Filmmakers haven’t been able to put down Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel The Woman in White. The Victorian mystery has inspired five silent movies, a major Hollywood film, a German TV mini-series, a Soviet version, and two previous BBC mini-series.
And now it’s back. This new BBC1 adaptation, written by Fiona Series and directed by Carl Tibbetts, immerses viewers in the story of Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy) and the mystery of the Woman in White, as well as the two young ladies Walter tutors: Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley) and Laura Fairlie (Olivia Vinall).
But how close is the latest TV series to the original story?
Wilkie Collins fans will be relieved to hear that the plot is – in Ben Hardy’s words – “pretty much” faithful to the original. Events unfold on screen almost exactly as they do on the page, with the same Gothic atmosphere of foreboding and the same shocking storylines.
Most of the characters are directly translated from the novel, including strong-minded maverick Marian Halcombe, self-absorbed hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, and all-round good guy Walter Hartright. But there are a couple of exceptions.
“Marian Halcombe is this incredibly strong heroine who plays a pivotal role in solving the thriller, and that was easy to translate for television,” writer Fiona Seres explains. “On the other hand, Laura, her sister, is quite a passive character in the novel, with no point of view, so it was great to find and develop her character and story and give her more of a protagonist role.”
Producer Sarah Curtis adds: “The character of Laura is a little underdeveloped in the book, but Olivia brings a complexity and originality to her portrayal that makes you care hugely about her fate.”
Another character who has been given an overhaul is Count Fosco, played by Riccardo Scamarcio.
“Count Fosco is quite different in our version than in the novel,” Hardy explains. “In the novel he is kind of this caricature of a fat Italian man, which might not have really worked on television. It was a little bit too heightened for our world, which is a little bit grittier and a bit more down to earth.”
Was the story always told in flashbacks?
No. The TV adaptation takes a different approach to narrative structure, starting at some point towards the end of the story and then taking viewers back to the beginning. We then flash between the two time periods as events unfold.
Novelist Wilkie Collins started out with a much more linear approach. The novel, which was published in serial form between 1859 and 1860 in Charles Dickens’ magazine in the UK and in Harper’s Weekly in the US, begins with Walter’s invitation to Limmeridge House and his moonlit encounter with the Woman in White. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, so readers have no idea where the story might end up.
The idea of starting “in medias res” (in the middle of things) owes much to modern dramas like True Detective.
“Something has happened and we’re kind of going through it bit by bit whilst also getting bits of information from interviews that are going on,” Hardy explains. “So I think it’s a very modern style to a period piece.”