The Classics, Endlessly Adapted
I recently watched all four hours of the new Howards End adaptation on Showtime. Why was there a new Howards End adaptation on Showtime? That’s a decent question, just asked by me. Kenneth Lonergan, of Manchester By The Sea, wrote the script. But did he really? Another decent question. E.M. Forster actually wrote the script, when he wrote the novel more than 100 years ago. Kenneth Lonergan wrote the dialogue, mostly taken from the novel, including the famous line “Only Connect,” which comes when the main character complains about the poor quality of broadband service in London. Four hours later, everyone has only connected if they haven’t died, and World War I is coming. As we hilariously learned in a bad episode of Downton Abbey, that will screw up the whole rich-person-in-England game.
Howards End tells the story of the half-German, half-English, all-delightful Schlegel sisters and their weird little brother Tibby, orphaned at a young age and left to raise themselves in a very clever house. Despite wearing colorful contemporary blouses, they run afoul of the Wilcoxes, a rich family that does dreadful things in Africa. There’s also a sad little clerk with a bad complexion and a chronic cough. Classes collide, properties exchange hands, and fates converge toward tragic destiny. Yes, it’s a classic British novel.
But why adapt it again? I seem to recall a gorgeous 1992 Merchant Ivory version of Howards End, so excellent it received several Oscar nominations and actually ended up getting Emma Thompson the statue. So here was the core cast: Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and Vanessa Redgrave. Very hard to top that. The new Howards End counters with Hayley Atwell, TV’s Agent Carter, the Australian actress Phillippa Clouthard, ex-Mr. Darcy Matthew Macfadyen, and Julia Ormond. Tracey Ullman putters around as the old aunt. Everyone loves Hayley Atwell. How could they not? But the new cast still feels like the people who replace the original Broadway stars when they leave after four months.
The only true upgrade is Alex Lawther as Tibby. Lawther dominated the Netflix show The End Of The F***ing World, and was great in that Black Mirror episode about the guy who gets punished for looking at child porn. In Howard’s End, he plays Tibby like Richard E. Grant’s second head from How To Get Ahead In Advertising ended up splitting off from his body, creating a smaller, mini Richard E. Grant. Lawther is effete, brilliant, eccentric, and focus-stealing in a show that often feels like earnest community theater.
The extra two hours of the Howards End miniseries just lead to narrative bloat and excessive scenes of the choleric clerk and his unappealing wife wallowing in squalor. It also led me to think, too often, “Why are there so many black people in early 20th century London?” I know we’re in an age of color-blind BBC casting. But this isn’t Shakespeare, which is basically mythology, or Doctor Who, which is also basically mythology and also set in a racially-mixed present and future. Howard’s End purports toward social realism. Sticking so many people of color into the frame feels like tokenism, especially when the white people still have most of the lines.
The endless train rides on the Howards End show also gave me plenty of empty time to think about the recent PBS adaptation of Little Women. Like the new Howards End, it also goes on too long and takes place in a costumed age. The delicious 1994 Little Women movie, directed by Gillian Armstrong, starred Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Christian Bale, Gabriel Byrne, Eric Stoltz, and Susan Sarandon, one of the best casts of the decade. The Masterpiece Theater production featured Emily Watson, Angela Lansbury and Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter. It dragged in soft-focus. I could feel myself dying along with poor Beth. After the wondrous Little Women turns of Winona Ryder and Katherine Hepburn, why did they make it again?
The answer, as best as I can surmise is: because they could, and because they know how. If you’re a director or a screenwriter, and you miss an important plot beat or dialogue point of a Little Women adaptation, then they should take away your Guild card. The same goes for any already-made Forster novel, or Dickens book, or Pride and Prejudice, which has been adapted so many times that my wife can watch a different version of it every week and not get bored.
Thus, with the herald of The Lady Audience Trumpet, comes the announcement of the Christmas 2019 Little Women movie. It’s a direct Oscar shot across the bow from director Greta Gerwig. Check out this cast: Saorise Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Bob Odenkirk, and Meryl Fucking Streep. I told my wife, the Earth’s biggest Little Women fan, that they were remaking Little Women again. “Why would they do that?” she asked. Then I showed her the cast. “Oh,” she said. “Now I want to see it.” Thus, we have a hit.
Some pop-culture things remain mysterious to me, like the enduring appeal of old novels about independent sisters. I’m getting ready for a Howards End movie in 2020 or 2021. Saorise Ronan would make an excellent Margaret Schlegel.