Great Adaptations


Watching the BBC’s critically lauded modern-day version of ‘Sherlock’ last night set me thinking about adaptations.

The general lack of new UK drama on TV (Bryant & May are currently languishing in Development Hell) does remind me of the past’s biggest adaptations, from ‘Brideshead Revisited’ to a not bad (but clearly cash-strapped) version of Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky’.

Still, for sheer bravery my award goes to ‘Gormenghast’, condensed by the Beeb to four parts, so tightly budgeted that instead of creating a white crow with CGI they scoured zoos for a real one, and oddly peppered with characters more familiar from soap operas, it was still a wonderful adaptation – although I kept checking my watch at the end to wonder how there was enough time to flood the castle.

A lot of material from the book had to be left out, but the crucial elements were all in place, and for now it remains an exemplary benchmark adaptation. After it aired, angry and disappointed viewers were allowed to attack the production team on air – and even they came to realise what had been achieved. Here’s a picvid put out at the time. The whole four hours is uploadable, but it’s better on DVD. Any other suggestions for great adaptations?


10 comments on “Great Adaptations”

  1. Christopher

    Have failed miserably at finding an e-mail addy for you so am commenting here to say how much I enjoy the Bryant and May books. Am reading them at a rate of knots and out of sequence, which is the best way, I find, to read a series.

    They’re cracking good books and, for a Stoke Newington girl, they’re a constant delight, the nippets of London trivia making me go “Ooh, I knew that” or “Ooh, I didn’t know that at all’.

    Good luck with getting these adapted for television.


  2. J. Folgard says:

    Two ‘period crime’ stories come to my mind, that maybe could provide for quality tv adaptations. One would be Caleb Carr’s The Alenist & its sequel The Angel of Darkness with their ensemble cast, and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, which could appeal to crime fans as well as historical drama lovers… Thanks for mentioning Gormenghast, I enjoyed the adaptation (however flawed it was) after having discovered the novels some eight years ago. By the way, the books’ translators in France did a great job with Mervyn Peake’s tortured prose, it must not have been easy.
    And hey, let’s hope for Bryant & May on tv!

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Looks as if I’ll have to set aside six months and read this Gormenghast creation before the adaptation hits PBS over here. Complex and long novels are spoiled in my view by film adaptations which have to leave out long sections or whole story threads in order to make a film of manageable length.

  4. Sam Tomaino says:

    My two favorite British mini-series are “Brideshead Revisited’ & “I, Claudius”. So, I’d add the latter to your list. I, too, liked “Gormenghast.” I’d like to see someone take a crack at “The Worm Ourobouros.”

  5. J. Folgard says:

    Nice idea -it’s such a little-known yet important fantasy novel, it would take serious gutso to try & adapt it. Its byzantine backstory and complex characters seem tailor-made for tv now that you suggest it!

  6. J. Folgard says:

    -oh, and what about “Lud-In-The-Mist”? Viewers would get a sinister fairytale and village gossip, and it could be very intriguing visually, as the settings seem to be constantly oscillating between a cozy ‘village green’ and something darker.

  7. Ken says:

    “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” was pretty good. Robert Stephens made a fine Max Carrados. “Dracula” with Jack Shepherd as Renfield was also well done.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, “I, Claudius” was a great adaptation, but it wasn’t made into a movie, it was made into a major series that went on for about the same length as Jewel in the Crown. It was great seeing the actors from it turning up in totally different roles. “Lud-in-the-Mist” sounds fascinating & would be an editor’s dream with jump cuts and all sorts of legerdemain.

  9. Alan Morgan says:

    Wow, someone else liked the BBC’s Gormenghast? I’ve got it on… video! I’ve defended it a number of times thinking too that it was cleverly done, capturing the flavour and maintaining the story line surprisingly well. June Brown was my favourite casting (Nanny Slagg), here superb. I did groan (sorry) when I heard it was being adapted as Mervyn Peake is something of a hero of mine and I just assumed it would be dreadful. So with that attitude in place I watched the first episode in rising excitement. The thing is, even where things get a little hammy that still suits the theme, the whole, and I think I shall have to dust off the portable that still has a working VHS later and have a watch again.

    Interesting mention of B&M in development hell. Who ideally (living or indeed dead as this entirely conjecture) would you cast for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, in a fantasy football manner? You’ve mentioned Eleanor Summerfield for Albright a wee while back.

    Is Bryant & May In Development Hell the working title..? Aha, aho.

  10. Actually, I, Claudius was almost adapted as a film, by no one other than Joseph von Sternberg. The only surviving bits of the projects have been assembled as a bonus disk in a French DVD Box edition of the BBC series.

    Oh, and write me in as another one who enjoyed the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast. Not too keen on seeing an adaptation of The Worm Ouroboros, on the other hand, even though I love the book. Much of the pleasure lies in the archaic style Eddison uses, and let’s be realistic: even with digital FX, it’d have to be an extremely big production to be half-way faithful to the numerous locales, various battles and many characters.

Comments are closed.