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.