onsdag 13 juni 2018

The Woman in White adaptation wariness

I could blame the heatwave for the long blog pause, but truth be told it's more a matter of dearth of subject matter. My reading these last weeks has included a) Once-related fan fiction (for the most part sadly Rumple-free) b) a pedestrian historic crime novel, which is neither good enough to merit a recommendation nor bad enough to merit a rant c) a YA novel which was actually very good indeed - but in Swedish (as the author, Sara Bergmark Elfgren, is one of the writers behind the successful The Circle, it may be translated soon - so even if you're a non-Swedish speaker, keep your eyes open for an atmospheric ghost story set in an old Stockholm school). As for TV viewing, it has been bitty and unambitious. And not even Han Solo - especially when he's not played by Harrison Ford - can get my lazy self to a cinema at the moment.

So we're back to the theme which has occupied me for a while now, which is: has costume drama abandoned me, or have I abandoned it? My last "what has happened to me?" pang came when I found out, via Amazon, that there was a new TV adaptation of The Woman in White available. I'm on record as approving of Wilkie Collins and recommending that his work should be brought to the small screen. Like everyone else, I consider The Woman in White to be his best novel. And yet, when I saw this adaptation advertised, my spontaneous reaction wasn't "Yes, finally!" but "Do I have to?".

There is, I know, a fairly new Moonstone adaptation out as well, but I feel on safer ground ignoring it as I have never pretended to like The Moonstone. The previous BBC adaptation from the Nineties was made bearable by containing some of my favourite then-living British thesps, albeit wasted in non-villain roles. I don't feel obligated to try another one, though. But The Woman in White? Count Fosco? Marian Halcombe? Charles Dance as hypochondriac Mr Fairlie? I should be excited, shouldn't I?

Grasping for other explanations for my lack of enthusiasm than the possible Macra-devolving of my mind, I can really only think of one - that adaptations of The Woman in White I've come across in the past haven't been that impressive. Again, there exists a Nineties adaptation, with Tara Fitzgerald - no less - in the pivotal role of Marian, Ian Richardson as Mr Fairlie and Simon Callow as a surprisingly svelte and comparatively low-key Fosco. You'd think it couldn't go wrong, but in spite of its stellar cast, it failed to thrill. What I remember best about it was my irritation over the fact that they changed the nature of "the Secret" which the woman in white of the title, Anne Catherick, claims to know. "The Secret" concerns Sir Percival Glyde, baronet, who also happens to be the person who keeps Anne locked up in an asylum (though to be fair, she doesn't seem altogether sane).

Now, I'm going to have to be spoilery about the book here. Sir Percival Glyde's secret is that his parents were never married: therefore he is illegitimate. Presumably, someone thought that modern viewers wouldn't be able to understand why anyone would go to great lengths to hide what, in most of the western world, no longer constitutes a moral stain on a person's character. But the point of Sir Percival's secret was never that he was ashamed. Wilkie Collins himself didn't think illegitimacy particularly shameful (see No Name), and not even Dickens - who could be infamously high-handed in moral matters (on paper, at least) - thought it fair to blame a child for the marital status or lack of it of its parents (see Bleak House). Victorians aren't necessarily as fusty as we imagine. What made "the Secret" so harmful for Sir Percical was its legal implications. Were it to be known that his parents were never married, he would lose his claim to both title and family fortune. It's actually an elegant twist that "the Secret" which Anne makes so much of isn't what makes Sir Percival a villain - it's the steps he takes to cover it up. I'm sure modern viewers are perfecly able to grasp that Sir Percival isn't a bastard for being, well, a bastard, but instead, Collins's intricate plot building was scrapped in favour of a child abuse story (this being a modish plot device in dramas at the time).

Then there was the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Like Love Never Dies, it contains some first-rate musical numbers, but is let down by its plot (and, in this case, sometimes by the lyrics). At the time I saw the Woman in White musical, what bothered me the most - as I was deep into my James Carker phase - was that B-list villain Sir Percival Glyde died in the same way as Carker, i.e. he was smashed under a train. I thought this was distasteful villain-death-snitching, and anyway, wasn't a burning church (which was how Sir Percival copped it in the book) dramatic enough? Now I understand the musical's references to  The Signalman better I can more readily understand the change of villain death, but there are three other changes to the story it is harder to forgive.

One, in the musical, Marian Halcombe is in love with Walter Hartright, the hero who swoons over her half-sister Laura Fairlie. This isn't the only place where this silly theory has been aired. I remember a sequel to The Woman in White that I read once - the main plot concerns how Walter (who's a painter) becomes obsessed with Turner - where Marian is also in love with Walter. I also seem to recall a theory that Collins, who himself had two women on the go, imagined a kind of ménage à trois consisting of Walter, Laura (the pretty one) and Marian (the clever one). But there is no indication whatsoever in the book that Marian is in love with Walter. It's unfair to give her selfish reasons for discouraging the Walter-Laura romance, like the musical does, when she sides one-hundred-per-cent with her sister throughout the novel and is downright annoyed when they can't find any obvious fault with Sir Percival which would justify Laura in breaking off their engagement. The man Marian frankly admits being attracted to (though of course she never acts on it as he's chummy with Sir Percival, married to Laura's aunt etc.) is Count Fosco. When it comes to classic novels, a heroine who admits to seeing the appeal of a villain (of the brainy kind - the worthless cads are doing all right) is a rare thing. And yet there are people who would have her pining after Walter!

Two, in the second part of the musical there's a cringeworthy scene where a tarted-up Marian flirts with Fosco and catches him off-guard so she can search his rooms for clues about Anne. The musical's Count Fosco is in fact far from a dead loss, though he's played too much for laughs. His lyrics are witty, and his big number "You Can Get Away With Anything" contains some worthwhile tips on how to be a successful (fictional) villain: "You can get away with anything, it all comes down to style... Yes, you can have your cake and eat it, the love of those whom you betray...". But the scene with Marian in seduction mode is degrading for them both. The novel's Marian, who wants to fight like a man, not a woman, would never stoop to such a stratagem, and Fosco would never fall for it.

Three, they changed "the Secret". Again. Granted, the musical's version is better than the TV adaptation's (Sir Percival has an affair with the thankfully just-about adult Anne Catherick and then drowns their child), but it's still so unnecessary. In the novel, when Walter hears Anne railing against Sir Percival he suspects that the baronet has "wronged" her in the usual, that is sexual way. When he hints to the girl that this could be the case, however, she is utterly bewildered. It's a fun way to up-end the reader's expectations - and it seems that the Victorian reader's expectations in this regard weren't that different from ours.

All the same, all these adaptation faux-pas should make me more inclined to see a new version which, perhaps, does better, not less. I have dutifully ordered the new adaptation and will watch it in due course. Reviews indicate that it may actually be faithful to the original story this time. The cover does look cheap, though.

onsdag 23 maj 2018

Jane Austen - hard-headed or romantic?

As I anticipated, I really enjoyed rereading Jane Austen's Persuasion. Emma is still my favourite, but I believe Persuasion comes in second for me, trumping Pride and Prejudice. Maybe the first-rate film with Amanda Root's immensely likeable Anne Elliot plays its part - going by the novel versions alone, Lizzy Bennet is more engaging than Anne. But Anne's a sweet heroine all the same, and only one of many genuinely nice characters in the book. Her immediate family may be caricatured, but otherwise both the settings and supporting cast in Persuasion make it pleasant to spend time in the novel's world. The love interest, Wentworth, is perfectly OK - a great deal better than Knightley, at any rate. His sister and brother-in-law, the Crofts, are lovely, and Anne's in-laws the Musgroves - though no intellectuals - are good-humoured and decent. Wentworth's naval friends in Lyme are also a warm-hearted bunch and contribute to making the description of this coastal town so attractive. Though Anne spends so much of the novel suffering from the pains of (as she imagines) lost love, Persuasion is a surprisingly cosy read.

The available film and TV adaptations do a good job of capturing what goes on in the book, but there are one or two surprises. For one, I was impressed with those who have done the adapting, for there is less direct dialogue in the novel than one might expect, especially in the early parts. We get a clearer view of what's actually going on in Anne's mind than can be conveyed on the big or small screen, even by the best actress - there's quite a lot of introspection. I was also surprised by the fair portrait of Lady Russell, who is the one responsible for breaking up Anne's and Wentworth's first engagement. Anne's snobbish father and sister may not have be thrilled by the idea of her marrying a penniless naval officer with an uncertain future and no "breeding", but they never care enough about Anne to put up any strong opposition to the match: it is Lady Russell who does the persuading of the title. As a result, Anne's and Wentworth's happiness is delayed for more than eight years until they find their way back to each other. Nevertheless, Lady Russell is far from being an ogre: she is shown to be genuinely devoted to Anne and to have good judgement in other matters. When Anne takes up the acquaintance of an old friend in Bath who has fallen on hard times, Lady Russell warmly supports her. I liked her reaction to hearing from Anne that Wentworth is showing a interest in Louisa Musgrove: "internally her heart revelled in the angry pleasure, in pleased contempt, that the man who at twenty-three had seemed to understand somewhat of the value of an Anne Elliot, should, eight years afterwards, be charmed by a Louisa Musgrove". It shows that Lady Russell is well aware of Anne's worth. It's also very human, as much as to say: "Ha! See? I was right - he is no good".

A funny thing about Jane Austen is that there actually is quite a lot of romance in her novels. Many readers first discover them when they are in their teens or twenties and revel in the love stories and happy endings. Later, they will probably be told more than once by people in the know that Austen is a sharp, hard-headed observer of her times, with a keen satirical edge, and that gushing "Janeites" who stress the swoony costume-drama aspects of her plots do her no favours. That may be true enough as far as it goes, but there are quite a number of instances where Austen seems to advocate the romantic rather than the sensible option. In Persuasion she sees nothing odd in Anne holding a torch for an old love for eight long years. True, we know that her love was reciprocated, so it's not a question of entirely one-sided pining. Nevertheless, an unromantic observer would probably have thought that the best thing for Anne would be to snap out of it. Austen also shows sympathy for Anne's mindset, and that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, when they reject highly eligible suitors because they can't imagine being with anyone except the man they truly love, even if it seems doubtful (especially in Fanny's case) that he feels the same way. Austen does poke some fun at Anne's thoughts along these lines - "Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath" - but she still finds this view of love and marriage natural, even if a comfortable existence as a single woman was a rare thing in her day. Marrying was how you secured your livelihood, and waiting for "the one" a luxury most women could ill afford.

Jane Austen is a sharp observer, and the quality of her writing alone explains why her novels have survived when those of many of her contemporaries have not. Nevertheless, one reason she goes down so well with modern readers must surely be that she, in her own wry way, is all in favour of following one's heart.                     

fredag 11 maj 2018

Eurovision 2018 – another snooze

I had trouble with my lack of Eurovision enthusiasm last year, and I’m afraid the trend is still the same – what used to be a reliable guilty pleasure almost feels like a chore this time around. Is it me or is Eurovision becoming boring? All right, it’s still recognisably Eurovision. They still have the spectacles    like an opera singer from Estonia with a giant colour-changing dress   and hard-pressed commentators who try to put across forced jokes which even the most gifted comedian would have struggled with. But the tunes! As last year, they’re not bad, exactly, just forgettable. Earworms are conspicuously absent. C’mon, a good chorus and a good singer – is that so very hard to find? I watched the first semifinal and caught up with the second semifinal’s songs on Youtube, which is really not the ideal medium to hear them. Who knows, if they could bring back the Eurovision panel to Swedish TV, which reviewed ten songs or so at a time in a series of hour-long programmes scheduled on Tuesday nights when nothing else was on, then maybe I could start to view Eurovision-prep as worthwhile entertainment again. As it is, whenever I saw on Youtube that a song went on for more than three minutes, I got impatient in advance.

Enough complaining. These songs are the ones that I’ve found passable so far (I’m excluding songs that didn’t make it to the final):

Norway: Back in the day, I was actually not as impressed with Alexander Rybak’s “Fairytaleas everyone else. Now, because of its mildy prophetic content, it has risen in my estimation, and I often torture my neighbours by yowling “He’s a fairy-ta-a-a-le, yeah” (a change of pronoun being necessary in this case). Trust me, it is very hummable.

Rybak’s entry for this year is lively and upbeat, but the content is a little on the cutesy side – even I, who normally have a high tolerance level for cutesiness, thought it a bit much. The song is written as an answer to an eager young fan’s question about how to write a song. There’s something children’s-programme-like about it in consequence, and the chorus is consciously simple, like something you could throw together on a synthesizer. Not pure gold, then, but not straw either.

Denmark: It’s easy to mock the Ye Olde Nordic Pop-Tune Genre, where the songs sound like the kind of thing vikings might have sung if they’d had Karaoke. The over-earnestness of the Danish group of ancient warrior types made me smile, but the number did sound nice and melodic. I wouldn’t mind if our neighbours won with this one.

Austria: Again, not something you sing in the shower. Still, this was a solid, well-sung ballad, which builds towards some sort of crescendo.

Australia: Out of this year’s batch of “let’s make the world better” songs, this struck me as the most competent. The Aussies are taking pains to send radio-friendly ballads to Eurovision every year since they were allowed on board, which shows a nice spirit. Like Austria’s number, though, this is a little dull.

Moldova: it was because of ballad fatigue, but this uptempo number cheered me up. Granted, it sounds a lot like one of those Greek-dance-on-the-beach tunes – I’ve not seen the song performed live, but you almost expect a goat to show up on stage, along with enthusiastically clapping girls in colourful headscarves. We’ll see.

Aaand… that’s it, basically. Sweden’s entry this year sounds like something playing in the background of a commercial, or maybe something leather-clad guys might strip to. Germany’s song isn’t an embarrassment, thankfully, but I’d be surprised if it was a winner. Who knows, maybe next year we’ll get to hear a new “You’re The Only One”.

måndag 30 april 2018

Nobel-prize-awarded reading (yes, really)

2018 does seem to be shaping up to become a better book year for me  than 2017. The Austen Rereading Project, from which I’ve been taking a break the last couple of weeks (I’ll start it up again soon with Persuasion) has made sure that there were at least some books on my reading list which I was sure to like. What’s more, the project seems to have fulfilled its purpose of making me more keen on reading generally again.  I recently, to my immense self-satisfaction, finished Nobel Prize-winning Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and what’s more I did enjoy it.

Winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature – when they’re not a complete misfire (no names need be mentioned – the answer is blowing in the wind…)    tend to be too high-brow for my vulgar tastes. Never Let Me Go seemed a good choice, though, if you wanted to read something Nobel Prize-worthy which was neither too long, too involved or too earth-shatteringly depressing, and so I decided to give it a go. Granted, it’s not exactly a cheerful tale, but the premise isn’t as off-putting as, say, that of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (which I’m never going near as long as I live). I found on starting to read it, too, that the prose style was very clear and easy to follow – thankfully, no thorniness, long sentences or inexplicable wordplay. However, this  is not the only reason I liked the novel, though I’m always grateful to authors who don’t set out to make the readers feel like idiots.

To be honest, I had my doubts about the novel’s premise. When I first read the carefully worded reviews of Never Let Me Go, which implied that there was some sort of twist which the reviewers felt duty bound not to reveal, I thought: “Come on. It’s as clear as day. The characters in this novel are reared to be organ donors. That’s not even an original concept: isn’t it a staple of sci-fi dystopias?” That Never Let Me Go was not a sci-fi novel (though it does depict an alternative reality) did not, in my eyes, make the conceit automatically cleverer, nor did the fact that the protagonists are raised in surroundings that recall the idyllic picture of public school life you often find in classic children’s and young adult fiction. It looked like a forced contrast to me – “oh, look, poor innocent children growing up in a fool’s paradise, not knowing what horrible fate awaits them”.

Never Let Me Go did not turn out to be as crude as that. In fact, crude and polemic are the last things this novel is. It’s a book where the author has really thought through his idea and the different aspects of it, and before long I became gently fascinated by the ins and outs of the setup. So, the pupils of the Hailsham school are marked out to have their organs harvested in later life – after a spell as carers for other donors, they will keep giving donations until they “complete”, that is die. That  much is clear pretty early on. But where did they come from? Why are they encouraged to be “creative”, and why is so much effort put into their education seeing as they don’t have much of a future? As one key player formulates it at the end of the novel, “Why Hailsham at all?”. At one level, the novel reads like a literary thriller where you try to pick up the clues to what goes on in this world. The everyday life of the Hailsham pupils, during and after their time at the school, is rendered with believable detail. They’re not living in some vague thought experiment; their reality seems very real. Also, we sense the very human unease the outside world experiences in connection with them and others in their situation. In the sci-fi scenarios mentioned above, victims of forced organ donations and the like are treated with determined callousness, because it’s a dystopia where pretty much everyone is supposed to be horrible. In Never Let Me Go, people have a conscience, and this has an effect – sometimes good, sometimes bad – on how the donor question is handled.

Another point in the novel’s favour is that it’s narrated by its most likeable progatonist, Kathy H., a girl who may seem naïve but who is in fact very observant. Her closest friends are less interesting: Tommy, the boy she falls in love with, has a healthy curiosity about the reality of their situation, but he’s a blockhead in romantic matters. Ruth, Kathy’s friend and for a long time Tommy’s girlfriend, is a bit of a mean girl, who from the first expects her friends to go along with her self-deceptions in order for her to look better in the eyes of other pupils/students. The power play between the three, and how they’re affected by the presence of others outside of their circle, makes for an engaging read.

I wasn’t heart-broken over Kathy or the other characters, but their fate is affecting enough, and satisfyingly, answers to the questions you have been posing to yourself are provided towards the end. Ishiguro isn’t too fancy to tie up loose ends, for which I was thankful. If you feel up to reading something high-brow and gently melancholy, then Never Let Me Go is a good bet. The Swedish Academy did something right there (you knew that one was coming, right?).            

torsdag 19 april 2018

Victoria series two: I can readily believe it's not Downton

I don't know why I'm quite so dissatisfied with the second series of Victoria as I am, given that it's one of the few programmes that openly try to emulate Downton Abbey. Otherwise, even TV dramas clearly pitched at the Downton audience like The Halcyon tend to have a slightly sniffy attitude towards the show that put the costume drama genre back in fashion. It's as if they wanted to say: "Oh yes, I suppose we're a bit like Downton... only much better". Which makes it all the worse when they fail to measure up.

Now Victoria, on the other hand, wears its debt to Downton proudly on its sleeve. Downstairs storylines? Let's have that. Sensible housekeeper figure under pressure? By all means. Decent maid with a romantic interest in one of the other servants? Check. Cynical manservant? There he is. Dowager Countess quips? Let's age up one of Victoria's ladies a bit and make her a formidable battle-axe. And wait, didn't that gay storyline go down a treat? Let's try that too.

So I suppose I should be more grateful to Victoria for trying to find that magic Downton formula. The problem is, so far - after having seen six episodes out of eight in the second series - I really don't think they're making a very good job of it. The downstairs characters in Victoria are sketchy, and it's hard to care for any of them. I'm assuming that with a few exceptions, like Lehzen, these are made-up characters who have been tacked on to the main historic storyline in order to make it more Downton-y. But here's the thing: Downton took time over and invested in its downstairs characters. Thomas's unhappy crush on Jimmy was such a strong storyline because it mattered. He got his heart broken. It would still have been touching if he'd been pining for a girl, but the gay aspect made his situation all the more hopeless and thus added poignancy (and an element of danger: that idiot Alfred almost had him nicked). Having two fetching but personality-free guys look deep into each others' eyes every time they meet is not the same thing at all. And remember the Bateses? Bates was by far my least favourite main Downton character and annoying to the last degree with his villain-baiting, but his love story with Anna (Joanne Froggatt melted even my Bates-sceptic heart in their scenes together) felt like the real thing, unlike the lacklustre on-off almost-romance between Miss/Mrs Skerrett and Mr Francatelli in Victoria. The only "I can't believe it's not Downton" part of the plot that works OK in Victoria is the Dowager Countess surrogate the Duchess of Buccleugh as played by Diana Rigg. She is fun.

What of the main focus of the series, then, the private life - and occasionally the public duties - of Queen Victoria herself? The good news is that the series does take some time to flesh out the characters of Victoria and Albert. The bad news is, as with The Crown, this isn't exactly the most thrilling of reigns. Jenna Coleman is great as Victoria, and Tom Hughes does his best (and certainly looks the part) as handsome, humourless Albert. However, this can't disguise the fact that very little of interest happens. Also, the series plays fast and loose with history to such a degree that every time something does happen which seems a little extraordinary, my - perhaps unfair - reaction was "Oh, I'm sure they made that up". I'm not usually that strict when it comes to the historic veracity of costume dramas, seeing as I realise what a chore it is to read up on a subject. When the main character is an important historic personage like Victoria, though, it does become a drawback when you don't trust any part of the plot to be true.

The first series was so much taken up with the unfolding love story between Victoria and Albert that I didn't mind the plotlessness so much, although even back then I failed to become engaged in the downstairs storylines. By now, however, it bothers me. It's not as if the political questions the series touches on are handled with any great subtlety. For a royal not known for her strong involvement in government concerns, Queen Victoria does a lot of slapping down of foolish politicans in a way that seems fashioned to appeal to 21th-century viewers. The latest episode I watched, about the Irish Potato Famine, should have been affecting but was hampered by its many clichés. When a saintly clergyman, who wants to help the peasantry (unlike the monstrous English lord who rules the neighbourhood), visits a home where the mother has died of starvation, you can - true enough - hear coughing and a baby crying in the background, as in nine out of ten "privileged well-meaning person is faced with the harsh reality of the poor" scenes. In the end, the haunting Irish song about emigration which was played at the end was more moving than anything that had gone before it.

This is a well-acted, sumptuously produced series, but to be honest, I can't help finding it a bit... boring. What's more, I'm not sure I'm that much better acquainted with the personality of Queen Victoria now than I was before. I do like Robert Peel, though. 

torsdag 5 april 2018

Emma is still the best around

It is time to speak of Emma - not Swan this time, but Woodhouse. I recently finished rereading Jane Austen's Emma, and found to my satisfaction that it's still my favourite Jane Austen novel. We'll see if the rest of my Jane Austen Rereading Project changes that - I suspect that Persuasion will be a strong contender - but what I can say so far is that in my view, Emma actually beats Pride and Prejudice in terms of readability.

It's hard to explain why, though. The novel is by no means action-packed: there are long stretches where nothing much happens. The start is slower than Pride and Prejudice's, as more back-story is fitted in. But once the story got going, it held my interest, even though I knew exactly how the various intrigues were going to end. There are two main attractions with Emma as a novel: the joy of reading a great author at the very top of her game, and the heroine herself.

Austen's prose style is crips and crackling throughout, and her characterisation subtler than in both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Yes, there's still a certain amount of caricature, but the characters remain believable. You not only think it possible that you could encounter people like this in real life, it's not beyond the reaches of possibility that you could share their weaknesses yourself. I for my part could easily relate to Mrs Elton's shameless sense of entitlement, John Knightley's anti-social tendencies and Harriet Smith's habit of drifting from one intense crush to another, while completely discarding her yearnings for someone who was the star in her sky and the light of her life mere weeks before (that is, until she has reason to be reminded of him again). The characters interact credibly too. For instance, in one dialogue between Mr Weston and Mrs Elton, the former only wants to speak about his son while the latter only wants to speak about herself and her sister and brother-in-law at Maple Grove. How they still manage to hold a longish conversation, negotiating various social niceties more or less adroitly along the way, is fascinating in itself, although what they say isn't vitally important to the plot. This isn't to say that the novel isn't tightly plotted, though. One of the members of The Jane Austen Book Club claims that Austen "could plot like a son of a bitch", and Emma is the prime example of that. Hints about the characters' true feelings and relationships to each other - often misinterpreted by Emma - are skilfully woven into the dialogue, and the reader is given clues in the same way as in a whodunnit.

However, Emma never looks dense for not managing to pick up these clues, or not putting the right construction on them. Her mistakes are understandable ones. Austen famously said about Emma that she was a heroine "whom no-one but myself will like". This was an overstatement: there are quite a few of us who like Emma very well indeed. Not everyone sees the point of her, though. Emma has been unlucky when it comes to film and TV adaptations: they tend to take a critical view. Emma as played by Gwyneth Paltrow was elegant, but on the cold side. Kate Beckinsale was livelier, but hampered by the adapter Andew Davies's dislike of the character. Romola Garai in the latest BBC adaptation is a brilliant dramatic actress, and her despair in such scenes as the aftermath of the Box Hill excursion was spot on, but the lighter, comical register didn't come off equally well. Actually, from the Emmas I've seen, Doran Goodwin in the ancient TV adaptation from the Seventies came closest to conveying some of Emma's warmth and wit, though she was somewhat over-arch and (to be ungallant) plainly not twenty-one.

Most of the adaptations above tend to focus on the least enjoyable aspect of the novel: the notion that Emma needs to be humbled and seek self-improvement in order to deserve happiness. I never like a cautionary tale element in any story, and the misfortunes leading to Emma bitterly blaming herself - as well as being blamed by her friend and future husband Mr (George) Knightley, as likely as not - are a sore trial. I do sometimes wonder whether readers and adapters should really let Emma's self-reproaches (powerfully written as they are) and Mr Knightley's opinions of Emma's behaviour guide them to quite so such an extent as they are apt to do. Mr Knightley, though like Mr Darcy he shapes up towards the end of the book, is a most unsatisfactory love interest. At the beginning of the novel, he says to Emma's dear friend and former governess Mrs Weston that he would like to see Emma "in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good". Does that sound even remotely like a man in love himself? Also, he likes to lecture her about the very things she feels most guilty about, such as not practising her music more and not becoming bosom friends with Jane Fairfax, whose qualities and accomplishments he is quick to praise to a perverse degree, which naturally does little to endear the girl to Emma. Mr Knightley's anger when he finds out that Emma has encouraged Harriet Smith to refuse the upright farmer Mr Martin's proposal is understandable: she does real mischief here, and could have cost two young, well-suited people their happiness. At other times, though, his lecturing is less self-interested. It's partly because he's jealous of Frank Churchill and resents Emma's flirtation with him that he comes down on her so severely at the end of the disastrous excursion to Box Hill.

The Box Hill incident - where Emma thoughtlessly insults the aimable chatterbox Miss Bates - is mostly made a meal of in adaptations. In fact, our perception of Emma's behaviour in this scene has a lot in common with our perception of Pip's behaviour towards Joe in Great Expectations. We mind it because the person behaving badly feels so wretched about it him/herself, because the person slighted is so thoroughly good-natured and because, in spite of their good nature, they do register and are hurt by the slight. When you look at what Emma and Pip actually do, though, it's not that horrible, and well within the scope of normal, selfish, somewhat gauche human behaviour. In Emma's case, I would say it's hardly unheard of to be tempted into a witticism at someone else's expense while imagining that they're unlikely to pick up on it anyway. Austen does a good job of making us care desperately that Emma should put things right with poor Miss Bates as soon as possible, but in terms of causing actual damage, her meddling in the Harriet-Martin affair is far worse. At any rate, there's no reason to tell her off at such length and with so much indignation as Mr Knightley does.           

At the same time, I suppose that Emma's flaws wouldn't seem so forgiveable if she were completely unaware of them herself. It's better that she should blame herself a little too much, and gain the reader's sympathy by doing so, than not blame herself at all when it is called for. We can trust Jane Austen to know what's best for her character. Mr Knightley, though - honestly.

onsdag 28 mars 2018

Problems with the comedy of failure

I was a bit apprehensive about reading The Understudy by David Nicholls: it was an impulse buy, and only afterwards did I realise that the same author wrote Starter for Ten. Now, I've not read Starter for Ten, but I did see the film, and lamented that what could have been an enjoyable, cosy romcom was ruined by one depressing plot element. Brian, the protagonist, has an obsession with the high-brow quiz programme University Challenge and is in the end given the chance to participate as part of his university's team. The outcome is the worst possible: Brian almost accidentally manages to besmirch his and his team's honour in a way that makes sure that he'll not be given kudos for his very real knowledgeability. It's painful to watch this happen. Losing honourably, or even losing because of human, understandable nerves, would have been much better - plus, Brian screws things up for his team mates (including Benedict Cumberbatch before he was famous) too. The hero himself - or antihero, rather: he's not always that likeable - bears the dashing of his childhood dreams remarkably well, and by the film's end has a fair chance getting the girl (not the blonde, glamorous one - the wry brunette who also happens to be gorgeous). But the viewer - or this viewer, at least - remains unsatisfied.

What bearing does this have on The Understudy, then? Well, this story too centers around a shambolic protagonist with a dream and very little luck - but some appeal for smart girls. Stephen C. McQueen (the C. is an Equity requirement, fot obvious reasons) is an English actor yearning for the big break. He believes he is really good, but mostly just manages to get roles playing corpses in TV crime dramas. His latest gig is as an understudy to Josh Harper, superstar voted "twelth sexiest man", who plays the lead in a star vehicle play about Byron at a London theatre. If Josh would only miss a few performances, Stephen is convinced his career would be made. And then, to boot, he falls for Josh's wife Nora.

The novel is funny and well written and manages to give you a certain comfort-reading feel, in spite of Stephen's constant mishaps. However, these mishaps really weigh the story down. I was never fond of comic tales where the comedy hinged on everything going wrong - I end up feeling too sorry for the characters involved (one comforting thing about P.G. Wodehouse's stories is that you can be pretty certain everything will turn out well in the end). There is another danger with the comedy of failure, though: after a certain point, a character who's always down on his luck stops being relateable and starts becoming slappable. At one time, Stephen reflects on "how he wasn't nearly as nice a person as he pretended to be", and you can't help thinking that he has a point. Like Brian, there's a lot of the anti-hero about him. Just because he's not spectacularly successful, it's not really an excuse for making quite such a hash of things as he does.

To the book's credit, it doesn't follow the Starter for Ten template completely, and is at times unpredictable. Some of the pickles Stephen gets in, which you calculate on coming back to scupper him when things seem to be looking up in time-honoured cheaters-never-prosper fashion, turn out to be no big deal. In one instance, though, The Understudy resembles Starter for Ten: getting the girl turns out to be more important for the protagonist than fulfilling his dreams, and I'm not sure I buy it. In one scene, Stephen's ex admits that she never thought he was much good as an actor. I found this irritating, as I was under the impression that I was reading a novel about the problems of a talented and able actor in a crowded professional field - but if he's not even that good at acting, then what's the point of the whole exercise? Of course, Stephen's ex may be wrong. And yet, when stardom hasn't come calling at the end of the book he is as philosophical about it as Brian was about messing up University Challenge. He's in with a chance with Nora after she's found out that Josh has cheated on her (the novel is delightfully scathing on the subject of the "sex addiction" of film stars), and that's the main thing. Die-hard romantic as I am, though, I do think life ought to be about more than just having half a chance with someone you fancy. Not knowing how you are going to earn your crust in the near future is something which should give a grown man pause for thought. And in the end, a novel called The Understudy which undervalues an actor's love of theatre can't help being a tad disappointing.