Classic Film Adaptations
By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce and Michael Calder
There are a plethora of components which bestow the honour of ‘classic’ upon literary works but, perhaps most powerful, are those with the ability to transcend time and incorporate evolving social pressures. For those classics which are malleable, fluid narratives can not only be revisited centuries later and analysed with completely different contexts, but reinvented, reiterated and envisaged with contemporary audiences as their focus.
Our favourite literary masterpieces can be granted fresh perspective with a few tweaks and adjustments. As such, we have chosen some of our favourite adaptations born from classical tales which captured the modern audience.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
When it comes to iconic detectives, few can boast the cultural impact and classical heritage of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first brought Sherlock to life within A Study in Scarlet (1887). The suave, diligent and observant master of deduction captured the imagination of the late 19th century reader and became a favourite, featuring in four novels and fifty-six short stories written by Doyle. Since then, countless authors and directors have gambled on their ability to bring the eclectic, bohemian and unconventional Victorian gentleman into contemporary mediums, and adaptations are easily supplied. However, we’ve outlined one of our favourites reimaginings which have been released within the last two decades on the screen.
The film adaptation directed by Guy Ritchie earned a largely positive reception from critics and wider audiences upon release, and was nominated for two Academy Awards. Combining the technology and seamless transitions of modern cinematography with Sherlock’s keen eye, the movie proved capable of bringing the grimy, soiled reality of a Victorian sleuth to 20th century cinema. Yet, most compelling was the narrative and exquisite manipulation of audiences to accommodate Sherlock’s deductions.
Portrayed by Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law respectively, Holmes and Watson begin their big-screen adventure by bursting through Victorian London and interrupting an occult sacrifice. Previously, the cult leader, Lord Blackwood, has murdered five women and Holmes has been hired to intercept before he can complete this final, insane ritual. With the ceremony indefinitely postponed and Lord Blackwood sentenced to hang, Holmes and Watson commit the case to memory. Until it becomes clear that hanging wasn’t enough for Blackwood.
Jane Eyre (2006)
Charlotte Brontë’s magnum opus, Jane Eyre, continues to be acclaimed and adapted due to the intensity of its characters and landscapes. Similarly, the unconventionality and complexity of the brooding Mr Rochester and fiery Jane Eyre, within the gothic context, continues to captivate audiences. Despite the intricacy of the novel’s writing, the BBC’s four-part adaptation in 2006, led by Ruth Wilson and Toby Stevens, presents a faithful retelling. The success of this version lies in the chemistry between Wilson and Stevens, as the episode’s pacing ensures that the relationship between Jane and Rochester is believable and not rushed. Wilson’s version of Jane is passionate and independent as intended, which legitimises the idea of Jane being Rochester’s intellectual equal.
Although considered a romance, the gothic and mysterious elements of the novel are equally prioritised and valued. Viewers will appreciate the attention to detail regarding the setting, which allows Brontë’s vision to be truly realised. Crucially, deviations from the book, such as the gyspy scene (a part typically omitted from modern adaptations) is modified in a way which honours the goal of the novel and Wilson and Stevens’ portrayals. Overall, the BBC version is a true homage to the novel and its rich and beloved plot which is why it remains so popular over a decade after its release.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has definitely become a household book, with many examples in pop culture reproducing the iconic story and monster. Every Halloween you can be sure to find a portrayal of the monster, although often wrongly named Frankenstein. The titular character is in fact the doctor, the mastermind behind the creation. Nobody portrays Victor Frankenstein better than Sir Kenneth Branagh in the 1994 movie, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which he also directed. Starring opposite Branagh is Robert De Niro as the monster, capturing the grotesque, and reflecting the conscience of his maker. This sci-fi horror is certainly one of the best depictions of the novel, remaining true to its original and presenting the Modern Prometheus with its challenging themes of nature vs man. For an accurate adaptation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) is the one to watch.
If you would like to learn more about Mary Shelley’s inspiration to create Frankenstein then the 2017 film, Mary Shelley, is the perfect place to start. This film follows the author throughout her life and explores infamous events such as meeting Percy Bysshe Shelley and the notorious Lord Byron. The film depicts the moment the group (including John Polidori) challenge each other to write a ghost story while in Villa Diodati, creating Mary’s classic.