January 2007

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Andrew Davies: Every Century Needs Some Dickens

When I worked as a video store clerk in high school, the two weeks before the beginning of the new school year were always a very special time. Those were the days when my peers, desperately behind on their summer reading and hoping to get around the odious task of reading a book cover to cover, would trickle into the store, asking where they could find any film adaptation of the assigned literature. I got pretty good at setting them up, making sure that they chose the Jane Seymour East of Eden, not the James Dean one (sure, the James Dean one is shorter and better, but if you're going to pretend to read a Steinbeck novel, you need to watch the movie that doesn't cut the first half of the book). But while I did the best I could not to judge them, I'd always fail miserably; after all, I believed then, the book is always better, and why would you want to settle for the substandard?

Ah, to be young and full of assumptions again. To be young, and have no idea who Andrew Davies is. Not that a lot of people know who Andrew Davies is. But had my peers been aware of his existence, they would have made him their king.

For the past two decades, Andrew Davies has been rocking the classics, turning out distinguished adaptations of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare for British television. (He also has a credit on the adaptations of Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones's Diary II, but given that those movies are really just an adaptation of Helen Fielding's adaptation of Davies's definitive Pride and Prejudice, it only seems fair.) Want numbers? They're hard to discern. But among the man's IMDB credits (past, present and future) are:

Brideshead Revisited
Sense and Sensibility
Northanger Abbey
The Line of Beauty
Bleak House
He Knew He Was Right
Daniel Deronda
Doctor Zhivago
The Way We Live Now
The Tailor of Panama
Wives and Daughters
Vanity Fair
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders
Pride and Prejudice

That's only going back to 1994. NINETEEN-NINETY FOUR. What have you done with the last twelve years? Because Andrew Davies has spent it making sure that Britain's schoolchildren need never read a classic again.

What's remarkable about Davies's work is that he manages to balance faithful adherence to his source material with a modern sensibility that never jars with the historical period being depicted. It's the women who really stand out; Davies's heroines (he seems to write a lot of heroines) are all very much of their time, but manage also to be familiar and approachable for a modern audience. He has a knack, a strange unquantifiable knack, for finding the qualities in a work of fiction that have allowed it to survive history's dustbin of obscurity. For a writer of adaptations, this is a very useful superpower.

It also helps that Davies's format of choice is the multi-episode miniseries, and that his industry of choice is British television, which thrives on high-quality, limited run series that end when they need to. Imagine pitching an American TV network a period drama, based on a lesser-known Dickens novel, running fifteen episodes at approximately 35 minutes each, with a huge ensemble cast? Impossible. Yet the 2005 adaptation of Bleak House was a huge critical and commerical success for the BBC, even racking up its share of nominations stateside, too.

This December, I gorged on Bleak House DVDs while plowing through my vast quantities of Christmas knitting, and the experience had the same warm-bath feel as that of slipping between the sheets with a well-worn paperback. With the added benefit of Gillian Anderson as Lady Deadlock. Remember Gillian Anderson? I barely do. But in Bleak House, she is sad, lovely and luminous.

She is also very tragic. I would be derelict in my duties as an encapsulator of Andrew Davies's work if I did not mention that the man has more than a few melodramatic bones in his body. People have an alarming habit of dying from shame, pride, ignominy, ennui, unrequited love, hysteria, and/or consumption in his works -- it can be a bit hard to take, if you're not properly prepared. Just the thing for those lazy afternoons when dealing with your own emotions is just too much effort.

And I mean afternoons. I mean to take some time with these stories. Because perhaps what we respond to, both as readers and viewers, is length; it seems to me that the longer we engage with a character and their world, the more we grow to care about them. Why else would Dickens insist on getting paid by the word, on telling his stories serially? If Dickens lived today, Dickens would write BBC television. Heck, he would own it.

When Andrew Davies is gone, his legacy will be untold numbers of other people's stories, elegantly translated for the small screen. And perhaps that's a shame, that his original works will not be what he's remembered for. But to be the best at what you do, to redefine the classics for an entire generation? Maybe that sucks for the classics. But even lazy schoolchildren deserve saints.