Lost in adaptations
Why, oh why do TV companies keep adapting the same few books over and over? Give us all a break. Read something new
The BBC announced this week that one of its big Christmas highlights will be a feature-length adaptation of John Buchan's classic adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, first published in 1915.
Rupert Penry-Jones, star of slick espionage series Spooks, will play Buchan's hero Richard Hannay, who is implicated in murder when an ex-spy who contacted him seeking his help is found dead in his flat. Hannay goes on the run across the Scottish highlands, pursued by both the police and enemy agents, while he attempts to expose a dastardly plot to steal Britain's military secrets.
The Thirty-Nine Steps was filmed for the cinema three times, most successfully by Alfred Hitchcock, who changed the title to The 39 Steps, updated the setting and played fast and loose with Buchan's plot.
Robert Powell, who played Hannay in the considerably more faithful 1978 film version, repeated the role in a 13-part series called Hannay on ITV in the 80s, while the late Barry Foster starred in a 1977 BBC adaptation of Buchan's second Hannay novel, The Three Hostages.
The Thirty-Nine Steps has never been adapted for television before, but the broad familiarity of the plot and the leading character make it feel as if it has.
It also makes you wonder why television is so obsessed with ploughing such a narrow literary field, returning again and again to the same few writers and the same few works year after year.
The supreme example is Jane Austen, who has colonised television in a way no other dead author has managed. Austen wrote six novels and each one has been milked dry by television.
Setting the numerous movie versions aside, there have been two TV adaptations of every Austen novel (three in the case of Persuasion), either by the BBC or ITV, as well as innumerable contemporary TV plays and series influenced, directly or indirectly, by her work.
The latest of these is the comedy-drama Lost in Austen (UTV, Wednesdays), a kind of Pride and Prejudice meets Life on Mars in which a young, modern-day woman (new Bond girl Gemma Arterton) mysteriously swaps places with a character from the novel.
Frankly, I'm all Austened out, even though I've never read one of her books (and now probably never will). The mere mention of her name, the mere sight of another bonnet or another pair of bulging breeches hovering into view, is enough to send me scrambling for the remote control.
The fact that Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles -- filmed for the big-screen as Tess by Roman Polanksi in the 70s -- was turned into a three-part mini-series by London Weekend Television as recently as 1998 hasn't stopped the BBC making its own four-part version, which begins on Sunday.
Incidentally, Gemma Arterton also picked up the role of Tess, which suggests that TV is as conservative about casting as it is about which books it dramatises.
Hardy, as well as the Bronte sisters, has provided the BBC with a solid supply of gold-plated material for period dramas over the years, but if there's one author whose work has been pillaged and plundered by television more thoroughly than anyone else's (with the possible exception of Shakespeare) it's Charles Dickens.
Throughout the 70s, Dickens was the backbone of the BBC's Sunday teatime classic serials. He seemed to fall out of favour for a time but has lately been exhumed with a vengeance.
The Dickens revival began three years ago with the BBC's version of Bleak House (previously dramatised in both 1959 and 1985), which was adapted into a 15-part serial broadcast in soap opera-sized instalments.
It was so successful that last year the BBC produced yet another adaptation of probably the most-filmed Dickens novel of all, Oliver Twist, here reimagined as Dickens for the EastEnders' generation. Though I love Dickens, I hated this -- not that that's going to stand in anyone's way.
Plans are already underway for an adaptation of Little Dorrit. Oddly enough, this is one of the few Dickens works the BBC has never previously touched, though it's worth mentioning that there have been four movie versions.
No article about TV adaptations of famous books would be complete without a mention of Agatha Christie, whose enormous output has been packaged and repackaged into popular television drama over and over again.
No sooner has Geraldine McEwan, as the latest incarnation of Miss Marple, departed our screens than David Suchet returns, moustache freshly waxed, for a new series of Poirot this Sunday on UTV.
Come Christmas, I'll most likely sit down along with millions of others and watch the latest incarnation of The Thirty-Nine Steps that, according to the BBC, will be "reimagined for a modern audience more familiar with James Bond and Jason Bourne". Who knows, I might even enjoy it.
Yet with so many fine modern novels out there, the relentless tide of programmes based on wheezing literary war horses makes you wonder if many television drama commissioners actually bother reading books published within the last 100 years.