Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Watching Middlemarch

A couple weeks ago we watched the first half of the 1994 BBC adaptation of Middlemarch, one episode per night (it's packaged in 6 episodes). Episode 3 ended with the death of Casaubon, which in print occurs at the end of chapter 48 (of 86).

My impressions, briefly, while I still have them:

Dorothea is played by Juliet Aubrey. As in the book, she didn't strike me as a great and irresistible beauty in the opening scenes, but somehow, she becomes lovelier as the story progresses.

Robert Hardy as Mr Brooke is hilarious. (Hardy plays Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies.)

I love Featherstone. He's played as a bit of a parody, your typical crusty old crank, amusing to watch, but it's quite evident, more so than in the text, that he has a soft spot for the youngsters and delights in their company.

Casaubon is impressive. I haven't yet decided if I approve though. Played by Patrick Malahide, he's a very strong presence, not the pathetic wisp of a man I'd envisioned. He appears to be more conflicted than I think he deserves to be.

Rufus Sewell needs a haircut. But that's just my opinion.

The story starts with Lydgate, which in some ways is a sensible decision. We are introduced to Middlemarch through his eyes. We see work on the railroad as he drives into town.

We never hear about Laure: Lydgate's being both wary of love and stupid about women is a little harder to buy.

Some scenes and conversations are condensed and combined (for example, Lydgate meets Rosamond at Featherstone's place); most of it seems to make sense.

There's no scene of Ladislaw going to church to see Dorothea/Casaubon. Of all the skipped bits this is perhaps the most offensive to me.

We see Fred interact with the Garths only very briefly; there is no nuance to his relationship with Caleb (tho this may yet change...?). That is to say, the Fred subplot is far more sub than in the novel.

So far, 3 scenes have made me roll my eyes, and you'll see how similar they are:
Casaubon at the Vatican library, haunted by Dorothea's echoing words, to demonstrate his inner turmoil about his work, his lack of confidence among his "peers," etc.
Fred having a fevered nightmare — flashback closeups of the rogue horse.
Rosamond, tossing and turning in bed, hearing the echoes of Mrs Bulstrode, her mother, and Lydgate to convey the distress she's feeling about Lydgate's intentions toward her, her apparent failure to achieve her aim.

These strike me as a cheap film trick, and I'm really surprised someone tried to use them seriously in 1994.

It drives home, however, the difficulty: how do you convey visually what Eliot tells us is in her characters' heads? Nevermind Eliot's witty commentaries — there's so much more to this book than what the charcter's say and do.

The watching of it
My viewing partner has not read Middlemarch. He interrupts periodically to ask me for clarification. I in turn am quizzing him on his impressions. Quite remarkably, they match my own impressions regarding specific events and characters at certain stages. So, for all the shortcuts the adaptation takes in simplifying and condensing, and for all my quibbles about scene order and dialogue, etc, it manages to produce a similar effect on my viewing companion as did the novel on this reader.

A perspective I hadn't considered (and I'm not sure what to make of it): He sees Middlemarch as a boomtown; the story has the feel of a western: newcomers to town, everybody at heart wanting to raise it up, make something of it, jockeying for position. The many outdoor scenes — the wide-openness of it, the colour, the dust kicking up — do something to enhance this.

The movie feels quite slowpaced. I must admit that, were it not for having just finished reading it, it may not have held my interest, nor would it have enticed me to turn to the novel.

But I am looking forward to seeing the rest of it, hopefully over the next couple nights. I know I'll return to this book someday, and I expect I'll get something out of watching the movie again too (preferably in more concentrated viewing sessions, and without work deadlines looming over me).

Has anyone else seen it?


Blogger gina c said...

I bought the vhs tapes back in the year '01 and watched it then, I hadnt read the book then either. After finishing the book last month I started watching it again, have gotten through the first tape which ends with Dorothea and Casuabon in Rome. After their exchange in the museum, my watching partner commented, Why did they get married... He hasnt read it either but picked up on the incongruity right away.

I agree with your comments on casting, Casuabon is portrayed with (to me) a somewhat menacing edge and I love Robert Hardy as Mr. Brooke. His Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility is a delight too.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

I liked the adaptation, though as you say, it was rather slow paced. But so was some of the novel. I thought the characters were generally well cast, and also, who could resist Rufus Sewell? I'm thinking he must be very short or something, because otherwise it would just be too unfair. I never liked Lydgate much, in the novel or in this production, and in fact I think the Dorothea in this production was rather more sympathetic than I found her in the book. Am I the only one who wasn't so crazy about her? I thought her portrayal was inconsistent, and I never found her to be honestly sensitive to those around her. Maybe I'm biased by her indifference to the art she saw in Rome.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Ella said...

I have this in my Netflix queue, but haven't gotten the first part yet. You make it sound like a pretty faithful adaptation - though I agree, a difficult novel to film.

I love that your viewing partner sees it as a Western.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Maxine said...

I watched it a few years ago, and found it very weak compared with the book -- unlike many TV adaptations (eg the recent Bleak House) which I think are excellent, even if they deviate/omit/embellish the book. Something about that TV Middlemarch was disappointing to me (though I agree that Robert Hardy is good).
Look forward to your views when you have seen it all, Isabella.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Isabella said...

Oh, it's getting so much worse. (But I'm not done yet.)

The miscarriage, for example. Rosamond is downright malicious, and while she's thoughtless and self-absorbed, I never thought of her as evil.

Ladislaw is an angry young man, but here it's really explosive, not simmering. At least the film is informing my reading — making me question how I formed all my character impressions in the first place.

And Martha: he's 6 feet tall. It's just unfair.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

Oh good lord.

What do you mean there's no library scene?!

11:57 PM  
Blogger Lelia said...

I enjoyed the series! The book was better; however, the production locations were interesting for me to view.

12:05 AM  
Anonymous rachel said...

See, Isa, you've done it in the wrong order! You're supposed to see the series, get intrigued, and then read the book and say "oh wow, this is even BETTER!" ;-)

Seriously, sorry to hear the series is disappointing you. It's been 12 years since I saw it, so who knows what I'd think of it now.

4:13 PM  

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