Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Adam Bede: now that's the way to do an adaptation!

I watched the 1991 BBC adaptation of George Eliot's Adam Bede last night and was blown away by how good it was. It only took 1 hour and 45 minutes to tell the story of Adam, Hetty, Dinah and Arthur, but I was thrilled that the story was told precisely as Eliot formulated it.

The screenwriter, Maggie Wadey, resisted the urge to invent new motivations for the characters, and I cannot think of a single plot point that wasn't included. Masterfully done. Coming off my recent disappointment with The Woman in White, where wholesale changes were deemed necessary, I was giddy with relief, hence my lavish praise. IMDB lists Wadey's other screenwriting credits and I shouldn't have been surprised at the quality of the writing--she was also responsible for Wharton's The Buccaneers, which I have simply got to find time to read and then rewatch, and my absolute favorite dark horse, Precious Bane, which is not available in any form as far as I can tell. She was also responsible for the latest BBC attempt at Mansfield Park. I hated Billie Piper so much in the role that I can't even recall whether the script was decent or not.

Back to Adam Bede, my only nitpick was that Iain Glen looked too much like Richard Chamberlain when he was in The Thornbirds, but I thought he did a fine job of capturing the interesting combination of arrogance and naivete that is Adam. Patsy Kensit was excellent as sulky, sultry Hetty Sorrel, and Susannah Harker was terrific as Dinah. James Wilby did a good job portraying the weak but well-intentioned Arthur Donnithorne. Visually the movie was a pleasure, staying true to Eliot's pastoral vision as well as showing a realistic view of farm life surrounding country gentry, and the gulf between the classes.

The only real deviation from Eliot's novel was that the movie started with the trial/conviction of Hetty, and then most of the movie was a flashback. This was fine with me, especially since I already knew the story and it cast a pall of doom over frivolous Hetty from the outset, which is really what Eliot also did in her novel.

If only all adaptations could be this true and this good.


  1. Hello Jane, just discovered your blog via a link from Fly High and will be returning to explore some more. I am pleased to hear you liked this adaptation, as I did too - just in case you are interested, I wrote a long review of it (with a few nice pictures) as part of a George Eliot season on my costume dramas blog a while back.

    I've seen Maggie Wadey's adaptation of 'The Buccaneers' recently, though I haven't got round to writing it up yet, and did enjoy a lot of it although it is not at all faithful to the book.- To be fair, as Wharton's novel is unfinished Wadey had to make a lot up anyway, but I felt it went a long way from what I thought the characters would have done next. I actually quite enjoyed her version of 'Mansfield Park' though it was so short and a long way from the book - most people seem to have hated it! I've also seen her version of 'Precious Bane' as it was shown on TCM in the UK two or three years ago - I remember that as being quite good, but my memories of it have faded, I'm afraid.

  2. As usual, what you write is both funny (yes, he does look like Richard Chamberlain in the Thornbirds, but I would never have thought of that!) and insightful (excellent point that flashback structure serves the character of Hetty well, despite being a director's innovation). I will want to watch this one again, since it has been awhile.

  3. Just added it to my Netflix queue - thanks!

  4. Wonderful article. I'll have to look for this, it is so unusual to find adaptations of novels that are half as good as the book. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I must see this, Jane! Definitely. Thanks for sharing.MG

  6. AMEN!

    I watched it last summer and it was AWESOME. I was totally blown away because I had been a bit skeptical after looking at it on Netflix. But it came and it was SO good I watched it TWICE!

  7. can any one please tell me where i canget this movie?? my email is plz tell me i want it bcoz of my course thanks in advance

  8. It sounds great! I'm glad to hear it's so good, and in fact I'm glad to hear about it at all, since I didn't know there was an adaptation!

  9. I'll put it on my Netflix queue, too. Thanks for the enthusiastic review. You mentioned PRECIOUS BANE--was there a movie adaptation of it? I still have my copy I got in high school; I loved that story so much!

  10. Hi Jane - Love the new layout!
    I remember Precious Bane (read the book by Mary Webb) and watched the TV version which starred Janet McTeer and was, well pretty marvellous! I wish this was available on DVD!
    I have the BBC Mansfield Park with Billie Piper and I agree, nothing against Piper as an actress but I just think her face is so wrong for Period drama.
    I feel I have missed out on the 1991 Adam Bede, plus I've not read that book.
    I have Mill on the Floss (the book) and unfortunately only the video. I have so much stuff on video that I can't use now.
    I also have Silas Marner (played by Ben Kingsley) which I quite enjoy from time to time.

    What a superstitious and unforgiving age Elliot lived in. When you look at how she was ostracised even in her own social circle - it becomes clear that this attitude wasn't just prevalent amongst the lower classes she writes about.
    You brought a lot of memories back by your mention of these books - thanks!