Adaptations Abound

–In a recent issue of The Spectator, Chilton Williamson, Jr considers the success of the 1950s Perry Mason CBS TV series in light of today’s alternatives. Here’s the opening of the article:

I was well into my thirties when my parents acquired a television set, for no good reason that I could discern after they’d gone so many years without one without obvious damage to their health or intellects. Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, my sister and I were permitted to watch two television shows while visiting with relatives. One was Topper. The other was Perry Mason, which they occasionally joined us for: a small family grouping that was the closest thing the Williamsons ever came to resembling a painting by Norman Rockwell.

Over the past year and a half, I have been re-watching episodes of the original show […] As with so many good things, I found that they had improved with age — not only theirs but my own as well. Several months ago, the discovery that Evelyn Waugh had been a great admirer of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, from which the series was adapted, further increased my appreciation and respect for the films. […]

See previous post re Waugh’s admiration of Erle Stanley Gardner. After discussing why the original series was so successful, Williamson continues:

The formal elegance and compactness of the stories, based for the most part on Gardner’s own, are carried over from the novels, thus preserving the craftsmanship, professionalism and structural balance that doubtless explains Evelyn Waugh’s appreciation of the novels; the soundtrack and musical scoring are as discreetly suited to the whole as are the other elements.

Williamson then looks at a 1980s remake on NBC and determines why it did not succeed. Among other things, it seemed out of its time in the 1980s: too much had changed during the turbulent 1960s. And the setting was moved away from Los Angeles to Denver, which was not what Erle Stanley Gardner had in mind. The article concludes  with this:

I am no TV critic, and my rather philistine taste in film runs chiefly to foreign detective shows, Lewis, the Poirot movies (with David Suchet, of course), Il Commissario Montalbano, Le Sagne du Vigne, Maigret (with Bruno Cremer), Muertres, and so forth. Nevertheless I feel confident in judging the first Perry Mason series to be a true work of art, probably the best thing ever accomplished by the American television industry. I doubt Evelyn Waugh ever watched an episode. That is a pity. He would have loved everything about it.

Williamson doesn’t mention the recent HBO Perry Mason series (nor do I recall any discussion of its critical reception.) It was more of a prequel and moved the setting to the 1930s with Perry Mason transformed into a private detective rather than a defense attorney.  It must have been successful, as HBO has commissioned a second series.

Waugh has not left much information about his TV preferences (if, indeed, he had any). But it is hard to imagine that some one who was as keen an admirer of Gardner’s work as he was could have resisted the temptation at least to sample the original TV series (if, that is, it was ever broadcast on British television during his lifetime). On the other hand, he had his own sad experience with adaptations of his work (e.g. The Loved One) and may for that reason not have been so keen as I have suggested to see what the result was for the works of an author he so much admired such as Gardner.

–Another article on adaptations of books into TV and film appears in a recent issue of The Critic. This is by Alexander Larman and he turned to the subject when he read the announcement that The English Patient was about to be made into a TV series. He does not foresee this as a necessarily good development since he recalls Anthony Minghella’s previous theatrical film adaptation as something that would be hard to improve upon. He explains his own views as follows:

The debate has raged on for some time as to whether cinema or television is a “superior’ medium, ever since the arrival of streaming services and the increasingly accepted idea of ‘box set binging’. […] It’s simply easier to watch an hour or two of television on Netflix or Amazon Prime than to schlep out to the multiplex or arthouse, with all the attendant costs and fuss that that involves.

As someone who has traditionally regarded the act of going to the cinema in much the same way that a religious man treats going to church, it has been a source of great sadness to me that it seems to be rapidly declining as an art form. […] Mid-budgeted literate films aimed at adults, such as The English Patient, are no longer being made. Instead, their natural home is television.

Yet even here there is compromise and disappointment. The Netflix drama Bridgerton attracted vast viewing figures, as well as some controversy for its anachronistically diverse and woke presentation of the Georgian era. Yet the chances of, say, Evelyn Waugh or EM Forster’s novels being similarly adapted for Netflix or a rival seem remote. There is a vast amount of money being spent on television, but most of it is being spent in an uninspiring and unexciting fashion. And the BBC has hardly covered itself in glory lately, either, not least with its catastrophic decision to allow Emily Mortimer to ruin The Pursuit of Love  and thereby destroying any chance of a faithful, enjoyable adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate. [Emphasis supplied.]

–Larman doesn’t mention the possibility of a TV serial remake of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; this was mooted late last year and was said to have been commissioned by BBC and HBO. It was to be directed and adapted by Luca Guadagnino. See previous post.

Not much has been reported about this project since November 2020, but there was a recent announcement by Castle Howard in Yorkshire that may be relevant. This stated that Castle Howard would be closed to the public for late summer-early fall:

We have confirmed a filming contract that will take place at Castle Howard, which will mean a period of closure of the visitor attraction. We hope you will understand that the decision to take on the filming project has not been taken lightly and we have considered options very carefully. […] The essential income that filming provides goes directly into the restoration of our historic buildings and landscape.

The filming itself will take place between 9th September and 9th October and for this period the House and Gardens will close entirely to the public. The House itself will close for a further period in order for the set up and de-rig of the project, from 16th August […]

The Castle Howard team have signed a non disclosure confidentiality agreement and all we are permitted to say about the project is:‘Castle Howard will be closed due to filming. We are not permitted to say anything about this project other than it being a television filming project’

Castle Howard as many of you know was the setting for Brideshead Castle in both the 1981 TV and 2008 film versions of Waugh’s novel.

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