Classic Literature on Film

I don't know that there is an exact definition of "classic" literature. I restrict this page, more or less, to books written before 1923. I chose this date because 1922 is the most recent year for which books pass automatically into the public domain. At one time this date advanced every year, but Congress (in its wisdom) has now frozen the process until (at least) 2019.

For my own efforts at reprinting public domain titles, see Sattre Press.

I also keep Shakespeare and Jane Austen film reviews on other pages.

Barrie, James M.

Peter Pan

Peter Pan. 2003. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Another Disney production with lots of dazzle, but which also covers the story pretty well, with elaboration and omissions. Some elements of the text are presented nicely: the exuberant fighting, the romance between Peter and Wendy, and the dark implications of a boy who refuses to grow up. The sadness of the ending is softened: we don't hear that Peter has forgotten Captain Hook ("I always forget them after I kill them") and Tinkerbell ("There have been so many...").

As is customary with the play version, the same actor (John Isaacs) plays both Captain Hook and Mr Darling. I'm glad they omitted the part where Mr Darling is carried around in a dog kennel -- that's a bit too silly.

It's good family entertainment. The story belongs to Wendy as much as Peter -- and although little girls may dream of Peter Pan, I know that little boys dream of Wendy Darling.

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Collins, Wilkie

The Woman in White

The Woman in White. 1997. IMDB details.

On the one hand this is a very nice-looking production with a good cast, but on the other it deviates so much from the book that readers are likely to be disappointed. We expect plots to be trimmed and otherwise adjusted for film, but often filmmakers make too free with the stories in an attempt to pander to modern audiences.

Here, for example, it is not enough that Sir Percival is a scoundrel, he must be made into a child molester lest the audience underappreciate the depth of his villainy. Even our heroes are debased: instead of trying to rescue Glyde from the fire (as in the text) they lock him in!

Marian is described as "plain" in the book. Of course that's not allowed in movies and here she is played by the lovely Tara Fitzgerald.

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Dickens, Charles

Bleak House

Bleak House. 1985. Starring Denholm Elliot and Diana Rigg. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Outstanding mini-series version about 4.5 hours long. Excellent cast, with special mention to Denholm Elliot and Diana Rigg. The plot is trimmed and altered very slightly, the largest cut being the loss of Mrs Jellyby, her eldest daughter, that girl's husband and his comical dancing-master father. I suspect they were dropped because they don't link up with the other plot lines, unlike almost every other character in the book. I'm particularly sorry there wasn't more time for the old soldier Bagnet and his wife.

Denholm Elliot plays Jarndyce darker than he is written, but this works well because it suggests the shadow of insanity haunting the family. Diana Rigg gives a remarkable interpretation of the cold, proud Lady Dedlock, so unlikable at the outset and so pitied at the end.

The production was shot on film but the VHS video is of rather poor quality. But, unless a good DVD treatment appears, it is all we have.

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Bleak House. 2005. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

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Great Expectations

Great Expectations. 1999. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

A decent production, but very somber. A common problem with Dickens in the movies is that film-makers try to turn him into Thomas Hardy. But even his more serious novels are brighter and funnier than that. It must be a difficult task: portraying Real Literature that is not unrelievedly dark and tragic.

The story stops a bit early, before either of Dickens's endings.

I don't know how to gauge Ioan Gruffudd as Pip. I've enjoyed his Horatio Hornblower series, but I suspect his clumsy boyish demeanor may be more appealing to female viewers. Justine Waddell works well in these costume roles, but she has limited exposure here. Charlotte Rampling's Miss Haversham is crazier than I would have imagined, but effectively so.

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Martin Chuzzlewit

Martin Chuzzlewit. 1994. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

It's not a bad version, but has the look of an automated Dickens television product. Still, good casting and performances. The American interlude is mercifully brief, although this eliminates the scenes where young Martin is redeemed by caring for the ailing Mark Tapley. He's not a very appealing character, neither here nor in the book.

Mr. Pecksniff seems to take over most of the story, which is not quite how the book goes.

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Nicholas Nickleby

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. 1982. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

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Nicholas Nickleby. 2001. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Rather good coverage of the book, with great sets and costumes. Good cast, with special mention for Charles Dance as the damned Uncle Ralph and Sophia Myles fetching as sister Kate.

Of course, this being 2001, Sir Mulberry is nearly a rapist rather than simply an arrogant cad.

As very often is the case with filmed Dickens, the humor is not quite right. Even his grim passages have some comical bright spot, but filmmakers often have trouble handling them.

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Nicholas Nickleby. 2002. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Well-made version, if rather truncated. The entire Mantalini plot is dropped, and Madeline is engaged to Sir Mulberry rather than to Uncle Ralph's moneylender friend.

Christopher Plummer as Uncle Ralpha shows some dark humor at the outset, eventually becoming entirely grim. Romola Garai (sister Kate) was previously in Daniel Deronda and still looks good in costume.

Pleasant Rachel Portman soundtrack, similar to, if less exciting than, her music for the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma

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A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities. 1935. IMDB details.

Lavish MGM production. Although the story is condensed in some parts and elaborated in others, it is remarkably close to the book in many details. The mood matches the text pretty well, especially in the final segment.

Strong casting throughout, with particular note of Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton and Blanche Yurka as a very scary Madame Defarge. Colman gives a tremendous interpretation.

The final scene is a moving passion play. Even more than in the book, the film brings out the parallel between the guillotine and the Cross.

A small note: I am always startled to see Fritz Leiber (Gaspar) listed in film credits. His son, also Fritz, became a noted science fiction author. Here Gaspar, who killed the evil Marquis, lasts much longer than he did in the book.

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Doyle, Arthur Conan

The Lost World

The Lost World. 2001. Starring Bob Hoskins, James Fox and Peter Falk. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

A fun made-for-TV version shot on film, with the dinosaur special effects we've come to expect since Jurassic Park. The story roughly follows the book with many nice details retained. But (of course) a new romance subplot must be added for Lord Roxton, and Peter Falk is inserted as a crazed and treacherous Reverend. This seems to be an important page from the screenwriters' handbook: if you can't fit a barking lunatic into your story, a Christian clergyman will do just as well.

Much as I like Bob Hoskins, Prof. Challenger is more entertaining on the page: an eruptively combative genius only apparently deranged...

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Dumas, Alexandre

Queen Margot

Queen Margot. 1994. IMDB details.

I must not have a "realistic" imagination because when reading classics I never imagine the blood and gore, even when the setting is the St Bartholomew massacre. I must have been conditioned by the 1930-40s costume dramas of my youth.

We have plenty of blood and gore here, as well as a bit of hot sex. The tone seems far more serious and less "fun" than the text, but again perhaps that is my lack. I think of Dumas as a sort of French Walter Scott, and Scott's battles and romances are suitable for squeamish souls.

Nonethless it is a gripping epic, with very nasty portrayals of all the politically powerful.

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Elliot, George

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda. 2002. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

This mini-series brings a remarkable amount of life and color to the story. Excellent presentations and casting, although I am not so certain about Barbara Hershey as the Countess; perhaps I've just seen her too often. Romola Garai is remarkable as Gwendolen: a proud young woman with a transparent face, she doesn't realize how easily her thoughts and emotions are read by others.

It's been a long time since I read the book, but certain incidents I recall are missing, as when Gwendolen discovers a secret compartment in one of their houses, and when Daniel is recognized in a synagogue before he knows his own origins. The home life of the Cohens was a notable feature of the text. And didn't Mirah's father eventually reappear?

Andrew Davies screenplay.

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Middlemarch. 1994. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Meticulous production, a well-paced mini-series for a big book. Fine cast, with particular note of Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea, and the reliably unsympathetic Patrick Malahide as Mr. Casaubon. The score has a more traditional sound that has been usual in recent costume productions.

Middlemarch is a fine story, but I have heard it described as the best novel of the nineteenth century, which is going too far. It is also said to be the most "Trollopian" of Elliot's works, by which I suspect people mean it is long and dull. I disagree; Trollope's tales of domestic life are favorites in our house.

Andrew Davies screenplay. He seems to have a monopoly.

My first DVD edition played with an odd, vertically stretched aspect ratio, and I saw other reviewers make the same complaint. I returned those disks, but after getting a large screen display and new DVD player, I bought Middlemarch again and it plays fine. Either they revised the disks or more modern electronics handles it correctly.

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Gaskell, Elizabeth

Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters. 1999. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Excellent in every respect! Gorgeous to watch, fine cast, and true to the text. Perhaps this will start a Mrs Gaskell revival.

Iain Glen's Mr Preston is more dangerously sinister than in the book.

Mrs Gaskell left the last chapters of the book unfinished, but a summary was published after her death, and the resolution of the plot lines is not hard to anticipate. The filmed version takes no liberties.

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Hardy, Thomas

Jude the Obscure

Jude. 1996. IMDB details.

Gorgeously photographed film, skilfully condensed from the text. Jude's religion is downplayed, and Kate Winslet is a lively and winsome Susan. She has a fully nude love scene, followed five minutes later by bloody childbearing. Remember that, young people.

This could have been a romance by other authors until the children die; then we know we are reading Hardy. I must confess he's not my favorite. His writing seems clumsy to me, not much better than Bulwer-Lytton, who is often lampooned for being a bad writer.

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Under the Greenwood Tree

Under the Greenwood Tree. 2005. IMDB details.

Nicely romantic version of Hardy's early novel. Keeley Hawes is appealing as Fancy Day, although this version makes her character a bit more sturdy. In the book she accepts, in a flustered moment, a second marriage proposal.

I also recall the text was more definitely divided into four seasons, and spent more time with the old men and their unloved band.

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Kipling, Rudyard


Kim. 1950. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

A surprising amount of the first half of the book finds its way into this colorful film, with, of course, various modifications. The finale is much more Hollywood than Kipling. The film is made with an odd combination of Indian locales and sound stages.

Errol Flynn is tough enough as Mahboub Ali, but is made into a Don Juan also. As pronounced in the film, his name sounds like "maboobilly".

One of the finest aspects of the book is Kim's devotion to the old priest; I'm happy that is retained here.

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Mason, A.E.W.

The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers. 1939. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Beautifully filmed version with exciting, on-location battle scenes. The outdoor filming looks like it was made much later than 1939. Miklós Rózsa score.

Characters and situations are adapted from the novel, but the story is only vaguely similar to the book. That may be inevitable, as the book is very strangely structured, with apparently insane protagonists engaged in all sorts of strange psycho-drama.

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The Four Feathers. 2002. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Colorful spectacle with very faint resemblance to the book. Contemporary multicultural sensibilities are layed on with a trowel.

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Sabatini, Rafael


Scaramouche. 1952. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Colorful action romance, only vaguely parallel to the book. The political content is dropped entirely.

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Scott, Walter


Ivanhoe. 1952. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Rich, colorful version with two gorgeous women: Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine. Robert Taylor's flat, laconic manner might be a drawback in other circumstances, but it actually works pretty well here. The scruffy-fantasy look to the sets might be just about right for the story.

The text is considerably altered and simplified. The swineherd and Saxon pretender are dropped entirely. King Richard arrives only at the end; in the book he is the Black Knight at the tournament and manages the siege of the castle. The siege itself is pretty exciting, although too many flights of arrows look like sticks launched sideways.

For film, Ivanhoe must, of course, kill De Bois-Guilbert.

The lush score by Miklós Rózsa anticipates his work for the 1959 Ben Hur, one of my favorite sound-tracks.

It was not until I saw this film that I realized that Finlay Currie, who plays Cedric, was also in I Know Where I'm Going! and Ben Hur (and many other films). I had never connected those characters before.

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Ivanhoe. 1997. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

A serious mini-series treatment with various tweaks to the plot. King Richard is not as dangerously unsteady as he is described in the book, and the Merry Men not as funny.

My biggest gripe is with the climatic jousting scene. In the text, De Bois-Guilbert is winning until he suffers from a stroke, struck down by God. I think the text is more exciting, but of course for the filmed version they had to have Ivanhoe kill him in combat.

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Thackeray, William Esmond

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair. 1998. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Another Andrew Davies screenplay! Well-done, as is almost always the case. The story stops just a bit early, before Becky has her final way with Joss. There is, of course, more action at Waterloo than described in the text. The lingo is somewhat modernized.

The sets don't look particularly Regency to me. Perhaps film productions get by with a generic nineteenth century costume drama ambience. The score is startling; a horn and drum comination borrowing from many genres. Fine camera work.

I hadn't realized, until seeing this version, what a Dickensian family are the Sedley's.

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Vanity Fair. 2004. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Lavish, colorful production. As with Thackeray's introduction to the book, it opens with a puppet show. Pretty good coverage of the story, although the final third is drastically compressed. A happy ending is tacked on: Becky and Joss ride an elephant in India. Maybe she kills him in Germany later.

Fine British cast, barely adequate American star.

I've enjoyed other films by director Mira Nair, but the direction here seems more like that of a TV-movie. I believe I liked the 1998 mini-series better. A point of trivia: Natasha Little plays Lady Jane here; she was Becky Sharp in the 1998 mini-series.

My memory of the book is of an increasingly dark and bitter satire. Film treatments emphasize the exciting social whirl. For all her reputation as a schemer and adventuress, Becky isn't that good at it. She tends to grab a little too quickly.

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Trollope, Anthony

The Warden & Barchester Towers

The Barchester Chronicles. 1974. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Barchester Towers is my favorite novel of the nineteenth century. I had been regarding the IMDB entry for this seven-part series -- which covers the first two novels in the Barchester sequence -- for years, with little hope of ever seeing it. Now I have the DVDs and the results are very good. Shot on video, but in this case that seems less of a drawback than is usual.

The story is played straightforwardly, without any attempt at updating or catering to modern sensibilities. Inevitably some corners are cut, but the meat of the text is there, and quite a bit of the original dialogue.

Outstanding cast. Alan Rickman doesn't look like Obadiah Slope but is deliciously oily and villainous. My biggest complaint is with the portrayal of Mrs. Grantly; she is a bit timid and dim here, where in the book she is a sharp and positive character -- both supporting the Archdeacon and correcting him (in private).

The Stanhopes are more jolly than I imagine them. They seem a dour family in the book, despite Bertie's silliness and Madeline's beauty. In some ways they are one of Trollope's greatest creations: a tribe of amoral pagans embedded in the Church of England. I wish there had been more time to develop Bertie's conflict with his father.

Mr. Arabin would have been more appealing if there were more opportunity to develop his character.

I remember what an unlikable character the Archdeacon seemed in the first book, and how much he improved in the second! A matter of "He may be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch."

Several books later, in The Last Chronicle of Barset, mild Mr Harding has practically become a saint.

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He Knew He Was Right

He Knew He Was Right. 2004. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

We seem to be in a very welcome Trollope-on-TV boomlet. Andrew Davies could do another dozen standalone novels like this one and we Trollope fans would be happy indeed.

I would place this book among the three greatest portrayals of jealousy in literature, along with Othello and the middle "Swann in Love" section of Proust's first book. It is a much darker tale than is usual in Trollope. Trevelyan differs from the others in that there is something organically wrong with him, a disease that eventually kills him.

This is a fine cast and production, wasting no time: the jealously theme appears in the first eight minutes. The comic plot lines get their time also, although the dreadful Americans in Italy are -- thankfully? -- slighted. We see almost nothing of the horrific Wallachia Petrie. I think Aunt Stanbury was more comical in the novel, but Anna Massey (who, as an actress, never seems to slow down) does her justice.

Many of the characters spend time talking directly to the viewer, which is startling in Trollope, but upon consideration, why not? Shakespeare does it, and so can we.

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The Palliser novels

The Palliser novels. 1974. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

At twenty-six episodes I'm not able to review this series in depth. Indeed, I'd have to read the original six novels again to make a strict comparison, and I have to finish Trollope before I can start rereading him!

Shot on video, mostly on sound stages, with a few real and a few (poorly) faked outdoor scenes. But the costumes are good and it would be churlish to fault such a huge endeavor for cutting a few corners.

There are many adjustments to the plot, missing segments, and combined characters. Some changes are understandable, others seem inexplicable. For some reason Dolly Longstaffe is a continuing character from the beginning; in the text he doesn't appear until the last book. The Duchess, of course, does not appear in the last book at all, but here she survives until the last episode. Cousin Adelaide Palliser, a character in a side plot in one book, is made into a rather vulgar creature. I'm told that some readers don't appreciate the Aunt Greenow segments in Can You Forgive Her?; I think they are hilarious, but the whole plot is dropped here.

Philip Latham does not quite fit my image of Plantagenet Palliser, although it is easy to become accustomed to him. I don't think of Palliser as being quite so morose or stiff, although others may read the text differently. Inexplicably, the screenwriter has made him subject to fits of rage regarding the rearing of the children; there is nothing like that in the books. Also, he is made to pronounce leveling political sentiments appealing to a modern audience. He was a Liberal, but not that liberal.

I can no longer remember my original mental image of Glencora; Susan Hampshire has so thoroughly claimed the role that I can't help but picture her when reading the text. Her remarkable face and demeanor are well-suited to these costume roles.

Donal McCann's Phineas Finn is rougher and less genteel that I would have presented him. The long trial segment is actually very dramatic and I think the series picks up there after flagging a bit.

They say "the better the villain, the better the book." Best Villain in Trollope would be stiff competition, but Ferdinand Lopez would certainly be in the running. Stuart Wilson is pretty good at it here.

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The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now. 2001. Starring David Suchet. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

A fine 5-hour production. As usual, even a faithful adaptation of such a long book requires condensation and takes other liberties with the plot. The story is made a bit livelier for modern sensibilities: the characters more casual and comical, the romance a touch hotter.

Georgiana Longestaffe's cruelty to her fiance, Mr Brehgert (played by the always great Jim Carter), because he is a Jew, is played very much as in the book: sympathetic to Brehgert and unkind to Georgiana.

Andrew Davies screenplay.

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Wren, P.C.

Beau Geste

Beau Geste. 1939. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Exciting, rather faithful adaptation of the book, with the expected abbreviations. Gary Cooper and Robert Preston aren't twins, so neither are Beau and Digby. Lots of Americans in this British household. For some reason the sadistic Sergeant-Major has a different name, and the section after the escape from Fort Zinderneuf is almost omitted. It was only a few pages in the book, but covered a year of adventure and hardship.

I'm particularly pleased that the mystery opening is retained and not explained too soon.

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related titles

Lillie. 1978. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

A long romance series about a clever and beautiful woman. I presume it is a combination of fact and fiction. The portrayal of Oscar Wilde, James Whistler and that set are of interest, as well as a notion that startled me: that Victorian high society was arranged to find mistresses for the Prince of Wales. A sort of fashionable pandering machine.

I feel vast sympathy for Lillie's husband, in the way and undesirable, treated shabbily and dying unlamented.

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Pandaemonium. 2000. Starring John Hannah and Samantha Morton. Available on DVD. IMDB details.

Colorful, imaginative, beautifully photographed fantasy of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and their families. On the downside, it's dreadfully overblown in depicting Coleridge's tormented genius and the extent of Wordsworth's villainy. Modern political sensibilities and drug culture intrude a bit too much, although it doesn't go so far as Ken Russell would have taken it.

I always find Samantha Morton to be a beneficial influence in costume dramas.

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