Dear friends and readers,
A line of thought coming out of my Downton Abbey blogs this week (Season 3, Part 1, and Part 2 and a session I went to at the MLA devoted to TV serial drama (one of the most original of all those I attended at the conference). Is Austen’s Emma Downton Abbey’d, Victorianized, Trollope’d through serial films; to the extent this happens, what does it reveal about Austen’s texts when we look at how it’s done, where the Austen text (as it were) resists this treatment and where it lends itself to it.
In the MLA session Austen’s Emma came under discussion. Why? Because to film that novel as a serialized drama necessitates changing its basic tight structure. Among Austen’s novels, the one with the most artful structure and control is Emma, with its three time entry of Mr Knightley’s point of view at specific points in the narrative, its use of seasons, one year and so on.
The art of serialization requires (among other things): stasis and cyclical repetition for psychological and social development. You hold back what happens so as to lengthen it out and you repeat it in different variations. It’s also the way time is passed; one of the pleasures of these “texts.” (See my Aesthetics of Soap Operas explained and defended.) The 1972 and 2009 Emmas are both mini-series, and they have striking changes in structure and layout from the novel which changes the affect of them. I took down the details the person then cited and will have them in a blog when I get to my notes so you have to take this comparison on faith or just remember for yourself.
Mr Knightley (John Carson) and Emma (Doran Goodwin) share a laugh at Emma’s expense at something that has happened — this film too uses re-discussions as a way of making interwoven stories (1972 BBC Emma by John Constanduros)
But even just thinking about it you can see this in the 1995 P&P especially where a relatively tight book is turned into a structure which can perpetuate itself and spin out and bring characters in and out and have central ritual scenes with repeating crises. Endless dinners, walking discussions, spun out mini-back-stories which are imagined as taking place between chapters in the books, flashbacks while characters read letters. It’s part of the way the novel is changed into something spectacular.
The point was of the paper I heard was books like say Trollope’s lend themselves to, are almost in effect themselves serial dramas (roman fleuves — I deal with this in the last chapter of my book on Trollope on the Net) with their cycling in and out characters, multiplots, repetitions, lend themselves to serial drama. (Te person’s paper was on the Barchster novels and the 1990s BBC mini-series Northern Exposure which found that it couldn’t center on one character and keep going but had to present a community and group of characters so the central actor sued them.)
I’d add that Dickens seems to have fought against installment divisions: his often are slightly cock-eyed, meaning he deliberately starts a new thread as a last chapter, does not have all three chapters for an installment one thread, at least in Little Dorrit; but his books nonetheless still lend themselves to seralization. Davies has had startling successes with his two dramas, and the 1980s has a number of brilliant Dickens mini-series.
This might be an interesting and a fruitful perspective to take on longer 18th century Victorian novels too as well as Austen’s. How well do they fit serialization? For example, almost all the S&S movies have been mini-series and those not mini-series (I have found it has a cyclical structure). S&S lends itself to serialization because of the centrality of the journey in the novel: the Austen women are (to use modern language) dispersed from their original place and move about. It’s not a novel where time passes — as Mansfield Park is, a novel which much benefits from the 1983 serialization by Ken Taylor. That it was originally an epistolary novel as was P&P can also account for the serialisation fit.
Instead of beginning with the novel and looking at the film from the novel’s art; begin with the film and look at what serialization does to the novel.
Novels like Richardson’s epistolary Clarissa and Fielding’s controlled picaresque Tom Jones lend themselves to TV serial dramas. The 1997 BBC Tom Jones is a superb and fits the form. The problem with the 1991 BBC Clarissa is the model seems to have been classical structure and it was way too short; it really needed something like 6 episodes since Clary itself as an epistolary novel shows many serial characteristics. The strength of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is its long and he treats his film as as series of interwoven dream sequences.
Yet paradoxically (I didn’t get a chance to say this in the session) the tightly-structured localized Emma lends itself to the 1972 Emma and 2009 Emma, which are closer to the book than say the recent 2010 Aisha which itself is long enough to seem serial. That’s because they are transpositions with hinge-points, central characters, and themes kept. The Indian film is analogous in type, is very long and has songs and dancing, but when it does follow some core elements of the book — the Mr Knightley and Emma discussion-type scenes — it suddenly connects back to Austen.
Both singletons, the two 1996 Emmas, especially McGrath’s present themselves as transpositions. In the McGrath it’s the wholescale change in mood, with Emma functioning as narrator writing a diary that accounts for the distance. Davies’s play is a transposition but when he turns to end his film-story, we are given a harvest scene — more like a regional novel (say early Hardy) and belongs to the ritual get-together of soap opera aesthetics.
One of the charateristics of soap opera form allows Davies to bring back Harriet and Mr Martin’s intense happiness — the precious relationship almost lost, an emphasis which runs counter to Emma’s idea that Harriet could and would have married anyone.
A few scattered (joke alert) thoughts.
Any readers who know of good TV scholarship or articles on serialization as such, please to cite them?