is adapted for the umpteenth time. It's always the same, same old story would you say? You'll find out that many disagree with you.

The article titled "Timeless Taboos: why 19th century novels appeal to film-makers" focuses on three films currently in production  new Anna Karenina by Joe Wright (25 previous adaptations) , Great Expectations by Mike Newell (16) and  Wuthering Heights  by Andrea Arnold (17) . Despite the disadvantage of being very long stories for a two hours' movie  (Wuthering Heights runs to around 300 pages, Great Expectations to more than 400 and Anna Karenina to almost 900) and the fact  that the basic narratives have been told so often don't seem to scare these 21st century leading cinematic talents. There have been 10 major Pride and Prejudice on big and small screen, but Janeites don't seem to have had enough. 

To re-propose certain literary rooted classic stories has also its economic reasons, Mark Lawson admits: 

"It's also a proven rule of the entertainment industry that familiar material becomes even more appealing during economic difficulties: for obvious and understandable reasons, both producers and consumers prefer, when cash is tight, to risk it on projects that have already shown they can give value for money. In this respect, an additional advantage for producers in hard times is that a play by Shakespeare or a book by Dickens or Brontë will be out of copyright, avoiding an often expensive tussle for the rights"
(...)  "All of the performing artforms have rapidly established the concept of a canon: an agreed list of stories that merit re-telling. In theatre, this trove contains Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and, latterly, Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter. In television, the works of Dickens and Jane Austen have become the reflex refuge of both the BBC and ITV, especially at times when the networks' cultural credentials are being questioned by regulators or at Westminster"

However the writer acknowledges that
... the fundamental reason that fiction from a pre-cinematic period has proved so attractive  to the cameras is that these are compelling narratives filled with fascinating characters 
and that ... 
 ... beyond the narrative satisfaction of the stories, I think there's another reason why these 19th-century classics are so regularly revisited; and one that holds a warning for contemporary film-making and fiction. At their simplest level, each of these books features a couple whose union is impossible or dangerous: Cathy and Heathcliff face the bar of class and propriety, Anna and Vronsky challenge the adultery taboo, and Pip and Estella are thwarted not only by their starkly different social backgrounds but by her bizarre guardian.

(...) Fiction is driven by friction and taboo but, in most parts of contemporary society, we have created a society in which there are few obstacles to people doing what they want or being with the person they desire. Numerous traditional narrative triggers – a sexual secret, the threat of bankruptcy, a spell in prison – now result in no more than a few months' embarrassment, an expensively maintained anonymity injunction or a tearfully confessional TV interview.
This generally more tolerant society has usefully reduced the prevalence of suicide and blackmail but is problematic for modern storytellers trying to construct a plot

This problem of achieving genuine moral hazard in a contemporary setting is the reason that so many high-profile novels and films are either historical stories or biopics: the past is more dramatic and morally complex.

Has our world become so ugly, shallow or even numb that the past is in many ways more appealing to film makers and to many of us ? I think this is partly true. We must look back to the past to find truer colours and more passionate stories. Strong values and deep, rooted passions sound more credible if set in distant ages. Why? What about nowadays ? My reason for loving the  fiction set in the past more  is actually a wish to escape what I do not like around me, but it is also the awareness of the closeness of the past to the present in many ways. How's it possible to recognize ourselves in Anne Elliot, Anna Karenina or Margaret Hale, otherwise? 


Anonymous said...

I find this a really interesting issue. I had started a post a while back about this - trying to figure out why we seemed to 'need' costume drama in our lives.

What I like about your last para - it makes me think that, those same virtuous feelings and behaviours set in modern times wouldn't resonate with audiences (everyone is trying to look cool, modern, nothing shocks us, we've heard it all, we've done worse, etc.) but we still want to connect with these virtues. We want to explore the virtuous aspects of human heart, psyche and behaviours. We are trying to learn about right and wrong in a time when those values were perhaps more starkly represented in those novels, now turned into costume dramas.

In this 'older' world, it's ok to be the innocent ingenue, or the man who suffers from unrequited love, or the woman who sacrifices all but does so in silence ... only to get her reward at the very end ... the good end up winning over evil. In real life, people would mock us if we tried to live that innocently, that virtuously, we'd be ostracized in some circles, not being interesting enough, not hip enough. And unfortunately, in real life, the good doesn't always win over evil, that good woman doesn't get recognized for all her selflessness...she just finishes up a spinster... (ok perhaps not a spinster...but you know what I mean I'm sure).

I'm not being very articulate tonight (something to do with the 37C weather at almost 10pm no less) so I'll stop here but I know I had more to say on this. So perhaps when I can gather my thoughts I'll comment more. All that to say though, very interesting post!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the comment above. With all the coarseness and anything-goes morality of our time, the past (at least the sanitized version)is appealing by contrast. As expressed above, people today tend to mock traditional values and would probably not believe in a modern-day hero espousing them. Yet they would accept that such people existed in the past, giving the writer that option (which I'm glad to take).

Anonymous said...

What an interesting subject, MG!
But I think the question hasn't to be confined to tv/cinema dramas: just think of the hundreds of JA spin off novels, or all the Regency novels/romance books out there...
As for the answer, I simply agree with your POV as well as the others worded in the above comments... not that I'd dare recognizing myself in any of the great - even fictional - women you've mentioned, mind you! :-P

Fanny/iz4blue said...

The classics remain the classics but the media keeps changing; meaning film techniques and soundquality has gone up a notch and I'm wondering if that drives the motivation. Of course no guarantee one will end up with a better version with the time limitation you mention of adapting a story to a movie time frame.
Still to see a classic on a big screen I gladly see.
But the hardest part is to see another actor embody a character we've identified with another face ... god forbid the day when they touch North & South ..
Another genre that seems to be popular, is fantasy which also talks about values and conflicts differently than our current society. Ultimately it's always about relationships I'd say ..