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Are Victorian Adaptations Passé?

2011 May 31
by rosa dartle

As Colin Firth basks in The King’s Speech’s afterglow, Emma Thompson pens a screenplay for My Fair Lady, and Baz Lurhmann directs The Great Gatsby, it seems that the heritage film industry is increasingly trading in Victorian sources for more modern fare.

This displacement of Victorian source texts by 20th-century upstarts is clearly visible on television, as well. Masterpiece Theatre, the long-running public television program that imports British costume drama to American Anglophiles, noticeably skipped over Victorian texts in this year’s lineup.

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Downtown Abbey, South Riding, and Upstairs/Downstairs headlined Mastepiece’s “Classic” season, which unfolded with nary a Dickens adaptation in sight.  As Nancy M. West explains, American television programming reflects changing practices in British television: “The BBC recently scrapped Dombey and Son and one of Trollope’s Palliser novels from its programming. The station’s official statement is that it wants to devote more attention to 20th– and 21st- century drama.”*

After what seemed like an inexhaustible nostalgia for Victorian London, it seems that 21st century viewers hunger for a more recent past rife with overt drama. The 1910s-1930s exude romance with familiarly Victorian themes set against a backdrop of looming tragedy:  shifting gender roles,  an extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a high living set, unabashed patriotism, grand estates and opulent (albeit sleeker) fashions. For Americans and Britons, locked alike in an interminable recession, these years symbolize a last gasp of leisure-class luxury in a world that would be forever altered by war.

Of course, notable exceptions challenge the pattern. Serialized on Channel 4 (BBC), neo-Victorian crime drama The Crimson Petal and the White garnered acclaim from UK fans and critics alike, including novelist Michael Faber. Jane Eyre currently enjoys modest success at the Hollywood box office, and two much anticipated Victorian adaptations—director Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and director Mike Newell’s Great Expectationsloom on the horizon.

There is still good news for Victorianists everywhere—but better news for 20th century scholars, who must be furiously crafting conference panels on the Cultural Afterlife of the Interwar Years.

* West, Nancy M. “The King of Adapters.” Written By: The Magazine of the Writers Guild of America (April/May 2011): 20-27; here, p. 27.

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