October 28, 2005

Bleak House on the Beeb - One Opinion

This is a brief review of the latest BBC costume drama based on Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The first part of fifteen or so was shown yesterday. Probably of most import to UK readers, but you might find it interesting generally.

If you haven’t read the novel Bleak House, I urge you not to watch the BBC’s adaptation of it. Not because the TV serial particularly gives away the mystery faster than the book, but because you will miss out on hearing Dickens deepening of the mystery in his own way. This goes for most adaptations of great novels – they are so good in the medium of writing, that a film usually seems to me quite superfluous. You could argue that nowadays who has time to read a weighty tome of some 950 pages – but I argue back that you will not experience Bleak House by watching a television version of it, so unless it’s a masterpiece of film in its own right, why bother? And I do think that the clues are more obvioius shown visually than they are read in words, although that maybe partly that I know what happens already. Hard for me to say.

Ok, there’s a good ensemble of players, and they can bring Dickens’ brilliant observations of character to life, not that they weren’t brought to life before in the authors incisive way. I especially enjoyed Burn Gorman as Guppy, and Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole. And if you like all the side characters, including the red-herrings of the plot, so far there seems to be absolutley no-one missed out, unlike the last BBC Bleak House which dropped even the Jellybys (I think?) The first episode is indeed crammed full, and takes us up to page 180 of my copy of the book, so only about 800 pages to go – it must slow down later on?

The detail of the visuals are impeccable as ever these things tend to be, but that for me doesn’t conjure up the atmosphere of the book – things are all a bustle, and there are some pointless jump cuts, but over all I find the look of it not remarkable enough. I’m not sure just what I’m asking for – just something extra imaginative that uses the film medium to say something new, and not merely running reverently through a classic. The nearest I’ve ever seen to this is the masterly take on Great Expectations from the 1940s, by director David Lean. Still I might get into it as it goes on – despite my carping, it’s a good watch.

So, if you can, read the book and catch up with this on dvd from your library later on. If you’ve already read it, then read it again – preferably aloud to somebody else, and defnitely with exceedingly silly voices for Grandfather Smallweed, Mr Turveydrop and Mrs Bayham Badger.

And just to give a taste of the famous first page, which starts with the single word ‘London’. This is the second paragraph:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Excerpt from the complete text on Online-literature.com, where you can also read an interesting essay on the book, which starts off by talking potatoes.


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