Prequels, Sequels, and Pop Stars: Masterpiece and the New Culture of Classic Adaptation

By West, Nancy; Laird, Karen E. | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Prequels, Sequels, and Pop Stars: Masterpiece and the New Culture of Classic Adaptation


West, Nancy, Laird, Karen E., Literature/Film Quarterly


Masterpiece Theatre: once upon a time, it was a faithful purveyor of literary adaptations, providing reams of original dialogue, close attention to period details, and the gentle paternalism of Alistair Cooke. It hired celebrated actors from the stage but eschewed Hollywood celebrities. Dominated by an aesthetic that kept the camera excruciatingly still, it fit the subdued mood of Sunday night and the sluggish metabolism of middle age. In short, it was Grand Television, designed for an older cultural elite who did not watch television.

Almost all traces of its former identity disappeared as the program underwent a radical relaunching in 2008. Tuning in on Sunday nights, viewers now see a new format, different hosts, and adaptations that feature a lot more sex and action. Even its tide changed, with the stodgier second half dropped to create the racier signature Masterpiece. Some viewers applaud these alterations; others bewail that the show has lost its good taste and sense of direction. Virtually all of them have expressed surprise. "Hold on," writes the critic for the Los Angeles Times. "Where's the triumphal fanfare? Where's the snorkeler's eye view of the library, the books, and the statues? Where's Alistair Cooke in a Chippendale chair? Russell Baker in a tweedy jacket?" (Lloyd). These questions remind us of how much a fixture Masterpiece Theatre has been in the lives of American viewers since 1971, and how its survival has depended on the twin comforts of familiarity and old-fashionedness.

The program's renovation seemed risky indeed, but these changes actually began a decade or so earlier - when a sea change in the practice of adaptation began, influenced by what Peter Brooker calls "the emergence of a more intensively palimpsestic, ironic, and self-reflexive film culture" (110). This shift is especially noticeable in nineteenth-century novel adaptations, which have become much more inventive, varied, and reflexive over the past ten years. We can see these characteristics at work in films like Patricia Rozema's wildly fanciful Mansfield Park ( 1 999) or Andrew Daviess televised version of Vanity Fair ( 1 998), which derives its humor from a consistent undermining of generic norms. Thus, Masterpiece's new self-fashioning is not a sudden, desperate effort to improve ratings by targeting a young audience, as commentators have assumed; it represents nothing less than an effort to redefine adaptation itself.

Surprisingly, critics have paid scant attention to these changes. Nor have they looked closely at the history of Masterpiece Theatre. Indeed, for a program of such cultural importance, it has attracted little scholarship.1 No doubt, one reason for these critical gaps is the tendency to discuss individual films when writing about adaptation. While articles abound on such movies as Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, relatively litde has been written on trends in adaptation, especially televisual adaptation.2 To help fill in these gaps, we identify six advances in the adaptations of nineteenth-century novels featured on Masterpiece since the late 1990s. Although these films were all co-produced with British affiliates such as Granada and the BBC, we spodight Masterpiece for several reasons. Whereas it used to function primarily as an importer of British adaptations, it has now become much more involved in production aspects like cast selection and script writing. It has also taken a more aggressive role in the marketing of these programs, making savvy use of its website, YouTube, and Facebook. Through these various media, Masterpiece is trying to change the widespread evaluative impulse to judge film adaptations as subordinate to their canonical source texts. Go to any of these websites, and what you will find is a vigorous advancement of adaptation as a creative and participatory act, an act of rewriting and reimagining.

In Film Adaptation and Its Discontents, Thomas Leitch proclaims that the only way to save adaptation from a "bleak and servile future" is to adopt a "writerly" rather than "readerly" approach to it, arguing "texts remain alive only to the extent that they can be rewritten" (12).

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