Thursday, January 24, 2008

How To Adapt a Novel

The Forsyte Saga, Series One, Starring Damian Lewis, Rupert Graves, Gina McKee, Corin Redgrave & Ioan Gruffudd, Directed by Christopher Menaul & Dave Moore Granada Television, 2002

The beauty of this adaptation of the first two Forsyte novels by John Galsworthy is how well it captures the drama of the novels and the shifting alliance of your sympathies. Stated flatly the plot might sound like any typical soap opera melodrama with affairs, lust, rape, death by misadventure, clashing family branches, the works. What saves it from slipping into this territory is not only the solid anchor of the original text, but a brilliant script that is never in a rush with characterization.

In making this new adaptation, everyone involved ran an enormous risk. First, that there’d be sufficient audience for a nearly twelve-hour family saga; secondly, that they’d live up to the source material; and thirdly, that they could operate outside the shadow of the original, 1969 adaptation. That epic miniseries, almost twice the length of this one, set the standard for literary adaptations of enormous novels, a standard that has rarely, if ever, been reached again.

One could easily have compressed the monumental Galsworthy novels into a single six-episode miniseries and done away with a variety of subplots. Old Jolyon’s almost-secret summer with the solo Irene Forsyte isn’t, strictly speaking, essential material, but its stately carriage helps eradicate the memory of a much more imperious Jolyon from the series’ first episode when he cuts off his son for falling in love with a governess. It is precisely this attention to the human element, and Galsworthy’s masterful way of granting human frailty and sympathy even to the most monstrous character, Soames Forsyte, that the adaptors have captured.

My memory of each of the plot points of the original novels is insufficient to note how much was left aside, though there were moments throughout where I felt the distinct impression that something was missing. It’s a testament to the screenwriters that this impression was never more than a hint, as little enough was subtracted. We are treated to the near divorce of Winifred and her bounder of a rake of a husband, Dartie; the rivalry of their son Val with the son of Young Jolyon leading to both signing up for service in the disastrous Crimean War; and many other smaller pieces.

The acting and casting are simply brilliant. Damien Lewis’ Soames Forsyte is at first a little stiff and priggish but not without likeability. His slow dissolution into cuckold is captured with great sympathy and we are actually in real pain watching him wrestle with emotions he daren’t express to anyone. Lewis’ performance is an understated gem in the production and he makes the transition from chilly reserve to utter villainy both compelling and convincing. Moments where his eyes well up with feeling are as impressive as his sudden shift to belligerence to such a degree that by the end you hate and pity the man. His final scene in Series One is an astonishing blend of vileness, vulnerability, rage, tenderness, and confusion that it nearly feels like redemption.

He is nicely matched in his coolness by Gina McKee as Irene Foryte née Heron. Some critics have found her performance too icy for her character, and at times I too was put off by just how reserved she appeared. Little glimpses of her inner passion are revealed and perhaps a great deal of this perception can be laid at the feet of how many scenes she shares with her possessive husband in whose shadow no life can bloom. With her porcelain skin, bloodless lips, and icy blue eyes, you’d almost believe while watching that she had had the color digitally removed from her scenes. The fleeting warmth of her scenes with Bosinney (the passionate but jittery Ioan Gruffudd) show the promise of her eventual full-blooded relationship with Young Jolyon in Series Two.

I had some difficulty with Rupert Graves portrayal of the painter Young Jolyon, primarily because the small beard the character grows after his ejection from the family seemed so unconvincing. There seemed something unimaginably false in it, nor does Graves exude much in the way of artistic spirit or temperament. That he is given to us, in the novel and the program, as a minor artist seems of little consequence. Surely a man willing to chuck over his wife and daughter because of his love of his daughter’s governess is a man with some kind of recklessness and attitude. He’s frequently portrayed as not much like the other Forsytes, though that difference comes out merely in the fact that he is kinder and less convinced of his rightness of action being due to his last name.

The minor characters demonstrate the kind of fine casting you can expect from British television where even the doubt on the face of Soames’ maid (Maggie Fox) when she overhears her master’s assault on his wife is a thing well worth beholding. The hesitancy, the fear, the pain she experiences herself at that moment transforms her face in several conflicting directions, all of which are portrayed with an acute subtlety. Old Jolyon is a pip of a character, blustery, demanding, steely-eyed, ridiculous, perhaps the most fun character once he crosses over to the good side. His brother James Forsyte, Soames’ father, is a contemptible bit of self-satisfaction yet his slide into dementia is touching.

If there is any major flaw in any of the characterizations, it is that no actor ever seems to visibly age save the children. In that respect, The Forsyte Saga has much in common with its soap opera relations. “Twelve years later” or “four years later” is thrown up on the screen and there’s scarcely a new gray hair to be seen, hardly a wrinkle of age though to be sure times were imminently tougher at the turn of the century. Old Jolyon dies late in the game, around the same time that Young Jolyon’s adult son, unborn in the program’s first episode, is killed in the Crimea, yet if there were any change in the man during the intervening twenty years, I’d be damned if I could spot it. Get past this distraction, though, and the miniseries is almost perfection.

A compelling, and almost more importantly, slow-moving epic of this kind comes along rarely. In this whiz-bang era, few entertainments are designed for lasting pleasure, whether that pleasure happens during or after the viewing. If The Forsyte Saga, at least in its first six episodes, were enjoyable for this reason alone, it would be well worth the viewing and savoring. That it features solid performances, writing that appears effortlessly natural and believable, and a haunting soundtrack is more than icing on the cake. It is reason enough for classic status.

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