They must be joking, right? A little while ago, BBC announced that they were going to do a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and like - I suspect - at least 80% of the costume-drama viewing populace I reacted with profound scepticism. The Beeb completely nailed it last time they adapted P & P back in 1995 - the series, penned by costume drama supremo Andrew Davies and starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy, was an instant classic. I have even heard it referred to by die-hard Pride and Prejudice fans as "PP2". So why on earth, when they've already got it right, would the BBC consider doing another?
Well, it has been 22 years, hard as that is to swallow. I realise that adapters can't be expected to keep their mitts off certain classics indefinitely only because they've once been done well. And considering that we watch the same plays over and over again with new casts, why are things so different when it comes to TV and film adaptations of the same material, which will after all not be identical to each other? Why shouldn't there be twenty Oliver Twists, if there are twenty good Fagins to be had?
I think that part of the reason so many of us are irritated when TV channels or even film-makers churn out yet another version of a work that has already been done to death, and where there exists a near-flawless adaptation already, is that the budget for new period drama is bound to be limited. TV spokesmen don't tend to be over-fond of "bonnet dramas" anyway - the new P & P is already billed, absurdly, as less "bonnet-y" and more "dark" (honestly, what's next? A "dark" Winnie the Pooh?). They will tolerate a few of these dramas per year, but if one costume drama project goes ahead, it is safe to assume that it is at the expense of others that do not. And there are so many books that would make wonderful costume dramas, where adaptations have not been attempted for ages if ever. Dombey and Son is an example I keep coming back to: the 1983 adaptation is so creaky that, in spite of Paul Darrow's delectable Carker, I feel unable to recommend it to anyone but the most nerdy and patient Dickens nut. The most aggravating thing is that a Davies adaptation of this novel in the same vein as his Bleak House and Little Dorrit was actually commissioned, then axed (I have already whined about this at length). There are other examples of neglected adaptable novels, closer to Austen in genre, as mentioned in this Telegraph article (though I admit I couldn't get through Evelina myself). However, if a novel's title isn't already known to the public, then it's far less likely to make it to production. But a new Pride and Prejudice? That they can do.
Which leads us to another irritant: that it actually seems as if it's more likely that a novel will be adapted if a good film or TV version already exists, because then it will be more well-known - thanks to the already existing adaptation. I doubt that the 2002 Forsyte Saga TV series would have been made if hadn't been for the classic 1967 version with Eric Porter, or that they would have done a film of Brideshead Revisited if it hadn't been for the practically perfect TV series with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews (especially as the film showed none of the understanding for its source material that was apparent in the TV version). It's a game of ever decreasing circles. And honestly, how do you think they came up with the idea of doing Poldark? Because the novels are so great? Somehow I doubt it - I may be underestimating their literary qualities, but I suspect the reason for the new Poldark TV series is - the old Poldark TV series.
Some novels can bear over-adapting better than others, because there are so many dimensions and perhaps previously neglected sub-plots to bring to light. I can't pretend I'm wildly excited about the prospect of yet another Les Misérables adaptation (by Davies - surely his time could be better used?), but at least there is a wealth of material there which couldn't be addressed at length in either the latest film versions or the musical, and the French TV version with Gérard Depardieu was frankly a bit hit and miss. But the plot of Pride and Prejudice isn't that complex, and the existing TV adaptation covered most aspects of it. True, Mrs Bennet could do with being less ridiculed, seeing as her fears of a penniless future for her daughters if they do not marry are entirely realistic. But we had a less caricatured Mrs B in the latest film, as in Lost in Austen which played around with the P & P plot... Yep, Darcy and company have already had a lot of outings.
The trend for British newly-scripted costume dramas seems to have stopped of late, and what with these unimaginative new projects on the go, I do wonder what the future will bring. Still, last time I was really despondent about period dramas, Downton showed up on the horizon, so no need to fret yet. Maybe the Yanks will come up with something juicy for us? I mean, if they can do other genres so well (and import Brits for the all-important villain parts)...