December 31, 2015
Screenwriters have made a career of whittling down three hundred page books into neat, compact 120-page screenplays. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, it provides viewers with tight schedules or insufficient time a way to view a work of fiction in a short time, yet it is a process that is unlikely to please everyone. Inevitably, the decision to excise a particular scene or character will ruffle the feathers of the book’s die-hard fans, who often insist that what was taken out was of vital importance to the narrative or was their favorite part of the book. Yet extracting scenes and characters is often a necessary evil. After all, it is said that it takes one minute to depict a single page of a novel, and some books are much longer than others. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is such a book. The novel has over nine hundred pages, meaning a faithful screen adaptation would be more than fifteen hours long. However, the 1994 Masterpiece Theatre miniseries Middlemarch clocks in at 375 minutes. Clearly some things had to go.
Middlemarch tells the story of a time, a place, and a group of people. It is set in the 1830s in a fictitious town in midland
book’s brilliance has always been its detailed depiction of an entire
community, not just a single person or small group of people. Readers of the
book get a glimpse into the world of the upper class through figures such as
Nicolas Bulstrode, the craggily Peter Featherstone, and the bumbling Arthur
Brooks. Representing the middle class are the Vincys, good people whose goal it
is to move up in the world. On the lower end of the social ladder, there are
the Garths, decent, hard-working people whom fate just hasn’t seen fit to favor
monetarily. There are many other characters, and just how Eliot was able to
fully flesh out all of them so well is nothing short of a literary miracle.
Then again, she did have a lot of pages to do it. England
The BBC miniseries primarily focuses on three aspects of Eliot’s masterpiece: Dorothea Brooke’s ill-fated marriage to the Reverend Edward Casaubon, Dr. Tirtius Lydgate and his relationship with Rosamond Vincy, and Fred Vincy’s love for Mary Garth. Other characters come and go, but much less time is spent on them. This is to the detriment of the series, for without the backgrounds that Eliot took such pains to establish in the first half of the book, many of the actions that happen in the latter half of the series lack the power or connection that they might otherwise have had.
For example, little time is devoted to establishing Bulstrode’s fragile connections with the community or to his personal conflicts; Lydgate’s friendship with Vicar Camden Fairbrother is poorly established; and Caleb Garth is all but ignored for the first half of the series. The series also so greatly reduces the roles of Dorothea’s sister, Cecilia, and her husband, Sir James Chettam, that I couldn’t help wondering if it might have been better to remove them from the story altogether. Other characters stand in the background for most of the series only suddenly to be thrust the foreground as trusted confidants or dispensers of old-fashioned, class-based theories about women and the kind of people they should strive to marry. Such moments worked in the book. Here, people may not even remember who the characters are.
The good news is that the miniseries does many things well. It more than adequately establishes Dorothea’s initial interest in Casaubon and the tragedy that follows. True to the book, it presents Casaubon as a flawed, but sympathetic man who should never have gotten married in the first place. This is a character who is not only socially awkward but lacks the ability to follow through on his life’s work, and a scene in which Dorothea holds her husband’s lifeless hand while resting her head on his should is quite moving. The series also devotes the right amount of time to Lydgate and Rosamond, and we clearly see the promise of their relationship, which makes its demise all the more difficult to witness. Alas, this leaves scant time for Fred and Mary’s tale, and fans of that part of the book will undoubtedly feel shortchanged.
The cast of Middlemarch is excellent throughout the film. Juliet Audrey perfectly captures Dorothea’s youthful naïveté and her later devotion to goodness and decency, and Patrick Malahide shines as Casaubon, a role that could easily have been played as monstrous and cold. Malahide finds the humanity in the character, while simultaneously revealing his moral weakness. It’s a truly heartbreaking performance. Douglas Hodge and Rufus Sewell are also excellent as Lydgate and Casaubon’s cousin, Will Ladislaw. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is undercut by the decision to remove much of their character’s backstories, After all, for a revelation such as Bulstrode’s to be truly shocking, time must be devoted to establishing his complicated personality. Here it isn’t, rendering his second act something we witness, but do not feel. The same could be said for many of the other characters, in particular, Mr. Garth.
Having read the book recently, I felt somewhat disappointed in the way it was presented here. Oddly enough, this version of Middlemarch seemed both too long and too short simultaneously. Had more been removed, the series might have felt more compact and less rife with storylines that begin only to fizzle out and be forgotten almost immediately. Had more been put in, those same storylines that felt disconnected and unnecessary could have been fully explored and their importance made much more apparent. Instead, we get something in the middle, a perfectly watchable series that honestly could have been so much more. Sadly, it is much more Middlemarch-light than Middlemarch. (on DVD)