A Suitably Massive `Middlemarch'

British TV version of George Eliot's novel is compelling viewing, but the book makes for even more compelling reading

E.M. FORSTER - whose own novels have proved good meat for those who re-cook old novels into TV miniseries and Hollywood winners - once wrote that ``it is on her massiveness that George Eliot depends - she has no nicety of style.''

There is a degree of truth in the comment - its first part, anyway. ``Middlemarch,'' long considered this English Victorian novelist's masterpiece, is certainly no miniature.

When the BBC's suitably massive television adaptation of ``Middlemarch'' was aired in Britain (its second episode of six airs Sunday on PBS in the US) it became compulsive viewing for millions - and more than 105,000 of them went out and bought the book (others of us already owned it and lifted it off the shelf).

It is one of the fascinations of television that, while it is more than ever held responsible for luring the world into illiteracy, it can also powerfully attract viewers to buy - and even (who knows?) to read - some of the great classics.

Whoever reads the book after seeing the series will find it virtually impossible not to see the characters in his or her mind's eye exactly as the cast of actors portrays them. But half the fun of comparing the inevitably leaner TV version - cut, edited, and sometimes re-arranged - with the steady unfolding of the original novel is in assessing the pluses and minuses of turning written pages into screen images.

Eliot as TV writer

In the opinion of those who know, Eliot was a potentially first-rate TV writer. In a BBC documentary about the making of the series, Andrew Davies, who wrote the screenplay, said he thought George Eliot (or Mary Ann Evans, to use her real name) ``had all the elements that you would look for now if you were looking for a very strong drama serial. I mean, she could go along and sell [`Middlemarch'] to any TV network now ... just update it a little bit.''

In practice, Davies's screenplay does not ``update'' the novel jarringly (OK, characters kiss on screen where they only held hands in the book, but who's fussing?) and even frequently quotes Eliot's dialog almost verbatim.

What it does not quote - except in the voice of consummate actress Judi Dench as Eliot in the very last seconds of the series - is the novelist's commentary on her story and its characters. Eliot's often-ironic asides are also absent, such as her feelings toward Mr. Casaubon. She says she feels very sorry for him, and then explains why in a crescendo of scorching dismissives.

Similarly, she describes Dr. Lydgate as having ``spots of commonness'' which meant that the ``distinction of mind that belonged to his intellectual ardour, did not penetrate his feeling and judgment about furniture, or women....'' All we see on the screen - in a scene written especially for the series - is Lydgate's resolve not to marry being melted utterly in a few seconds by the tears of the spoiled and egocentric Miss Vincy, who later ruins him by - among other things - purchasing far too much expensive furniture.

Mr. Davies, in the same documentary, also mentions one difficulty in handing over a classic novel to actors: ``They've all got their copies'' of the original, he says, and often ask why their particular character's most ``wonderful bits'' have been denied them. These appeals must be resisted, Davies says, because they likely will conflict with the attempt to ``distill the essence of the book.''

On the other hand, actors with a sensitive feel for the inner life of their character (as almost all have in this series) can flesh out or redeem what might be only hinted at in the screenplay. Davies says this was the case with one character he found hard to write, Mary Garth. In this respect, a reading of all that Eliot has to say about the character in question is the best background for the actor.

Robert Hardy's comic yet sympathetic portrayal of Mr. Brooke, for example, must have been built not only on the splendid speeches taken directly from Eliot, but also on the novel's parenthetical laughter at his expense. A minor character, for example, describes Brooke as ``a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into any mould, but he won't keep shape.''

Subtleties of writing

Juliet Aubrey, the comparatively unknown actress who plays Dorothea, Brooke's idealistic, frustrated niece, does so with a minutely pointed mixture of the cool and hot, restrained and passionate feelings that torment this difficult young person.

In the book, the main characters emerge in the reader's consciousness over a lengthy period, as characters do in life, and not only is our understanding of and sympathy for them elicited gradually, it also depends on a whole context. It is in the interplay of one character with another, and then in the larger setting of the provincial place they all inhabit - the midlands manufacturing town of Middlemarch - that they are slowly defined, some of them changing and growing with experience.

The television version accords Middlemarch, the community, with its all gossip and prejudice, goodness and despair, and corruption and innocence, the role of chief protagonist. It suggests the feel of the place with marvelous conviction, through scrupulous attention to details of the period, of building and prop and costume, but also because of the leisurely pace at which the story develops.

The whole thing is done with taste and style. If there are Gone-With-the-Windy moments, assisted by intrusive waves of emotive music, they can be forgiven more or less. Considering what a largely pessimistic story ``Middlemarch'' is, it is remarkable how enjoyable it is. And once it is all over, there - in all its massiveness and (whatever Mr. Forster thought) nicety of style - waits the novel itself, ready for the reading.

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