Amanda Sellet’s debut novel, By the Book: A Novel of Prose and Cons, releases out into the world on Tuesday, May 12th! To celebrate, I’m excited to host Amanda today as she talks about the TV and movie adaptations that inspired her love of classics and British Literature.
Amanda Sellet’s Guide to the Classics
One thing I have in common with my main character, Mary Porter-Malcolm, is that both of us got hooked on the classics at a young age. In my case, however, the path to Brit Lit started someplace unexpected: in front of the TV.
The summer before fifth grade, my mother would stand on the front porch and yell, “Ma-a-a-a-n-dy.” That was my cue to run home from playing in the clearing at the end of the street so we could watch Masterpiece Theatre re-runs together. This was 1980s northern California; very “Stranger Things,” down to the fact that we lived next door to a mental hospital. I could easily have gotten into Stephen King, or any other writer from the current century. Instead I picked up Pride and Prejudice, because I wanted to know in excruciating detail what Lizzie and Darcy were thinking during the romantic parts.
Over the next decade, I went back and forth between books and movies: an undergrad degree in literature, followed by a master’s in cinema studies. While working on the latter, I interned for a movie producer.
“You seem like a person who reads a lot,” my supervisor said the first day. (The glasses must have tipped her off.) When I nodded, she asked if I knew of any classic novels that might make good movies. In my mind, the heavens opened, a chorus of angels warbling from on high. This was it, the moment my entire life had been building toward. I suggested Emma, since it hadn’t been adapted in a while (this was pre-Clueless). Her face fell.
“We’re already doing that one.” She handed me a thick stack of bound pages, which turned out to be the screenplay for the Gwyneth Paltrow version, currently in preproduction.
Apparently a film career wasn’t in the cards, though I did spend several years writing about movies—and books—before trying my hand at a novel of my own, about a girl who grew up reading the classics.
Which would make a great TV miniseries, if the universe wanted to bring things full circle. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite screen adaptations of the classics:
(All the) Pride and Prejudice: I like Laurence Olivier as Darcy in the black-and-white Hollywood version, though the movie as a whole is goofy. My first P&P starred David Rintoul (who according to IMDB later played a Targaryen in an episode of “Game of Thrones.”) His Darcy seemed painfully shy beneath the hauteur, as if he were always on the verge of blushing and tried to cover it up with a sneer.
Not all aspects of the iconic Colin Firth version have aged well (floating heads, I’m looking at you), but it’s probably the most satisfying overall, and I have fond memories of interviewing screenwriter Andrew Davies back in the day. As for the most recent big-screen version, it’s very well-made in a cinematic sense, though corners are obviously cut story-wise. I also find Keira Knightley distractingly thin for a period piece, but Mathew Macfadyen eventually won me over on the strength of his voice.
Mansfield Park: Not my favorite Austen novel, but the movie is worth seeing for the way Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz vamp it up as dastardly siblings Henry and Mary Crawford. A few years later they played a couple in Junebug, which launched the career of Amy Adams. I like to think they were cast because of their chemistry in Mansfield Park.
A Little Princess: Alfonso Cuaron has directed some of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His rendition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic riches-to-rags-to-riches tale is gorgeous in every way.
North and South: Two words: Richard Armitage. (Four more words: “Look back at me.”)
Anne of Green Gables: I haven’t watched the new and reputedly grittier version, because I want to preserve my sun-dappled memories of Megan Follows as plucky orphan Anne, and Richard Farnsworth and Colleen Dewhurst as her adopted family. Puffed sleeves forever.
Courage Mountain: Full disclosure: this supposed adaptation of Heidi is absolutely horrible. But it’s the fun kind of horrible, like Aquaman, where you can’t quite believe your eyes—and will be laughing about it years later.
Jane Eyre: I’m still waiting for a really satisfying adaptation of this one. Most versions have a beauty problem, in the sense that either Jane or Rochester are too pretty, and insufficiently weird. I loved Mia Wasikowska in the 2011 movie, and the cinematography was lovely, but I didn’t buy Michael Fassbender as her employer/intended. What was up with those line readings?
House of Mirth: For the period costumes, and Gillian Anderson’s face.
Persuasion: Ciaran Hinds is my preferred Wentworth. Worth it for the letter scene alone.
The Wings of the Dove: Achingly romantic and sad, a sucker punch in the heart, and the ultimate cautionary tale about the best laid schemes going tragically awry.
A Room with a View: Of all the Merchant-Ivory adaptations (Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day, Maurice, etc.) this is my favorite. I kept the poster on my bedroom wall all through high school, and my best friend accused me of having a warped vision of reality from watching it too many times. (If the shoe fits, and so forth.) The cast, the costumes, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the visual wit . . . do yourself a favor and watch this masterpiece as soon as you can.