Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
TV Literary Adaptation

From page to screen

Main image of TV Literary Adaptation

From the very beginning, British television has relied on literature and drama for a significant proportion of its output. This has been variously interpreted as evidence of artistic timidity or as a tactic employed by the BBC to fulfil its Reithian public service remit to 'educate, inform and entertain'. Less remarked upon is the role that technology has played amid such aesthetic, political, cultural and ideological considerations.

The technical restrictions imposed both by live broadcasting and the use of cumbersome, practically immobile cameras in the 1930s and '40s meant that the BBC's drama output initially consisted entirely of short literary and stage play extracts. One of the first was, appropriately, Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass (tx. 22/1/1937), followed that year by extracts from thirteen Shakespeare plays. The BBC was able to claim by 1960 that An Age of Kings, its ambitious fifteen-part presentation of 'Richard II', 'Henry IV', 'Henry V', 'Henry VI' and 'Richard III', was its sixtieth Shakespeare production. In 1964, to celebrate the fourth centenary of Shakespeare's birth, the Corporation televised the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Wars of the Roses and the groundbreaking Hamlet at Elsinore (tx. 1/1/1964), made entirely on video on location in Denmark.

In the 1950s, with the advent of video tape and telerecording, live drama was phased out, while pressure to find new plays to produce was exhausting both producers and the available works of such popular and prolific dramatists as Ibsen, Priestley, Chekhov, Coward, Rattigan and George Bernard Shaw.

The arrival of commercial television in 1955 further emphasised the need to build viewer loyalty and identification, which diminished the value of stand-alone plays in favour of organic or themed collections and gave importance to the serial format in literary adaptations. BBC Radio's Sunday evening 'classic' serial, was soon joined by its television equivalent, a slot that still exists today, providing a steady diet of cosy, faithful but generally rather bland transpositions of predominantly Victorian and Edwardian novels. Thus the BBC became renowned for decades for its ability to not so much interpret as discreetly embalm celebrated literary properties, with the emphasis on textual fidelity and handsome décor.

Although this resulted in somewhat homogenised versions of favourite works by the likes of Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen and, especially, Charles Dickens, there have also been real gems, such as Arthur Hopcraft's adaptations of Hard Times (ITV, 1977) and Bleak House (BBC, 1985) and the RSC's nine-hour The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (Channel 4, 1982). Other works, more notable for the times they have been adapted than for their intrinsic merit, include Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (BBC, 1948; 1953; 1962; 1967; 1978; ITV, 1998) and her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre (BBC, 1956; 1963; 1973; 1983; ITV, 1997).

While the 'classics' were plundered for Sunday nights, other genres were also popular as the basis for series, serials and anthologies, the latter voraciously consuming vast quantities of literary material for decades. Detective stories for instance were featured in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (ITV, 1971-73), The Agatha Christie Hour (ITV, 1980), and more recently The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (ITV, 1987-2000), while horror stories were featured in Mystery and Imagination (ITV, 1966-70), as well as such stand alone efforts like Count Dracula (BBC, 1977), starring Louis Jourdan, and The Woman in Black (ITV, 1989), adapted by Nigel Kneale from Susan Harris's novel, and later turned into a massive West End hit.

Although literary science fiction remains largely neglected on television, Kneale's powerful adaptation of George Orwell's anti-Stalinist dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four (BBC, tx. 12/12/1954) made a huge impact, while Out of the Unknown (BBC, 1965-1971) remains Britain's only significant SF anthology series. Fantasy, especially when taken from children's literature, has often produced popular results like C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia (BBC, 1988-90), John Masefield's The Box of Delights (BBC, 1984) and Mary Norton's The Borrowers (BBC, 1972; 1992-93). Among more adult fare, Gormenghast (BBC, 1999), from Mervyn Peake's dense novel, was a notable disaster, while Fay Weldon's challenging The Life and Loves of a She Devil (BBC, 1986) was hugely popular.

Weldon scripted the 1980 adaptation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, one of the five serials made by the BBC from the novel between 1952 and 1995. The importance of the 'classic serial' for the Corporation was confirmed in 1967, when BBC2's colour service was launched with Thackeray's Vanity Fair and the gigantic success of The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy's sequence of novels and stories, brilliantly adapted by Donald Wilson into twenty-six parts. This set the mould for decades, leading directly to efforts like the massive The Pallisers (BBC, 1974), adapted by Simon Raven from Trollope. It also paved the way for Jack Pulman's 20-part serialisation of Tolstoy's War and Peace (BBC, 1973), and I, Claudius (BBC, 1976), adapted from Robert Graves' novels about ancient Rome.

Stylistically, British television was still intensely theatrical, at least partly for technical reasons. Most television drama was still made rather flatly on video in the studio using multiple cameras, with long scenes shot straight through. This privileged performance and encouraged scripts to be dialogue-heavy, while minimising location shooting. Video shot on location, using equipment designed for sporting occasions, was criticised as technically inferior, a criticism levelled at such all-video productions as Raffles (ITV, 1977), based on the stories by E.W. Hornung, and Dennis Potter's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (BBC, 1978), starring Alan Bates.

The monumental adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (ITV, 1981), shot entirely on 16mm, proved a watershed in this regard, creating a uniquely televisual event that combined typically slow TV pacing with the glossy sheen of a cinema production, helping oversees sales. Its success led to the even longer and more expensive The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984), adapted from Paul Scott's tetralogy about the Indian Raj. In 1987 the BBC, feeling usurped, formally retired its Sunday tea-time classic serial slot and briefly recouped some lost ground with Fortunes of War, Alan Plater's handsome adaptation of Olivia Manning's twinned trilogies, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.

Soaring production costs soon made these glossy period serials increasingly rare, and ITV abandoned the format, concentrating instead on making feature-length adaptations of novels by such commercially successful authors as Colin Dexter, Bernard Cornwell and, especially, Catherine Cookson, fifteen of whose novels were adapted by the network during the 1990s.

Andrew Davies helped revive the fortunes of the classic serial with scripts for Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1995) and George Eliot's Middlemarch (BBC, 1993), ratings winners that made significant breaks with the traditional style popularised by Forsyte (BBC, 1967), with their revisionist tendency towards respected literary properties and their stressing of modern attitudes towards sex, class and female emancipation. The subsequent avalanche of 'classic' adaptations included Davies' versions of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (ITV, 1996), Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (BBC, 1999), Trollope's The Way We Live Now (BBC, 2001) and He Knew He Was Right (BBC, 2004), Eliot's Daniel Deronda (BBC, 2002) and Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (ITV, 2002).

Nowadays, contemporary novels are rarely treated as well as these in budgetary and scheduling terms, but significant successes include adaptations of Iain Banks' The Crow Road (BBC, 1996), Zadie Smith's White Teeth (Channel 4, 2002) and, more recently, Jake Arnott's The Long Firm (BBC, 2004).

The BBC Shakespeare Plays (1978-1985) represents the apex of the Corporation's cultural commitment to Shakespeare, with the entire canon of 37 plays made especially to be shown at primetime on Sunday evenings. Although somewhat unadventurous, it remains an extraordinary feat, the productions proving invaluable in teaching. The best remembered include The Taming of the Shrew (tx. 23/10/1980), starring John Cleese, and a magnificent The Winter's Tale (BBC, tx. 8/2/1981). Even better, though, was Granada's King Lear (ITV, tx. 3/4/1983), one of ITV's few Shakespeare excursions, starring Laurence Olivier. More recently it also made the highly rewarding Othello (tx. 23/12/2001), adapted by Andrew Davies and set in the modern Metropolitan Police Force, with Christopher Eccleston as 'Ben Jago'.

Stage plays were otherwise mostly reserved for such anthologies as Festival (BBC, 1963-64) and Play of the Month (BBC, 1965-1983) and Performance (BBC, 1991-97), the last regularly scheduled anthology series. It included an original production of Rodney Ackland's Absolute Hell (tx. 5/10/1991), directed by Anthony Page and starring Judi Dench, which, in a reversal of normal practice, was later re-staged at the National Theatre.

Although stage play productions have become rarer and largely restricted to the minority channels, there have been some notable successes, including Peter Brook's The Mahabharata (Channel 4, tx. 1989) and the audacious Beckett on Film (Channel 4, 2001), an umbrella title covering the entirety of the playwright's stage work. To help launch BBC4, its flagship digital channel, the BBC returned to its roots by presenting television versions of such recent West End successes as Peter Nichols' A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (tx. 13/3/2002) and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (tx. 26/9/2002).

Sergio Angelini

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (1984-85)

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (1984-85)

Jeremy Brett's classic characterisation of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective hero

Thumbnail image of Age of Kings, An (1960)

Age of Kings, An (1960)

Ambitious history of medieval British royalty, adapted from Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Alice in Wonderland (1966)

Alice in Wonderland (1966)

Jonathan Miller's startlingly imaginative version of Lewis Carroll's fantasy

Thumbnail image of Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)

Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)

Beautifully-observed adaptation of Trollope's church intrigue

Thumbnail image of Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Lavish, standard-setting adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel

Thumbnail image of Chronicles of Narnia, The (1988-90)

Chronicles of Narnia, The (1988-90)

Lavish adaptations of C.S. Lewis's classic novels

Thumbnail image of Crow Road, The (1996)

Crow Road, The (1996)

Highly-praised adaptation of Iain Banks' novel of family intrigue

Thumbnail image of Forsyte Saga, The (1967)

Forsyte Saga, The (1967)

Groundbreaking 26-part costume drama based on Galsworthy's stories

Thumbnail image of Fortunes of War (1987)

Fortunes of War (1987)

Romantic wartime drama starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson

Thumbnail image of Hard Times (1977)

Hard Times (1977)

Acclaimed adaptation of Dickens' Northern industrial melodrama

Thumbnail image of Henry IV (1995)

Henry IV (1995)

Television truncation of both parts of Shakespeare's masterpiece

Thumbnail image of I, Claudius (1976)

I, Claudius (1976)

Epic, gory and salacious drama of murder and intrigue in ancient Rome

Thumbnail image of Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93)

Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93)

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as P.G.Wodehouse's immortal duo

Thumbnail image of Jewel in the Crown, The (1984)

Jewel in the Crown, The (1984)

Acclaimed drama series set in the 1940s Indian Raj

Thumbnail image of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1960)

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1960)

Oscar Wilde black comedy starring Terry-Thomas

Thumbnail image of Mayor of Casterbridge, The (1978)

Mayor of Casterbridge, The (1978)

Dennis Potter adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel

Thumbnail image of Middlemarch (1994)

Middlemarch (1994)

Andrew Davies' dramatisation of George Eliot's classic novel

Thumbnail image of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Highly controversial - in its day - Orwell adaptation by Nigel Kneale

Thumbnail image of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)

BBC dramatisation of Jeanette Winterson's autobiographical novel

Thumbnail image of Othello (2001)

Othello (2001)

Contemporary update, with Othello as the Met's first black head

Thumbnail image of Out of the Unknown (1965-71)

Out of the Unknown (1965-71)

BBC sci-fi anthology of the late 1960s and early '70s.

Thumbnail image of Pallisers, The (1974)

Pallisers, The (1974)

Mammoth production of Trollope's 'political' series

Thumbnail image of Passage to India, A (1965)

Passage to India, A (1965)

The first screen adaptation of E.M. Forster's classic novel

Thumbnail image of Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Andrew Davies' memorable Austen update

Thumbnail image of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Classic adaptation of John Le Carré's cold war novel

Thumbnail image of Trinity Tales (1975)

Trinity Tales (1975)

Lively, inventive update of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Thumbnail image of Wuthering Heights (1962)

Wuthering Heights (1962)

Impressively passionate version of the Bronte classic

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie on Television

Agatha Christie on Television

Marple, Poirot and other creations of the 'Queen of Crime'

Thumbnail image of BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)

BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)

Monumentally ambitious small-screen adaptations of all 37 plays

Thumbnail image of Dickens on Television

Dickens on Television

The author's original serials find their natural home on the small screen

Thumbnail image of Jane Austen on Television

Jane Austen on Television

TV's takes on English literature's most perceptive and subtle satirist

Thumbnail image of Shakespeare on Television

Shakespeare on Television

Seven decades of the Bard on the box

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Davies, Andrew (1936-)

Davies, Andrew (1936-)