We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The allure of green thoughts: classic book film adaptations · 17 July 07

Dear Harriet,

Two nights ago I read an article by Fred Inglis which has suddenly given me an more adequate explanatory perspective on the traditional or older (1970s through mid-90s let’s say) classic book film adaptation than I had. Inglis’s article, “Brideshead Revisited: Waugh to the Knife” appears in Robert Gidding and Erica Sheen’s The Classic Novel from Page to Screen.

While Inglis makes fun of Brideshead Revisted (that it’s easy to do tells you something about its over-the-top nature), he loves the film and screenplay (by Mortimer), and he compares its attitudes and outlook to a group of these film adaptations made at just this time—and his remarks are intended to cover the mini-series film adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown, two LeCarre novels (done in the 1970s and 80s), and Fay Weldon’s 1979 Pride and Prejudice. Inglis says Brideshead Revisited is not discussed as often as it should be because it takes 11 hours to watch.

His insight is this small group of older mini-series TV films are centered deeply on an English love of a certain green countryside landscape scenes deriving from a picturesque aesthetic as well as love of other high culture places (e.g., Venice, the highlands of Scotland, Tuscany), as offering some meaning and joy in life. This landscape he suggests is intertwined in mise-en-scenes in a drama which is haunted by a ideal of loving friendship, loyalty, companionate affection. They are anti-ambition, for retreat into art. He defends them against recent essays which see them as reactionary, retrograde, snobbish (elitist) by quoting at length Walter Benjamin who points out (more than once) that such nostalgia, such yearning “may well be a prompt to progressive action:”

“in our dreams of a better social order for the future we turn back to images of a pre-historic because classless past, in order to imagine how the wretched world might be transformed into utopia—hence News from Nowhere.”

The enchanted garden is a compound of memories of history through ironically Arcadian books certain kinds of readers find irresistibly alluring. While we are watching, it stands up sufficiently enough after religion has vanished. Then “reality” (politics, war, colonialism, stupid petty nasty cruel people) becomes the disrupter, what destroys what’s valuable. The class system which insists the value of the hero or heroine inheres in her or her social identity. The dramatic tension of many of these films comes from showing the good person is a winner in a finer sense than accumulated money or prizes can bestow.

He then goes on to discuss how apparent fidelity to the originating text is an absolute value for these films, the new significance of hedonistic travelling holidays, topographical similitude. These are travelogues as films. Except for Weldon’s they are all masculinistic: what the viewer also is assumed to want is a beautiful intelligent and ever-so-kind mistress.

I suggest we can qualify and expand his remarks. The qualification is the characters in these series never worry about money to the extent they are at risk of destitution, and our intense pleasure in landscape comes from identifying with the class of people who through their money and power were able to exploit others ruthlessly as cheap labor or slaves or as people thrown off the land, and thus the rich transformed landscape to be images of the picturesque.

Inglis’s thesis fits more than the films he talks of. All the Austen mini-series from 1971 to 1983. The 1974 The Pallisers (which are becoming a major interest for me) is not mentioned; these are continually ignored, possible because 26 are just too many to get through and a reputable critic would not mention a series as exemplifying his thesis unless he watched it at least once. A number of the film adaptations meant for movie distribution in the 1990s (the Ang Lee & Emma Thompson 1996 Sense and Sensibility leaps to mind).

The explanatory reach goes into more recent adaptations and shorter films for TV too. For example, that these older films depend on an appreciation of artifice, an education in the English classics and trained appreciation of older aesthetics, and is itself class-based suggests why the more recent Austen films (2005 – 2007 Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Persuasion_, and Northanger Abbey) are attempting to substitute a sheerly natural vision for the older book-based one. Also why the more recent mini-series (say Andrew Davies’s The Way We Live Now) subverts many of the visual conventions of the classic mini-series (it has discordant music, grim mise-en-scenes of city life) while nonetheless maintaining a strong adherence to the value of unspoiled green countryside and retreat. It helps explain too why a film adaptation of a strongly conservative book by Scott, Rob Roy is turned into a film which critiques colonialism and an extravagant presentation of cruel bizarre court world and makes the Highland stand in for anti-colonialism. We can place Johnny Depp’s The Libertine in this new trend of classic film adaptations: it shows despair and meaninglessness among those who’ve lost contact with the green world and have no absolute friends (a phrase LeCarre used as an ironic title for a recent book).

This theory helps explain why in the 1979 P&P we find ourselves suddenly in green landscapes which have no ready explanation:

Elizabeth (Elizabeth Garvie) and Mrs Gardener (Barbara Shelley) walk in a green landscape Longbourne never had (1979 Pride and Prejudice)

Why also those older mini-series which rarely provide this kind of beauty are disappointing: the 1972 Emma, the 1977 Pallisers—- except in the last third of the films.

The book Inglis’s essay is found in (Robert Gidding and Erica Sheen’s The Classic Novel from Page to Screen) also has an excellent essay on the film adaptation of Oondaatje’s The English Patient (and the screenplay by Minghella too): ”’Piecing together a mirage: adapting The English Patient for the screen” by Bronwen Thomas. A third essay, Ian McKillop and Alison Platt’s ”’Beholding in a magic panorama:’ televison and the illustration of Middlemarch, coins the abbreviations CNTVS for Classic Novel TV Series. This is a TV form which does differ from classic novel film adaptations meant for cinema distribution (though sometimes also played on TV) which abbreviate into CNFA. On Rob Roy I recommend Janet Sorensen’s “Rob Roy: the other eighteenth century?” (Eighteeenth Century on Screen, edited by Robert Mayer). Wonderful essays on film adaptations are appearing hourly it seems to me. The field is giving a new lease on life to old-time English majors (like me).

In a well-known esssay, “Why Buy That Theory,” Roald Hoffman (won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry) argues that we accept theories because 1) it’s simple yet explains a lot in a flash (go over the theory of natural selection mentioned in one of the student book reviews); 2) weaves a neat pattern which is story-like (why are flamingoes colored scarlet—well that hides them from the dawn; why do chimpanzees have fur; it was hot in Africa—these are parodic because they are too neat—for example, we have no idea for certain what was the climate in Africa 200,000 years ago so when people tell these “just so” stories they are ahistorical; 3) theory or invention can be applied to other things; 4) they stimulate people to do science illustrating them or using them so forward other people’s projects and careers; 4) they seem to classify reality : productive, portable, storytelling, aesthetically pleasing; 5) they are done by an insider. I am no insider, but this theory which I’ve developed out of Inglis seems to me to fit the other criteria.

I’d like to confide my wallpaper for my computer this season is Helen Allingham’s Aldworth (ca. 1890s), an image consonant with the vision Inglis projects for these older films. The saying I used to have on my screen saver was another one from Marvell’s The Garden (“Fair Quiet, have I found thee here/,And Innocence thy Sister dear!”) than “Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.” But the first gave rise in my mind to the second. Now I have Henry Tilney’s “it is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible’.”


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. P.S. A woman-centered screenplay like Weldon’s is rare; most of the screenplays are by men and often change the novel in question to a male point of view, sometimes switching perspectives so the male characters are those who count most. Davies does this continually: his Middlemarch is firstly about Lydgate.

    Apparently too Weldon’s has been blotted out by Davies in the marketplace. More than one person has told me (since writing my blog on the 1979 P&P) that Weldon’s is impossible to buy in England. This is ironic considering the centrality of the vision of England to what Inglis says about the 1970s and 80s films

    Elinor    Jul 17, 1:20pm    #
  2. Many thanks for recommending the Inglis essay. I like your argument that this idea of an enchanted garden as a retreat can expand beyond the mini-series he discusses to embrace other productions such as the recent Austen adaptations and the Pallisers.

    I also found the thing that disappointed me a bit in some of the older versions was this lack of the outdoor landscapes which feature so beautifully in productions like the Emma Thompson version of S&S so I suppose I am looking for an escape into a garden when I turn to these dramas.

    I’ve just been re-watching Brideshead Revisited, as it has been repeated on a satellite channel here, and would also agree this rejection of ambition is linked with the garden/country house imagery. (Of course, rejecting ambition depends on having enough money to live in that garden without having to earn it – on marrying Darcy!)

    Charles Ryder partly despises his wife Celia because she is willing to hold power lunches, etc to promote his work as an artist – which, it’s just struck me, is rather like Plantaganet Palliser censuring Glencora for organising all those house parties for his colleagues. In both cases, the men’s careers actually stand to benefit from their wives’ role as entertainers – but I don’t think the authors/directors’ main focus is on this (as you say, they are working from a masculine viewpoint.) There’s a feeling that the true values of the countryside (like Planty’s walks with his unglamorous female cousin, whose name escapes me) are being ignored/sold out.

    It often seems to be an important element of the country-house dream that the past has been lost or destroyed by war, etc, as you say – so, for instance, at the start Brideshead Ryder returns to a house which has been turned into a field hospital, and Rebecca begins with the ending, the house burned down. We will never go to Manderley again.

    The glamour of the garden comes from the fact that it has been torn down – like all the Gothic/war stories by Ambrose Bierce where he goes home and finds it burning.

    I hope all this makes sense – it’s late, but I wanted to respond and let you know how fascinating I find all this.:)
    Judy    Jul 17, 5:15pm    #
  3. PS Just to add that I’ve managed to read the Inglis essay by “searching inside” at Amazon (my local library doesn’t have the book) and find it does encapsulate the series perfectly – and the difficulty, for me anyway, of sympathising with Julia and Charles’ religion. It also does seem very relevant to Jewel in the Crown.

    Another enormous series with something of the same heavily nostalgic flavour is the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace, again with a country house past which has been stripped away.
    Judy    Jul 17, 5:36pm    #
  4. Dear Judy,

    Thank you. You add to and qualify the perspective. We might say for this subgroup of classic novel film adaptations (mini-series as well as a few released to theatres): the ruined or splendidly beautiful house and landscape are central. The Austen movies show the house in its prime, while the modern novel adaptations show it as a ruin (but one to be mourned over), burning down.

    Again the Pallisers has a particular tweak: the Duke dislikes Gatherum very much and protests against changing the landscape to accommodate politicking not for itself. There are funny scenes in the movie of him wandering about unable to make his disapproval felt. The Duchess agrees but is willing to put up with Gatherum as necessary, and does not seem to care about gardening all that much (except as a place for quiet meetings). Matching Priory is where they retire to as a couple when they go out of office and it is the beautiful house with a ruined cathedrale on the property (what more could you ask?) to boot.

    I like that parallel of Charles Ryder and Celia and the Duke and Duchess. I found the hero in an early novel by LeCarre (The Small Town in Germany) is a sort of Mr Harding who doesn’t survive.

    Perhaps we might say the poetry of costume movie dramas should always have a house (ruined or splendid) and a green landscape. It'd be like the recipes for a Radcliffe novel.

    Elinor    Jul 18, 1:22pm    #
  5. I am a little sceptical as to some of Inglis’s readings (thanks to Judy for pointing out how I could access the whole article). I think you are absolutely correct Ellen to point out the difference between the 70’s adaptations and the recent ones…

    "these older films depend on an appreciation of artifice, an education in the English classics and trained appreciation of older aesthetics, and is itself class-based suggests why the more recent Austen films (2005 – 2007 Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey) are attempting to substitute a sheerly natural vision for the older book-based one." There is nothing green in a political sense about Brideshead. Indeed this would have been anathema to Waugh and not very attractive to Mortimer either.

    But I think there are more problems than this with Inglis's reading.

    He seems to ignore the very specific political situation in the early 80's and also exactly how Brideshead was responded to - I am talking here of the UK. I think my recall of this is fairly good. All the discussion and adoration (I don't think that is too strong a word) centred on Anthony Andrews' Sebastian. Indeed I would be fascinated to see the actual viewing figures - it would not surprise me if they declined after Sebastian's death. And I think that one reason for the programme's astonishing hold (and it was astonishing) is that it could be read in two ways.

    For Mortimer, who's political stance Inglis outlines accurately, the political situation in the early 80's was a in a sense manna from heaven. Who were the philistines, the destroyers, the soulless of this period? They were Thatcher and her yuppie cohorts from the city, capitalism unleashed and in full cry. So that Mortimer could effectively invert Waugh - it wasn't the socialists/Labour Government of 1945-50 who were the enemy, the philistines - it was Thatcher and the capitalists. So in this sense Sebastian became a figure of resistance - lazy, gay (and Thatcher was of course anti-gay, prurient), wouldn't have known a stock or share if one had fallen on his head.

    But what Mortimer did not foresee was that Sebastian would also be taken up by the then newly-minted (in both senses) yuppies - conspicuous consumption, elitism, class superiority, boorishness as virtues. This also happened even more incredibly with a famous comedy sketch of the 80's. The comedian Harry Enfield invented a character called 'Loads of Money' - a yuppie yob who flaunted his wealth and mocked the poor (or indeed anyone poorer than him). Incredibly this figure was adopted by some yuppies as a hero. I think the American equivalent is that moment in Wall Street when Michael Douglas declares 'Greed is good' and his audience applauds.

    The fashion in teddybears which sprang up could thus be read in two ways - by those proclaiming an attachment to hedonism, a sort of sixties hangover, and by those declaring a new class hatred, a new confidence of the ruling class which was soon to proceed with the destruction of the working-class organisation in the Miners Strike (1984).

    It is quite fair to say that Mortimer (let alone Waugh -with whom this has nothing to do) could not have foreseen this. It demonstrates the way in which texts can be appropriated in ways unforeseen by the makers. Brideshead chimed with certain very specific political and social circumstances in the UK. I think that television - certainly in those days of mass audiences - was peculiarly susceptible to this.

    None of this is to deny the brilliance of the production in terms of cast, direction, use of voice-over and so on. We can view Brideshead in quite a different way today - and it will be fascinating to see how Davies approaches the new adaptation. But its specific success and reception in the early 80's were the result of specific social and political circumstances which I believe Inglis fails to take account of.

    Nick    Jul 18, 3:58pm    #
  6. Thank you very much Nick for this reply. I watched Brideshead Revisited as an “innocent American.” As to circumstances, what I remember best is it played on Monday nights (so was not Masterpiece Theatre, ever assigned Sunday nights as appropriate for Self-improving films) around 8 in the evening so Jim and I would watch it while we ate. We’d bring our meals into the front room. And we watched it a second time through. I taped it the third time.

    I associated the book and film with A Dance to the Music of Time. Sebastian seemed to me a figure like Stringham in A Dance. Stringham also ends up a desperate vulnerable poverty-striken alcoholic (I don’t remember if he got money from his family); Sebastian and Stringham were damaged holy fools.

    I don’t remember that much green landscape from Brideshead, only the ruined house and barbed wire and a vague sense of a vast beautified landscape around the house when it was not a ruin. The center of the travelogue was Venice (where the Pallisers also betake themselves). Venice I’ve learned can be used as a metaphor for the gay life.

    I do feel that were I genuinely to know much more about the poltical situation in England in the mid-1970s I would understand the Pallisers films more. There were some striking pointed dialogues without a sufficiently clear target. Such as Wharton’s conversation with the man who proposed to hire Ferdinand Lopez in Latin America.

    Elinor    Jul 18, 10:23pm    #
  7. Yes Dance is a fascinating comparison point in lots of ways (mainly because it is so superior in my view :)). There is certainly no greenery in Dance the book until the last of the 12 volumes and even then the landscape is far from Arcadian – it is autumnal or wintry. And there is of course no sense of either historical progression or regression in Powell – history is circular and meaningless (one reason why his appeal is limited because this disappoints both reactionaries who like the regressive view and radicals who like the progressive one). There is certainly no Golden Past.

    In this sense the television adaptation is fascinating because it does tend to suggest this in a way the book does not – is there something inherent in historical adaptations which prettifes or beautifies or idealises the past? This hadn’t occurred to me at all until reading your blog and thinking about this.

    Which television historical dramas give a really negative view of the past and of which eras? (Rome does probably but that might be a bit out of our discussion!).
    Sorry rambling into irrelevant areas.
    Nick    Jul 19, 7:59am    #
  8. Dear Nick,

    Both my daughters own copies of Rome. I wonder if it is subversive of the traditions of nostalgia.

    Cardwell’s book on Davies tries to claim Davies’ The Way We Live Now is the revision of this older film adaptation we need, but I’m not so sure. The very latest are complicit
    with overt masculinist norms.

    My problem in watching DVDs of mini-series is they are not for rent in most video rental stores. I have to rent or buy them online. I can find them used, but when there is a set of DVDs the price adds up. I don’t belong to any clubs online. I suppose I ought to look into it. Some of the mini-series you & Judy mention never came over here. We don’t get as many as you do for we have no BBC, only a Public TV channel which occasionally buys or shares the expense of producing a film with the BBC.

    I’m very cheered when I watch the Austen films particularly. I know this comes from my love of these books. I was surprized at how much I began to like the Palliser films as I got to the end.
    Elinor    Jul 19, 11:24pm    #
  9. Dear Nick,

    I thought your own analysis of the opening passages of A Dance to the Music of Time helped make the case that classic books lend themselves to nostalgic Arcadian treatments:


    Elinor    Jul 21, 10:59pm    #
  10. I’ve gotten myself a copy of Deleuze’s book on film (Cinema I and II, Movement-Images and Time-Images) and don’t understand it very well, and have found an explication of “time-images” online, which seems to uphold the idea underlying Inglis’s theory on classic book film adaptations and classic book TV mini-series adaptations: that they use nostalgia centrally. One problem would be that Deleuze as explicated by Donato Torato suggest much modern cinema is fundamentally nostalgic because the very medium, the image itself presents itself as past time crystallized in the present for our delectation.

    Here is how Donato understands Deleuze’s “time-images” in film:

    “The crystal-image, which forms the cornerstone of Deleuze’s time-image, is a shot that fuses the pastness of the recorded event with the presentness of its viewing. The crystal-image is the indivisible unity of the virtual image and the actual image. The virtual image is subjective, in the past, and recollected. The virtual image as “pure recollection” exists outside of consciousness, in time. It is always somewhere in the temporal past, but still alive and ready to be “recalled” by an actual image. The actual image is objective, in the present, and perceived. The crystal-image always lives at the limit of an indiscernible actual and virtual image.”

    Tonight I found time to revel in the opening episode (Part One of Volume One, or 1:1) of the Palliser films (more on this tomorrow). It opens on a vast landscape garden scene, a temple at the center, and much picturesquesness: green thoughts in erotic scenes, and they are very alluring. For anyone who has seen the whole sequence, they are poignant and foreshadowing, but according to Deleuze beyond this the quality of our feeling as we watch this comes from the way we apprehend technological reproduction. Deleuze has stood on its head Walter Benjaminin’s famous lament in “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction:”


    Benjamin lamented that the value of the unique work of art would go down as reproduction makes copies that seem as good to most, and pragmatically considered convey the visible image. Deleuze proposes that the reproduced image itself carries an intense charge when it’s in movement. Here is an explication of Movement-image:


    Movies are made up of movement images, which are drenched with subjectivity and consciousness when they are close-ups (something we hardly ever experience in life).

    Inglis also quoted Benjamin to shore up his theory :)

    I’ve been reading Nick’s blog on A Dance to the Music of Time, whose central image by Poussin is about movement in time and nostalgia and whose opening image seems to me to crystallize aspects of Inglis’s theory.

    Elinor    Jul 21, 11:14pm    #

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