The Woman in White: why the BBC should stop updating the classics

TV editor Alison Graham wonders why adaptations of classic novels can't be allowed to be 'of their time'

The Woman in White

Sunday’s BBC1 adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s gothic mystery The Woman in White starts with a cross-looking Jessie Buckley eyeballing the camera and saying: “How is it that men crush women time and time again and go unpunished? If men were held accountable they would hang every hour of every day.”

Advertisement

OK, we get the message – it’s time to buckle up, as yet another beloved classic is mined, filleted and gutted for contemporary resonances.

I can imagine Wilkie Collins telling his mate Charles Dickens, while writing the novel in 1859, “Just in case it’s adapted for television in 2018, I must make sure The Woman in White has plenty of contemporary relevance.” To which Dickens surely replied, “Don’t bother, Wilkie, look what they did with Dickensian. Can we visit our mistresses now?”

I know Collins was a free thinker, with what would be termed these days a “complicated personal life”, but The Woman in White and his other best-known work The Moonstone were primarily cracking stories. In fact The Moonstone is widely considered the first ever work of detective fiction, with the first ever fictional detective, Sergeant Cuff. The Woman in White is a closely-packed thriller, full of sleights of hand and misdirection, and not just a book about a strange woman who wanders around in a big nightie, scaring people.

In this particular adaptation (it’s been done twice before by the BBC) Jessie Buckley plays Marian Halcombe, half-sister of the wet Laura Fairlie, who’s also a bit of a nightie-lover. Laura is insipid and ill-used, betrothed to an older man she doesn’t love, and by the end of episode one I wished she’d find a lime kiln and walk into it.

Meanwhile, hearty Marian wears loon pants and walks like a builder. Yes, she’s a modern woman who doesn’t wear her hair in a bun and bridles against being thought of as a girly girl, though this doesn’t leave her entirely blind to the charms of Walter Hartright, the handsome art teacher hired by her uncle to give the women painting lessons.

(BBC/FC)
Jessie Buckley in The Woman in White (BBC)

It’s a doorstop of a book, packed with complicated plots and strange characters – and indeed the progressive Collins did have something to say about the treatment of Victorian women. But to bring this to the forefront of the first episode, making it the thrust of the action?

It’s those modern sensibilities again, and it’s all so painfully righton. Can’t classic novels simply be allowed to be of their time? They don’t need their emphases updating, and they don’t need to be given fingers just for wagging at 21st-century audiences. (Hey, women had it bad in the olden days! Did you know? Isn’t it awful?) I fear, yet again, this happens as a means of ensuring something like The Woman in White (which is incredibly wordy and dense, and probably, by those pesky modern standards, a bit boring) is made palatable for the Young People. Because God forbid that they should ever feel left behind or alienated by a story, or unable to empathise on a completely 21st-century level with its (particularly female) characters.

Advertisement

If everything is refracted through a 21st century prism, then everything will look the same. Television will be so emotionally carbon neutral it might as well wear hemp sandals and eat houmous.

This article was originally published in April 2018