It’s no secret that I love a good adaptation. I spent much of my teenage years on the verge of an incredibly unhealthy obsession with Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy (who am I kidding? It was sufficiently extreme that I performed a pilgrimage to the lake from his infamous diving scene). While I’ve yet to honestly encounter an adaptation so expertly rendered as to make reading the novel redundant, there are some truly wonderful efforts to visualise classic fiction via the big screen. In many respects, classic literature serves as some of the easiest source material available to directors, producers, and screenwriters. Our own historical distance from the narrative makes accuracy a little more superfluous to purpose and gives a much wider space for creative interpretation of the text. Line up adaptations of works like The Great Gatsby or Wuthering Heights and you’ll experience very different visions of the same novel. This can make the experience of watching classic novel adaptations more exciting – because you never quite know what you’ll get – but it can also diminish the nuances and details that made the original novel so significant.
As a committed student of the adaptation, I’ve put together a list of my favourite 8 adaptations of classic novels (including one play that I decided to sneak in). Feel free to disagree or add your own recommendations in the comments below (because I’m always looking for more to watch!) and be prepared to see the BBC feature quite heavily in this post!
Jane Eyre (2006, BBC, 240 mins)
Oh the many ways in which I love Jane Eyre. It’s still a surprise to me that one of my favourite novels – a book that I’ve read more times than I can count – would also be the basis for my favourite adaptation. Just proving that the BBC can do no wrong when it comes to adapting classic literature. Not only is this adaptation of Jane Eyre one of the most faithful to the original source material, the casting is absolute perfection. Ruth Wilson (of Luther fame) nails the character of Jane in just about every respect, as does Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester. If you haven’t seen it, I cannot possibly recommend a more evocative and beautiful adaptation to binge-watch on a rainy day.
Pride and Prejudice (1995, BBC, 327 mins)
Was there any question that the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice would feature on this list? The adaptation that originally got me into both adaptations and classic literature in general, my love for this miniseries is still going strong, many years later. At this point, it is no surprise that the BBC achieves remarkably appropriate casting in all of its adaptations but, as with its televisation of Jane Eyre, its version of Pride and Prejudice should be an exemplar to anyone working on future adaptations. The settings are utterly perfect (so perfect, in fact, that I’ve visited all but one of the places used in the series) and nothing about this series falls flat to the original work. What the BBC achieves here is pure magic.
Great Expectations (2011, BBC, 180 mins)
I did promise that there would be a whole lot of BBC featured here but that is because there is, quite genuinely, no better producer of classic novel adaptations. Televisations will always have the advantage of time, with the ability to spread the story across as many episodes as necessary to the faithful translation of a novel. Beyond this, however, there is undoubtedly something far more raw and tone-appropriate in BBC adaptations – a depth that Hollywood, with its insistent shine and disregard for the physical distinction of character attributes, almost always lacks. In the case of the BBC’s adaptation of Great Expectations, the mood of the series is truly what sells it. The dark, creepy perfection achieved – assisted by an incredible portrayal of Miss Havisham by the always astounding Gillian Anderson – is masterful. I adore the gothicism of Dickens’ work and the series mirrors the novel’s tone perfectly.
The 39 Steps (1935, Gaumont-British, 86 mins)
One of my favourite film adaptations – for those of you without four hours to devote to a TV series – Alfred Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps is utter magnificence. Based on John Buchan’s novel of the same name (a novel that is well worth a read, by the way), there is perhaps no director more perfectly suited to adapting a novel of such incredible humour and mystery. Orson Welles described the film as a “masterpiece” and he’s not far off. Robert Donat’s portrayal of Richard Hannay captures the script’s wry comedy and helps to make The 39 Steps one of the smartest spy stories adapted in the 20th century. Although Hitchcock has taken licence with some of the novel’s elements, it is a worthy and incredibly entertaining adaptation – and certainly one that deserves far wider recognition as a true classic.
Sense and Sensibility (1995, Colombia, 136 mins)
The 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is a great example of the ways in which filmmakers are forced to take liberties with the source material in order to translate the story to the limited space provided by a two hour film. This adaptation – authored by Emma Thompson, one of the film’s stars – makes a number of adjustments to Jane Austen’s original novel, with a view to both cutting down the content and making the differences between the story’s two main characters (the sisters Elinor and Marianne) all the more dramatic. Despite these discrepancies, the film is a gorgeous version of a novel with so many dimensions as to make adapting the work a true challenge. Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon is a significant departure from the actor’s traditional casting as the more malevolent Severus Snapes of the Hollywood universe, and is a role in which Rickman masterfully captures Brandon’s extraordinary kindness and patience.
Father Brown (2013-current, BBC, 45-50 mins per episode)
I only recently started watching the BBC’s adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories, which is now in its seventh series. With the wonderful Mark Williams portraying the show’s eponymous hero, the series follows the Catholic crime-solving priest, Father Brown, as he helps to uncover the perpetrators of various murder cases taking place in the local area. Breezing past the fact that the whole of Britain surely lacks a sufficient population to sustain so many murders, Father Brown is a beautifully light and entertaining adaptation of Chesterton’s relatively unknown work. Set in the 1950s, I particularly enjoy the critical eye with which the series looks at the consequences of World War II and the complicated psychological impact that so much loss has taken on a community.
The Importance of Being Earnest (2002, Miramax Films, 97 mins)
I confessed that I had snuck in a play but I felt compelled to do so on the basis that this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of my favourite films full stop. I distinctly remember a period of about a year in which I watched the film on an almost daily basis – to this day, I can still quote the entire script verbatim. I’m a massive fan of Oscar Wilde’s work, particularly his lesser known play An Ideal Husband. It’s the case, therefore, that I set the bar pretty high when it comes to adaptations of his plays. The 2002 version of The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best interpretations of Wilde’s work that I’ve seen yet. Rupert Everett and Colin Firth are endlessly charming in their roles as Algy and Jack, and the film’s setting is divine. I am also quite sure that the character of Lady Bracknell was written by Wilde for Judy Dench to play.
Of Mice and Men (1992, MGM, 110 mins)
One of the most impressive adaptations of John Steinbeck’s work, the 1992 film version of Of Mice and Men is stunningly executed. Powerful and moving, so much of what this film achieves is in its perfect casting. John Malkovich’s portrayal of Lennie Small is one of the most incredibly heart-breaking performances in film history. Although the film didn’t make waves at the time of its release, the faithful rendering of Steinbeck’s characters and the careful evocation of the uncertainty implicit in life as a nomadic ranch-hand is unrivalled elsewhere. Gary Sinise does an incredible job as the film’s director, producer, and in his role as George Milton. Of Mice and Men was the novel that opened me up to awareness of the very real emotional pain that fiction could cause. But the book, and its adaptation, are also an eternal reminder of the compassion that these reactions both depend upon and create.