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Two Bleak House Dramatizations

Both are from the BBC, naturally, and are serials made for television, each running roughly eight hours in total. The first was made in 1985, the second in 2005. Both are worth seeing, but all in all I think the second is superior and the best choice if you're only going to watch one.

The 1985 one, like the Dombey and Son dramatization I mentioned recently, took me back to Sunday evenings in the '70s and '80s watching PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. Comparing those with more recent similar efforts, you can sort of see the improvements in technology and, probably, financing. Visually, for instance, Bleak House 1985 is often less sharp, clear, and bright than Bleak House 2005. (I think I'll refer to them just as "1985" and "2005" for the rest of this post.) This is especially true in outdoor scenes, especially in London, where it actually is effective: the creators apparently wanted to portray the city as extremely dim and murky (which is certainly consistent with the book), and they succeeded. The slum called Tom-All-Alone's is nightmarish, as such places probably were in reality.

The two are pretty different cinematographically, and I don't know how much of the difference is technological and how much a stylistic choice. I recall, watching 2005 when it was originally released (almost twenty years ago!), thinking that the way the faces of characters often filled the screen almost entirely was a little annoying, reducing or almost eliminating a sense of the space in which they existed. But on this viewing I didn't really notice that, which makes me think it's a change in style to which I've become accustomed in other works. There was one small but irritating thing in 2005 which I think was a sort of fashionable device at the time, perhaps, and I hope, out of fashion now. That's a way of doing transitions with a literal bang. We're switching from London to Bleak House, say: wide shot of house BANG; quick cut less wide shot of house BANG; quick cut to closer shot of house BANG. Then on into the actual scene. After maybe half the episodes I got used to it, but I did wonder why someone thought it was a good idea. Maybe appropriate in some kind of noisy hyperactive contemporary movie, but for Dickens?

Changes in acting style are also apparent. In general the approach in 1985 is a little broader and more blunt. It seems, on one level, more acted, or stagey, while 2005 is perhaps more subtle--but then I don't know enough about acting to talk about it intelligently in a general way, so I would do better to compare specific characters. 

Like any male of my age, I am an admirer of Emma Peel Diana Rigg, and so it pains me a little to say that she did not make as powerful a Lady Dedlock as Gillian Anderson, whom I had of course enjoyed as Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, but whose ability as a more serious actress I had doubted. The big difference is that Gillian Anderson does icy very, very well, while Diana Rigg--whether by nature or by actor and director choice I don't know--is warmer and more openly vulnerable. I vaguely recall from my first viewing of 2005 that I thought Anderson's performance was a little weak compared to the others, and that her English accent seemed somewhat forced and not entirely real. Well, I didn't feel that way this time. A little stiff, maybe, is the worse I would say about the accent. I was very critical of it in her more recent portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, as well as in the crime drama The Fall in 2013. I don't know what to make of that--surely her accent didn't get less authentic over the past twenty years or so, as she has lived in England for much of that time (and lived there for a significant portion of her childhood). But anyway, applause to Scully Anderson for this performance.

Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in 2005 is surely the ultimate. And I'm pedantic enough that when I use the word "ultimate" I mean it pretty literally. (I'm always annoyed when I see an advertisement for something like "the ultimate PC," something which will be more or less obsolete and certainly surpassed within months.) Not ultimate as in chronologically final, but ultimate in the sense of unsurpassable. I suppose someone someday might prove me wrong, but I just can't imagine a more convincing and effective portrayal of Tulkinghorn, nor one more in keeping with the character as he's portrayed in the book. The Tulkinghorn in 1985, Peter Vaughan, is fine, just not in the same league for mystery, menace, and intelligence.

Anna Maxwell Martin, as Esther Summerson in 2005, also seems more convincing to me than 1985's Suzanne Burden. And so on--as I look over both cast lists, I think 2005 takes first place in most instances. There are a couple of characters who don't seem all that effective in either one. Sir Leicester Dedlok doesn't have the mountainous snobbery and pomposity I imagine, but maybe what I imagine is impossible. Nor does either fully convey to me the noble generosity of his reaction to the family's crisis. I somehow think John Jarndyce should be more colorful than he is portrayed, but again, that may be my misreading, or at least eccentric reading. Slimy little Guppy is good in both. 

Anyone who watches as many British crime dramas as I do will immediately recognize Phil Davis as Smallweed in 2005, also a noticeably superior portrayal to 1985's. He's often played similar characters, irascible, hostile, and creepy.  

I won't bother picking over the choices each version makes in tailoring the narrative for this length and format. I did quarrel with some, but I don't recall thinking that they were unjustifiable. It must be a difficult task.

Here's the, or a, trailer. Not an especially good one, in my opinion. Notice that they say "Charles Dance vs. Lady Dedlok." I didn't realize he was that well known. You can hear the end of one of those BANGs as it begins. 



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I don't enjoy these dramatizations as much as I do reading classic English literature. I did watch the later one with Gillian Anderson, and pretty much agree with your assessment, and remember the weird close-ups and "bangs". Disconcerting for sure. I suppose I prefer a very well-made movie, such as Howards End and A Room With a View, that is able to summarize in 2 to 2.5 hours and has much higher production values to watching several episodes. This is generally how I am though, wary of episodic television. I prefer to read and just watch movies and be done with it rather than these series that drag on and on. I get to the end and think "For what?" I'm in disagreement with you about their inherent value as the "new novel".

I don't know what I said about them as the "new novel" but I doubt I meant to be saying they are or even can be as good as or could/should replace. I think I meant that they were comparable in scope and maybe also in cultural position as novels. I certainly don't think any dramatization of a major novel is likely to be anything like a substitute for it. In the case of Bleak House the dramatization would, for starters, have to be at least twice as long as either of these. A two or three hour movie of Bleak House couldn't possibly claim to be anything more than "based on."

Sorry, did not mean to misrepresent your position on shows/novels. But I have thought about it a lot since you made that declaration a while back with regard to (I think) Breaking Bad, The Wire, Better Call Saul, et al. When I finish a book, unless it is utter trash (and I do occasionally read genre fiction) I feel a sense of accomplishment. When I finish a "series" I feel a sense of having wasted my time. I just watched eight episodes of some nonsense. The narrative of course had me watching continually to find out what would happen to a certain character. I was relieved when it ended, and also relieved that the show runners did not film a second series. Of course to me the ultimate waste of time is watching sports! Even though I enjoy the NFL to some degree, I try to watch as little as possible, and no longer really care who wins in any of the other sport categories, including and especially anything related to the Olympics. Good for them, but I don't want to watch.
Sorry about this long post having nothing to do with Bleak House dramatizations; I remain a "muddle-headed madcap", Mac!

Well, I wonder what I said. It would be hard to track it down. Might have been in a post, might have just been a comment. One particular in which I would compare a high-quality tv series to a novel is in character development. The extent to which that's done in the three you mention is definitely novel-level, and it's impossible to do in a 2-3 hour movie.

"sense of accomplishment"...I do feel that at the end of a good or great book, but it has more to do with the fact that I expended a kind of effort that I don't in watching anything on the screen. The latter is just intrinsically a more passive process. I should do less of it and more of the former.

I think that for the non-reading public the scripted TV series has in a sense become the "new novel." And in fact some of them are very good. I never feel disappointed or that I've wasted my time when I've watched a good movie or a good TV series. Usually I can tell pretty quickly whether a series is going to be worth pursuing or not. Sometimes I get it wrong, but that's generally when it takes a (bad) unexpected turn, or it cheats at the end somehow. If a series or a movie has been made from a book I will almost always read the book first, unless it's something I don't have great interest in (this usually occurs with genre fiction).

As far as the passive/active thing, sometimes I'm too tired to read, but still want to occupy my mind with something. That's generally when I'll choose to watch something rather than read.

"I think that for the non-reading public the scripted TV series has in a sense become the "new novel.""

Right--in a sense. More than one could say of movies and conventional TV, works completely contained in 30 minutes to a few hours, because the scope is so much greater and so much more development is possible.

Here's a post where I compared tv series and novels. Maybe what Stu was thinking of. I'm quoting something I said on Facebook. "great American novels on video" certainly sounds like I'm equating Better Call Saul and others to great novels in print, but I think what I meant was "works in the video medium that are like novels in scope etc " as a category, distinct from novels in the print medium. Still very different things.

Also "I don't say "great American novels" idly, as I do think they bear comparison to great literary works in their exploration of character, and of good and evil." I do think that's true.

Maybe call them "video novels." Like "graphic novels."

~~I think what I meant was "works in the video medium that are like novels in scope etc " as a category, distinct from novels in the print medium.~~

Right, that's the way I look at it as well, and I agree on the character exploration, good/evil thing also. In that regard it's telling that most of the really good TV series have been the equivalent of high-quality genre fiction rather than "literary" fiction or straight drama. I don't read a lot of genre fiction, so in a way the long-form TV shows serve as a something of a substitute for it.

I remember having a discussion along these lines with a friend regarding Rectify. He told me that he watched the first few episodes but gave up on it because he didn't find it very "gripping" (he went into it thinking it was a detective series). I advised him that it was more of a character study/family drama with a mystery element underneath than it was a straight mystery. Turns out he wasn't interested in that sort of thing, and moved on to a detective series. Point being that among us "bookish" sorts I think the expectations related to reading vs. those related to watching TV are different from those of the non-reader or the person who reads only genre fiction.

I don't expect something like Breaking Bad or The Bridge to rise to the level of great literature. But there is an expectation that they will at least come close to great genre fiction, and in a few cases I believe that they do.

Yes, definitely. It's intrinsically an apples-oranges comparison, but to the extent that the comparison can be accepted I think that's true.

I tend to agree with your assessment of the respective productions. Have you considered doing a comparison between the 1987 Little Dorrit and the series in the 2000s starring Claire Foy? The only difficulty is that the 1980s one is actually two 3-hour movies - a marathon of endurance! - with the first part relating the key events of the novel from Arthur Clennam's perspective and the second part relating nearly the same events entirely from Little Dorrit's viewpoint. Both the 1980s and the 2000 versions have their merits - Alec Guinness as 1987's Dorrit, the "Father of the Marshalsea," is an incomparable performance - but neither of the actresses involved can do much with the part of the actual Little Dorrit, which I don't think is one of Dickens' successful characterizations.

I haven’t seen the ‘87 one and, worse, have not read Little Dorrit. I did see the later one and enjoyed it. I’d want to read the book before watching the other one.

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