November 10th, 2002


This weekend sees the start of two serious television dramas; George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda on BBC1, and Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago on ITV. Both have been adapted by Andrew Davies.

In spite of the title’s belonging to the hero, these are stories about women; principally Gwendolen Harleth, in Deronda, and Lara, in Zhivago. Are there any role models here for the twenty first century? Can we learn anything about ourselves through these characters? Has society changed so much since the 1960’s, that nineteenth century novels can do nothing for women, except to remind us of how far we’ve come?

Answering these questions is complex, because of course, the TV version is not the book, and the TV version is all most viewers will ever know of the book. Andrew Davies is a prolific and popular adaptations mogul, but it is questionable whether so much world literature should be mediated through him. He is very good at narrative drive, but deaf to nuance. The individuality of the writer – what made him or her great in the first place – is lost. Davies writes classy costume dramas, but they all feel the same. They are the same; they are re-written by Andrew Davies.

The argument runs that adaptations must be relevant to a modern audience – television is terrified of being seen as irrelevant, perhaps because it is. If television vanished tomorrow, we should carry on pretty well, after the first shock. Studies in America, land of the TV, say it takes about six weeks for people to forget about television. If world literature vanished tomorrow, it would leave a hole in the cultural ozone layer that would affect us for generations. We might not notice for a while – there would be louder howls about a dead telly than no books. Over time though, we would begin to realise what we had lost. Art sustains and continues life at its highest level. Literature is able to express the range, depth, and strangeness of who we are. Books last because they go on saying something we need to hear, and they say it by developing language into a perfect instrument of expression. Without a precise and subtle language for our emotional experience, we reduce what we feel to the level of a TV soap.

These two autumn dramas are much higher quality than a TV soap, but in their scramble to be sexy and provocative – TV buzzwords for relevant – they forget to trust the text. It’s important to remember that TV and literature are not equivalents. Go back to the books and the power surge is shocking. I read them both again last week, and they caused me to think differently, particularly about women, then and now.

Gwendolen Harleth is a high-spirited, good time girl, who believes she should have everything without having to make an effort. When her family loses its money, she refuses to take a job, and determines on becoming a famous singer. Like every other modern Wannabe, she has no real talent, and less application. When the brilliant musician, Herr Klesmer, explains that fame and fortune are allied to ability and dedication, Gwendolen is as astonished as a Spice Girl.

She takes the only other route available to her at the time, and marries a rich man she does not love and who does not love her.

What does a woman do when she wants the good things in life and can’t pay for them?

Then as now, she uses her looks to get a man to pay on her behalf.
George Eliot does not approve of this, but she understands it. Part of her character exploration is to ask what independence is worth, and how much it costs to keep it.

Gwendolen has a wonderfully independent spirit, but she sells herself. Her journey is one of suffering and deep personal tragedy. She loves Deronda, but she loses him. She hates her husband, but even after his death, she must live the rest of her life with her own guilt and questioning. There is no happy ending for her. There is no fairytale marriage.

Eliot was tough on her heroine. Our sympathies are not straightforwardly directed, as they are in the TV version. That Gwendolen breaks her promise to the abandoned Lydia Glaisher, not to marry Grandcourt, is a serious moral failure. On her ghastly wedding night, when she receives the returned diamonds from Lydia, we should feel the weight of Gwendolen’s punishment, but also its justice. She has betrayed another woman and she has betrayed herself.

Loyalty between women is an important theme. Where Gwendolen fails, the rescued Jewess ,Mirah Lapidoth, learns to trust the kindness of Deronda’s friend Mrs Meyrick, (played on TV by the fabulous Celia Imrie). Theirs is a relationship not based on reward or advantage, but on compassion and affection. Like Dickens, Eliot was keen to undermine the received views on legal ties and blood relations. The real families often turn out to be the pretend ones. Mirah becomes part of the Meyrick family, just as Deronda has become part of the Mallinger family. In contrast, Grandcourt refuses to recognise his obligation to his abandoned mistress Lydia, and he will not marry her, although she is the mother of his four children, and entirely dependent on him.

Gwendolen’s failure is more than reneging on a promise; she fails to distinguish between legal and moral obligations, between ‘rights’ and the duties of the heart.
It is a subtle argument, especially to a Victorian society obsessed with form and indifferent to feeling. It is an argument lost on TV, but crucial to the workings of the book. It is particularly relevant again now, as our own society becomes more and more litigious and less willing to take personal responsibility for how we live.
For women, questions of loyalty and friendship are as pertinent as ever.

Desperately bad TV shows like Mr Right, suggest that any woman should dump on her friend to get a man. That a woman might consider another woman’s interest ahead of her own, is not the stuff of soaps and magazines. Lydia and Gwendolen damage each other fighting for the same man. Both are ruined by him. The novel offers a moral lesson without preaching. The TV version sensationalises a clich√©.
It is difficult to forgive Andrew Davies for what he has done to Dr Zhivago. It is a mixture of soft porn and sentiment, and nowhere is this clearer than in the character of Lara, the woman Zhivago loves beyond life itself.

In Pasternak’s story, Lara’s mother does not pimp her daughter to the lawyer Komarovsky, nor does Lara offer herself up like a Lolitia. She is deeply ashamed and troubled by what she has done, and she moves away from home for three years to escape Komarovsky’s attentions.

This is a Lara who is political, well-read, and responsible – she saves her brother from debt, and supports the elderly parents of her childhood f friend Pasha. She is also a first rate shot. You may not think that last point important, but when she shoots at Komarovsky and misses, it is a deliberate last second decision – not the hopeless aim of the dippy useless Andrew Davies female.

The Davies version handily misses out Lara’s university education and graduation, and has her begging Pasha to marry her, when he says he’s going off to take a teaching job. According to Pastenak, they both graduate together, and both are offered jobs away from home.

The real Lara is a wonderful creation. She supports herself financially while she puts herself through college, and she is definite in her aims and determined in her sense of self. She is a woman trapped in her time and caught in a revolution, but she moves beyond history, and past her own experience, to become what Zhivago calls the ‘representative’ of life.

The great pity is that instead of meeting this woman, who has so much to tell us, we meet a sexy pouting child who becomes a femme fatale. This was not Pasternak’s interest nor his intention.

The scale of Dr Zhivago has been reduced to romantic intrigue. Zhivago’s wife, Tonya, is a good -natured cardboard cut-out, with so little personality that we are surprised he should love her, but not that he should leave her. This seriously unbalances the narrative, and without the huge sweep of social and political events to set her in context, it is difficult to respond to TV Tonya. In the book, she offers a picture of self-sacrifice that many women will recognise. She earns our sympathy, not because she is pitiful, but because she is pitiable – and there is a big difference.
It was a deliberate decision to reduce the scale of Zhivago, and to emphasis the relationships at the cost of the historical sweep of the book. Whether or not you think this is a misreading, is less important than its effect on the relationships. Far from sharpening them for us, they seem to blur into any other triangular love-affair. The immensity of the historical moment changes everything. People will risk more, lose more, live harder, because they must. Lara is not just driven by passion, she is driven by events. As a woman, her new scripting leaves her as a stereotype; women act for love. End of story.

The end of Dr Zhivago is bleak. Not so the Andrew Davies re-write. His ‘bold’ move lobs in a nice dollop of syrup, just in case you might succumb to real feeling. The re-write robs Lara of her finality and her despair. It pretends to offer hope, but it sentimentalises tragedy.

It is a pity that both of these dramas are soft-focus interpretations of difficult, complex, tough books. Real feeling is never soft focus, and it can be achieved without non-stop background music to orchestrate our emotions.

If women want to explore their own natures, Daniel Deronda and Dr Zhivago will amply reward the search – but not on TV.