Unbelievably perhaps, I had my first ever viewing of the ITV/A&E period drama series Hornblower just this evening. Clearly the Hornblower series were highly popular adaptations of their time, and garnered a devoted fanbase, and as I had missed it first time round I was glad that ITV 3 in the UK was offering a second bite of the cherry to check out what the fuss was about.
I'm also a bit of a sucker for seafaring tales, preferably with a bit of decent swashbuckling thrown in for good measure. Hornblower has a fair bit of swashbuckling swagger, all enjoyable and of a strictly non-piratical nature, (or so it seems after the one single episode I have seen so far). Ioan Gruffud was wonderfully cast as the honourable midshipman at the heart of the story, and I always find Robert Lindsey, (Capt. Sir Edward Pellew), to be excellent value.
I couldn't help but notice however, that Hornblower, while fun and even quite thrilling, seemed slow compared to modern-day drama - even some modern-day literary adaptation, which has been purportedly developed and marketed in the 'heritage' mould, and is thus expected to lack the frenzied tempo often associated with Postmodern Film and TV. And yet Hornblower was first aired in 1998 - just eight years ago.
Has TV drama changed so much in such a relatively short space of time? Or is it just my powers of concentration which are fast diminishing?
It is of course far less surprising that a literary adaptation like Brideshead Revisited, first broadcast in the UK in 1981, a full twenty-five years ago, now seems to trundle along at a fairly slow and langorous pace. After all, it is well-documented that TV and Film productions have been edited at an ever faster rate for some years now, meaning the Average Shot Length (ASL) is increasingly shorter in duration. Therefore we should expect SOME changes in pace between then and now.
But the more leisurely tone of the more recent Hornblower compared to contemporary fare still surprised me. Perhaps then ASL is getting even faster and faster, and over a much shorter period of time than previously?
Anyway ... just to give some numbers to beef up the 'ASL' argument here: in an excellent 'Scriptwriter Magazine' article* extolling the virtues of British 'New Wave' TV drama in the late 1990s to the present day, Lez Cooke points out that the ASL in a single episode of Coronation Street on the 9th December 1960 was 9.7 seconds. This compares to an ASL of 4.2 seconds for an episode of the UK soap operasesque drama This Life on the 18th March 1996. Quite a difference.
However, the most striking aspect of Cooke's statistic is that This Life, which partly pioneered the mode of British TV drama usually associated with much of the Postmodern 'New Wave', is youth-oriented, cutting edge ... not the stuff of our dear old friend Midshipman Hornblower, even though the first episode of the first series was actually aired two years AFTER This Life hit our TV screens.
Perhaps then it's a question of genre? Maybe literary adaptation inhabits its own mode of production, pootling along at its own speed, revelling in its own style - often typifed by long, lazy, sumptuous establishment shots depicting bucolic landscapes, or winsome country piles? Or perhaps the sheer 'literariness' of many adaptations simply calls for longer 'talkie' scenes than the average TV drama or film, often typified by its snappy dialogue (even when this is featured in a seemingly verbose drama - many successful US TV dramas such as West Wing are a case in point). Such productions whizz from shot to shot, chopping from scene to scene, by virtue of rapid continuous editing. A series of filming techniques enhance this effect, and have become so ubiquitous it has even become noticeable when they are absent. New digital editing technologies such as AVID have rapidly become the norm and are swiftly having an enormous effect on what we finally watch ... a process which is clearly accelerating.
Filmic literary adaptations, as opposed to TV productions, have so far been more 'adventurous' in terms of style and execution. It's not simply a question of how the source story has been retold or updated or rendered simply derivative, an inspiration for a restructured narrative - that is a separate discussion - but it's about the look and feel of the thing. The aesthetic impact. Baz Luhrman's 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, for example, is stylistically a million miles away from Zeferelli's 1968 version of the same play. That's not to say the 'straight' adaptation is going out of fashion - but it increasingly serves a different purpose, even a different audience.
Despite this, Andrew Davies, the UK's most prolific adapter, has often been one to point out just how much TV drama today is speeding up, and his own adaptations are proof of this process too. His latest BBC venture, Bleak House (2005), assumed many of the filming techniques associated with 'New Wave' TV drama and Postmodern Film. And to fabulous effect. This adaptation, in my view, was Davies's most successful and brilliant yet - and much credit must also go to Justin Chadwick and Susanna White, the series's directors.
Davies's 2001 Trollope adaptation The Way We Live Now, also bears the hallmarks of postmodern filming techniques, often utilising hand-held cameras for a more realistic effect (although this also drew some criticism). In my opinion, this is another of Davies's finest works - although admittedly this production feels comparatively slow, when contrasted with Bleak House just four years later. But this is not to its detriment. Far from it. As always, there are multiple reasons for the success or failure of any production.
And obviously many of our best-loved and most successful dramas - adapted or otherwise - are 'Old School,' and all the better for it too.
However, it is always interesting to see how the same story can be recreated for different eras, different audiences. Not just in narratological terms, but also in terms of aesthetic reconfiguration. Of course, as new technologies come on line, more changes can be expected too. And much sooner than we think.
*'Scriptwriter Magazine' is a subscription print periodical, but has a website: www. scriptwritermagazine.com. The article 'A 'new wave' in British television drama' cited in this post can be found in the September 2006 issue.
- On a sidenote, I re-watched Roger Michell's romcom Notting Hill the other day, which is a 1999 production - not so long ago you would think - but even here, the film's narrative seemed almost plodding, drawn out ... perhaps, in part, the effect of familiarity, but even so, it was very apparent that Michell had allowed for long 'talkie' scenes, that actually served the story well, but would be less common in filmmaking today I feel. I did wonder however if the romance genre was less inclined to utilise the new, zippy modes of film production. When a romcom does venture into fresh technical territory and/or plays with narrative style, it stands out - Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, splendidly scripted by Charlie Kaufman, is a classic example. In this instance the disjunctured narrative and playful techniques make for a remarkable film, in all departments.