Five underrated film adaptations from classic English Lit
A fresh look at some under-respected movies of books you may have been forced to write essays about
Thomas Vinterberg's movie of Far From the Madding Crowd is to be released next week. And like every other adaptation of a classic novel it'll have a life depending on whether fans of the book think it was faithful enough, and non-fans think it was fun to watch. The gaudiest adaptations, such as the 1995 TV version of Pride and Prejudice, tend to fade in memory to a single moment: i.e. the young Colin Firth in a wet shirt. But some classic works of English literature have inspired film versions that deserve a second look.
1. Persuasion (1995, dir. Roger Michell)
BBC's Persuasion was the anti-Pride and Prejudice. Grubby, muddy, condensed with alchemical wizardry by screenwriter Nick Dear down to 107 gripping minutes and shot using natural light and a few candles, it kept the emotional screws so tight than when Anne (Amanda Root) and Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds) finally came to a mutual understanding, it made total sense for a freaking circus to come wandering down the street.
2. Emma (1996, dir. Douglas McGrath)
Emma is beautiful, smart, well-off, well-intentioned and a right pain in the arse: calling Gwyneth Paltrow! In truth, Paltrow is very good as the embodiment of privilege-blindness; when her wit topples over into casual rudeness to a poor acquaintance, love interest Mr Knightley gives her one of Austen's classic The Reason You Suck speeches, and you gun for her to earn that happy ending.
3. A Cock and Bull Story (2005, dir. Michael Winterbottom)
Laurence Sterne's manic, plotless, talky Tristram Shandy is all about the fact that it's a book, so it makes sense that its movie is all about the making of itself. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon double act, but the real scene-stealer is Naomie Harris as opinionated crewmember Jennie, who thinks the whole film is a waste of time.
4. Mansfield Park (1999, dir. Patricia Rozema)
The most controversial Austen flick. Writer / director Rozema got around the doormattish nature of her heroine by making her a writer, and underlined the economic basis of the Bertram fortune by reminding us that they own slaves. Some Austen fans were outraged, but Frances O'Connor projected cool dignity as Fanny, and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund got to deliver another of those great Austen diatribes.
5. Beowulf (2007, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
Angelina Jolie playing a sexy 700-year-old; CGI Ray Winstone wrestling naked; Crispin Glover choosing to deliver all his dialogue in Old English: Zemeckis' Beowulf is deliriously nuts and, if you're in the mood, tremendous fun. It also deserves kudos for remaining faithful, in its bonkers way, to the very grim spirit of the poem.
Far From the Madding Crowd is on general release from Fri 1 May.