Thursday, 16 October 2014

Thursday List: Top 5 Book-to-TV adaptations

They don't all have weddings in - just most of them






Last week I looked at my favourite great books that made good films, or vice versa - and that made me think about books that made great TV programmes. So I made a top 5 list for that too:



1) The Godfather by Mario Puzo   This could easily have been on the best books-to-films list, but there is an intriguing TV connection too. Director Francis Ford Coppola authorized a new edit of the first two films, re-arranged so the whole thing is in chronological order, and with some restored footage. Apparently Coppola did it to try to make money for Apocalypse Now. There is a version that’s more than seven hours long, shown on US TV in 1977. A six-hour-plus version was released to video in 1981. When the much-reviled Godfather III came out, yet another (nine-hour) TV version was produced.

There is a view that Godfather 2 is the only sequel ever made that was better than the first film, and I have heard critics add ‘and Godfather is the only franchise where the TV version is better than the films’. I go back and forth on this one: one of the stunning things about Godfather 2 is the parallel stories of young Vito and Michael, in alternating POVs - Coppola says that every single scene about one of them is matched by a scene about the other. Chronological rearrangement loses that. But on the other hand, to watch the whole saga straight through is one that every Godfather fan should do at least once. The one to go for, in my important view, is the 1981 version, which has not been censored for TV, but still contains a lot of extra material.





The book – a masterpiece in the rough - is here on the blog, and Mario Puzo writes about his relations with Frank Sinatra here.






















2) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh Like everyone my age, I watched this 11-episode series when it went out in 1981 (most people hadn’t even a VCR then…) and it is regularly listed in any poll of the best TV programmes ever. It is lavish and beautifully-acted (the castlist is amazing) and very very faithful to the book. When I read the book now I hear Jeremy Irons intoning in my head - he seems to have read half Waugh’s words out in voiceover. Contrary to what many Americans believe, it was not a BBC production but was made by the Northern company Granada for ITV, the commercial channel.

It is a pleasure to watch, though it does seem to say a lot about the era it was made rather than when it was written: the Thatcher years had begun in Britain. Re-watching it a few years ago I was thinking ‘they would never do that now – it’s all mini-series now, they wouldn’t do 11 episodes with those production values and location shooting and costumes and period details'. But what with Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, perhaps I was wrong.

But the real reason this makes it onto the list is because of the contrast with the 2008 film of Brideshead Revisited.

This is the official trailer:





My pedantic contention is that there are at least three things just in this 2.5 minute trailer which are completely wrong for anyone who has read the book properly, or understood the first thing about it, or about Waugh. (Young people in Venice at Carnival; endless scenes of Sebastian, Julia and Charles; it’s all about Charles). It’s a pity because Ben Whishaw is magnificent as Sebastian, and Emma Thompson excellent as Lady Marchmain (I did see the film, I'm not basing this on the trailer): but the script is a travesty. As a completely different story maybe it works, but it is NOT Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead. So it makes the respectful TV series look very good indeed in comparison.


There are two entries on the book on the blog: here and here.


3) My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell This was a BBC production of 2005: they like to do something for the whole family to watch at Christmas, and it must have made perfect viewing on a cold December day, being the story of a very English family who decamp to Corfu for a couple of years in the 1930s. I came to it later, and think it’s an enchanting video: startlingly beautiful, with lovely wildlife photography, and a hilarious picture of family life. The acting is topnotch – Imelda Staunton, Matthew Goode, Russell Tovey – and Eugene Simon as the little boy Gerald is perfect. 

It is always hard to remember that his annoying and unconventional big brother Larry is actually the august author Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame. This is one of the cases where I am going to say that I like the adaptation better than the original book. The film ends with the outbreak of the Second World War, and so has a hint of melancholy and nostalgia to round it off perfectly. Whatever will happen to these people in the next six years….?




Anne Boleyn - which one is the other?

4) The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory is a book I like very much. Although people may be snooty about it, comparing it unfavourably with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (which I also love), I think that it was Gregory who changed the face of historical fiction forever, and all 3 books are part of a continuum. I love the personal tone, the abrasive competitive women, the picture of sisters as rivals, families as political businesses, sex as a means to get on. There is a Hollywood film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, and it isn’t bad at all, but the 2003 TV version – Natasha McEllhone and Jodhi May – is much better. It’s a BBC production, and the makers decided to be innovative and quite daring, taking the risk of being dismissed as gimmicky and anachronistic. But I thought it worked exceptionally well: though hard to describe without being off-putting. It is in some ways a traditional costume drama, but interspersed with pieces to camera like video diaries by the main characters. This makes it more intimate and real, makes you think of it as the story of young woman caught in a complicated situation not of their own making. Loved it. The book is on the blog a fair bit.




5) Wives and Daughters by Mrs Gaskell One of my top 10 books of all time, and one of the first books ever to feature on the blog. I was very cautious about watching a TV adapation of it, fearing that Andrew Davies (prone to sexing up and adding his own flourishes) would mess it up. But – there is a great interview with him online here which would give you faith that he knew exactly what he was doing, and Mrs G died without finishing the book, so his tidying up the ending is justifiable. The interview is a great introduction to the book, and its themes of broken families, social climbing, the search for love. He says somewhere else that this is a book that teaches us how to live, and I’m never too sure what that means, but it sounds about right. It is a beautifully done production – when I watched it on DVD I was intending to spread the 4 episodes out over a month, but ended up completely box-setting it. Rosamund Pike, now so prominent in Gone Girl, has a nice role in it, and if you don't blink you can just spot the marvellously versatile and charismatic Sheridan Smith playing a housemaid whose one line is dubbed….


So there's my Top 5. Please comment below to add your own favourite TV adaptations. 

24 comments:

  1. Moira, this is a fine list of books adapted for television. I haven't seen any of them but I have read and enjoyed the books of Mario Puzo and Evelyn Waugh. I have always wanted to read Gerald Durrell. I'm afraid I don't known any TV adaptations of books because I never saw any aside from popular series like "Agatha Christie's Poirot" (David Suchet) and "Sherlock Holmes" (Jeremy Brett). I have been meaning to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes in the more recent series.

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    1. Books are better. But sometimes it is nice to see someone else's vision. These days I am a lot more likely to see them on DVD than on TV - writing this piece reminded me of the days when everyone watched the same thing at the same time....

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  2. There's a series element to all my picks as opposed to a one-off dramatisation.
    I suppose REBUS would have to figure, though I got into it late and have only read one of the books. Can't beat a bit of Ken Stott.
    I love JUSTIFIED which is based on an Elmore Leonard story and character.
    Love VERA the show, but haven't sampled the books. BROADCHURCH ditto.

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    1. Oh Vera is a good one, I could easily have included that, I love both books and TV. Justified I haven't come across, and I haven't done Rebus. Was Broadchurch a book first?

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    2. I'm such a lazy blogger! I assumed it was a book before the TV show, I've checked and it wasn't - apologies!

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    3. You are informative! I'd never have thought to wonder before you said that, and now we all know the facts....

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  3. Very interesting selection Moira - haven't thought about the TV version of the Godfather series in ages - it was also heavily censored, so that has always got in the way of my enjoyment, along with the inferior technical quality of the video transfer (given how great the films look). In the case of BRIDESHEAD, it turns out that they threw away Mortimer's script (a six-parter) and pretty much just pulled out the pages from the book, which is certainly a very slavish adaptation. I would include the BBC version of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (which deviates from the source, to le Carre's displeasure, but to my liking) and Alan Plater's reduction of Olivia Manning's BALKAN and LEVANT trilogies into FORTUNES OF WAR, which I thought was very, very well done. I also think Jack Pulman's script for I CLAUDIUS from the two Graves books is pretty amazing

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    1. Great call on Tinker Tailor and I Claudius, Sergio.I very much like the Olivia Manning books, but didn't see the TV series. I just found that out about the Mortimer script for Brideshead, which was a surprise. There was a radio programme about the making of B'head a year or two ago, and that was very interesting. Jeremy Irons was making French Lt's Woman at the same time, and filming had to be arranged round that. This made him rather unpopular...

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  4. [Posting this comment on behalf of Christine Poulson] The adaptation of Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown was excellent and also of Olivia Manning's The Fortunes of the War which were both in the eighties - as was Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy: that stands up to seeing again.

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    1. [To Christine] More votes for Manning and Le Carre, and Jewel in the Crown is antother one that would be on my longlist.

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  5. I can recommend Durrell's 2 sequels to My Family, which I remember as being far funnier - mainly due to Lawrence's friends. It's been a few years since I read them, but I don't remember the War being mentioned.

    A great book-to-TV was the BBC's Bleak House. Absolutely brilliant cast.

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    1. I haven't read or even seen the Durrell sequels, so I must look out for them.
      And Bleak House - yes, very much so, it was wonderful: faithful to the book but done in an innovative and exciting way.

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  6. Moira: Let me make a plea for the Rumpole of the Bailey adaption of the John Mortimer novels. I loved the series. Rumpole was a lawyer I could identify with and the courtroom scenes were plausible while remaining entertaining. Who can forget Rumpole thundering "never plead guilty"? I defy anyone who saw even one episode to imagine Rumpole as anyone other than Leo McKern. He was perfect.

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    1. Yes, I saw quite a few episodes and they were very good, and indeed - no-one else could be Rumpole. I think when I think of John Mortimer I actually think of Leo McKern....

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  7. Mine are picked already - Jewel in the Crown + Tinker Tailor... There was a reasonable go at Cold Comfort Farm a few years ago, though book *much* better (of course).

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    1. I picked 5, and now I could do a 10 with readers' suggestions. Yes to those, and I agree about Cold Comfort - I was very wary, but it was as good as it could be. - and we watched it in a holiday house, 3 generations of the family, and it was the perfect entertainment, everyone enjoyed it.

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  8. Moira - Sorry I'm late to the party on this one. I have to agree with Sergio about Tinker, Tailor.... I thought it was excellent! And I think you're quite right about The Godfather, Part II. I've never seen a sequel quite that good...

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    1. Tinker Tailor is a real winner - I watched it again recently and it really stood up over time: I did like the new film too, but thought the TV series was better. I found it very compelling, even though I knew everything there was to know about the plot, and that's quite a compliment.

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  9. You forgetting the Sherlock Holmes Series by Grenada TV in the 80'sand mid 90's with Jeremy Bret

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    1. You are right Scott - he was absolutely BORN to play that part. I do like things like the modern Sherlock, but that old series was one of the best ever versions of Holmes.

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  10. The only one of these I have seen is Wives and Daughters, and we enjoyed it very much. But haven't read the book. I did not even know that there was a TV version of The Godfather series. I have read (and liked) The Other Boleyn Girl but have not seen either adaptation. My only vote for TV adaptations would be the Midsomer Murders TV series. Only 5 of the books were adapted, but the adaptations for at least the first two books were very well done.

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    1. So glad you saw Wives & Daughters - not many people seem to have. You've got me going on the Midsummer Murders again after your recent review.

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  11. And not to be missed, the 1980 version of Love in a Cold Climate (combining LiaCC and The Pursuit of Love.) Utter utter blissikins, and not to be confused with the redundant 2000 version.

    And even better, the 1979 brilliant bit of work, Testament of Youth. (And WHY are they remaking it????)

    (Thanks for the tip; I've just reserved the DVD of My Family etc at the library)

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    1. I agree about the first one, but I do also like the second one - and really should have included one of them in the list. Testament of Youth also a good call.

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