Here’s a controversial proposal. Trust nobody who loves a book to give you a reliable assessment of any film or TV series based on that text. “They got Olive’s hat wrong!” “Rufus the Bewitcher would never enter the Kingdom of Doofus without his bejewelled cowl!” You know how this goes.
These thoughts are prompted by the latest adaptation of Nancy Mitford's immortal The Pursuit of Love. This is television's third crack at the tale of upper-crust nutters. Back in 1980, ITV produced a lovely, lovely, lovely version with Judi Dench as sensible Aunt Sadie and Michael Aldridge as the demented, xenophobic Uncle Matthew. The 2001 BBC adaptation, also titled Love in a Cold Climate, after the second part of Mitford's literary diptych, was perfectly respectable, but never got properly aloft.
Last week we saw the first episode of Emily Mortimer's very modern – that seems the right word – translation of the inter-war tale. The louche Lord Merlin, played by Andrew Scott, now dances to Dandy in the Underworld by T Rex (a song actually released more or less equidistantly between the present day and the book's setting). Fanny and Linda, the two pals at the core of the novel, hint nudely at the sort of relationship that, according to much-disputed myth, Queen Victoria refused to believe possible. Static cameras frame scenes face-on in the style of a Wes Anderson film. Shots rarely last longer than a few seconds. I feel an Uncle Matthew attack coming on. What SEWER thought this AWFUL TRIPE worthy of our Sunday evenings? Leave Nancy Mitford alone, you HOGS!
Thus does harsh reality clash with long-held principle. I have always railed against the absurd belief that faithfulness to the source is a virtue in itself. Consider The Shining. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, though hardly a radical reworking, was sufficiently different from Stephen King’s excellent horror novel to drive the author to write his own slavish TV adaptation. Clueless, the best film of Jane Austen’s Emma, is set in an American high school. Throne of Blood, the best film of Macbeth, is set in feudal Japan. When tackling an adaptation, the artist’s primary aim should always be to create a work that functions effectively within the new medium. If a film, play or TV series tears a source to shreds and moulds just a few of those shreds into a successful project then it matters not a whit if the originator can barely recognise his cherished masterwork.
This Mitford enthusiast finds himself fuming like those Spider-Man fans who threatened to boycott Sam Raimi's take on the hero because his web-shooters were 'organic' rather than mechanical.
There have always been whingers. One of the reasons Alfred Hitchcock favoured pulp sources over classics was that there was less chance of readers of the former falling into a faint if he plucked out a few cinematic elements and left the rest mouldering between pages. But the Faithfulness Police have become significantly more vigilant in the internet age. Nobody much cared, in 1931, that James Whale's Frankenstein paid only cursory attention to Mary Shelley's novel. Howard Hawks and his writers played fast and loose with The Big Sleep in the 1946 take on the Raymond Chandler book. No contemporary appraisal yearns for the return of the excised subplot.
Aggrieved online fans
Here in the 21st century, we have to sit through 149 minutes of Gone Girl and (dear God) 276 minutes of a bifurcated Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows because nobody dares face the wrath of aggrieved online fans yelling about the odd clause that has gone missing from the sacred text. Have some guts. Armando Iannucci recently distilled 1,000 pages of David Copperfield into 119 delightful minutes. Be ruthless.
And yet. When confronted by the BBC's noisy, modern version of The Pursuit of Love, this Mitford enthusiast finds himself fuming like those Spider-Man fans who threatened to boycott Sam Raimi's take on the hero because his web-shooters were "organic" rather than mechanical. Why couldn't Mortimer have followed the example of her father? John Mortimer's famous TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited appeared (I say "appeared" as there was a bit of a saga there) to translate more or less every comma, semicolon and ellipsis to the screen. That worked out okay. Right?
I am ashamed of myself. It’s not as if Mortimer Jr has been merciless with the original narrative. Just about everything that happens in the first episode is taken from the book. It’s the jagging, hip, fidgety tone that sets purists’ teeth on age. The sequence scored to New Order’s Ceremony is seductive, but it doesn’t chime with the version of Mitford’s book that has danced in our heads for 30 years.
Which is where we came in. Ignore addicts of the source material. Their brains have been poisoned by affectionate familiarity. Mortimer’s series may well be a classic for the ages, but I will never be able to see it clearly through the fug of my own prejudice.