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Eliot Without Tears

George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’

directed by Anthony Page. produced by BBC Television
Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, PBS, April 10–May 15, 1994

The six-part television adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch now on Masterpiece Theatre is introduced by Russell Baker, who recently replaced Alistair Cooke as the program’s host. Mr. Cooke had a manner of speaking of books and their characters as one might speak of colorful family members long deceased. He was almost a literary character himself, a sort of roguish cleric, and he had a trick of blurring the distinction between fact and fiction in a way that made the stories seem a little more real at the expense of making himself seem a little less so. We would not have been entirely surprised to hear Mr. Cooke tell us that his mother’s nanny was actually once married to a cousin of Mr. Casaubon’s butler.

Mr. Baker’s approach is much more wholesome. He doesn’t pretend to a greater intimacy with the stories he introduces than is consistent with the persona of a cultivated fellow who’s done a few things in his life beside read novels. He knows, in the case of Middlemarch, that we might be glad for a few facts about George Eliot, and (in contrast to Mr. Cooke, whose manner of delivery sometimes gave the impression that he was making it up as he went along) he rattles off two or three pieces of information, mostly inaccurate, about her with the complacent authority of an anchorman.

He’s also sensible enough not to act as though Middlemarch is the sort of novel most of his viewers will ever have felt drawn to read without the stimulus of a television program, and he puts himself on those viewers’ side at once by confessing his own longstanding reluctance to plough through the thing. Dipped when still a boy into the literary prune juice of Silas Marner, he confides, he once swore off George Eliot forever. But after being obliged, in his new capacity, to tackle Middlemarch, he astonished himself by becoming “absolutely and hopelessly hooked. It was,” he exclaims, “a page-turner!” The experience emboldened him to return to Silas Marner, which he reports to be similarly absorbing stuff—all going to show, as he puts it, that “school can keep you from getting a good education.”

The good-natured and slightly anti-intellectual defensiveness of this appeal is, of course, just Mr. Baker’s hostly gambit, and wouldn’t be worth remarking on if it didn’t typify the whole public relations effort accompanying this adaptation. The Modern Library has put out a “companion edition” of Middlemarch, which is advertised as “complete and unabridged” (as opposed to what? complete but abridged?) and which reprints a brief essay by A.S. Byatt in which she recalls her youthful exasperation with the tedious Silas and subsequent enlightenment. An event staged earlier this month to publicize this new Modern Library edition (which is, of course, only the old Modern Library edition reset and with a different jacket) involved a discussion of the novel by a panel whose members included Brooke Astor, Sister Souljah, and Peggy Noonan.

It’s not boring!” is the general message, and there’s a reason for the extra hype. Middlemarch is a project of the BBC, which has had a string of failures in the costume drama department lately, and the show is evidently a high-stakes gamble made in the hope of keeping this sort of enterprise alive. It’s reported to be the most expensive BBC series ever produced, running to a million pounds per episode—a sum to which WGBH, the Boston public television affiliate, has made a contribution officially described as “substantial.” It’s sensible for everyone connected with the business to assume that, whatever the situation in England, where the show attracted large numbers of viewers earlier this year, American television can’t rely on confirmed George Eliot addicts alone to make a decent audience. It’s going to have to pull in people, like Russell Baker (at least as he presents himself), for whom George Eliot has always had a vaguely medicinal association.

There’s no quarreling with the intention. If fans of Peggy Noonan and Sister Souljah are induced to tune in, so much the better. The question is, If the producers of this series were so concerned about the belief that Middlemarch is boring, why did they make it so boring?

A film adaptation of a work of literature is an interpretation expressed in a radically different medium. It can’t help being reductive, since a word is worth a thousand pictures. Any novel translated to film—and especially a novel like Middlemarch, which depends so heavily on a literary style that enacts a kind of poetry of thought—loses something essential to its imaginative experience. In return for a penny’s worth of visual concreteness, it surrenders a fortune in implication.

For example: “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” There is nothing film can do to reproduce the nearly subliminal effects created in this sentence by the juxtaposition of the word “beauty” and the word “poor,” and by the use of “thrown into relief” as the linking phrase. “There is a spiritual kind of beauty that is incompatible with ostentation” is the manifest sense of the sentence. “Spiritual beauty has its own kind of coquetry” is the admonition that awaits a second glance. “What seems fine requires a background of commonness in order to show itself; and commonness would not seem so unacceptable to us if it didn’t have to suffer by the contrast the presence of a finer nature makes” is the idea that lurks behind it all, and that helps to explain what an epic figure like Dorothea Brooke is doing as the protagonist of a novel whose subtitle (missing from the Modern Library’s complete and unabridged edition; but they never said it was unexpurgated, did they?) is “A Study of Provincial Life.”

Film is a different experience from literature. It has different resources, and is capable of different effects. A film (or an adaptation for television, which has its own aesthetic opportunities and constraints) can’t do more justice to a novel than a single production of King Lear can do to King Lear. It can only present one idea of what the book is about. How that particular idea gets translated into the new medium depends on what the filmmakers are willing to sacrifice in order to express it.

There is no single formula. Sometimes a literal adaptation works unexpectedly well: twenty years ago, the BBC produced a pretty straightfoward television dramatization of War and Peace, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, which, at some cost to scale, articulated a certain gentleness in the story very beautifully. Sometimes a complete transposition produces a revelation. Masterpiece Theatre once ran an adaptation of Our Mutual Friend that took one of Dickens’s most grandly orchestral novels and played it as a string quartet—a subdued, minimalist rendition which seemed to get very near the true temper of the book.

The BBC Middlemarch goes a good distance in the direction of literalness. A great effort has been made, in the choice of locations especially, to get a period look that feels plausibly authentic (one reason, apparently, for the great expense). The screenplay, by Andrew Davies, who has written the screenplays for two other Masterpiece Theatre presentations, House of Cards and To Play the King, shoehorns in a lot of the book—even to the extent of making some of George Eliot’s authorial commentary (about “the roar that lies on the other side of silence”) come out of Dorothea’s mouth. The result is that the tempo, particularly in the first episode, is much too quick. But an impressive number of the novel’s characters and incidents are present and accounted for. Mr. Cadwallader, the trout-fishing clergyman who is the husband of the county gossip, has been erased completely; but no one else is noticeably missing.

Of the minor characters, most are very good, and two seem perfect: Dorothea’s harebrained uncle, Mr. Brooke, the man who has gone into everything at one time or another (he’s played by Robert Hardy), and Raffles, the nemesis of the evangelical banker Bulstrode (a much smaller role, played by John Savident). The meddlesome Mrs. Cadwallader is described in the novel as “thin but well-built”; on screen, she’s large and matronly. But Mrs. Cadwallader is much more readily imagined, in fact, as large and matronly, so nothing is really lost. Less satisfactory is the Brookes’ neighbor, Sir James Chettam, the baronet who begins by wooing Dorothea and then, rebuffed by her, turns briskly around and marries Dorothea’s imperturbably conventional sister, Celia, instead. In the novel, Sir James is blond and “blooming,” the epitome of landed aristocratic blandness—a man whose habitual reply to any statement, no matter how disagreeable, is “Exactly.” In the adaptation, most of the “exactlys” have disappeared, and Sir James always looks rather pinched and irritable.

A few other minor liberties and omissions are mildly annoying. When we first see Celia, she’s out riding horseback with Dorothea. But Celia doesn’t ride; Dorothea and Rosamond ride. A woman riding a horse for pleasure in the novel expresses a style of sexuality that Celia pointedly lacks. It’s regrettable, for similar reasons, that we never get to see Fred Vincy—the manufacturer’s son with great expectations but no great talents—try, as he does in the novel, to play the flute. And a decision has been made to pronounce Casaubon’s name CASS-a-bon, which has the authority of common usage, but not the authority of George Eliot, who pronounced it ca-SAW-bon.

In general, though, the background is as complete as it needs to be. It’s the foreground that isn’t right, and the reason is a peculiar one. For in adapting the story to modern sensibilities, the producers haven’t sensationalized Middlemarch at all. They have instead taken everything sensational in Middlemarch and carefully edited it out. What has evidently made them anxious is the possibility not that the novel might not seem dramatic enough, but that it might seem a little too dramatic for twentieth-century tastes. They haven’t taken a pious Victorian marriage tale and jazzed it up; they’ve taken a great late-Romantic poem, a kind of opera of social psychology, and turned it into television’s idea of a romantic drama—that is, a lot of good-looking people chasing around after and pairing off with a lot of other good-looking people.

Juliet Aubrey is the Dorothea, and her performance is by far the finest thing about the series. She has a beauty that can be described as handsome without implying anything mannish about it; and she has, more importantly, Dorothea’s voice—“the voice of a soul,” as Will Ladislaw romantically imagines it, “that had once lived in an Aeolian harp.” She grows in composure and moral clarity as the story progresses, and her presence becomes finally splendid without losing anything in simplicity.

But there is nothing ethereal about her. What makes her appealing is that she’s the most up-to-date figure on the screen. She’s without any antique fussiness about her clothes and deportment (which follows the book, though some of her dresses here are, attractively but surely anachronistically, very low-cut). But she’s without any medieval enthusiasms that might puzzle modern viewers, either. Here is a glimpse of the novel’s Dorothea: “a young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles—who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books.” It’s impossible to imagine the BBC Dorothea doing any of these things. She is shown in the cottage of a sick laborer, but she doesn’t kneel down, or behave in any other manner alarming to secular tastes; she simply emerges shortly afterward looking properly troubled and sympathetic. She has spirit in the modern sense—which means spirit free of, precisely, the affects of spirituality.

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