Timeless film and TV provides us with a clear window into our society
- Credit: BBC/Fremantle Media/Kelly Gardne
Film and TV enjoy an on-going love affair with the world of literature. It not only provides us with some good-looking drama but, as Arts editor Andrew Clarke suggests, offers film-makers a way of examining a portrait of modern society by framing it in the past
Film and television loves a good piece of literature. They are timeless staples of our cultural heritage. At the moment Picnic At Hanging Rock and Poldark are making a huge impact on our TV schedules but rather than looking back at the past in a historically accurate way, they are best seen as contemporary dramas framed in a historical context.
The reason that literary classics work so well on stage, film and television is that they tackle current concerns in a safe and often allegorical way. Both Picnic At Hanging Rock and Poldark are nothing like their 1970s counterparts – either in style, performance or in narrative. They are resolutely 21st century creations, only the titles, the character names and the plot outlines remain the same. They are no more historically accurate than a Pre-Raphaelite painting was of a medieval legend or a Biblical scene.
Modern adaptations of classic literature are after something more than a glimpse of the past. They are making the work relevant for the audience of the moment. Different aspects of classic stories speak to different generations – this timeless quality is what makes great works of literature survive.
Great novels and plays continue to be read and revived because they deal with timeless dilemmas and character flaws which define us as a society or as human. Questions of love, hate, greed and ambition are eternal. Betrayal, heroism, romance and sacrifice are also subjects which can be endlessly revisited.
Characters also change over time. Traits that we value evolve and assume greater or lesser prominence in the lives of our heroes and villains. Good writing offers complex characters with layered personalities which are open to different interpretations as the years go by.
This is why the works of Shakespeare are endlessly adaptable and why you can have different versions of Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth playing at the National Theatre, the RSC and The Old Vic, almost at the same time and not clashing.
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On screen the fundamental personality traits of literary icons like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes remain fixed but there is still sufficient room for actors as diverse as Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, David Suchet and Kenneth Branagh to make their version of the Belgian detective distinct and different. Likewise with Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have worked their magic on the Baker Street sleuth and made their portrayals very much their own and yet Holmes remains recognisably Holmes.
The canvas and the colouring may change but it is the subject matter which is eternal and this is the richness to be found in great literature. This is why the works of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters remain so relevant.
Pride and Prejudice is a classic case in point. It’s two protagonists Lizzie and Darcy have been endlessly re-invented and the story has been given different accents but the essence of Jane Austen’s writing remains the same.
Each age gets the Jane Austen that’s right for them. In the 1940s Greer Garson made a serene Lizzie and Laurence Olivier was an aristocratic Darcy, jump forward to the 1990s and Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie Bennett is much sharper, wittier while Colin Firth’s Darcy was more intellectually aloof. In 2005, the roles were re-examined again. Keira Knightley’s Lizzie was much more of an independent tom-boy while Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr Darcy appears to be more emotionally repressed.
Picnic At Hanging Rock and Poldark are both firmly 21st century re-tellings of stories set in the past but the books were also the product of their age. It is the camerawork and the direction as much as the updated screenplays which give the current adaptations their allure.
If you compare 1970s Poldark to its current incarnation they are two quite different shows with different concerns and different sensibilities – as they should be if they are to be relevant to the age in which they are made.
Likewise, the modern Picnic At Hanging Rock is more about independence and the power of female sexuality than the more wistful 1970s film by Peter Weir. It is a series which is most certainly been made for the era of Times Up and #Me Too.
And yet, it’s not po-faced. It displays a playful and atmospheric sense of style which will win it a lot of fans.