The Secret Garden: a place of healing during COVID-19

Tiffani Angus, Anglia Ruskin University

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s book The Secret Garden has once again been adapted for the screen. Critics have noted that the film about a healing garden has come just at the right time, with The Telegraph calling it “a sparkling COVID antidote”.

Previous filmed versions appeared in 1919, 1949, and 1993. Since those iterations, however, the world has become more tech-enabled and the lives of children more dominated by screens than ever.

Ofcom in the UK estimates that the average three-to-four-year-old spends around three hours a day in front of a screen. This rises to four hours for ages five to seven, 4.5 hours by ages eight to 11, and 6.5 hours for teenagers. Time spent playing outdoors, as a result, is at an all-time low. It might be a wonder then, why, in 2020, a new film about playing outside is being released to an audience that seems so disconnected from it.

2020 has been, to say the least, an odd year. And, after a nationwide lockdown and restrictions currently being reimposed over large parts of the UK, The Secret Garden, a story about the healing qualities of nature – where magic, joy and, importantly, escape can be found – speaks to children (and adults) more than ever. “It sees a group of traumatised people who don’t get out much find solace in gardening and fresh air,” notes Helen O’Hara in Empire speaking about the similarities between the Edwardian cast of characters and our current reality.

Restorative gardens

The story follows Mary Lennox, a self-centred and neglected child, who is forced to move to her uncle’s estate in Yorkshire after her parents die from cholera in India. Left to her own devices and struggling to adjust, Mary finds distraction in exploring the estate’s vast grounds. It is on one of these jaunts that she discovers a hidden garden. Overgrown and mysterious, the place was locked years before by her uncle after his wife died in it.

The garden is, unsurprisingly, irresistible to Mary and, along with her spoiled cousin Colin who believes he’s disabled, and the good-natured Dickon, a kindly maid’s little brother, she finds that it is more than just a place to play. There nature has the power to heal, create relationships and bring joy; the garden also can help mend the wounds of the past, transforming hopeless grief to possibility.

The importance of nature as a source of healing has become increasingly clear during periods of lockdown as we find ourselves longing for green spaces as an escape from the news and our own four walls. Gardens (those of us who have them) and local parks and green spaces become important spaces where children can run around and adults can take a moment to reset. Like in The Secret Garden, we have discovered nature anew and it has restored us.

Time-travelling spaces

In children’s literature, gardens are a place for dreaming, adventures, and even for time travel. In books such as Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe and Andre Norton’s Lavender-Green Magic, the garden takes children back in time. There they meet people from the garden’s history or other historically important individuals. They have run-ins with their ancestors or undertake actions to save other (usually young) characters from the past who were treated badly or in danger.

The garden is a place to “fix” mistakes and learn about the great mystery and circle of life. Gardens, also, represent time itself: they never stop growing and changing. Every seed planted carries within it the hopes we have for the future.

While The Secret Garden is not a time-travel device as such, it does act as a conduit between the past and present. In it the family’s history is exposed and reckoned with, changing the present and setting them on a course to a new, more hopeful future together.

This connection between gardens and time (and time travel) might appeal to 2020 viewers who are looking for a way to connect the past with an uncertain future. In this story that many adults hold dear, they can rediscover their childhood and escape for a moment in nostalgia for a simpler time.

Once we enter the garden, however, who we are affects how we relate to it. Children have a completely different relationship to gardens than adults: adults see the backbreaking work that goes into them, while children benefit from all that hard work and only see a place to run and play. For the children in The Secret Garden, the garden is a place of discovery, fun, and recovery, in that order. And that is possibly the main key to the story’s longevity: it feeds into a faith in nature as healing, something difficult to ignore amid the friction over climate change and the destruction of some ecosystems.

The past seven months of lockdowns have fostered a hunger for personal green spaces. With the newest film version of The Secret Garden, our love affair with gardens is again brought to the big — and small — screen, where those of us who have been stuck inside can unlock the garden gate and, with a childlike innocence we yearn for, enter a magical green wonderland to take advantage of the healing properties and timeless qualities of a garden that has been waiting for us.The Conversation

Tiffani Angus, Senior lecturer in Creative Writing and Publishing, Anglia Ruskin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip: new TV adaptation brings to life the final book by one of the UK’s finest novelists

SIngapore Grip: the final book in JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy.
ITV Pictures

John McLeod, University of Leeds

In March 2020, when it became clear that my university campus was about to close due to the coronavirus pandemic, I hastily grabbed from my office shelves my well-thumbed copies of JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy: Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), and The Singapore Grip (1978). This was no sentimental choice on my part. I believed that Farrell could help me deal with my queasy feelings that everyday life as I knew it was dissolving frighteningly into incertitude.

As a writer, Farrell was concerned with those suddenly tipped into uncertainty, no doubt because of his own life being irreversibly turned upside down due to the sudden advent of sickness. Aged 21, he had become seriously ill after playing rugby at Oxford University in December 1956 and was diagnosed with polio. A spell in an iron lung was followed by a long and painful recovery. Farrell’s upper body was permanently affected by the disease. He never recovered full mobility.

Almost overnight, a young, healthy and ambitious undergraduate had become physically fragile and equipped with a keen sense of how quickly and unexpectedly all we take for granted is lost. Cruelly, his illness would play a part in his untimely death by drowning in August 1979, aged 44. While fishing near his new home in Ireland’s Bantry Bay, he was swept into the rough sea. Unable to swim strongly, he was soon lost to the water.

Middle-aged man in evening dresss photographed in profile.
Taken too young: JG Farrell.
Wikimedia Commons

Farrell’s early novels had often dwelt gloomily on the frailty of life. His second novel, The Lung (1965), in particular, sought to explore the dispiriting emotional and existential upset of his sudden illness. Yet, along with A Man From Elsewhere (1963) and A Girl in The Head (1967), it drew little attention – today, all three remain out of print.

Making it as a writer

His fortunes changed with the publication of Troubles, where he deployed more purposefully his consciousness of life’s latent fragility when depicting British colonial societies falling apart.

This turn to matters of Empire was not fanciful. Born to an Irish mother in Liverpool, Farrell had lived a modestly affluent childhood between England and Ireland before going up to Oxford. He knew the privileged social circles that were home to British colonialist attitudes but took a postcolonial position regarding the unhappy treatment of colonial subjects, such as the Irish.

Troubles imagines the lives of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency as the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) develops. Its often comical depiction of the Ascendency’s decline pokes fun at their arrogance and short-sightedness.

But Farrell’s sensitivity to the bewilderment and anxiety felt by all undergoing history also brings to the novel a measured sense of compassion for those whose worlds were at last evaporating. Indeed, the Empire Trilogy would uniquely combine the compassionate and condemnatory, the sensitive and the satirical, in its indulgent if unforgiving presentation of the colonial establishment. The novel established his critical reputation: it received the 1971 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, while in 2010 it was awarded the “Lost Booker Prize” after a public vote.

End of Empire

Farrell’s next novel, the Booker prize-winning The Siege of Krishnapur, depicted the ready collapse of British civility during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Buoyed by its success, Farrell used part of his prize money to travel to south-east Asia to research his next – and, sadly, last – full-length novel, The Singapore Grip, which has just been adapted for television by Christopher Hampton.

Punctuated in turn by scenes of high comedy and historical solemnity, the novel portrays Singapore prior to its humiliating surrender to the Japanese in February 1942. At its heart is one of Farrell’s least likeable befuddled expatriates, the rubber magnate Walter Blackett, whose business empire exemplifies the unholy grip of capitalism and colonialism over the region’s impoverished workers.

Mustachioed man in linen suit on varandah.
Unpleasant and manipulative: David Morrissey as Walter Blackett in The Singapore Grip.
ITV Pictures

Keen to secure his firm’s future, Walter plots to marry his daughter Joan to Matthew Webb, the son of his geriatric business partner – a scheme all the more bizarre in an increasingly besieged and dangerous city.

An idealist at heart, Matthew’s progressive vision of a world where wealth and wisdom are equitably enjoyed soon becomes as battered as the bombed-out city. Events in Singapore appear instead to prove the “Second Law” often quoted by his American friend, James Ehrendorf:

In human affairs, things tend inevitably to go wrong. Things are slightly worse at any given moment than at any preceding moment.

Yet The Singapore Grip never loses faith in the capacity for survival and endurance. It mixes its unforgiving vision of colonialism’s absurdity and collapse with an unyielding and often warmly humorous embrace of human fellowship. And, while Matthew fails to flee in time, one important figure significantly escapes: an abandoned, diseased and distressed King Charles spaniel, sardonically named “The Human Condition” by one of Matthew’s friends, who is last seen bolting up the gangplank to safety on a soon-to-depart ship.

Young man with glasses, dirty uniform.
Captured: Luke Treadaway as Matthew Webb in The Singapore Grip.
ITV Pictures

Highly amusing and deeply penetrating by turns, Farrell’s fiction often renders the human condition as precarious and insubstantial as the ailing dog in The Singapore Grip. But it crucially recognises that people are as complicated as the changing historical circumstances into which they are mercilessly thrust. Farrell’s firm condemnation of Empire never stopped him trying to understand humanely those undergoing its decline.

In reaching for Farrell when lockdown commenced, I had hoped to deal less fearfully with the experience of sudden change. But he soon reminded me, too, of the humane resources we also need at life-changing moments: steadfast hope, a saving sense of humour, and – for those lucky to escape or recover from illness – the wisdom of survival.The Conversation

John McLeod, Professor of Postcolonial and Diaspora Literatures, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

BBC’s adaptation of Malory Towers reveals more about the period and its diversity than Blyton’s book

Bethany Layne, De Montfort University

While UK schools are closed for the majority of children, Malory Towers has opened its doors in a new adaptation on BBC iPlayer. Its source text, Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers (1946), was the first in a series of six, and very much a product of its time.

The clifftop setting was inspired by Benenden School, which Blyton’s daughters attended, and which temporarily relocated from Kent to a hotel in Cornwall during the Blitz. This idyllic landscape sets the mood for the novel, which is steeped in ginger beer and post-war optimism. Now, in a time of national emergency, the series promises both nostalgia and escapism, a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

The title sequence fulfils these promises: bathed in the rose-tinted glow of retrospect, it features a world of pillow-fights, lacrosse matches, and friendship. Yet this saccharine opening belies the series’ revisionist impulse, which is as concerned with diversity, neurodiversity and gender equality as it is with hoodwinking Matron for extra tuck.

It’s widely accepted that adaptations reveal as much about their contemporary contexts as their literary sources, but this is more than a simple updating. Rather, the BBC’s Malory Towers reveals aspects of the historical context that were glossed over in Blyton’s novel, finding its inspiration in the gaps and silences of the original.

Diversifying the cast

The first change is evident in the girls themselves. The first form is a mix of white and BAME (black and minority ethnic) girls. There is also body diversity, with girls of all sizes and one with facial disfigurement. This upholds the standard set by Emma Rice’s 2019 stage adaptation, which cast a non-binary trans actor and one with restricted growth, as well as two women of colour.

The first edition of the novel, illustrated by Stanley Lloyd.

The same year, a four-novel reboot, New Class at Malory Towers, introduced black, Asian, introverted and working-class characters to the school.

The illustrations to the first edition of Blyton’s novel, conversely, paint a blandly homogeneous picture. Given that children from the Commonwealth were often sent to English boarding schools, this seems like straightforward whitewashing.

The series puts that right, reflecting how, in the words of adaptor Sasha Hailes, 1940s “Britain [was] more diverse than it’s often accounted for”.

Learning differences

The book’s homogeneity also extends to learning differences, of which there are none: only girls who don’t try, and “stupid ones”. “If you are brainless and near the bottom, we shan’t blame you, of course,” says housemistress Miss Potts, in a pep talk bordering on disciplinary offence. “But if you’ve got good brains and are down at the bottom, I shall have a lot to say.”

Two girls fall into the latter category: governess-reared Gwendoline, who phones it in for half the term before discovering the existence of school reports, and heroine Darrell Rivers. Darrell is able but struggles with arithmetic. Being distracted by the class clown causes her to fall in the class order before she hoists her socks with military enthusiasm and finishes fifth from the top.

In the series, however, Darrell has a genuine struggle with spelling and presentation, rising hours before the others to make clean copies of her jumbled prep. Devastated when her class position fails to reflect her hard work, she volunteers to be put in the “dreaded remedial” class. There, tutor and head-girl Pamela diagnoses “word-blindness”, or modern-day dyslexia. As a representative of the countless children with learning differences throughout history, Darrell is a role model for neurodiverse viewers. Her coping strategies, and a renewed commitment to becoming a doctor, also model an admirable growth mindset.

Choice above all

Darrell’s interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, and her belief that “girls [can] do everything boys can do”, shows how the series amplifies the feminism of the book. This is largely a product of its single-sex environment, which offers a safe space for the girls to develop, free from the need to conform. The book’s feminism is, however, offset by Blyton’s tendency to downplay academic achievement.

For Miss Potts, the most successful old girls are not “those who have won scholarships and passed exams” but those who have become, more nebulously, “good, sound women the world can lean on”. This bodes ill for “clever Irene”, who is “a marvel at maths. and music, usually top of the form – but oh, how stupid in the ordinary things of life”. Darrell, by contrast, is said to have “the makings of a first-rate person”, combining academics with games prowess and lashings of common sense.

The series inserts several narratives that champion academic achievement, the pursuit of a career and above all a girl’s right to choose her own path. Sally is sent to Malory Towers, not so her mother can focus on her delicate sister, as in the book, but to prevent her from becoming an unpaid carer and wasting her academic potential. Emily, whom Blyton describes as “a quiet studious girl”, has her education funded in the series by her mother’s work in the school’s sanatorium. Meanwhile Pamela chooses in a new storyline to debut in society, instead of pursuing a teaching career, in the hopes of safeguarding her family’s estate. “Maybe [teaching] isn’t my dream,” she tells an incredulous Darrell, “we can’t all be pioneers”. The message is confirmed by Miss Potts when Gwen suggests that she, too, would prefer society to college: “You’re lucky to have a choice”.

For fans of the adaptation, the series has now been novelised by Narinder Dhami as Malory Towers: Darrell and Friends. It is available to purchase alongside Blyton’s originals, Pamela Cox’s sequels, and New Class at Malory Towers, giving young girls, and boys, that most valuable of things: a choice.The Conversation

Bethany Layne, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, De Montfort University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Perfection comes at a price in latest adaptation of Austen’s ‘Emma’

Emma up front and center in new adaptation of classic novel.
Focus Features

Inger S. B. Brodey, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic “Emma” is a visual feast of color, pattern and texture.

It’s also a bit too perfect.

The colors are too vibrant, the skin too clear, the homes too opulent, the landscapes too gorgeous, the fabrics without any stain or wear. Every frame of director Autumn de Wilde’s version feels like a still-life painting or Instagram-ready photograph.

Perfection features explicitly in both de Wilde’s film, which has been given an early digital release as theaters close due to coronavirus concerns, and Austen’s novel. In making Emma too perfect, the film becomes Emma’s fantasy of her own life rather than Austen’s more balanced portrayal of her heroine’s many faults.

As an Austen scholar, I know that the author herself had a tense relationship with perfection. “Perfection,” she wrote in one of her letters, “makes me sick and wicked.” While writing Emma, Austen wrote that she was creating a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like.”

And, in truth, readers often find Emma’s general snobbery and cruel treatment of her friend Harriet difficult to forgive.

Trailer for Emma.

Fearful symmetry

Emma’s social superiority in de Wilde’s film is conveyed visually. Hardly a scene passes where Emma does not claim center stage. She is generally framed by perfectly symmetrical glittering candelabras or colorfully fringed symmetrical curtains, if not actually by the two halves of her name as in the opening titles.

Her perfect mastery of the family estate Hartfield expresses itself everywhere. Servants enter and leave in pairs, puppet-like, moving in choreographed synchrony. Emma’s invisible hand extends with tyrannical accuracy over the domestic scenes, and there is little relief from the perfection that she craves. Even her matchmaking stems from her own contrivances: “There is such symmetry between us,” she remarks about herself and potential suitor Frank, suggesting that her decisions are guided by aesthetics rather than feeling.

The perfection built up to surround Emma in the film is external. It evokes the worshipful, cowed sense that her friend Harriet feels on her first visit to Hartfield. The viewer of Emma remains an outsider, like Harriet, a spectator of the sumptuous visual displays.

An imperfect insult

In the novel, Emma’s failings are plentiful.

In one scene in both film and book, Emma insults her old and impoverished friend Miss Bates at a picnic. In the awkward moment after the insult, a fellow guest offers a riddle: What two letters spell perfection? The answer, as any Austen reader knows, is M.A. – pronounced “Emm-a” – an ill-timed compliment to the heroine, who has just demonstrated how imperfect she can be. The script stays remarkably true to the novel in this scene, but the response by Emma’s suitor, George Knightley is different. In the novel, he remarks that “perfection should not have come so soon.” In the film he says, “Who can improve upon perfection?” The distinction is subtle, but important: The film’s Mr. Knightley seems more disposed than Austen’s to attribute perfection to Emma.

Likewise de Wilde’s film minimizes Emma’s reckless toying with her friend’s heart. Emma still browbeats Harriet into rejecting the suitor she loves. Yet in the film, their friendship is stronger and persists in a way not possible in the novel. By the end, de Wilde’s Emma cares enough about Harriet to reject Mr. Knightley’s proposal. The novel’s Emma could not indulge in such “generosity run mad,” and the friendship subsequently subsides.

Morals or macaroons

The film constantly distracts us from moral lessons or deeper human connections, focusing instead on macaroons, hair ornaments, waistcoats and other tokens of superficial beauty. De Wilde’s Emma sacrifices complex personality and playfulness of spirit to the subtle tyranny of synchrony, symmetry and surface order, which Emma uses to her advantage.

Even when given the chance to explore Emma’s failings, the film version hesitates. The novel provides a potent rival for Emma in Jane Fairfax. In the book, when the two face off in dueling piano performances, Jane’s playing and singing are “infinitely superior” to Emma’s. Yet the film translates this superiority into harsh, virtuoso piano skills that startle the audience out of their pleasant somnolescence. Jane’s skill at Mozart’s Sonata in F shocks and amuses but isn’t pleasing enough in the film to mortify us on Emma’s account. De Wilde allows Emma to reign supreme.

Given the way Emma has been developed to embody soft tyranny and perfection, it is all the more striking when at the climax — the moment of Mr. Knightley’s proposal — de Wilde disrupts Emma’s visual and external perfection. When Mr. Knightley asks Emma to marry him, we all hold our breath. In the book, Austen doesn’t allow us to hear Emma’s acceptance. “What did she say?” taunts the narrator, “Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” At the moment when we readers most crave sincerity and direct expression from Emma, when we want her to just be a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart, she remains “a lady” and seems to conform to social conventions in superficially perfect expressions.

De Wilde uses a striking visual choice to humanize this moment. We’re all curious – waiting to hear Emma say “just what she ought.” Instead, we’re greeted by an exceedingly ill-timed nosebleed.

Nosebleeds and nudity

The brilliance of the proposal scene nosebleed is that it highlights the relationship between Emma as “lady” and Emma as “woman.” In this key moment, Emma’s humanity bleeds through her perfectly coiffed, ironed and embroidered facade. The brilliant red trail of blood stands out in remarkable contrast to the virginal, delicate white fabrics and blossoms surrounding her and Mr. Knightley. Their intimacy does not advance through words but instead through physical contact. A closeup of a gloved hand gives way in a subsequent scene to a thinly laced glove and skin on skin at the marriage altar.

De Wilde’s other bold move is to include nudity in the film. Mr. Knightley is introduced in the buff, and we also see Emma’s bare bottom warming at the hearth. De Wilde uses nudity and nosebleeds to create chinks in Emma’s armor.

Austen informs us that Emma “was not loth to be first.” De Wilde indulges Emma in her wish for preeminence. The film begins as Emma, head lying on a silk-trimmed pillow, just opens her eyes; the film ends as her lace-covered eyes close upon the audience. Emma’s vision literally brackets the film itself.

As the period in the title suggests, Emma is a sentence unto herself. She is alpha and omega to this film adaptation. None may question her absolute dominion. And yet, perhaps, perfection should not have come quite so soon or quite as completely. With such perfections, only broad visual strokes, such as nosebleeds and nudity, can bring her down to human proportions.

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Inger S. B. Brodey, Associate Professor, English and Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

David Copperfield on screen: Charles Dickens’ masterpiece is a celebration of everyday heroes

Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Beth Palmer, University of Surrey

Charles Dickens’ great masterpiece David Copperfield begins with uncertainty:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

With those few words the author gives us one of the most memorable lines to be found in 19th-century fiction and gets us thinking about who or what a hero might be.

A new film version of the novel is about to open in cinemas in the UK after being premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and opening the 63rd BFI London Film Festival the following month to glowing reviews. Written by Armando Ianucci and Simon Blackwell, the movie stars Dev Patel in the title role, who – as producer Kevin Loader told The Guardian, is one of those “actors who are capable of embodying the character as perfectly as possible, regardless of their ethnicity”.

The young Copperfield certainly shows some heroic promise: he’s an orphan – which is often a good start for a Victorian hero – and he manages to walk from London to Dover alone as a young boy to extricate himself from a life of dull labour. But he also lacks a certain amount of agency: Copperfield is buffeted around by chance and coincidence, relying on the hospitality and generosity of those he meets. So the strange and eccentric characters he encounters also operate as heroes to him.

We could argue, in fact, that the book meditates on the necessity of everyday heroism in a world that is often cruel and unfair. Copperfield witnesses these acts of generosity from early on in his life. When he visits Daniel Peggotty (his beloved nurse’s brother) Copperfield openly admires his heroism in offering a home to his orphaned nephew and niece and to the morbidly depressed widow, Mrs Gummidge.

Copperfield soon has cause to rely on this sort of heroism himself – when he too is orphaned, set to work, and then runs away to throw himself on the mercy of his aunt. His aunt, the eccentric Betsey Trotwood, adopts Copperfield, having already taken on the care of the troubled but amiable Mr Dick, who had been destined for life in an asylum when emotionally traumatised by an undisclosed event in his past.

Star-studded: Peter Capaldi as Mr Micawber.

And of course, we must admire the ultimate heroism shown by Ham who drowns attempting to rescue the shipwrecked Steerforth – seducer of Ham’s beloved Little Em’ly. Fostering children, prison visiting, care for the elderly, the homeless, and the mentally unwell, are the acts of heroism that make Copperfield’s life liveable. They are the stitches through which a 19th-century society, without the mechanisms of a modern welfare state, holds itself together.

Everyday evil

Of course, the novel also has plenty of antiheroes, most memorably the sadistic Edward Murdstone, who squelches Copperfield’s childhood freedoms, and the insidious Uriah Heep, who defrauds Copperfield’s family. At times the novel’s small individual acts of heroism seem to be overwhelmed by forces of wrongdoing, indifference and ignorance represented by characters such as those two.

But, of course, this is Dickens – and the way in which David Copperfield’s plotlines come together reveals Dickens’ vision of the world as interconnected. The handy coincidences of converging plots are not just a sop to satisfy mawkish readers, but an embodiment of Dickens’ philosophy.

In the preface to his magazine, Household Words, Dickens tells us that he wants literature to: “bring the greater and the lesser in degree, together … and mutually dispose them to a better acquaintance and a kinder understanding”. By inculcating sympathy with others in his fiction, Dickens thought he could encourage minor acts of heroism such as those that run through the plotlines of David Copperfield.

New vision

The new film version promises to give us an energetic and modern re-working and has received 11 British Independent Film Awards nominations, including best screenplay and best actor.

Dev Patel: one of those actors who can inhabit a character regardless of its ethnicity.

By all accounts it will entertain us with its fast-paced frolics through a diverse Victorian London and its cast of eccentrics played by Hollywood stars including Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick and Peter Capaldi as the incorrigible Mr Micawber. But it will also show us the poverty, child labour and homelessness that form the backdrop to Copperfield’s early life.

Ianucci’s film is part of a long succession of adaptations. As soon as the novel was published, adaptors began working on stage versions. It was actually the Little Em’ly fallen woman sub-plot that had most appeal for Victorian theatregoers who were already more than familiar with the poverty of industrial London.

More recent film versions of Dickens’ novels have had to make similar choices about which of Dickens’ multiple plotlines should be emphasised. David McGrath’s 2002 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby favoured the joyful romp over the brutality of the novel’s early scenes. But McGrath’s Nickleby retains more of the Dickensian sentimentality than seems to be the case in the new David Copperfield.

The snappy trailer gives a curt but comic announcement of the death of Copperfield’s mother, whereas the novel narrates the deathbed scene in a chapter I defy anyone to read without crying. Even Dora, Copperfield’s young wife, apparently receives a reprieve from her untimely fate in the new film.

Screenwriters and directors have become wary of Dickensian sentimentality but I hope that this new version of Dickens’ own favourite novel retains those links of sympathy and acts of everyday heroism that bind the novel together. If it shows us a hero navigating his way through a difficult world aided by humour, eccentricity and kindness it will be an adaptation that sends us back to the novel to locate those elements once again in Dickens’ work.The Conversation

Beth Palmer, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Surrey

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s classic novel may be too modern for audiences today

File 20180913 177956 1gzm7hy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharpe in ITV’s Vanity Fair.
Mammoth Screen for ITV

Jonathan Potter, Coventry University

The latest TV adaptation of Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair has polarised audiences expecting a traditional period drama. The first two episodes of Vanity Fair, co-produced by ITV and Amazon, received a mixed response on Twitter where viewers commented using the hashtag #VanityFair.

Comments seemed to broadly fall into two camps: those who admired the adaptation for its “fresh, modern take” on a period drama, and those who didn’t like what they saw as the needless modernisation of a period drama.

Interestingly, some of the features most identified as modernisations were actually from the original 1848 text: elements such as Becky Sharp throwing from her coach a dictionary she’d been given by her hated headmistress as she rode away from the school. Others took offence at Becky Sharp’s description of herself as a “secretary” – women were not secretaries at that time, one tweet protested. Meanwhile the frequent breaking of the fourth wall (Olivia Cooke, playing Becky Sharp, looks knowingly at the camera for dramatic effect) also caused a fair bit of angst.

These were not features that viewers associated with the genre of “period drama” and unfavourable comparisons were made with the popular BBC period drama Poldark (based on Winston Graham’s novels from the mid-20th century). That some viewers should so easily confuse historical accuracy with genre conventions is a striking example of the power of those genre conventions.

It is ironic, too, given that Thackeray subverted and satirised the conventions and tropes of his own time. This was true across his writing. In Pendennis, for example, a novel about the titular young gentleman making his way in London, Thackeray writes in his preface:

Perhaps the lovers of “excitement” may care to know, that this book began with a very precise plan, which was entirely put aside. Ladies and gentlemen, you were to have been treated, and the writer’s and the publisher’s pocket benefited, by the recital of the most active horrors.

In Vanity Fair, such subversions are frequent. In the first episode of the new adaptation, Becky Sharp – attempting to charm the wealthy and credulous Jos Sedley into proposing marriage – attends the Vauxhall pleasure gardens. This takes place in chapter six of the book, which Thackeray introduces satirically:

We might have treated this subject in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner … Or if, on the contrary, we had taken a fancy for the terrible … we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest, through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting. But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all.

Within the full version of that quoted passage, Thackeray offers suggestions of how the story might have been written in these different “manners”. He plays with these kinds of conventions to set up readers’ expectations, only to subvert and parody them. One of the century’s other great novelists, Anthony Trollope, wrote that Vanity Fair raised the fundamental question of “what a novel should be.” Trollope takes issue with some of the same things as modern viewers:

There are absurdities in it which would not be admitted to anyone who had not a peculiar gift of making even his absurdities delightful. No schoolgirl who ever lived would have thrown back her gift-book, as Rebecca did the ‘dixonary’, out of the carriage window as she was taken away from school. But who does not love that scene with which the novel commences? How could such a girl as Amelia Osborne have got herself into such society as that in which we see her at Vauxhall? But we forgive it all because of the telling.

Same story, different flavours

Like Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, the Victorian author of Alice in Wonderland, was also highly attuned to the way stories become categorised via genre, satirising this in an 1855 short story entitled Photography Extraordinary. Carroll’s story, presented like a newspaper article, reports an invention which literally transcribes narrative fiction directly from the human brain. Not only can Carroll’s machine “develop” a story onto paper directly from the brain, but the story can then be redeveloped into different genres. Story writing, Carroll seems to suggest, was a question of mechanically adjusting language to fit the conventions of distinct genres and meet readers’ expectations.

Becky Sharpe at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Mammoth Screen for ITV

As 21st-century readers and viewers, we still consume media in this way. Our genres have changed – we are not likely to talk about “silver fork” novels, for instance – but our use of genres has not. If anything, we have only become more reliant on them as we create more and more sophisticated algorithms for organising our digital media.

We also risk letting our expectations shape our understanding of the past. One of the big divergences between Thackeray’s book and the ongoing adaptation is that the series’ producers have elected to depict the Battle of Waterloo. When his military characters depart for the battlefield, Thackeray lets them drift out of view, writing: “We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants.”

Thackeray, in other words, is willing to disappoint and frustrate readers’ expectations – he does not feel the need to conform to expectations. It is – as the book’s subtitle warns us – a “novel without a hero” (and in its serial form, not even a novel, simply “pen and pencil sketches of English society). But, of course, to adapt for television is to adjust the story to meet a different set of expectations. In that sense, adapting Vanity Fair is a bit like churning it through Carroll’s fiction machine one more time.The Conversation

Jonathan Potter, Lecturer/Tutor, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How I invented a new language for The City and The City

File 20180403 189798 dz19cu.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Georgian alphabet.
rocketfall via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Alison Long, Keele University

The BBC’s latest drama series, an adaptation of China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City and The City, is a police procedural – but with a difference. The series is set in a fictitious divided city – Besźel and Ul Qoma – where the residents of each side are allowed no contact with each other. The main character, Inspector Tyador Borlu (played by David Morrissey), is a resident of Besźel – a slightly grubby, down-at-heel kind of place. During an investigation, he has to travel to the other city, Ul Qoma, and in order to heighten the difference for both the character and the audience, the Ul Qoman language of Illitan had to be completely different.

This is where I came in. As a linguist, I was called in to design a distinctive language for the series. This is not as uncommon as it sounds – there have been a number of languages created over the years, for various reasons. The American linguist Arika Okrent lists 500 in her book In the Land of Invented Languages which goes well beyond the usual suspects of Esperanto, Elvish and Klingon.

Constructed languages, or conlangs, have been gaining popularity in recent years, with their own society, the Language Creation Society, and annual conference. The seventh annual conference was held in July 2017 in Calgary – and even a brief look at the schedule of talks will tell you that these people take language construction extremely seriously (“(Ab)using Construction Grammar (CxG) as a Conlanging Tool”) but also have a sense of humour (“Someone from That Planet Might Be in the Audience”).

Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien created languages for Lord of the Rings – and there is a huge amount of detail on those languages for anyone with enough interest to pursue it. But in what is now widely regarded as the golden age of television, with multiple providers needing content for their channels, there is a broader scope for invention and fantasy – which is where language invention comes into its own.

The most famous example of a language created specifically for film and television is Klingon, originally created by Marc Okrand for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Klingon has since taken on a life of its own, with a Klingon Language Institute and translations of Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. More recently, HBO’s television adaptation of the Game of Thrones books required the creation of the Dothraki and Valyrian languages, for which David J. Peterson was responsible.

Talking points

While Tolkien left some fairly detailed instructions regarding the structure and vocabulary of Elvish, most authors do not go into such detail. George R.R. Martin makes reference to the languages in his Game of Thrones novels, but Peterson created them. Likewise, while Miéville gives a number of hints about the sound and structure of Illitan, there was no grammar or dictionary to refer to. Having free rein to create a language – not purely as an academic construct, but one which will be used – is both a challenge and a joy.

The primary concern for what we might term “artistic” language creators is the ease of pronunciation for the actors. If we are being asked to produce a human language, then we have the luxury of our previous study of language and linguistics to guide us. If asked to create an alien language – as Okrand was – there might be limitless possibilities, but the actors still have to be able to physically say the lines; we are constrained by human physiology. This was not an issue in the adaptation of Story of your Life by Ted Chiang (which was filmed using the title Arrival), as the aliens communicated telepathically – although the writing system had to be created by the design team.

Bilingual: David Morrissey in The City and The City.
Des Willie/BBC/Mammoth Screen

Script reading

In his novel The City and The City, Miéville tells us that Illitan uses the Roman script, having lost its original, right-to-left script “overnight” in 1923 (we’re not told how or why). We know that Borlu finds the sound of Illitan “jarring” (although we know from Miéville’s description of the character that he speaks “good” Illitan). In Besźel, meanwhile, people speak Besz, but for the purposes of the TV adaptation this is rendered as English and the written language, despite its occasional Cyrillic intrusions and diacritics (accents, for example), is still understandable to an English-speaking audience.

In order for the audience to share in Borlu’s sense of alienation in Ul Qoma, the decision was taken to use an entirely different alphabet for Illitian for the television series – and we eventually settled on the Georgian alphabet as it bears no resemblance to English.

The grammar of Illitan is made up of a mixture of Slavonic languages (such as Slovene, with its extra verb conjugation referring to two people: “we two are”, “you two are”, “they two are” as well as “we are”, “you are”, “they are”) and a system of infixes (like a prefix, but it fits into the word rather than in front of it) to denote tense and aspect. The word order remained roughly the same as English in order to help the actors know where to put the emphasis in their lines.

Maria Shraders as Quissima Dhatt.
Des Willie/BBC/Mammoth Screen

One final problem when creating a language from a novel is one familiar to any adaptation – the expectations of the audience. With any adaptation, the audience is divided into those who know the original novel and those who do not. Those who do will always have their own ideas about how the characters look and sound – and this extends to fictional language.

The ConversationMy version of Illitan will not necessarily match up with that of a fan of The City and The City, but I hope it will add something for people who are new to Miéville’s work.

Alison Long, Programme Director, Modern Languages, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: 20 000 Leagues To Be Made in Australia

The link below is to an article reporting on the next adaptation of Jules Verne’s ’20 000 Leagues Under the Sea’ to Be Made in Australia.

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