1 February 2020 Susannah

The Rights of Film Makers

Rose Williams as Charlotte and Theo James as Sidney in ‘Sanditon’ 2019

I have recently been pondering the rights of film makers when they turn a classic novel into a movie or TV series. How important is it that they stick closely to the original novel? Is it more important that they appeal to today’s younger generation of viewers (who have probably not read the book anyway) or that they adhere to historical accuracy? I’ve been particularly fretting about hair! In the 19th century women, when they reached the age of going out into society, put their hair up. To have one’s long hair down was seen as intimate, and no ‘respectable’ woman would have dreamed of walking the streets of London or New York with loose hair over her shoulders, or no bonnet on her head.

Film producers these days seem to feel that while all the minor characters can have historically appropriate hair-dos, the heroine must have flowing locks if anyone is to like her! This was the case with Sanditon where Charlotte’s hair was loose and wild in most scenes and this was just one of the many problems of the 2019 adaptation. This story’s featured image shows Rose Williams as Charlotte and Theo James as Sidney in Sanditon. It was also the case with the recent Little Women where all four sisters were badly in need of a hairbrush, and none of them seemed to even own a bonnet. For me it was a major distraction in both films – I knew this was incorrect and it worried me.

And then there’s the new issue of ‘colour-blind casting’ in films. The new David Copperfield is a recent example. While I really enjoyed the film, the casting anomalies did bug me. David is acted by Indian Dev Patel, Agnes is West-Indian in appearance, while her father Mr Wickfield is Chinese, and black Mrs Steerforth has a totally white son. It was all genetically impossible, and again a distraction from the major issues of the film.

Young people I’ve spoken to find the modern hair styles and the colour-blind casting refreshing. But surely historical necessities are being ignored? A woman’s bonnet and tied-up hair were symbols of her restrictions in life – throw away the bun and hat and immediately some of the themes of the novels are weakened. Had David Copperfield really been Indian in appearance, his life in Victorian London would have been very different from the tale Dickens gives us. By casting a black character and then to have producer and all the other characters ignore that actor’s skin colour, is surely turning a blind eye to all the struggles for inequality that people who were not white have endured? Is ‘colour-blind casting’ progressive or regressive? People are not colour-blind (apart from a few born with that condition) and those of us who read and love 19th century novels, and have a knowledge of that era, are very aware of the racial prejudices that were so prevalent then. Is it really ‘politically correct’ to cast in this way? How does it change the novels we love?

Am I being a pedant here? Is anyone else worried by hair on their TV screens? Or racially-impossible family mixes? I’d love to know what you think? Let me know by leaving a comment.

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Header image credit- Rose Williams as Charlotte and Theo James as Sidney in ‘Sanditon’ 2019, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8685324/

Amongst the seven deadly sins, purple represents vanity. It was traditionally the colour for Roman Emperors and royalty, of power and magnificence, with the result that in Europe and American purple became the colour associated with vanity, extravagance and individualism. It is also a challenging colour to use in a poem, as it has only one perfect rhyme – curple (a Scottish word meaning crupper). No wonder Jenny Joseph avoids rhyme!

Comments (46)

  1. Maureen Stiller

    Dear Susannah

    Your comments on David Copperfield were prescient. From an article in the Times it appeared that the director is determined that we have all accepted “colour-blind” casting, with the journalist lauding this. (To me, the fact that this has to be given such oxygen suggests that we have not!) I don’t have the opportunity of talking to many youngsters, but I suspect they are all trying to be “woke” without having any inkling of history / background of the story (not having read the book) and only interested in the entertainment value. Sorry if this appears to malign the whole of youth!!!

    Living near London, that is used to the largest and widest spread of non-white people, it is interesting that I and many of my contemporaries share your irritations and, being long-standing theatre and film goers, just cannot suspend disbelief (but we are all getting on a bit!).

    Another article stated that the Arts Council for England is favouring organisations that show “inclusivity, ambition and relevance” (translation – feminism, gender, colour, etc) in its grants programme. However, yet another article said that the latest Star Wars film that adhered to those precepts hadn’t made half as much money because it turned people off. It also placed emphasis on the contrast with the (yet another) adaptation of Emma (we are going to see the private screening next week) which is “all-white” – cast and background!

    Regards Maureen (Hon Sec JAS)

    • Susannah Fullerton

      How lovely to hear from you, Maureen! Please let me know what you think of the new Emma film. It opens here mid February so I can’t see it before then and of could love to know your reaction to it.
      That’s so interesting about the Star Wars film. I also read recently that publishers of children’s books are struggling to find stories that actually keep a child’s interest amongst all the offerings they get which are gender / race/ sexually politically correct.
      I did enjoy many aspects of the new David Copperfield film, but the colour-blind casting was just an irritating distraction and added nothing positive.
      Hope you are well and that the JA Society UK is flourishing.

  2. Gwyn Burns

    I totally agree with your comments.
    Sanditon really upset me, being out of character for Jane Austen.
    I do not go to many films, but if it’s an historical film and not portraying history accurately then I refuse to see it.
    Perhaps I am too much of a pedant. Accuracy in history and films is very important for me.
    GwynBurns

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Well Gwyn, we can be pedants together. I think historical accuracy matters, and if it is ignored, then it becomes a real distraction in a book or a movie. There’s a famous moment in the 1940s “Pride and Prejudice’ when Mrs Bennet says ‘That’s the best news since the Battle of Waterloo” and the book was written before Waterloo!

  3. Hi Susannah

    This a really interesting and difficult issue that you raise.

    I think I am in complete agreement with you. I do believe the credibility of the visualisation of a written fictional work must be at grave risk if it deviates too far from what is in the text. This applies equally to 19th and 20th century illustrated editions of Jane Austen that get the depictions of costumes, customs (eg Bonnet wearing) and carriages wrong, as it is to modern films that take similar liberties. Colour-blind casting simply does not work with the often token, obligatory non-Caucasian actor cast in an inappropriate role amid a cast of white actors. My feeling is that an all-black or all-Indian or all-chinese cast for say David Copperfield would make much more sense. I’m also afraid that politically correct double-standards are sometimes at play. Imagine the outrage if a key black character, such as Jim, the runaway slave in “Huckleberry Finn” were to be played by a white actor today.

    I have to say I get similarly annoyed when a character in a film of a regency work says “OK” or uses other anachronistic modern, usually slang or casual, language. I once heard “Can you give us the room” (meaning “Would you please leave us to talk in private”) in a play set in the 1870s!

    The racial casting issues are not easy or comfortable things to discuss at times, but I do believe that the original text deserves respect.

    Best wishes
    Chris

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I did like your point about having a white actor playing Jim in Huck Finn. It’s a complicated issue and I guess depends on how far an audience can suspend belief. One of my readers has just pointed out that in opera we cope easily with black singers in white roles, or fat tenors playing starving artists. But perhaps because opera is more about the singing and less about the story, we tend to be more accommodating in that respect? But as a true lover of books, I do feel strongly that the text deserves the text deserves respect and historical accuracy.

  4. Robyn’ Gooden

    I agree with you about the flying ungroomed hair makes the production appear unauthentic. Surely they could do some accurate research. Also I remember the tapestries in Winchester. Looking forward to reading that book.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Glad you agree with me about the hair, and lovely to hear from you, Robyn. They all needed a hairbrush and some pins. Please give my best wishes to Mary.

  5. Kay West

    I totally agree. You are left with a generally acceptable story. Perhaps this is the aim of most filmmakers.A very good reason to read the book to understand the authors’s intentions in giving their characters greater depth and showing their reactions to the manners. and conventions of the time they lived in.
    Keep up the good work! Kay West

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for the encouragement, Kay. Yes, film-makers just want to create a good story, but I do feel they have an obligation to the novels they are using.

  6. Valerie Brown

    Hi Susannah,

    I make a point of NEVER going to see the movie of any book I have enjoyed because it normally bears little resemblance to the original! Film makers always seem to believe they can ‘do it better’, but to me, nothing is better than the book in its original form.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, sometimes it is best to just keep the treasured memory of the book and not have it spoiled by a poor film version.

  7. Lynn Clayton

    Yes, I agree Susannah!

    I love to see accurate costuming and period, otherwise, why bother? Why have some of it correct and not all?

    The same problem of casting occurred in the recent TV version of A Christmas Carol. Mrs Cratchit was black. Had she really been black in those times, there would have been even less places that she was welcome, and certainly no one mentioned the fact. I never saw her in my mind as slim, either!

    I guess this is a nod to our lack of prejudice, and that would be great, but how far do we go? Should women play men and men play women, just to show equality of the sexes?

    There was worse than that wrong with this production, but this is one that is on topic with your comments.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, the experiences of a black mrs Crachit would have been so different in 19thC London, and Scrooge would probably have blamed Bob Crachit for marrying her! To change the colour of the actor does the whole novel a disservice, in my view – I’m glad you share my view. Lovely to see you at the Dickens meeting yesterday.

  8. Donald Nairn

    Hello there Susanne
    I share your antipathy to the liberties that contemporary moviemakers and theatrical producers take with text and context of the classics. I stopped going to the Bell theatre after a production of King Lear which took absurd liberties with the text like setting the scene on the heath in a Greyhound bus terminal in the American south.
    All set to enjoy some Sherlock Holmes I encountered the travesties of the recent films, There appeal seem to depend on special effects.It was the same with the film of TinTin.
    What is quite acceptable to me at any rate are adaptations where the story of the original is completely retold but set say in the contemporary world. An example of this was the version of Emma by JA set in 20th century Hollywood. it was Called Clueless it .
    I really enjoy your newsletter and posts.
    Regards
    Donald

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you enjoy my newsletters, Donald. I do have fun writing them.
      Yes, some films are just travesties of the original book.
      I loved ‘Clueless’ because it didn’t pretend to be an authentic ‘Emma’, but just moved it into a totally new setting and also managed to keep the irony of the original novel. But ‘King Lear’ in a Greyhound Bus Terminal just beggars belief!

  9. Brian Doyle

    Totally on the same page as you Susannah about these cavalier filmmakers, particularly as regards the tresses as they have been my source of income for many a long year. In regards to period films of any visual medium what I find to be most offensive are the truly appalling wigs that turn up representing real hair in even the most prestigious productions, it’s impossible to understand with today’s materials and stylists how they so often look, LIKE A WIG, I find it so distracting and cannot focus on anything else. Of course in a film such as Barry Lyndon wigs were a feature and don’t distract me at all. The other thing that so often appears in period films are flower arrangements containing flowers that were not in existence at the time, just one example, The Golden Bowl by Henry James featured bowls of blue moon roses which I believe only came out in the 1950s but what made it really annoying was the same arrangement appeared in a number of different rooms, clearly the flower budget was limited to just the one arrangement, I’ve noticed this same thing in many period films, in one of the Jane Austin adaptions the latest hybrid blue sea holly flowers were on show, direct from the Chelsea Flower show I imagined. When your very familiar with a literary masterpiece and it’s characters are so masterly drawn for me it is impossible to accept racial substitution, you would never expect or accept it in any of those incredible Asian movies or from any other culture that brings its story’s to life on film, it’s this very diversity that gives us so much choice of what we can choose to watch and learn from, after all there’s an endless supply of fabulous new ( and not so fabulous) films on offer without making a travesty of Pride & Prejudice, a brilliant series followed by a truly awful film version, will be most anxious to here your comments on Emma as I know it’s your favourite JA
    Looking forward to enjoying your company and comments throughout 2020

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I don’t have enough historical knowledge of flowers to notice when they get floral arrangements wrong, but like you, I’ve often found bad wigs distracting. There was one version of ‘Emma’ when Frank Churchill had very long hair and REALLY needed to go to London to get his hair cut (though it wasn’t noticeably shorter when he came back), whereas the whole point of the episode is that he does not need a haircut and is off to buy that piano for Jane. In this day and age it should not be hard to get details right. I believe the BBC gets frequent letters from experts commenting on wrong military uniforms, wrong art in the background, etc. At the Jane Austen Society this year we have a talk in April on buttons in JA’s era, so no doubt we will all start to notice wrong buttons in films after that one.

      • Brian Doyle

        I wouldn’t get my hopes up Susannah for the latest film version of a Emma, I can’t imagine how the novel can be condensed into a two hour film, it needs an 8 episode treatment from Emma Thompson or Andrew Davies, should we live so long, will be reading it again tomorrow in preparation.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          Well Andrew Davies stuffed up ‘Sanditon’ and I think he might be past his best. But if only Emma Thompson would do ‘Emma’. What a joy to be rereading it!!!!

          • Brian Doyle

            Yes I agree Sanditon a disaster, another chance squandered, adapted is a word very loosely used

  10. Thank you Susannah, for your comments on the latest film of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I agree! Having read and loved the book as a child, and seen one or two films of it since, I very recently saw the newest version with my daughter and granddaughters. I was quite disturbed by the time-frames being altered about, and couldn’t get over them starting 2/3 of the way through the story with backflashes which were only obvious if you already knew the book well. Even then, some scenes were only identifiable by the length of Jo’s hair after it had been cut off! The funniest part was all but cut out (where Amy says 1 for you and 1 for you and 1 for me, after every 2nd child) that was played down, which when I explained to my family later, they felt it was a shame not to have that lightened moment of laughter included. And I am sure I don’t remember Jo thinking she should have married Laurie Lawrence after all! So although I did enjoy the film to a certain extent, I felt disappointed and distracted too.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you agree with me about the new film version of ‘Little Women’. I was soooooo disappointed int it and didn’t even cry over Beth’s death (almost unheard of for me). I felt the flashback technique ruined the momentum of the various stories – Beth’s illness, Meg’s courtship and marriage, etc. Laurie was way too juvenile and I hated seeing him drunk (the Alcotts were temperance people), Amy looked way too old, and there is no way in the book that Jo suddenly feels she should have married Laurie. I know so many people who took husbands to the film and because they hadn’t read the book they were totally confused about what was going on. I hope it makes people go back to the book, but I was hugely disappointed bu it.

  11. Trisha Haddock

    I think with movies some minor details like hair and dress styles are how the movie makers interpret the story in their minds. The movie maker isn’t very knowledgeable on the topic and doesn’t think it matters to the plot. I think it is better if they find an actor with the correct nationality but they can’t always get that. I watched an old movie on tv and Audrey Hepburn played an Indian, I only caught half of the movie and it kept me guessing her situation. I think she was meant to be a full blooded Indian. Some details are still left for our imagination. 🙂

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Good grief, the gorgeous Audrey as an Indian – the mind boggles! I agree that the correct nationality (or at least skin colour) is important in casting and cannot understand this new fashion for colour-blind casting.

  12. Heather Granat

    I totally concur with ALL OF THE above comments. The problem is that production teams and the ‘powers that be’, feel they have to attract a younger audience but… and there is a huge BUT, it does not work. I certainly feel the younger audience are being over indulged with nonsense just because it is exciting viewing. One of my friends stated a few years ago that the movie moguls and tv production teams go for the “common denominator” in her view. It sells!

    I too, was extremely disappointed with Sanditon and my very good friend in California (another Jane Austen fan) gave up after the second episode. We both wondered what on earth Andrew Davies was thinking of.

    In my view, the only movie that came close to the book was To Kill a Mockingbird. There are others but that one is always the first one I think of.

    I was thinking of going to see Little Women but after the above comments – I wont! I will, however, be interested to see the reviews of Emma. Hopefully they will be positive. One can but hope.

    I do enjoy your Newsletters Susannah and also I’ve joined the 2020 Literary Guides. Enjoyed reading Kidnapped which i have never read but heard the story read over the radio when I was a little girl. Thoroughly enjoyed reading The Hobbit again – and I concur with your notes. Thank you.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am delighted that you are enjoying my readers’ guides.
      Yes, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a classic for a reason – a script that stayed faithful to the novel, fabulous actors and a good sense of the era when it came to costumes etc. Some film directors get it right (I am devoted to ‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, with Richard Armitage in it), and some of Trollope and Dickens have been beautifully done, and some Austen (but NOT Sanditon). I think they are pandering too much to the younger viewers or viewers who have not read the book.

  13. Melody

    I have not yet seen any of the movies you discuss so my comment is merely based on the fact that by moving a work of literature into a visual art form like cinema, you are in many ways dislocating it from its authenticity.

    I am thinking in particular of the way we are able to enjoy opera, although the age, race and often the size of the main characters is rarely reflected in the casting of the singers. In opera, virginal teenagers are often played by middle-aged women and starving artists by very rotund tenors.

    We can suspend disbelief if we want to. It doesn’t lessen the actual events of the past that you mention, such as the way a Black or Asian person would have been treated in Dickensian London; but that is not the point of the story of David Copperfield. Dev Patel is an accomplished actor, and as David Copperfield he is acting as a white Victorian gentleman. The colour of his skin has no bearing on that.

    • Brian Doyle

      I love the opera also but mainly only by ear where the casting has no impact on the effect, I find it almost unwatchable if it’s set in the period written with colour blind casting. It’s an art form that in many instances lends itself to updating while still retaining its main ingredient, the music, for me it then becomes a completely memorable experience as it allows for the characters to be played by anyone with the vocal stamina required regardless of colour, age, race or size.

      • Susannah Fullerton

        Yes, I think opera is more easily updated than other art forms. But I’m not fussed by colour-blind casting in opera. I’m there mainly for the music. And lots of opera singers are not great actors anyway.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You make a good point about opera singers. However, I feel in opera the main point is the music rather than the story and historical context, so it is easier to suspend belief. In a novel, I do feel it is harder to do so. An Indian man in Victorian England would have faced lots of prejudice (think of Queen Victoria’s servant who was Indian) and while I think Dev Patel is an excellent actor, I think choosing someone of Indian appearance to play a white Victorian gentleman does cause problems and ignores historical accuracy. However, this clearly doesn’t worry some viewers, so perhaps I should just stay away from films where colour-blind casting is done.
      As one person commented in response to my piece, it could well cause an uproar if a white actor were chosen to play Jim in a film version of ‘Huck Finn’. Perhaps viewer tolerance has its limits?

  14. I’m with you on this, Susannah. While I enjoyed watching Sanditon, I kept thinking no, Jane Austen would NEVER have written it like this! It seems to me absolute hubris for today’s authors/screen writers et al to presume that they can do it better than the original – unless it’s meant to be a send-up of the real thing. My current quandary: I wanted to take my stage-struck granddaughter to see Hamlet at the Opera House – but now realise that Hamlet is being played by a woman!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I could definitely not cope with Hamlet being played by a woman! Glad you agree with me about Sanditon – so disappointing.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          I hope so too! I can’t bear it when they do things wrong with Jane Austen novels, especially that one!

    • Melody

      Kate Mulvaney played Richard III in the Bell Shakespeare production a couple of years ago and my partner and I thought that she did a better job than Kevin Spacey, which is not to say he did a bad job — he was brilliant, but Kate was better. I say you should give the female Hamlet a go… she might be a fantastic actor. To go back to my Opera comments, mezzo sopranos have been singing boy’s roles for a long time with no problem. I am sorry for those who only like opera for the music, because I enjoy all the colour and movement of the sets and costumes as well. And as my son said when I mentioned this discussion to him, gay actors have played straight roles in film for as long as the art form has been around, yet everyone was up in arms when Eddie Redmayne played a transsexual. I believe colour-blind and gender-blind casting is the way forward; art is changing as society changes. Film is art, not documentary, and there is such a thing as artistic licence.

  15. Judith Jonker

    Susannah I’m sorry you didn’t like Sandition but I thought it was delightful. I love Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice is a long time favourite. I’m all for historical accuracy in period films and of course the 1995 Pride and Prejudice was perfect. Austen didn’t finish Sanditon so really the series is not based on an Austen novel only the kernel of an idea. I think Andrew Davies did a marvellous job certainly there are things in it that Austen would not have done. If the book had been finished the story would have been different no doubt and then we would have had another beautiful Austen novel to enjoy but that didn’t happen. I love Jane Austen but knew this was not an Austen novel and enjoyed it for what it was. I noticed Charlotte’s hair and other things that were not quite right but it didn’t matter because the emotion of the story was carried mainly by the intensity of the acting of the two main roles Charlotte and Sidney., both actors did a fine job.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Actually I did quite enjoy Sanditon, when I could forget about Austen. The actors were good though I disliked the very open ending, all set up for a sequel which is now not going to happen. But there were so many historical inaccuracies in costume, dialogue and hair, and those were very distracting. Yes, Davies did of course have to decide what ending to give the story, and work out much of the plot, but he changed the relationship of Esther and Edward and brought in the idea of incest, and other things that could have remained more faithful to what JA wrote. I know it’s another medium and inevitable there will be changes, but there were just a few too many problems for me to love the series.

  16. Thank you Susannah for your comments on the loose hair and lack of bonnets. I hadn’t ‘put my finger’ on some niggles I had with both Little Women and Sanditon but that was it. If we take away the restrictions placed on women at various times in history the retelling of classical stories loses its impact.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is evidently being referred to as ‘The Great Hair Pin Crisis’ because so many actors have flowing hair and it’s all historically inappropriate.

  17. Diana Clarke

    I agree, big problem in Sanditon as the heroine appears underdressed with hair flowing

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It does looks underdressed and also strange when all the other female characters have their hair done up.

  18. Lorna Carles

    I simply avoid period movies of my favourite books. They never come up to the sheer pleasure of using your own imagination to picture the characters, events and places. Books, glorious books any day.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      If they get it right, as they did with ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘A Room with a View’, than it is such a joy, but almost invariably the book is better than the film. However, I do love seeing the gorgeous costumes and stately homes and English countryside, so will probably keep on being an optimistic viewer.

  19. Ruth Williamson

    I know I am very late to this discussion, but I have only just seen the latest David Copperfield movie mentioned above. All of the actors showed their undoubted skills, but the mixed-up genetics in the cast did distract me. I was happy with Dev Patel and the younger actors of Indian extraction who took the role of David at different ages, because they were consistent, but he had two white parents. As Susannah has said, Steerforth was white and his mother was not. I take the point about suspending disbelief, but inconsistencies are jarring, however they are presented, and whatever feature is being depicted.
    Sometimes a gender switch in Shakespeare, or a different origin or background for a character, can add to enjoyment. I have seen Tamsin Greig’s portrayal of Malvolia (instead of Malvolio) in a recent National Theatre production of Twelfth Night, alongside black actors as the twins Sebastian and Viola, and the performance was excellent. Their conceptions and performances were completely consistent with Shakespeare’s play. So, yes, perhaps we’ll see a female Hamlet in future, who owns the part, but I wonder how Ophelia might be conceived opposite her?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I totally agree, Ruth. It was the jarring inconsistencies that got to me. And I felt that the experiences and prejudice that would have been faced by an Indian man in Victorian England were completely ignored, which did a disservice to people of colour who did struggle for equality over the years.

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