acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Month: June, 2011

Masterpiece Theatre Review 1: Middlemarch (1994)

It’s true. No one has been asking me for my reviews of Masterpiece Theatre productions. The world does not need this. But I wrote it anyway.

This is the first in what I intend as a series of posts about Masterpiece Theatre and BBC miniseries. I watch most airings of Masterpiece (though NOT Masterpiece Mystery, unless it’s Sherlock Holmes), as well as the BBC productions that air on PBS, and I generally can’t get enough of films and miniseries set in the nineteenth-century, despite the fact that I almost always find fault with them. It’s a sickness.

(Some of my favorites, in case you would like to see what my tastes are, include Bleak House (2005), The Forsyte Saga Series One (2003; the second series was good but not as good), and the 2009 BBC version of Emma, starring the utterly delightful Romola Garai. (I just imdb’d her to check the spelling of her name and saw that she just played Sugar in a BBC adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White omigoshomigosh. I can’t imagine that miniseries could possibly be good, but she’ll be great in it nevertheless!)

I am going to review the productions that aired earlier this year in later posts, but I am going to start with an older miniseries that I only recently got around to watching, the 1994 adaptation of Middlemarch.

I was excited to watch the miniseries of Middlemarch. I love this novel and was looking forward to revisiting it. One thing I like about miniseries of books I enjoy is when they remind me of things I had forgotten or just didn’t notice the first time. It’s a little like re-reading the novel, but without the time commitment.

It seems, though, that I should really have taken the time to re-read Middlemarch instead of watching the miniseries. The show has a pretty high rating on Netflix, but when reading the reviews, I noticed most people hadn’t read the book, which in my opinion accounts for the high ratings. But at the same time it doesn’t, since I actually found the miniseries pretty boring; I kept minimizing it while it played (I watched on my computer) and checking my email, so I’m surprised anyone with less investment in the novel would sit through six hours of this miniseries.

Honestly, I thought most of the acting was shallow and there was very little of the interiority or intense emotion of the novel. I will say that two actors nailed their roles: Robert Hardy perfectly captured the bumbling-but-dangerous ineptitude of Mr. Brooke, and John Savident is so convincingly and thoroughly disgusting as Raffles that you actually feel bad for Bulstrode. But these are not the two characters you probably remember best from Middlemarch.

I hate to say this, but the actress who plays Dorothea, Juliet Aubrey, looked too old for the part. She also just didn’t look like Dorothea to me, though I can’t really say what I think Dorothea looks like. But I could have overlooked both of these things if it weren’t for Aubrey’s voice. I feel terrible criticizing someone’s voice (goodness knows I hate my own), but her voice was just wrong for Dorothea; she spoke the whole time in this wispy half-whisper, never with what sounded like a full-throated word, even when she was angry. Like many 19th century heroines (Eliot’s best achievement, Maggie Tulliver, springs to mind; Jane Eyre is another), Dorothea strikes me as a woman with a passion she struggles to contain. She is arguably more cerebral and less passionate than Maggie or Jane, but if we are to believe that she goes with her heart in the end, there must be something passionate about her, don’t you think? But that voice of Juliet Aubrey’s just made everything come out sounding weak and insincere.

I know a lot of people seem to like Rufus Sewell in the role of Will Ladislaw, one of the most beloved heroes of Victorian literature (I do not love him as much as many of my friends do, who count him as not just their favorite male Victorian character, but as their favorite character, period, of Victorian literature, but I will give him this: he might be the only male character in Victorian literature who doesn’t do anything despicable or misogynistic). However, I thought Sewell was weird in the role. I think he was trying to play smoldering intensity, but instead he came off as bored or not paying attention about 3/4 the time and overreacting the other 1/4, with very little of Ladislaw’s sense of humor. There was exactly zero chemistry between Aubrey and Sewell; if you didn’t just know that two attractive young people in a Victorian setting have to fall in love, you’d never have any idea whatsoever that the characters were remotely interested in each other. When Ladislaw makes his first declaration of love, it seems to come out of nowhere. As if to emphasize all this, they change the setting of Dorothea and Will’s kiss: instead of Eliot’s scene, where they kiss in the library while a storm rages outside, in the miniseries version, they kiss on a sunny day outdoors where she is daintily deadheading the daisies in front of the house. (Daisies!) While of course I understand that many feel Eliot’s scene is overdone, the miniseries version is every bit as passionless as their relationship has been portrayed all along, which is a shame — at least an outpouring of emotion at the end would have given the impression that a great deal had been held back along the way.

Is she going to kiss him or strangle him? This screencap makes the scene look more exciting than I thought it was.

There’s no need to go on. Lydgate comes across in the miniseries as having done nothing wrong (even though the novel shows how he is as much to blame for his bad marriage as Rosamond), whereas Rosamond is unfathomable; or, I guess more accurately, all the nuance of her character is lost, and she just comes across as childish and manipulative — which, of course, she is, but in Eliot’s deft hands we are better able to see her perspective. Mary’s eventual acceptance of Fred comes almost out of the blue; although we are told she loves him from the beginning, his transformation happens so suddenly that if you blink, you’ll miss it. Then to top it all off, a voiceover by Judy Dench as, presumably, George Eliot suddenly wraps things up at the end, even though there had been no voiceover before that.

All in all, though, the real problem is with adaptation as a project in general. Without Eliot’s descriptions of the characters’ motivations, the story doesn’t really hold up. There isn’t really that much plot to Middlemarch; what is so beautiful and compelling about the novel is the detail and depth Eliot gives to the psychology of each character, how she makes you understand each one even as she shows, in tragic detail, how they haven’t the slightest ability to fathom the thoughts or feelings of each other accurately, and how thoroughly they misunderstand each other, again and again. Is this something that can ever be conveyed on screen?


Benefits of not being an academic #2: No more academic conferences

When I began graduate school, I loved presenting at conferences and even going to them (I will admit that I have always preferred to present than to listen at conferences, and if that says something about me, so be it). At the final conference I went to, I had to remove myself from the conference area on several occasions because being there was making me feel physically ill and emotionally drained. How did this transformation happen?

When I started going to conferences, back when I still really liked them, I went to quite a few in crappy locations, such as Cortland, NY (sorry if you’re from there), Tuscaloosa, AL (my apologies for calling your location crappy), and Pittsburg, PA (yes, I said it). Occasionally I got to go to nice locations, too, but then was not supposed to see the location because I should have been at the conference, a rule I followed at first and then increasingly shirked. Eventually I decided I would only go to a conference if it was in a location I wanted to visit or if it was a conference I was genuinely interested in and was attended by established scholars. But I don’t think these considerations had much to do with my very bad final conference experience. True, it was in a location I considered exceedingly crappy (Cleveland, OH — my sincere apologies to my good friend Meg who grew up there; I’m sure it has its charms and I know my encounter with the city was brief and limited); however, it was also a conference I was very much interested in and had enjoyed in the past.

So, then, what’s wrong with academic conferences, at least in the field of literary studies? I will try to explain in a few brief points.

1. Nearly unrelenting social awkwardness. Why would anyone think it is a good idea to take a bunch of academics, most of whom are shy social misfits who feel much more comfortable in a library with a book than having a conversation with a stranger, and throw them in a room together to “mingle” and “network” during a “cocktail hour”? Networking is why I didn’t go into the corporate world, people! (Ok, it’s not the only reason.) It is my sincere opinion that there is far too much alcohol consumption in academia, and this is part of the reason why. Also, I think a lot of academics imagine themselves as people who look chic and cosmopolitan with a glass of wine or martini in their hands, when really they should probably just embrace their geekiness and stop obsessing over their desire to appear chic and cosmopolitan.

2. Bad behavior by your advisors and other professors. Yes, they’re only human, but as a graduate student (or recent alum), you can’t help but expect them to behave in an exemplary manner, modeling correct conference etiquette for their students. But no. They do things like sleep through your panel, or come in halfway through your panel, after you’ve given your paper, or leave right after your paper is finished (it’s nice they came, but it’s so rude not to stay for the whole panel!), or go over their time limit on their own panel, or wear inappropriate clothing to their paper presentation, or have a party and don’t invite you, or get drunk at the party they did invite you to. [Please note: these things have been observed by me and by my friends; I can understand how, if they had only happened to me, you might think it was something I had done, but rest assured this is a collective and representational list.] It is depressing to see them act this way.

3. Apparently this only applies to literature fields, according to people in other fields, but in literature, people do not present their papers so much as read them aloud. It’s boring most of the time. Things might be really different if people actually presented the papers, gave a short lecture, brought up ideas and questions, maybe even made things interactive. In short, thought of the presentation less as a line on the CV or a step toward publication (as tempting and, honestly, very practical that is) and more as an opportunity to teach one’s colleagues about something and receive feedback on ideas. Is this how you teach your class — show up and read from a paper you wrote? Some of you, sure, but for most of you, I doubt it.

4. Speaking of, it would also be lovely if people went to conferences in order to learn from each other and contribute feedback. I’m not saying that never happens, but what usually happens is that people only attend sessions that directly relate to their own research and then ask the presenter questions not about the presenter’s research so much as how the presenter’s research applies to the questioner’s research. It’s delightful when someone asks a genuine question that either furthers a conversation or shows honest curiosity that goes beyond “what’s in this for me?”. But this is exceedingly rare, and instead, Q&A sessions are generally painful exercises in pretension, name-dropping, and oneupmanship. I just think it’s strange that a roomful of alleged teachers and scholars –people who profess to love learning — would behave in this way, instead of grasping onto a potential learning opportunity.

This does not cover all the reasons why academic conferences are so painful, but these are a few of the reasons why, after years of enduring them, I had to remove myself from the last conference I went to. I have had a number of very good experiences at conferences; I have learned things myself, and I have enjoyed sharing my work with others. I have a particularly fond memory of a Victorian conference I went to that had a magic lantern show as the evening presentation, especially since we watched an extremely abridged version of “A Christmas Carol” followed by a morality musical sing-a-long. That was pretty great. But the overall feeling I have is tremendous relief that I am no longer required to go to these things. I get just as much satisfaction from attending lectures at the university where I work, and if I don’t like it or think the Q&A is ridiculous, I can walk back to my house instead of returning to my expensive hotel to turn in before my 3-leg plane ride home from a crappy location.

Book Review: New Grub Street by George Gissing

New Grub StreetNew Grub Street by George Gissing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Hint: if you read Victorian novels for the romance and happy endings, and don’t like it when they don’t have a traditional happy ending, you might want to avoid this novel.)

Let me see if I can describe this thing I like about both of the Gissing novels I’ve read (this one and The Odd Women). It starts with the fact that there are no real heroes or villains in the story, just real, complicated characters up against a set of obstacles and needing to make difficult decisions about their lives. (In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint a protagonist; both books are more ensemble pieces.) But what is really Gissing-ish is the way he sucks you into various stories about people who are in love, or who think they are in love, but never backs away from the seriousness of their situations or the idea that maybe they really shouldn’t be together. But here’s the thing: Gissing knows the marriage/love/romance plot inside and out, and he knows how to use the moves that get you (or, maybe I should only apply this to myself) to want something that you know – because he’s already showing you – will not work out. So the whole time I’m reading his books, I can’t help but kinda want characters to get together, even as I’m consciously thinking, “this will never work out.” So at the end, when things don’t go the expected marriage/romance plot direction, you are somehow both surprised and not at all surprised at the same time, as well as chuckling over the cynical marriages that actually do come to pass. This Gissing has some clever, clever moves.

Of course, this novel is not usually thought to be about love or romance; it’s about writing and publishing and trying to make a living as a writer. It’s an age-old but nevertheless deeply compelling question: do you take the chance of working full time on your writing, only to find yourself at the point of starvation as your talent goes unnoticed, try to piece together a living by working at some soul-sucking day job to pay the bills as you write at night, or “sell out” and write solely with a shrewd eye on the market? Gissing knew that only a select few will get rich from writing great novels (in fact, I found out in my Bedford edition that George Eliot was paid 10,000 pounds for Middlemarch! But even with that amazing amount, which was at the top of the pay scale—compare it to the fact that 10 years later, Gissing only received 150 pounds for New Grub Street—consider how much time Eliot must have spent writing her masterpiece!) and that it takes dedicated time and a freedom from the concerns of where the rent money was coming from to really throw yourself into a work of art. It’s a startlingly modern and stark look at the publishing industry and market. (When one character gets rich by re-designing a journal so that no story is longer than 2 inches, so that people can read it on buses and trains, I thought, we really are New Victorians.)

On a final, rather unrelated note, according to my Bedford edition, Gissing’s favorite novelist was Charlotte Bronte, and his favorite novel not Jane Eyre, but Villette. Also, he writes amazing female characters. How can I not like him?

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