Look, I'm from California, OK? You want to set dramas in Napa Valley, be my guest. But not Wuthering Heights. Napa Valley has lots of wineries! It's a popular tourist destination! There's sun and stuff! Are Heathcliff and Cathy going to cavort amongst the grape vines, surrounded by visitors in shorts and sunglasses?
Operating on the assumption that it's never too early to think about syllabi, I'm contemplating what to do with the return of Brit Lit II in the fall. My syllabus for this course has always been unapologetically old-fashioned, in the sense that I treat it as an introduction to major authors only; I've never seen the intellectual point of "canon-busting" for students who have never encountered the canon, and therefore don't understand the stakes of the busting, let alone what's being busted. (My students soon grow familiar with my eternal "And look, here again is why you need to read Paradise Lost" refrain, which goes along with the "please read The Pilgrim's Progress in your copious spare time," "yes, Shakespeare is necessary," and "if you're an English major, you need a Bible" refrains.) However, I also ask students to write papers about works that are not on the syllabus--or, sometimes, works that are on the syllabus, but were deliberately not discussed in class--and here's where the less-familiar authors creep in, even at the introductory level. There are two primary pedagogical reasons for this approach: a) it frees students from the constraints of pre-existing classroom discussion; b) it opens up opportunities for them to show that they can translate reading skills from text to text.
One of my favorite ways of sneaking other authors into a course is to work with texts that revise, appropriate, respond to, and otherwise rework those on the syllabus. Thus, we get Felicia Hemans on Lord Byron, Mary Robinson on S. T. Coleridge, half of the known galaxy on Shakespeare, and so forth. A variant is to have students read/watch adaptations--which, of course, pose their own set of problems, the most serious of which is the dreaded "fidelity" issue. As anyone who has ever taught adaptations knows all too well, students with no experience in this area sometimes default to conjuring up long lists of similarities and differences (cue instructor: ARRRGH) without an argument. Yes, yes, differences, but what are they doing there? Ergo, the poor beleaguered instructor needs to somehow head the default off at the pass. And that means...demonstration day!
Paragraph three, and I've yet to address the title of this blog post. (Hmmm. My grade appears to be dropping.) I've never taught any Lewis Carroll in Brit Lit II--in fact, I've never taught Carroll at all--and I thought it might be fun to a) get a little Alice in Wonderland into the mix and b) do some work with adaptation/appropriation. What I think I'll do is pull the "Mad Tea Party" chapter along with a brief extract from a Victorian etiquette manual, and then have the students look at some clips before they come to class. But which ones? Many of them will have seen Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951) as children, but it can't hurt to have them look at it again (although I suppose I'll have to explain that the Hatter has somehow been amalgamated with Humpty-Dumpty). There are some extremely surreal versions out there: e.g., Gavin Millar's Dreamchild (1985), with scary muppets (Dark Crystal mode, not Sesame Street) as Hatter and Co., and Jan Svankmajer's Neco z Alenky (1988), with battered, primitive-looking toys. Equally surreal is Jonathan Miller's dreamy Alice in Wonderland (1966), although it risks sending viewers off into a different kind of dreaminess. I'd like to sneak in a couple of ballet adaptations, Christopher Wheeldon's (2011) and Glen Tetley's (1988) (not YouTubed), both of which pose more extreme difficulties for talking about adaptations of Carroll; as reviewers of Wheeldon's ballet kept pointing out, it's awfully hard to confine an Alice to dance and mime. And there's the 1999 TV adaptation, I suppose, but I really dislike it--possibly because I find Martin Short grating, possibly because it just seems to drag on forever. Whatever their approach, both the straight-up adaptations and the more revisionist appropriations tend to bring out what U. C. Knoepflmacher calls the "unremittingly hostile" (173) quality of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare; the chapter's humor has a habit of deflating when visualized. In any event, I have the summer to make up my mind...
Many years ago, I came across a quotation from the pianist Charles Rosen, in which he said something to the effect that if everyone else loved something that bored him, he concluded that the fault lay with himself and not with the something. I am attempting to put that philosophy into play with Sherlock. Because...it took me two days to get through the season finale, which I found badly plotted, implausible, and, in general, deeply uninteresting and uninvolving. (At least it was not as badly plotted as The Hounds of Baskerville, which took A. C. Doyle's one outstanding Sherlock Holmes novel, put it through a mandolin, and then drowned it in a Thousand Island dressing of conspiracy theories.) But everyone else (well, except for Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt) loves Sherlock; ergo, it must be me. So.
Perhaps we can start with things I don't find objectionable:
The acting. Cumberbatch and Freeman are doing excellent work with what they're given. They have strong chemistry, fine dramatic chops, and solid comic timing; moreover, they tend to leave the scenery relatively unchewed (which cannot be said for Jeremy Brett's later episodes, unfortunately).
Neo-Watson and revisionist Lestrade. Martin Freeman's Watson is very much in the post-Burke and Hardwicke (er, that's not to be confused with Burke and Hare) mode, which is to say that he's in possession of little gray cells and reasonably willing to give Holmes what for. In other words, this is a further nail in the coffin of the Nigel Bruce Watson, which is all to the good. I'd have to say that the series' Lestrade (at least what we see of him) is one of its more interesting features: it's unusual to have a Lestrade around who is not a) primarily there to look useless, b) sneaking around looking like a small and unpleasant rodent, and c) obnoxious comic relief. (Doyle's Lestrade eventually warmed up to Holmes and Watson, but this one seems to have arrived there much sooner--at least, he's already on a first-name basis with Watson.)
The meta. I've said more than once that this series foregrounds its status as an adaptation, as it is loaded with nods not just to the canon, but to fan expectations developed from other adaptations. It's practically the grand sum of all pre-existing adaptations, remixed with healthy doses of contemporary TV detective conventions and CSI-style editing. (As Lestrade so kindly pointed out to us in the finale.) In some ways, the series has also been parodying both tabloid celebrity culture and some of the less appealing aspects of fan culture (of the sort liable to wind up on Fandom Wank). I'm an English professor, so I'm programmed to have no objections to all things meta.
I think it's perhaps here that's also the rub for me. As I said in my review of A Scandal in Belgravia, this series is far less original than it seems to think it is. Take, for example, the plot of the series finale: Moriarty appears to be quite familiar with the late Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, and possibly Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Percent Solution as well. Reflections on Holmes and Watson as a romantic couple, or at least a bromantic one, have been floating around for decades--see Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. (On the professional publishing side, St. Martin's has published at least one novel with a [repressed] gay Watson, and of course there's a lifetime supply of Holmes/Watson fanfiction.) Holmes as full-blown jerk, as opposed to bohemian gentleman, owes quite a bit to House. Irene Adler has been developing grand passions for Holmes since goodness knows when. (I'm quite fond of Holmes and Adler as the proud mama and papa of Nero Wolfe, myself.) And, of course, Moriarty as invasive killer weed is inescapable--doesn't everything have to go back to Moriarty? Etc. After decades upon decades of Sherlock Holmes parodies, pastiches, and revisions, it's not shocking that the series keeps retreading old ground. It's just that it's not necessarily very interesting, either. For lack of a better way of putting it, while the series likes to wink at itself and the Sherlock Holmes mythos, it doesn't want to do anything too harsh or too outlandish to it. (We get The Last Sherlock Holmes Story without its major twist.) It doesn't probe the limits or moral implications of the legend (Michael Chabon, Mitch Cullin), or offer anything go-for-broke outrageous (Neil Gaiman), let alone real parodic play (Kim Newman).
Moreover, Lestrade's joke about CSI reminded me that Sherlock seems to be borrowing some of that series' least entertaining and/or remotely believable plots. It's a criminal mastermind obsessed with the series lead! Who constructs weirdly overwrought schemes! And then engages in "deep" mind games with the object of his affections (so to speak)! Which he finishes off with the sort of long speech that is supposed to sound profound, but which makes the audience wonder why the detective/CSI doesn't just shoot him/throw him off the roof/cold-cock him/forcefeed him hot peppers and be done with it! Of course Moriarty is Holmes' criminal double; we've known this since "The Final Problem." But surely there are better, more economical ways of putting this doubling into action? (I once again nudge the reader in Dibdin's direction. Or even Newman's. We could even go back to Doyle, while we're at it.)
To me, then, there's just too much deja vu involved (or, perhaps, deja lu). I feel like I ought to be enjoying this series much more than I am. But, so far, I'm not.
One cannot have Sherlock Holmes around for very long without The Woman putting in an appearance. In Sherlock's version of "A Scandal in Bohemia," Irene Adler, a lesbian dominatrix (what else?), is using some very explicit photographs on her cell phone to bargain for protection against being killed by...the CIA, it appears, but then again, maybe not. (The CIA, it gets around.) Oh, and of course, there's Moriarty: all Sherlock Holmes adaptations abhor a Moriarty vacuum. Plus bizarre terrorism decoy plots involving corpses on a plane. Meanwhile, the royal equivalent to His Highness in "A Scandal in Bohemia" is all but invisible and irrelevant, with only her (bound--see "lesbian dominatrix") feet making a brief foray onto the screen. There are times when this series' ninety-minute format seems to require pumping unnecessary air into Conan Doyle's original plot, and this would be one of them.
The "it's always Moriarty" issue (as opposed to "it's never lupus" on the soon-to-be-late House) does get at the series' insistent self-reflexivity. After all, it's always been Moriarty for decades now: often, Sherlock seems to be primarily about Sherlock Holmes adaptations and our expectations thereof. Although wink-wink-nudge-nudge quotation tends to be an occupational hazard of any pastiche--I swear, the next Holmesian author to invoke any variation on "the game's afoot" will get a disciplinary visit from Col. Sebastian Moran--Sherlock is just as invested in the Holmes industry. Thus, this time around, we had puns on the original story titles ("The Geek Interpreter," "The Navel Treaty"), but we also had the sudden appearance of the omnipresent deerstalker. (Remember, boys and girls: Conan Doyle's Holmes wouldn't wear a deerstalker while rambling about London.) Similarly, Irene Adler as would-be love interest? Been there. Dumbed-down Mycroft? Yep, done that. Jokes about Holmes and Watson as gay couple? That too. At this point, there's nothing to do for the series to do except wink at its own lack of originality; it is, as Harold Bloom might say (if Harold Bloom could be brought to pronounce about a TV series...), belated.
That being said, the series does some interesting things with the shift from Watson as professional chronicler to Watson as amateur blogger. (No news yet about whether or not the good doctor has monetized his site, although goodness only knows what kind of Google ads it would run.) The spontaneity and interactivity of blogging suggests a more intimate relationship between the narrator and his audience; although the novels and tales include occasional metafictional reflections on how Watson is constructing a certain kind of private detective, the shift to blogging brings up the possibility that the audience may actively collaborate in the comments section. If you look at the link I posted just above, you can see that the fictional comments are given to bad puns, along with grumpy observations from the detective himself; Holmes doesn't just complain to Watson about the narration, he does so in public. Watson still "buffers" and humanizes Holmes, but this Holmes' media celebrity, and his role (willing or otherwise) in shaping it plays a much more substantial role in the plot. There's a sense, that is, that the audience can be in on the "joke." And, by the same token, this John Watson's prose is informal, off-the-cuff, and in brief: the new media Sherlock has to be easily consumed by iPhone, in much the same way that the series can really be consumed by convenient PBS app. He's more portable, but he's also figured as less distant, even if he's still as chilly and eccentric as Conan Doyle's Holmes ever was.
The most recent adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood starts off sticking pleasantly and, by and large, faithfully enough to what exists of Dickens' final novel. It is at its best as a character study of an increasingly insane John Jasper, driven to (remarkably calm) madness by the combined effects of desire and opium. Rosa Bud is more peppery than the usual Dickens ingenue and Drood is something of a twit, both of which are in line with the original text. The Landless twins are now explicitly Anglo-Indian, which is a legitimate reading of their ambiguous racial status in the novel (they are "both very dark, and very rich in color" [ch. 6]). As has been so frequently the case with Victorian literary adaptations, though, the production team introduces issues of race and empire without figuring out how to successfully integrate them with the original plot. On the one hand, the Landless twins register the kind of unthinking pain inflicted by the nineteenth-century equivalent of sex tourism, abandoned as they are to a life of suffering by their English father; on the other, Jasper's persecution of Neville now has heavily racialized implications that the adaptation simply drops like the proverbial stone, and one can only imagine what E. M. Forster would have to say about the allegorical implications of the pretty tableau of reconciliation at the end (complete with marriage proposal).
But good heavens, the wrap-up. "Solving" Drood is one of literature's great parlor games, although we know perfectly well whodunnit (Dickens kept telling people, after all). Here, the writer sticks to Dickens' villain, Jasper, but proceeds to throw all sorts of mind-blowing monkeywrenches into the plot. My reactions went something like this (spoilers ahoy):
The second half of the newest Great Expectations continued to pour on the grim--except, of course, for the final reunion between Pip and Estella, which seemed rather more optimistic about their chances than Dickens was in the revised ending of his novel. (In fact, the ending, in which Estella is on the verge of becoming Miss Havisham 2.0, echoes the conclusion of David Lean's far more famous adaptation.) The color palette continued to run from gray to gray, especially as the walls of Satis House continued moldering and the butterflies turned to dust; the fires at the end provided the few literal sparks, although the pretty young ladies we briefly glimpse at the dances, arrayed in pale colors, also call us back to those poor pinned insects. Not surprisingly, the color was not the only thing that continued to be bleached out: there was still no sign of the novel's comedy, so that Joe's visit to London turned into a glum lecture on how Pip was ashamed of his origins, the Pockets were erased, and the Aged P was nowhere to be seen. Estella herself was far angrier than her novelistic equivalent, doing in her claim that she's heartless. I'll admit that it took me several hours to watch this installment, simply because the whole thing was just so depressing.
This being a modern adaptation, there was somewhat more sex than Dickens might have had in mind. Pip gets to kiss Estella while she stands in a lake, her dress hiked up and legs showing; Drummle, appropriately thuggish, drags poor innocent Pip to a house of ill repute (Pip's virtue remains intact, however); Compeyson promises Orlick a lifetime's supply of prostitutes, among other things, for capturing Magwitch; and, most astonishingly, Molly turns out to be not just Mr. Jaggers' housekeeper, but also his longtime mistress. (Alas, poor Wemmick is deprived of Miss Skiffins, although Herbert at least gets to marry Clara.) The undercurrents of passion, licit and otherwise, both highlight its weird efflorescence at Satis House and suggest that the one thing that unites society, high and low, is heterosexual desire--thwarted, in Pip's case, given that all his most emotionally resonant and reciprocal relationships turn out to be with other men. (He has a much better time waltzing with Herbert Pocket than with Estella, or so it appears.) In that respect, Orlick is Pip's darker double. Instead of trying to murder Pip out of jealousy, frustration, and competition over Biddy (who is entirely absent from this adaptation), Orlick tries to murder him because he wants to take his place with Joe. Orlick is the "bad son," as it were, and yet he's the one who wants his substitute "father's" approval; there's a failed family romance going on here.
Pip, of course, turns out to have no real place at all. The adaptation does do a nice job with the theme of Pip's identity crisis, as character after character implicitly or explicitly accuses him of being a pretender. ("I don't know who you are," says Mr. Wemmick.) Miss Havisham, still crueler than the novel's original, bluntly informs him that he's merely "the boy from the forge," as he cannot lay claim to either genteel or even blacksmith status ("you didn't finish your appprenticeship"). By the end, Pip has gone back to Joe, but is training for the law--a different way of suggesting, along with the original novel, that one can't go home again. But he's denied his life as the third wheel in the Herbert/Clara relationship, as though everything having to do with Pip's former status as a lad with expectations must go by the wayside. (Except Estella, of course.) One of the problems with the casting here, as it happens, is that Pip's body, once trained, never shows any sign of his past blacksmith training; by contrast, one of the very few things that stands out about the novel's Pip is that he boasts a pretty astonishing set of muscles. (The adaptation substitutes Pip's old accent for his body as the indelible trace of his origins.)
Arguably, one of the unusual choices turns out to be Miss Havisham's death. Skipping the usual symbolism (Pip puts out the flames with the tablecloth, thereby dumping the decayed wedding cake on the floor), the writer and director make Miss Havisham commit suicide by deliberately burning herself to death, using her letters and wedding bouquet as fuel. This almost ritualized self-immolation, with Miss Havisham dolled up in the remnants of her wedding finery (complete with veil), has a weirdly All That Jazz-ish vibe to it, which surely can't be what the production team had in mind: in the end, what is she in love with, but death itself? At the same time, her death in the veil echoes our glimpse of a terrified, veiled Estella in the carriage, off to wed Drummle and knowing full well to what she has committed herself. (Pip has the somewhat unfortunate distinction of sharing Estella's only onscreen kisses with the horse that conveniently offs Drummle.) White can be for shrouds as well as for weddings, after all.
In its first hour, at least, the structure of the newest version of Great Expectations owes as much to Wuthering Heights as it does to Dickens. As in Bronte's novel, the claustrophobic action of this first act moves back and forth from the Forge to Satis House, with only the ugly stretches of marshland (and cemetery) in-between. Both spaces are characterized by physical and psychological brutality: Mrs. Joe's shrieking and slapping, Miss Havisham's twisted "nurturing," Estella's youthful fascination with pain, Orlick's sadism. Characters are likelier to slap each other than they are to hug. Even though the episode contrasts the heat of the forge to the chill of Satis House ("I'm always cold," says Miss Havisham), it's a pretty flickering heat--not least because Joe Gargery is, while a decent fellow, not the gentle, innocent saint of the novel, as much a boy as Pip. Nor is there a warmhearted Biddy to counteract Estella's coldness. The cinematography reinforces this overall wintriness: everything is in shades ranging from muddy black to blue-gray, with Miss Havisham dressed in increasingly decrepit whites. (She wanders through her house like a ghost.) Even Estella walks about in pale shades of pink and blue. The production designer describes the intended effect as a world of "frozen dead love," supposedly mitigated only by the forge's flames. The only relief from the overarching gloom comes from the oranges of the forge fire, on the one hand, and the fading colors of the pinned butterflies at Satis House, on the other. Under the circumstances, the former does little to counteract the call of the latter.
The chill extends to the adaptation's humor. By which I mean that there isn't any. No Wopsle, no Trabb's Boy, no nothing. The closest we get to comic relief is Pumblechook, and he's still rather nasty. In other words, this is Drama, sort of a Portrait of the Artist as a Glum Man. Between the humorlessness and the overall coldness, the adaptation does such a brilliant job of painting Pip's young life as one endless run of misery that it becomes harder and harder to figure out why, exactly, he should have had any loyalty to Joe at the forge. (Book Joe has a good psychological explanation for why he puts up with Mrs. Joe's abusiveness; adaptation Joe has no such excuse.)
Of the adaptation's innovations, the most successful derives from--ironically enough--being more faithful to the book than usual when it comes to Miss Havisham's age. Dickens intended Miss Havisham to be about thirty-three years Pip's senior, so in the initial phases of the plot, at least, Gillian Anderson is actually about right, chronology-wise. With her corpse-white skin, cracked lips, and self-mutilated hands, Anderson's Miss Havisham is a woman whose middle age has been stretched out and warped; appropriately enough, her attempts to stop time merely distort it. Although Anderson's performance is by far the most memorable thing about the adaptation, Miss Havisham has also been scripted to be far more manipulative of Pip's self-awareness than in the novel: Dickens makes it quite clear that Miss Havisham encourages none of Pip's illusions about going up in the world ("on the contrary, she seemed to prefer my being ignorant" [ch. 12]), but Phelps has her actively encouraging Pip to read, to aspire to higher things--to be, as she suggests, "special." When she turns around and pays his premium to Joe, then, she manages to outdo her fictional counterpart in active cruelty. As a result, Pip's self-delusions in the novel are here less the product of his own runaway imagination, and more of adult interference; he has perfectly good reasons for believing that Miss Havisham has changed her mind and become his benefactor, and not just because Jaggers is her lawyer.
What the adaptation has also muddied, I think, is the novel's belief in the power of charity and forgiveness. On the one hand, Pip becomes more charitable than his novel self, because Magwitch only asks for a file; it's Pip who voluntarily steals him some food. Is this a sign of a burgeoning moral sense, or just burgeoning criminality? On the other, Mrs. Joe has no redemption arc. Represented as a selfish harpy primarily interested in riding Pip's Havisham-inflated coattails to the top, she is struck down at the moment that Miss Havisham pays Pip's premium: her would-be social climbing comes in for providential punishment. But the head injury has so far left her merely catatonic, instead of forgiving. Similarly, there's no endlessly compassionate Biddy listening to a thoroughly clueless Pip drone on about his miseries, and even Joe Gargery makes it clear in passing that he expects a premium for Pip to come from somewhere (whereas novel Joe intended to apprentice him for free). In a way, Pip seems more "special" because he freely offered the food--which is precisely the opposite of the novel's point about him.
The most recent adaptation of Great Expectations begins airing in the USA tomorrow. Whether or not one has great expectations for three-hour adaptations of Dickens is, of course, an open question. I can't see it until Monday, due to my ongoing lack of a television set (I suspect I'm going to finally give in sometime in the next few weeks and buy a new one), but I'll have a post about it Monday or Tuesday.
To achieve the best dramatic effects, lecture with only minimal lighting, leaving the students with no way to see their notes. If at all possible, arrange for your own personal spotlight.
Dust motes are necessary for atmosphere; request that the custodians refrain from vacuuming, mopping, or otherwise cleaning the room.
Be sure to have a REALLY BIG SCREEN on which to display your exciting multimedia illustrations.
Your students will, of course, have the kind of comfortable seats one expects in movie theaters.
Notes on the chalkboard should be arranged with a Michelangelo-esque attention to aesthetics.
Deliver your lectures with the same degree of seriousness that you would use to declare the onset of World War III.
Rest assured that students will be absolutely spellbound by your performance. They will not text, doodle, giggle, gossip, or snooze. In fact, many of them will nod and sigh in awe of your incredible profundity, whether or not you have actually said anything worth remembering.
All of your students will be tastefully dressed in the latest preppy fashions. For some reason, they will also appear to be in their late twenties or early thirties, even though they are really only eighteen.